Flying couch A graphic memoir

Amy Kurzweil

Book - 2016

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BIOGRAPHY/Kurzweil, Amy
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Autobiographical comic books, strips, etc
Biographical comics
Graphic novels
Comics (Graphic works)
[New York] : Catapult/Black Balloon [2016]
Main Author
Amy Kurzweil (author)
Physical Description
291 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

created by the Norwegian artist Hariton Pushwagner between 1969 and 1975, then unseen for decades, the astonishing cartoon treatise soft city (New York Review Comics, $35.) has finally arrived in the United States. Its oversize pages depict city life as an identity-annihilating, cookie-cutter horror, observed by a baby named Bingo. After waking up and taking their daily "Life" pill, countless identical men in hats wave to their wives and babies, go to their identical cars and flow in a river of traffic to mammoth parking garages and grids of office workstations. The women push carts down the aisles of gigantic supermarkets in a mute frenzy of consumption; a powerful boss watches scenes of tanks and factories on an enormous screen. Then everyone repeats the pattern in reverse. At home, they watch military atrocities on TV, retreat to their beds and take a pill marked "Sleep." That's not much of a story, but the point of "Soft City" is the obsessive execution and scale of Pushwagner's vision. Bingo and his parents, at the beginning and end, are blank, looming forms; in the commuting and work scenes that make up the bulk of the book, Pushwagner draws thousands of vehicles or desks or workers in symmetrical perspective with a thin, uneasy line, receding into infinitesimal marks at the horizon. Occasionally, there's a flash of narration - "We are secure. You have to be secure" - or thought-balloon babble - "Soft bartender cream feeling. Streamline first class business taste of life!" Labels abound: "soft park," "soft TV," "soft meat." Everything in Pushwagner's inferno is comfortable, and nothing is bearable. Another hellish variation on received notions of domesticity fuels this year's most compelling comic-book serial, The Vision, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta, whose first half has been collected as the vision: Little Worse Than a Man (Marvel, paper, $17.99) - the conclusion, "Little Better Than a Beast," is due out this month. The Vision is a robot superhero who has "saved the world 37 times." He's built himself a robot wife, Virginia, and two robot teenage children, Vin and Viv, and they've moved to a pretty off-white house in Arlington, Va., to try to become more like humans. A long, horrific slide to disaster immediately ensues. There's a murder, a cover-up and, in their wake, cascading catastrophes, as the robots act in hapless accordance with their understanding of how emotions and relationships are supposed to work. Even as the story's tone darkens, King plays the Vision family's imitation of human rituals for laughs: The robotic parents bicker mechanically about domestic responsibilities while the Vision is "at work." ("Wife, I am listening. It is just that I am also fighting Giganto.") And Walta's artwork (as well as Jordie Bellaire's coloring, with its impending-rainstorm palette) embraces human imperfection - even the straight lines of buildings have a freehand wobble, and blots of ink jut over panel borders. "The Merchant of Venice," which provides both volumes' titles, is a recurring presence in the story, jabbing at its themes of what makes actions just and what counts as fully human. "Mother?" Vin asks Virginia at one point, with an expression of analytical curiosity. "If you prick me, do I bleed?" Tom Gauld's MOONCOP (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95) is a much quieter, more playful treatment of human alienation and technological chilliness. The nameless title character is on an extended assignment to police the first lunar colony - but there's nothing to police, since almost everyone has already given up and gone home to Earth. Gauld's characters have no visible mouths, and dots for eyes. A few boxy buildings dot their desolate landscape; there's a doughnut vending machine, a floating car that mostly works, a handful of settlers who've decided they'd probably be happier elsewhere, and various robots including a sort of audio-animatronic Neil Armstrong, endlessly narrating his lunar landing. Eventually, the lonely cop is assigned a therapy robot ("Don't worry," it says, "I've prepared a very relaxed treatment schedule for you") who arrives without the right power adapter. There's something of Chris Ware's bitter "Tales of Tomorrow" cartoons in Gauld's deadpan compositions and precise geometric forms, but "Mooncop" steers clear of Ware's fury. This is a light, rueful comedy, whose motor is the absence of anything happening. (It occasionally feints at offering the sort of adventure its premise suggests - an alarm goes off, or there's a foreboding computer error - only to immediately resolve the problem.) There are long, lovely silent passages as characters cross the abandoned lunar plains, which are rendered with mannered crosshatching, the sky behind them a field of dark blue pricked with white-dot stars. Even when dreams don't quite work out, the book suggests, it can still be possible to find beauty in them. TETRIS: The Games People Play (First Second, paper, $19.99) is Box Brown's history of how the world came to be obsessed with dropping simple shapes into a grid. It's a twisty, digressive tale, beginning with the Moscow computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov thinking about block puzzles in 1984, but also encompassing anti-gambling laws in 19th-century Japan, byzantine business deals, the thawing of the Cold War, an explanation of the particular psychological itch that Tetris scratches and a murder-suicide. Brown argues for the game's importance: Initially a hit on home video-game systems and coin-operated consoles alike, it was simple and addictive enough to become the killer app that made hand-held platforms like the Gameboy desirable. Brown's got a broad, cleanly minimalist drawing style, augmented with bright yellow tones - the cartooning equivalent of 8-bit animation. (His nervous characters have sweat drops flying off their foreheads; the sound effect of a game cartridge being dramatically set on a negotiation table is PLACE.) Still, his designs for the prominent actors in Tetris's history are distinctive enough to identify immediately, and, as in the game, the story never stops moving until its final pieces are in place. In her introduction to ANGEL CATBIRD (Dark Horse, $14.99), Margaret Atwood writes about her fondness for the superheroes and surrealism of the comics