Salon: Writing in the Margins

Greetings, readers! Welcome to Morphizm’s collection of my Salon column, “Writing in the Margins.” I’d like to thank my editor, my family and, most importantly, my planet.

Writing in the Margins: February 2004

If you think noteworthy book releases begin and end with the New York Times’ bestseller list, my condolences. Much of what appears on that list is P.R.-engineered phantasm, what William Gibson might have called “a consensual hallucination” had he not used that phrase to describe his invented “cyberspace” in the epoch-making novel “Neuromancer.” How the bestseller lists of the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly are composed is a secretive process, about as complicated — and crooked — as the U.S. tax code.

In other words, there is a brave world to explore once you put down that volume by Ann Coulter (or even Al Franken). It’s all in the margins, sometimes known as independent publishing, other times known as under-the-radar circulation. And although right and center fields are dominated by the major publishing houses, some of their releases have underperformed compared with their indie counterparts, a few of which are greater in substance, enjoy much longer shelf lives, and are — every so often — more lucrative to boot. So throw away your pretensions and burn your bestseller lists. They never did that much for you anyway.

But this is all prologue — we’re here to talk about the unheralded releases of past, present and future, as well as why you should care about any of them.


Writing in the Margins: May 2004

Man alive! I did not predict nor was I equipped to deal with the e-mail inundation my last column generated. But that is not to say that I am asking all of you crafty readers out there to cease and desist; on the contrary, to quote President Bush — or John Kerry, you decide — “Bring it on!” By all means, keep sending me your releases, kits and solicitations and I promise to try to sift through it all before turning in to watch “Cowboy Bebop.” I’m interested in almost anything not involving Martha Stewart.

And another quick note before we get this bookworm party started. While this column is oriented toward the latest in indie publishing, my personal definition of what exactly that encompasses is probably a bit broader than the one offered by the excellent Punk Planet. For me, “indie” sometimes connotes a particular state of mind, usually one involving bizarre experiments and risky brilliance; sometimes I can find that confluence in a major release (Jonathan Lethem’s latest comes immediately to mind, and not just because he’s the finest writer working today). But the majority of the time that will simply not be the case.

Plus, today’s optimistic terminology quickly becomes tomorrow’s buzz-soaked ad copy. To wit, there is already a self-proclaimed “indie” radio station owned by Entravision Communications — Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles — that broadcasts deep cuts rarely heard on radio stations unaffiliated with universities or colleges.

All of this is another way of saying that I just want to bring you the goods, no matter who publishes it. I’ll try to stick mostly to the hardscrabble outfits publishing shot-in-the-dark screeds from basements in Omaha, Neb., or Santa Monica, Calif., but just not all of the time. Let’s start with an example.


Writing in the Margins: June 2004

Friends of mine are stoked to hear that I write this periodic column for Salon, but they seem slightly confused that it’s about books and not film, television or music. Evidently, they’re under the impression — and who in this reality TV metaverse would disagree with them? — that books are relics of the past. Well, either that or they’re what Hollywood uses to make their movies, which then go on to make lots more money and cause people to forget the book ever existed. “Does anyone even read anymore?” the standard rhetorical question goes.

To which I answer that you need only take a hard look at the world around you to understand that fiction is the sociopolitical currency of the moment. Whether it always has been is a question for the philosophers and marketing agencies of the world. But a cursory listen to the findings of the 9/11 commission and the Bush administration’s response is instructive — to mangle John Lennon, fiction is bigger than Jesus right now. Lies are too: As Gabriel García Márquez famously said, “Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale.”

See, books are just the portable commodities into which we pack our fictions — and nonfictions, if we can tell the difference — and unlike other media, they’ve got serious staying power. Richard Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 commission made high-impact news for a few days, while his book “Against All Enemies” remains on the bestseller list two months later. Whether you view Clarke’s book as daring truth-telling or out-and-out fiction depends, of course, on where you fall on the political spectrum.

But look, when you hear Condi Rice argue with a straight face that a White House national security document, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States” — and I quote — “did not warn of attacks inside the United States,” then you know that fiction, lies and the books they come in are doing just fine, thanks.


Writing in the Margins: August 2004

Man, it must be summer, because it’s getting freakin’ hot in here. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ colossus has turned up the heat on the Iraq oil grab, as well as the Bush administration’s shady deals with the bin Laden family, James Bath and the Saudi royals. It’s old news to most earnest lefties and the world at large, but still — cue Claude Rains from “Casablanca” — shocking news to the rest of America.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have responded by trotting out a policy Old Faithful — the criminalization of homosexuals — and trying to pass off criticism of their botched reign as, no lie, “pessimism.” Talk about a loser’s strategy; I haven’t seen anything as hilarious as that since Lakers coach Phil Jackson inserted Slava Medvedenko into the NBA Finals in hopes of stopping the Pistons juggernaut.

But does the left (and middle) need to tear down Ralph Nader, a guy who has spent his entire life championing the disadvantaged and dispossessed, to compensate for its own self-made shortcomings? Look, the guy might be getting money from right-wingers and/or suspicious donors, but that would put him entirely in line with the rest of America’s political machine. To argue that he must hold himself to a higher standard just to get his name on a ballot with the Republicrats is hypocrisy. Let’s not be Pollyanna about this — politics is a dirty game, as Nader has proven over the decades. Let’s just suck it up and move on.

