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In the last century, originality has killed one once-flourishing art form after another, by replacing variation within shared artistic conventions to rebellion against convention itself.

I blame the Germans.

It was the German Romantics who introduced the idea of “original genius” to modern society. The artistic genius, according to 19th-century romantics, is a special kind of human being with unique visionary powers. In ancient Greece and Rome, poets had sometimes claimed vatic powers; the “bard” sometimes posed as a quasi-prophetic figure, not a mere versifier, though this pose was usually not taken seriously. It was only in the 19th century, however, that the notion of this kind of visionary genius was generalized outside of poetry to what became known as the “fine arts,” including painting and sculpture and even architecture. Earlier, all of these arts had been classified among the utilitarian “crafts,” like textile-making and tile-making. More… “Originality Versus the Arts”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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The apocalypse is all the rage these days. Of course, it’s a topic that never completely goes out of fashion. There’s always some person raving on a street corner about how all is lost and a few folks huddled around him or her, eager to listen. But these days, what with climate change, bees dying, ebola, and, of course, the recent election, it’s a topic on a lot of folks’ minds (at least judging from my social media feeds).

It’s a topic that’s on the mind of cartoonist Julia Gfrörer (pronounced “gruff-fair”) as well, or at least it’s the central setting of her latest graphic novel, Laid Waste. Gfrörer isn’t interested in depicting wanton death and destruction a la Michael Bay, however, as much as she is in depicting her characters’ attempts to find some sense of hope or solace in a world that is swiftly falling down around them. More… “Wonderful Waste”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal … and this site. He is ¼ of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.
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The English folk musician Nick Drake died in November 1974 at age 26, leaving only three albums behind.

The first, Five Leaves Left — the title a reference to a British cigarette papers packet — appeared in 1969, one of those rare albums with little that preceded it and little that could follow from it, so singular was Drake’s musical tapestry, like the rustic verse of John Clare had met with some Mendelssohn-like stirrings and taken a trip to London to walk the streets before returning to the heath. More… “Season’s End, Season’s Start”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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We asked our staff to pick their favorite contributions to popular culture that we encountered in 2016. From books, to movies, to a YouTube concert video, we enjoyed a lot of beauty and truth in a year unlikely to be remembered for either. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously sang in “Anthem.” Embodying this year, Cohen triumphantly released the gorgeous album You Want it Darker shortly before his voice was suddenly silenced by his passing in November. A less-quoted lyric of Anthem is Cohen’s instruction “Ring the bells that still can ring.” Here is what chimed for us this year. More… “Best of 2016”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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How many artists out there can say they completely transformed an entire genre so much that there is a clear demarcation point between what came before and what came after?

Manga artist Moto Hagio can. She had help, though. As one of the members of Magnificent 49ers, also known as the Year 24 Group, Hagio is a member of a loose affiliation of female cartoonists all allegedly born in or around the 24th year of the Showa era (1949, hence the name), that transformed girls’ comics in Japan, a.k.a. Shoujo manga. More… “The Magnificent Moto”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal … and this site. He is ¼ of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.
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Was there any announcement in recent comics history that was met with more fanfare and excitement than the news last year that acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates would be writing the adventures of Marvel superhero Black Panther?

It’s hard for me to think of anything comparable. Coates, of course, is perhaps the preeminent writer on race and American society today. His columns for The Atlantic have deservedly won him widespread praise and a MacArthur Genius grant. His second book, Between the World and Me, garnered him a National Book Award. He is one of the most prominent literary figures in the country. The news that someone of his stature would be writing the adventures of one of the most recognizable black superheroes (though perhaps Storm, Luke Cage, or Cyborg could argue for more cultural cachet) is worth a bit of hullabaloo. More… “Ta-Nehisi’s Take”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal … and this site. He is ¼ of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.
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On a humid day in early October, I walked from the Ponte Sisto to the Ponte Mazzini. The river was flowing on my right and the progress of Western European culture, from a Roman point of view, was turning into illustrations on my left. I had been in Rome for three weeks and had briefly seen the illustrations, a range of military and cultural imagery, including generals, a recurring angel, victims and perpetrators of violence, mythological agents, and occasionally the general populace. But now I was set to walk the half-kilometer extent of William Kentridge’s monumental set of drawings and parse as best as I could what these 80 figures spelled out. The title, Triumphs and Laments, gave a broad context, and for an admirer of Kentridge’s work, this was a veritable feast. Along with such admiration, there were bound to be questions of technique, archival recovery, historical meanings, and artistic daring. More… “The Gravity of Graffiti”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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Trebuchets. Oboes. Manhole covers. Labyrinthian playground equipment. Interactive Christmas sweaters. Grocery carts. Pangolins. Fish-slapping bears.