she read as a child in the 1940s. Her first graphic novel has what seems to be a deliberately similar tone: flat and declarative, casually silly, not particularly coherent. Its protagonist, Strig Feleedus, is a scientist whose "super-splicer serum" turns him into a winged cat-man, or rather a "half-cat," as his love interest Cate Leone explains to him. Strig's boss, the wicked, rat-affiliated Professor Muroid, is given to villainous speechifying. ("I must know his every move . . . the better to capture him, extract the formula from him and then eliminate him!") There's also a vampire bat/cat/ human hybrid, Count Catula, who offers our hero some "mouse-blood champagne." A slowly meandering plot involving a "remote-controlled rat army" and a nightclub for half-cats is cut off by a cliffhanger ending before it really goes anywhere. Johnnie Christmas's linework is pleasantly raw and chunky, especially when he gets to hint at nature's bloody teeth and claws, although the bland office scenes that dominate the story's first half plod like a well-intentioned educational comic book. (The cat facts pasted in every few pages don't help on that score.) There are hints here of Atwood's knack for batting at the conventions of genre stories, but the bite of her prose and of her political insight is mostly lacking from this directionless exercise. The most familiar flavors of comics memoir these days are My Childhood Among Political Complications and How My Relative Survived the Holocaust. Marcelino Truong's SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR: Saigon 1961-63 (Arsenal Pulp Press, $26.95) is one of the former: Originally published in French four years ago, it owes a good deal of its form and tone to Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis." In 1961, when Truong was a small child, his father, then the cultural attaché at South Vietnam's Washington embassy, brought the family back home to Saigon and began working as an interpreter for the Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. By the time of the coup two years later in which Diem was assassinated, the Truong family had already moved to London. Truong was largely insulated from the Vietnam War's violence; his book is most engaging when he draws the way he experienced Saigon as a young child, keeping fighting crickets in matchboxes, visiting Catholic churches and cheap movie theaters, walking past public displays of confiscated Vietcong mortars, understanding the war only as something exciting that was happening in the distance (and that his parents sometimes argued about). Those scenes are punctuated by explanations of what was actually happening in the conflict and its political context, as well as battlefield sequences that quickly turn stagy. What holds the book together is Truong's artwork: confident, contoured brush strokes with watercolor washes, alternating between full color and monochromatic tints. He shows us that what was happening in Vietnam was a nightmare, but also that his youthful perspective made it seem, at the time, like an adventure. Amy Kurzweil's FLYING COUCH: A Graphic Memoir (Black Balloon, $18.95) is one of the Holocaust-survivor variety: The survivor was Kurzweil's grandmother, who escaped from Warsaw because, with her blond hair and blue eyes, she could convincingly deny that she was Jewish. (Excerpts from her oral history of her experience appear throughout the book in typeset form, sometimes accompanied by illustrations of the events she describes and sometimes by Kurzweil's renderings of photographs and other documents.) But she's only part of the story. The book's title refers to a psychoanalyst's couch, which Kurzweil's psychologist mother told her could allow "the mind to travel to all sorts of places." That leads, in turn, to the central visual metaphor here: the view from above. Occasionally, we see a building or city from a bird's-eye perspective, its relevant parts diagrammatically labeled; more broadly, the arc of Kurzweil's narrative is an overview of three generations of Jewish women, and the ways they echo one another. It's an ambitious plan, and Kurzweil studs it with some charming set pieces. Her attempt to figure out her Jewish identity in college finds her posing behind a series of carnival cutouts labeled "Ardent Pro-Israel Jew," "Politically and Culturally Apathetic Jew" and so on, then being visited by dream apparitions of Jacob, Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl, and finally declaring, "But I just want to draw pictures" - whereupon Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner and Harvey Pekar start chasing her. Still, the book's stream-of-consciousness form often leads it to ramble and lose focus. When Kurzweil travels to Germany at one point to see where her mother was born, she feels "strange, disembodied . . . I'm always mining life for a good story, but all I ever see, I fear, is just my own reflection." BECOMING UNBECOMING (Arsenal Pulp, $24.95) , by a cartoonist who identifies herself only as Una, begins by circling around traumatic childhood moments and a menacing time and place: the mid-1970s in Northern England, when Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was murdering women, and the author was repeatedly sexually assaulted beginning when she was 10 years old. But Una's personal experience is less the center of this story than the springboard for an extended examination of what she calls "the four horsemen of gender violence - shame, isolation, disbelief, ridicule." Sexist assumptions about "loose morals," she notes, led police to ignore evidence that might have stopped Sutcliffe sooner. In one bravura sequence, she renders 72 police portraits of West Yorkshire women's attackers from that era in her own hand. In aggregate, they're unmistakably depictions of Sutcliffe: "just another violent male, staring them in the face." Una's artwork (mostly black and white, with occasional jolts of flat color) rarely bothers with literal representation for more than a few panels at a time. Instead, she underscores her arguments with symbolic imagery: paper dolls, delicate sketches of imaginary insect-women, distorted and half-concealed contours of rapists' faces. The book concludes with a heartbreaking series of portraits of Sutcliffe's victims as they might look today if they had survived - all of them more naturalistic than Una's self-portraits as a blank female form in a plain white frock. "I'm glad to be alive," she writes, "but I wonder who I would have been, had I not been interrupted so rudely?" ? DOUGLAS WOLK is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean." He writes frequently about comics for The Times.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 1, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

