David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb
Kafka
Fantagraphics
B&W/softcover
176 pages/$14.95

Though they share a superficial interest in the grotesque and neurotic, R. Crumb and Kafka are very different artists. Crumb’s work is confessional, satiric, and expansive — his sexual hang-ups, prejudices, and passing fancies are splashed about with a visceral, muddy abandon. Kafka, on the other hand, is a controlled and understated writer. He meticulously combines this particular mundane detail with that incongruous notion until, in excruciating slow motion, reality crumbles away in dry, granular flakes.

Having Crumb illustrate Kafka’s biography was, therefore, a risky move — and, as it turns out, a disastrous one. Rather than trying to find a way to adapt his style to Kafka’s needs, Crumb simply blasts ahead with his own tropes, turning Kafka’s sly, ambiguous parables into gag-fests, complete with lovingly rendered gore, big-butted Fraulein’s, scrawny protagonists, and ironically retro splash pages.

Not to be left out, writer David Mairowitz also does his bone-headed best to turn his subject into his collaborator. For Mairowitz, Kafka’s life and art must, like Crumbs, be obviously and everywhere intertwined, and if the facts don’t fit, well, to hell with them. Mairowitz is, for example, desperate to link Kafka’s writing with his Judaism, so he sententiously retells that hoary folktale about the Golem — only to end by admitting that there’s no evidence that Kafka even knew the story

Most irritating though, is Mairowitz’s knee-jerk tendency to treat Kafka’s art as a confessional expression of neurotic symptoms, rather than as conscious craft. For example, Mairowitz notes that Kafka did not want an insect pictured on the cover of “Metamorphosis,” the famous novella in which a man turns into a bug. Mairowitz explains this reticence by descending into inane psychobabble, speculating that rejecting the picture was a way for Kafka to mentally“contain…the horror of the transformation” or that it was necessary because “the line between [Kafka’s] feelings about his body in human form and its ‘insecthood’ was not all that clear.” In the first place, what rot. And, in the second, couldn’t we at least consider the possibility that one of the most careful writers in the history of the world made his aesthetic decisions for, y’know, aesthetic reasons?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that the links between Kafka’s Judaism, his psychology, and his art, have been analyzed in many insightful volumes. This just isn’t one of them. If you can’t get enough of Crumb being Crumb, then by all means, pick this up. But if you want to know about Kafka’s life…well, I’d try Wikipedia.

__________________

Andy Helfer and Randy DuBurke
Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography

It’s nice to see a comic that doesn’t fit easily into any of the medium’s established markets. A sober biography of Malcolm X probably won’t leap off the shelves of direct market outlets; nor is it likely to be a big hit with bookstore-frequenting manga fans. Instead, this book seems designed for young readers in some sort of quasi-educational setting; perhaps a public or high-school library?

Be that as it may, writer Andy Helfer has done an admirable job. The mythologizing that often accompanies Malcolm biographies — including the Spike Lee picture and even the Autobiography itself — is absent. Instead, Helfer is careful to stick to the facts where they’re known, and to point out instances where they aren’t. For example, he tells us that Malcolm’s father’s death may have been caused by white people directly — but probably wasn’t. Moreover, Helfer discusses controversial topics (the Nation of Islam’s black supremacist beliefs, for example) without any editorial hand-wringing. He respects Malcolm and his readers enough to let the latter draw their own conclusions.

Helfer’s even-handed treatment does have its downside. There’s little sense of why Malcolm was so inspiring to so many — a problem exacerbated by the fact that (perhaps for copyright reasons?) no extended excerpts from his speeches are provided. Nor do the pictures add much spark; artist Randy DuBurke’s heavily-shadowed style is muddy rather than evocative. In some cases DuBurke seems to be basing his drawings on photos; in others, he merely apes the appearance of old newsprint. In either case, his dull compositions and poor anatomy often border on the ludicrous. In DuBurke’s version of the famous photograph in which Malcolm holds a rifle and stares out a window, the man’s head is too large for his body, making him look like some bizarre puppet.

Still, overall, the text carries the day. Given the current equation of “Muslim” with “intolerance”, I was particularly struck again in this telling by Malcolm’s trip to Mecca, in which his exposure to the egalitarian ideology of Islam leads him to accept that white people are human beings. That the story manages to delicately and thoughtfully raise such issues is a tribute to both Malcolm and Helfer. Even if I’m not sure who this book’s audience is supposed to be, I hope it finds one.

______________

Both of these reviews first ran in The Comics Journal.