At least Nader is still trumpeting (albeit self-importantly) for truth, fairness and justice. In contrast, John Kerry voted for the Iraqmire on feeble proof — along with the rest of the Democrats not named Kucinich — and still can’t summon up enough courage to publicly state that gays have the right to marry whoever the hell they want, wherever the hell they want. C’mon man! Democrats are supposed to believe in something else other than the notion that a populist wonk named Ralph, who’ll barely be able to command 1 percent, will ruin their election chances against the worst president this country has ever seen. If Bush wins this election, the Demos will have only themselves to blame, just like in 2000. Was anyone even watching the beginning of “Fahrenehit 9/11,” where a neutered Al Gore buried himself with his own gavel?

I don’t know what the lines in Vegas are at this late stage, but my money’s on a new president in the White House, Nader or no. Speaking of, let’s get political…


Writing in the Margins: December 2004

OK, it’s holiday time, which means that most of you probably are too busy creeping through the malls of America to read this column — or anything else, for that matter. But dig in below for some stellar stocking-stuffers, because I’ve got a phat list of graphic novels that’s got something for your friends, your ‘rents, your S.O., your kids, your cat and your parakeet. Call it a best-of-2004 compilation or call it a shopping list. Because this is America, and you can say whatever the hell you want.

Unless it’s about Texas, where fragile egos bruise — a tad hypocritically, I would argue, considering all the trash they talk — at the slightest joke. That’s an angular jab at those who didn’t approve too much of my disappointment — OK, outright disbelief — over Don DeLillo’s archival papers getting shipped to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Katherine Pelletier, the archivist who worked hard to get the “White Noise” author’s goods to Austin, even wrote politely to inform me that no one in New York, DeLillo’s hometown, stepped forward to claim the author’s miscellany as its own, letting me know along the way that I unfairly “obliterate[d] the difference between those who treasure the lessons of history through art and literature and those who may wreak havoc on our culture.” And I thought no one read my column!

Another righteous dude from Austin told me off for the same transgression, arguing correctly that the city is a “bastion of liberalism” that “[my] kind” — by that, I suppose he meant people from Long Beach, Calif., like Snoop Dogg — think only exist north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I thought long and hard about both accusations — before falling asleep from the mental strain. Look, I have nothing but love for Pelletier and my Mason-Dixon heckler — after all, without Austin, Texas might descend into a gay-bashing, creationism-teaching, Clear Channel-owned, Halliburton-nurturing, oil-funded, red-state dystopia. Whoops, too late!

In all seriousness, cultural figures as diverse as Gibby Haynes, Richard Linklater, Jim Hightower, Mars Volta, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and many more go a long way toward redeeming Texas in my eyes — and they’ve received my undying loyalty, unwavering support and press coverage. But with a Texas-based administration screwing the nation out of the lives of its sucker-punched youth, waist deep in Iraq’s Big Muddy — not to mention trillions of dollars by the time 2008 rolls around — while sheltering unrepentant punks like Tom DeLay, Clear Channel, Kenneth Lay and countless more, you’ve got to cut me some slack for calling out the Lone Star faithful as red-state reactionaries. And remember, this is coming from a guy whose own state was taken over by the Terminator. (Yes, if you’re wondering, I am pissed off that the Texas Longhorns screwed my California Golden Bears out of a BCS bowl bid. But of course I’m a professional and that’s not affecting my attitude at all!)


Writing in the Margins: January 2005

The year is not off to a very good start.

From natural catastrophes to mind-numbing death counts, it seems like the Lord is trying to tell us something. Too bad I don’t believe in him. I like to keep some distance between the doomsday predictions of everyone from Seoul Methodist ministries to the Landover Baptist Church who believes that the tsunami was God’s punishment to heathen Indonesia for its disbelief in Jesus. But with Bush’s recent appointment of Bible-thumper extraordinaire Claude Allen as his chief domestic-policy advisor, it’s getting harder and harder to be an infidel these days. Everywhere you look, state-supported religion is making a comeback, sometimes to the tune of millions for those lucky “faith-based” screw jobs out there.

Woe to you atheists who used to love America for its eroding freedom from religion — we are fast becoming the minority round these parts. It’s God’s country; we’re just mining it for the black gold.

But let’s leave disturbing thoughts aside at this dawning of Bush’s new term; Armageddon may be headed our way, but damn if we’re going to let it ruin the new year. We’re already lessened by the loss of Sontag, a passing that was duly noted by Salon here and here. But few journalists have discussed the demise of Will Eisner, a comics colossus conventionally known as the father of the modern graphic novel and for whom the industry’s most prestigious award is named.

Eisner left us on Jan. 3, after succumbing to complications resulting from quadruple-bypass heart surgery, almost 70 years after co-founding the Eisner & Iger Studio (with Samuel “Jerry” Iger), which at one time counted superstar illustrator Jack Kirby and “Batman” creator Bob Kane among its ranks. Eisner’s comic noir series “The Spirit” inspired everyone from Alan Moore to Art Spiegelman to pick up a pen and enter the fray, but it is his 1973 comic “A Contract With God” that is widely credited with kick-starting the graphic novel game. As with any artistic enterprise, you’re going to have arguments (especially over Eisner’s period-bound ethnic stereotypes like Ebony White, African-American sidekick to the Spirit), but most will agree that Eisner is probably sitting at the head of the table in heaven — at least in the comics wing. For more on the massively influential artist, check out D.C.’s recently released “Will Eisner Companion” and its continuing “Spirit Archives” series. Long live the Spirit’s creator — and I don’t mean Jesus.

Let’s get to it.