Early in Kurzweil's autobiographical first graphic novel, she depicts her young self asking her psychoanalyst mother why therapy takes place on a couch. Her mother answers, It's a comfortable way to travel! In these pages, in her black-and-white cartoons, Amy does just that, through her own childhood and self-discovery as an artist, on visits to her grandmother and trips to Israel and Germany and to Holocaust-era Poland, where her Jewish grandmother struggled to survive when a young girl by disguising herself as a gentile. Moving fluidly back and forth through generations and her own life, Kurzweil considers the influences of ancestral experience upon one's present. High-contrast, simplified images suit the often heavy subject matter well and leave plenty of space for text, some of it her grandmother's harrowing story in typewritten font and in her grandmother's own words. Kurzweil's personal challenges, such as her exploration of which Jewish identity to adopt and her grandmother's current, giggle-inducing behavior as an aging Polish American, offer, when placed alongside her grandmother's unimaginable hardships, a unique way of considering the context of one's life.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Kurzweil intersperses loose anecdotes from her own life with stories of her grandmother's survival in Poland during World War II, to present portraits of three generations of women in her family. As a child, Amy is anxious and frequently unable to sleep. Her mother, a psychotherapist, offers wordy lectures on stress management. Amy's grandmother Bubbe is introduced as a tanned, tube top-wearing retiree who protects her carpets with tacky beach towels. Bubbe's struggles during the war are the strongest part of this book, but unfortunately Kurzweil's cartoony drawing style, mostly devoid of backgrounds or traditional panel structures, often fails to do these harrowing experiences justice. Kurzweil is clearly a devote of Alison Bechdel, but this book lacks the refinement of Fun Home. One revealing page juxtaposes an image of Amy standing mournfully beside the Wailing Wall with one of her smiling and giving a peace sign while riding a camel. Is she a sojourner or a tourist? The various strands of this book never quite come together. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 7 Up-An intergenerational exploration of identity and family history in graphic memoir format. Jewish comics artist Kurzweil narrates her own coming of age as she contends with her therapist mother and her sometimes distant World War II survivor grandmother. The three women's stories interconnect as the young Amy goes from neurotic child to Stanford University graduate and working artist. Sprinkled throughout is her grandmother's testimony as a Polish Jew who escaped the Warsaw ghetto by pretending to be a gentile. Themes of guilt, Jewish identity, and the complex relationships among daughters, mothers, and grandmothers are central to this work and are expanded upon with humor and honesty. The loose, sometimes sketchy drawings are done in black-and-white and often fill the page, giving the volume a larger-than-life, all-encompassing feel. The images communicate what is often left unsaid by the characters. Joy, horror, connections, love, and family fill the spreads, reflecting the strength of each character. Because of the age of the narrator and most of the subjects, this book is better suited for older readers, especially those interested in the traumatic effects of war on families. VERDICT A good choice for libraries looking to bolster their graphic memoir collections, especially those seeking titles on the Jewish experience.-Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An ambitious debut by a graphic artist whose work succeeds on multiple levels, both visually and in terms of the textual narrative.Toward the end of what is billed as a graphic memoir, Kurzweil (Writing and Comics/Parson School of Design) reflects, the women in my family have certain stories to tell. Why does it feel like Im not the protagonist of my own life? And she isnt of her own memoir, at least through one of the predominant strains intertwining in this narrative of the relationships among three generations of women in one family. The most dramatic is the one she relates of a time even before she and her mother were born: she shares her Jewish grandmothers story, in her Bubbes words, of escaping from the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, living among gentiles as an orphan, and then marrying a Jewish man and reclaiming her identity. The authors story encompasses that of her grandmother and also the authors mother, a psychotherapist from whom her frequently anxious daughter learned, psychology is a container. It grows that which would go wild. It civilizes. Thus her mothers perspective and the typical mother-daughter tensions become integral to the authors quest for identity. What kind of daughter is she? What kind of Jew? What kind of artist? The drawings are excellent, including maps that provide the psychological dimension of Kurzweils interior life, dreamscapes, and travels, including study abroad in Israel. She ultimately makes a life of her own in Brooklyn, as an artist, with a series of apartments, where to order the objects of real life, the things I can feel and name, reminds me that my life is my own, and it has not, although it might seem otherwise, been pre-written. A debut that enriches and extends the potential of graphic narrative. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.