These are just a few of the items that decorate the off-kilter and thoroughly delightful world of Cul de Sac, the comic strip by Richard Thompson (no relation to the guitarist) that ran in newspapers from 2007 to 2012.

Thompson, who died at age 58 in August due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease, wasn’t a household name like Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson. And while successful, Cul de Sac wasn’t a phenomenon along the lines of Garfield or Dilbert. But for those comic connoisseurs who had the opportunity to discover it, it was nothing short of a work of comedic genius. More… “Comic Connections”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal … and this site. He is ¼ of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.
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In the 1984 novel The Boys on the Rock, by John Fox, a 16-year-old student relays scandalous information about a pair of identical twin brothers on his high school swim team. “I was forever hearing rumors about them being incestuous and things like that from guys who didn’t even know them,” the narrator reports. “They got called pretty insulting things right to their face but they didn’t give a shit.” On this the teenager offers clarification: “I don’t mean they just pretended not to give a shit, I mean they truly did not care what anyone thought about them.”

This passage resurfaced from the depths of my consciousness recently while I read every extant interview with Woody Allen I could get my hands on, though I’m not alluding to sexual innuendo about the director. Yes, Allen did seem oblivious to the uproar that ensued in January 1992 after Mia Farrow — his longtime romantic partner and the star of 13 consecutive films under his direction — discovered in his Manhattan apartment racy photographs of her 21-year-old daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen later married. Eric Lax, whose updated Conversations with Woody Allen (2009) is the most recent edition of book-length Allen interviews, dealt with the Soon-Yi material previously in the revised 2000 edition of Woody Allen: A Biography. “Woody has a remarkable ability to compartmentalize his life,” Lax wrote then of the custody battle that ensued over Farrow and Allen’s three children. By so saying, Lax seems to have originated what is now the most oft-repeated maxim about the filmmaker: in Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012), the director Robert B. Weide assembled a brief montage of Allen’s friends and colleagues, each repeating the same line about Woody’s ability to compartmentalize his life. All evidence points to Allen similarly taking this compartmentalization approach toward allegations that he sexually molested his and Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter.  (After an investigation, the police brought no such charges against the director.) Allen himself explained at the time of his legal wrangling that, in all the months of public and private turmoil (which cost him $7 million in lawyers’ fees alone), he was not distracted for a moment from his creative work. When he informed his friends of this fact, they thought something was wrong with him — that he had a surprising lack of feeling, as Allen phrased it. “But it isn’t so,” the director insisted. “I had the appropriate feeling at the time, but my work is a separate thing.”

More… “The Teflon Director”

Myles Weber is the author of Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish. His literary criticism appears frequently in such journals as The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Salmagundi, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is an associate professor of English at Winona State University in Minnesota.
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They kindly replied to my enquiry, but asked for my understanding that the design of a pill — including its shape and color — is based on proprietary marketing considerations. For this reason, they cannot tell me more about why the color blue was chosen. For Viagra. How could I have dared to think that Pfizer would have the answer I was hoping for? And this reply didn’t exactly encourage me to ask the company a second serious question: Why do some people see everything tainted in blue (cyanopsia) as a side effect of taking the drug? In any case, I guess the pill wouldn’t have been as successful if it weren’t this particular shade. More… “Encyclopedia Blue”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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