Sloth; I Love Led Zeppelin; Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution; TV's Grooviest Variety Shows of the '60s and '70s

Sloth

by Gilbert Hernandez

Vertigo/DC Comics, 128 pp., $19.99

I Love Led Zeppelin

by Ellen Forney

Fantagraphics, 111 pp., $19.95

Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution

by Elena Poniatowska

Cinco Puntos Press, 95 pp., $12.95

TV's Grooviest Variety Shows of the '60s and '70s

by Telly R. Davidson

Cumberland House, 400 pp., $24.95

Readings
It's hard to think of a metaphor for adolescence more apt than a self-induced coma. Maybe that's why Love and Rockets co-creator Gilbert Hernandez bestows the blessed state on all the main characters in his latest – and first original (not previously published in serial form) – graphic novel, Sloth. Set in a vaguely American suburb, it opens with angsty teen Miguel Serra waking from a yearlong coma, undamaged except for his tendency to move exceedingly slowly. At first, Sloth seems to follow the typical, if resonantly rendered, adventures of him; his girlfriend, Lita; and best friend, Romeo (both of whom are also his bandmates), as they drum up exurban fun in the form of pursuing the Goatman, an urban legend whose evil power is the ability to change places with his victims. As in his Palomar stories, Hernandez imbues seeming banality with empathetic specificity and magical realism, transcending mere character study and breaking our hearts a bit along the way. Halfway through, Goatman-like, the characters trade places (and a very significant-seeming hat) – or, more accurately, slip into an alternate universe, presenting another possible narrative. The off-kilter circularity, combined with Hernandez's expressive, simple drawing, creates a world that is somehow self-enclosed and at the same time completely relatable, lovely and a little lonely.

Readings

Ellen Forney's world, no less lovely but more uniformly boisterous, gets a thorough workout in her latest collection, I Love Led Zeppelin. Forney's "panty-dropping comics" are manna for a certain strain of sexually adventurous, post-feminist, Seventies-seasoned free spirit; they've been published in a number of alt-mags and weeklies (most notably and regularly Seattle's The Stranger), and they work best as journalistic hybrids. In her how-to series, she interviews experts on subjects underrepresented in the service journalism arena ("How to Smoke Pot and Stay Out of Jail"), with entertaining and informative results. Forney's a good writer and storyteller, sometimes to the detriment of her comics; in memoirlike pieces ("I Raced My Car at SIR!"), a flurry of words crowds out the drawing. Elsewhere ("Wednesday Morning Yoga," "Trapeze"), Forney stretches her considerable stylistic talent, and the visual takes precedence, often with more profound results. There's a weird Nineties-celebrity element running through the collection – Margaret Cho on "How to Be a Fabulous Fag Hag," illustrated stories from Dan Savage and Kristin Gore, awkward encounters with Tom Waits and Camille Paglia, and an end-page that's a testament to Seattle's extra helping of Courtney Love fascination – that can be either irritating or thrilling, depending on how you feel about the Nineties. Regardless, Forney's tales are sweet and funny ones, told with liberating frankness and dork-positive humanity.

Readings

The most arresting thing about Elena Poniatowska's Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution isn't its portraits of the women who served – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – during those long wars, formidable as they are: bandoliered, petticoated, in the arms of stern-looking men or alone, dressed as men, left behind on train platforms or riding on top of box cars so the horses could have food and shelter below. Rather, it's the information that almost all photographs of the revolution are from the Casasola Collection, part of the archives of Mexico's Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca. This is because typographer and sportswriter Agustín Victor Casasola, along with his brother Miguel, set up a vastly acquisitive photographic agency during the war, sending his photographer brother off to the battlefront and buying other photographers' work (including whole newspapers' archives) as well. Safe in Mexico City, Agustin frequently scratched off the original photographer's name and replaced it with his own. Over time, the collection "developed a near monopoly on the iconography of the Mexican Revolution," according to Poniatowska. Her book, which convincingly argues against Susan Sontag's claim in On Photography that the Spanish Civil War was the first one extensively documented by modern photography, presents only a small portion of the collection's more than 30,000 images of the revolution, but every one is striking. One wishes the format were bigger, and Agustin's habit of revisionist authorship frustrates curiosity about details of subject and scene, but the ferocity of Soldaderas' imagery is undeniable.

Readings
A revolution of an entirely different sort is the subject of TV's Grooviest Variety Shows of the '60s and '70s. The suspiciously named Telly R. Davidson reminds us not only of variety shows' vast impact on a medium from which they are now almost completely absent but of their lasting imprint on the national psyche, as well. Those who always felt a little weird about their childhood fixation on the Man in Black's beloved-granddad/dark-lover persona, for example, can rest easy in the knowledge that The Johnny Cash Show was "ABC's most innovative, and, in some ways, most important variety show of the late '60s." The reverent tome kicks off with a concise, context-setting account of The Ed Sullivan Show's golden years and anchors its chapters on groundbreaking shows of the succeeding era, covering the considerable ground between Hee Haw and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, through the Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson shows, and offering "Memorable Moments," "Bloopers and Breakups" and "Where Are They Now" sound bites along the way. Part enthusiastic fan's notes, part media theory (the book includes a chapter on such "Postmodern Classics" as Solid Gold), TV's Grooviest always takes its subject seriously, and some of the information is golden (at least for those of us with a hankering to know what happened to Pat Paulsen or that Tommy Smothers starred in a solo show called Organic Prime-Time Space Ride). Davidson's is a brisk, loving, and highly readable book that will suit television connoisseurs; it begs for a companion DVD, but VH1 will do in a pinch.

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