The Mighty Millborough

Christoph Mueller and “The Mighty Millborough.”

I’m in receipt of The Mighty Millborough, a fine self-published portfolio of work by Christoph Mueller, currently of Germany. I first came across his comics in Mineshaft and quickly sought out more.

Mueller’s elegant, carefully crafted comics seem simultaneously nostalgic and unsettling, an evocation of the mirrored images of the individual and the world. His Millborough comics are a study in isolation, solitude, and cynicism set in Sassafras County, an idealized small-town America of the 1930s. The main character’s name itself was inspired by the old-time-radio situation comedy The Great Gildersleeve, but Mueller’s absurdist, quotidian approach is even more reminiscent of Paul Rhymer’s great neglected Vic and Sade radio comedy of the same period.

The cartoonist’s craft is evident in every panel; a post-Crumbian attention to detail and careful, almost melancholy crosshatching lend contemplative depth to his backgrounds and, especially, his domestic interiors. Millington F. Millborough’s house, which boasts a warm if dark “Library of Drink,” is a textured expression of the character’s own interior life. But whereas Crumb’s characters explode with anxiety, Mueller’s bottle it up inside (an apt construction, that), and more frequently than not, that anxiety like Crumb’s is sexual.

It so happens that I share many affinities with Mueller and his work, not least an admiration of W.C. Fields and especially It’s a Gift. I’m only partway through the portfolio and may have more to say. In the meantime, I refer you to the below “cartoon,” Mueller’s semi-animated adaptation of one of his own Millborough stories. You can read more about his work at his web site.

William Gaddis in the Age of Trump

Satirist William Gaddis‘s first two novels have gone out of print at the Dalkey Archive Press, but fear not: NYRB (New York Review Books) has picked up the rights to both. The Recognitions (1955), an encyclopedic satire of the role of forgery and fraudulence in post-war American cultural, artistic and spiritual life, and J R (1975), a bracing comic examination of the corruptions of American capitalism and how they affect learning and art, will both be issued by that firm with new introductions by Tom McCarthy and Joy Williams respectively on October 6 — precisely four weeks before Election Day 2020.

Alas, four weeks won’t be enough to read and contemplate both novels, not at 992 pages for the first and 784 for the second. Nonetheless, these two books, as well as Gaddis’s later novels, provide a concise roadmap describing how we got where we are, politically and otherwise. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) is a bleak romance of cynicism and geopolitics, a mordant consideration of globalization; A Frolic of His Own (1994) describes the deterioration of the law from a mechanism for dispensing justice to a weapon of bureaucratic revenge; and Agapē Agape (published posthumously in 2002) is a tortured monologue mourning the disappearance of authenticity and musing upon the possibility of a redemptive art. (I should add also that Gaddis is one of the great New York City novelists; very little of the action of all five novels takes place outside of a 100-mile radius of New York, a feature of his work that has been somewhat neglected.)

In the months between now and November, Gaddis’s work may well prove an oasis of sanity in the midst of ever-increasing, maddening chaos. You don’t have to wait for October; if you start now, you may find, by November, that we’ve been living in Gaddis’s world all along.

Wine in Vienna

A vineyard in the Wachau, Austria.

A friend of mine generously invited me to a tasting of various Austrian wines tomorrow, so I was drawn back to Ilsa Barea’s fine 1966 book about Vienna in search of little wine nuggets. Wine was always a part of the Viennese tradition, she writes, and I’m talking about centuries. Quoth Ms. Barea:

The plain economic fact is that the vineyards in the lee of the Wienerwald were of the greatest importance for Vienna’s everyday life, from the earliest beginnings — modern scholarship has established that vines were grown there even before the Roman legionaries introduced their more refined stock — up to the transformation of Older Vienna into Old Vienna in the course of the eighteenth century. In 1524, a charter of Archduke Ferdinand called wine “the principal nourishment of the city of Vienna” … (Ilsa Barea, Vienna, p. 27)

I’ll drink to that.

No such thing

A 1995 US postage stamp adapted from artwork by Rube Goldberg in Collier’s, September 26, 1931. Abrams ComicArts/© 2020 Heirs of Rube Goldberg.

In “Foolish Questions,” his new essay for the New York Review of Books, Art Spiegelman eases from a review of a recent touring exhibition of Rube Goldberg (which closed at the Queens Museum earlier this month) to a consideration of screwball comics and their potential for upending conventional attitudes towards reality. Their potential for doing this, though, is ambivalent: “Cartoons are a visual language of simplification and exaggeration whose vocabulary was entirely premised on them,” Spiegelman writes. “It’s as if the N-word was the only word in the dictionary to describe people of color, and even the poetry that comics can offer had to be written in this debased language. We humans are hard-wired toward stereotyping, and, alas, comics echo the way we think.” One of the reasons, perhaps, that they were so frequently denigrated as trash in the more innocent past.

Towards the end of the essay, Spiegelman muses over the future of the screwball perspective, and it must be said that he is not sanguine about it.

Yet the legacy of Mad is still with us. Trump is often referred to in the press as a “screwball,” but “screwball” — an ironic term of endearment, a synonym for “lovable eccentric” — just won’t do for a pathological, lying narcissist with dangerous sociopathic tendencies.

The existential threat facing screwball humor today comes from a “screwball” president who has weaponized postmodernism. Mad taught me to be skeptical of all mass media and to question reality (including my beloved Mad), but the lesson requires a belief that there might actually be something like consensual reality. Nonsense assumes there’s such a thing as sense and puts it in relief by denying reality’s power even if just for a moment.

Spiegelman, I think, is right here: This is the legacy of the postmodern philosophy that gave us contemporary academic departments dismissive of the idea of consensual reality as well as children’s movies like The Matrix, which characterized consensual reality as fraudulent. Unfortunately, as we’re finding, it’s not.

Read all of “Foolish Questions” here.

This Sunday night: A musical soirée at NYU

Let’s not forget, folks, to bundle up this Sunday night and make your way to NYU for Marilyn Nonken‘s American Spectral: Works for Piano and Electronics concert, described below.


Lately my lovely wife has been coming home merrily singing the praises of two new piano solos she’ll be performing at NYU’s Black Box Theater, 82 Washington Square East in New York on Sunday, February 23 — they’re difficult but divine, she insists, and promises a good time. She’s never wrong.

The big piece on the program (which is called American Spectral: Works for Piano and Electronics, by the way) is the hour-long “Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators,” a new “extended mix” of a shorter 2010 work by highly-regarded avant-garde tunesmith Alvin Lucier. Marilyn will raise the curtain with Philadelphian Ellen Fishman‘s “Ruptures” (2018-19). These works, Marilyn says, “explore how technology changes our sense of time, consciousness, and sonic reality.”

Admission? Gratis. The trouble begins at eight o’clock. I’m told that there’s a new-fangled thing called social media that’s taking the place of the hardworking press agent, so if you visit the Facebook page for the event, please “like” it (whatever that is) and “share” it with your “friends.” Me, I’ve got to get my tuxedo to the dry cleaners; the composers will be present, after all.

I confess to you that I use the word “solo” advisedly here; she will be accompanied by some electric gewgaws. But they aren’t human, and I’m going to maintain my distinction between man (or, in this case, woman) and machine, so matter how complicated the box of wires is. After the show, we’ll all head out to the local tavern (except the computers, of course), where we’ll explore how wine and vodka change our sense of time, consciousness, and sonic reality, though I doubt the sensations will be quite as profound.