Duck Duck Book

56 – incognegro
10.6.2008, 12:03 am
Filed under: comix

Incognegro [comic book] / written by Mat Johnson ; art by Warren Pleece ; lettered by Clem Robins.
New York : Vertigo, DC Comics, c2008.
[MCL call number: GN JOHNSON; eight copies, no holds]

Over time, racism and white supremacy have given us many stories that white people like to forget, and people of color can’t help but remember. One very horrific example from the United States’s own history is the story of the lynching of thousands of people of color, mostly African-American men, mostly in the south, and nearly always with the tacit consent of law enforcement and the pillars of the local community.

Lynching was common as dirt in the 1920s, and perpetrators nearly always went free. The white press largely ignored news of lynchings, but Black newspapers often reported on it. Incognegro is set in this context: light-skinned Zane Pinchback, a writer for the New Holland Herald (an African American newspaper based in Harlem) uses his ability to pass for white to attend lynchings and report on them first-hand in his “Incognegro” column. As the comic opens, Pinchback is expressing intense frustration with his success that is not success. He wants to participate in the literary and artistic flowering he’s surrounded by every day in 1920’s Harlem — and although everyone who’s anyone (and lots of folks who are no one in particular) reads “Incognegro,” no one has heard of Zane Pinchback.

During a confrontation on this question with his editor, Pinchback learns that his brother has been arrested for the murder of a white woman in a small Mississippi town, and he agrees to go incognegro one more time to cover the story and try to save his brother’s life. And then the shit really hits the fan. Excellent detective/reporter skills, feats of stupid bravery, the brotherhood of man, happenstance, and straightforward luck help Pinchback to survive an intense couple of days, several plot twists, a bullet wound, and lots of chit chat with racists, Klansmen, and town fathers. Incognegro is a real page-turner, with beautifully expressive art and a completely human (though of course also ghastly) story.


56 – manhole covers
10.6.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: technology

Manhole covers / Mimi Melnick ; photographs by Robert A. Melnick ; foreword by Allan Sekula.
Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1994.
[MCL call number: 628.24 M527m 1994; one copy, no holds]

Have you ever looked down while crossing the street, and been shocked by the venerable age, or even the simple artistic grace of a manhole cover? They’re on nearly every city street. Some are plain, but intriguing because they are marked with the names of long-departed utility companies or municipalities; others are elegant works of art illustrated with flowers and geometric designs. Some are more pedestrian, covered with simple grids, plain over-all patterns of dots, or radial designs. But once you start to really see them you are likely to find a wide variety of different designs and patterns.

One reason is that although they are walked on and driven over every day, manhole covers are made of cast iron, and are incredibly heavy and durable. So they can have very long lives. Another is that utility companies, businesses, and local governments have had different rules about what manhole covers should and shouldn’t be like over time, and when the rules and fashions change, so do the new manhole covers. It is now generally required that manhole covers be marked with the name of the company or agency that operates whatever it is they provide access to. But, a hundred years ago, they were more likely to be marked with the name of the foundry where they were made.

Mimi Melnick and Richard A. Melnick’s book of photographs of manhole covers offers an engaging tour of manhole covers in many cities in the United States — it is not a comprehensive survey by any means, but there is much to savor in their selection of portraits. (Manhole Covers could be improved by an index to the locations in which each photograph was taken, but even though I am fervently devoted to the importance of indexes, I found that this oversight was quickly forgotten as I leafed through the book.) Mimi Melnick’s introductory essay traces the history of manhole covers, their manufacture, and their role in the infrastructure of American cities, and the 121 pages of manhole cover photographs that follow may well start you on the habit of looking down as you walk.

56 – self portrait
10.6.2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Self portrait in a velvet dress : Frida’s wardrobe : fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo / [editors, Denise Rosenzweig, Magdalena Rosenzweig].
San Francisco, CA : Chronicle Books, 2008.
[MCL call number: 759.972 K12s 2008; three copies, one hold]

Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, is now a museum. It is the house where Kahlo was born, and it is where she died. Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, stipulated that her bedroom and bathroom should not be opened until fifty years after her death. So the rooms were locked and their contents left in place until 2004. When the museum’s staff finally entered Kahlo’s rooms, they found nearly 150 articles of clothing, dozens of household linens, a goodly collection of orthopedic equipment and hospital miscellanea, dozens of bottles of cosmetics and medicine, and a huge lithograph showing human embryonic development.

Kahlo’s clothes were the most notable prize. They were not so much a wardrobe in the normal sense as they were a collection — although it is certainly true that she wore these clothes, rather than collecting them as mere objects. And this makes the collection, and the book about it, feel rather strange. On the one hand, a museum devoted to a great personage is almost guaranteed to make relics out of any mundane object associated with that person, and the reverence with which this is done can border on the ridiculous. On the other hand, it is clear that Kahlo herself valued her wardrobe as more than simply a collection of garments to cover her nakedness and keep her warm. There is no doubt that part of what makes Frida Kahlo such an icon is that her attitude toward dress, style, art, and personal presentation was so enigmatic. Of course we would celebrate and carefully examine her clothing, now that we can. They have so much to say to us about
Kahlo as a person, and as an artist.

A large portion of Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is taken up with Marta Turok’s essay on the ethnic roots of Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe. Turok discusses the sources of Kahlo’s clothes in different regions of Mexico, Guatemala, and examines what dressing chiefly in folk costume meant in Kahlo’s Mexico. This section contains many facing page illustrations: on one page, a photograph showing Kahlo wearing an article of clothing, or a reproduction of one of her paintings in which it figured; on the page opposite, a photograph of the item (or a similar one) after museum staff entered Kahlo’s rooms to observe and catalog her personal things. Other essays discuss Kahlo’s style of dress, the discoveries museum staff made the day they opened Kahlo’s rooms, and the restoration of the clothing and objects found there.

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is like a biography of Kahlo, with an emphasis on a specific part of her approach to the world: it is about Kahlo’s blouses, her shoes, her skirts, her belts, her scarves; and the way she used them to create a specific presentation of “Frida Kahlo” to her self, her family, her friends, and the public. Of course the book is beautiful; it’s full of lovely photographs of beautiful objects, it has the glitter of Kahlo’s fame and the sharp taste of her public tragedies. But it is also interesting as an exploration of a slender but important piece of a powerful artist’s creative vision, and the tools she employed to practice it.