REVIEWS: Russell's Reviews Volume One # 10

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Fri Mar 14 21:54:03 PDT 2008

There are forty-seven pages of text between the first
ten issues of
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/       \      /___  |/ / /___  |/\/___/     NO. 10

POSSUM MAN: RELINQUISHED # 4 [Mar 8, 2008], Crouch

   Increasingly, a sense of good-natured unruliness
has become a hallmark of Mitchell's writing.  Manic
energy, insane and seemingly arbitrary plot twists,
and an almost transgressively digressive sensibility
all conspire to derail any conventional sense of
pacing, logic, or cohesion, instead replacing the
utterly conventional with an entirely personal and
accordingly idiosyncratic rhythm, a finely-tuned yet
assuredly askew looking-glass logic (slightly somewhat
similar to Wonderland comma Alice in, but with less
math, which automatically makes it better because
everything is better with less math), and a chaotic
playfulness that acts as a stylistically cohesive
force, and this is a Mitchell Crouch sentence if ever
you've seen one, isn't it, dear devoted darling of a
reader?-- and you have seen one, haven't you?--
ohmigosh, there's one right there, look!, look!, oh
you missed it, you never look when I tell you to.
   It is, to be slightly more brief, a remarkable
achievement.  I wouldn't say that Mitchell has "found
his voice", exactly; the phrase for me has two largely
negative connotations, the first being the idea that
we only have one specific, special "voice" to find,
though we know that human beings (let alone writers!)
contain choruses, and the second being the image of
throngs of aspiring writers, wandering mutely in
search of a thorax or perhaps, at the very least, a
cherry-flavoured lozenge.
   But Mitchell has arrived at that special, coveted
place where his writing becomes specifically
recognizable; given a passage of reasonable length his
work can be identified without the benefit of a
by-line, and is capable of being pastiched.  This is
an achievement that deserves recognition and applause.
 It is also a very good reason to read Mitchell's work
and one of the main sources of its pleasure.
   I wouldn't quite call it "surreal" in the sense
that I call some of Arthur Spitzer's later work
   Don't get me wrong; both bodies of work excel at
creating a general sense of WTFness.  But Arthur's
work-- at least to me-- seems more intentionally
transgressive, more concerned with pushing a reader
outside his comfort zone and past what can be
understood with conventional brain functions. 
Mitchell doesn't really set out to make the reader
uncomfortable.  The comfort zone he's violating is
more the "how-does-this-all-fit-into-the-plot"
strait-jacket so many readers tie themselves into.  
   For those readers, Mitchell's digressive
sensibility *is* transgressive, even for LNH fans who
are used to extreme lunacy.  In Mitchell's work,
however, the moments of extreme lunacy are not as
important as the ways in which that lunacy is
expressed, alternating between a concise deadpan and a
particularly virulent strand of virtuosic verbal
diarrhea.  I think virtuosic is the correct word;
they're very show-offy moments-- set-pieces, if you
will-- and they display Mitchell's wit and
inventiveness to great effect.
   Now, all that being said-- all those being very
good reasons to look forward to the next Mitchell
Crouch story-- the fact is that I adore ALT.STRALIAN
YARNS and I'm not a particularly big fan of POSSUM
MAN.  Now, I don't hate the latter stories; they just
don't excite me the same way ALT.STRALIAN YARNS does.
   The question I'm faced with, then, is why?  If
anything, the Mitchell Crouchiness in the pages of
POSSUM MAN is dialed up to eleven.  Many parts of this
latest issue were highly amusing-- for example, the
episode of Pos's enrollment in and exit from an
elementary school.  In fact, just about every scene or
set-piece of this particular installment amused and
entertained me; but as a whole, it just felt like
something-- ah, yes, that intangible something!-- was
   And, at this moment, after much re-reading and
re-thinking (and re-writing of this review), I still
can't for the life of me come up with a reason why I
feel so satisfied after reading an ALT.STRALIAN YARNS
and markedly less-so after POSSUM MAN.  Perhaps it is
that very same "dialed up to eleven"-ness; perhaps
ALT.STRALIAN YARNS is more grounded in some (albeit
bizarre) notion of reality, giving us a reference
point for all that wonderful lunatic energy, while
POSSUM MAN doesn't provide such a ready anchoring
   This could be a character issue; the two "leads" of
ALT.STRALIAN YARNS, as different and comical as they
are, are much closer to the "straight man" than the
somewhat grating, often self-aggrandizing, and
borderline incompetent Pos.  It's not that anything's
wrong with this character, per se-- he could be very
interesting and, indeed, very capable of holding our
attention.  But I think he might need a Watson or a
Boswell to act as a foil.  Though some characters in
the series do fulfill that function to a degree, such
as Hank.
  I dunno.  Again, it's a good series--
moment-to-moment, it's worth any reader's time.  But
for some reason I just find myself enjoying its sister
title a whole lot more.
   As further issues of both series make their way
into my hungry hands, I'll continue to compare and
contrast until, at last, the mystery is solved.


   There are several ways to break the fourth wall. 
Some are comparatively subtle, such as having
characters in a slasher movie talk about things
characters in a slasher movie do before they
themselves do them.  Naming characters after real
people, or closely modeling them after the same-- or
even after other fictional archetypes-- also breaks
the fourth wall, albeit in a way that usually takes
the reader completely out of the story rather than (as
one assumes is the ultimate aim of fourth-wall
breaking) deepening their enjoyment of it.
   Overt breaking of the fourth wall can and sometimes
does enrich a story.  Characters who are painfully
aware of their fictional status can tell us not only
about the clichés and structures of the story they're
in, but also about what it feels like to be used or
marginalized or to not be "real"; characters who
acknowledge their authors or even participate in
discussions with them can tell us some interesting
things about the relationship between an author and
his or her creations.  (See my essay THE PHIPPSIAN
READER for a discussion about this type of fourth wall
breaking in some of the work of Martin Phipps.)
   That kind of fourth wall breaking can and usually
does disrupt one's enjoyment of a story; it takes a
tremendous amount of skill and insight to pull it off
   There is another way to do it, which can both be
narratively disruptive and yet bring the reader closer
to the story-- and this is the breaking of the fourth
wall in the narration of the story.
   Probably the most famous example I can think of is
"Reader, I married him."  This sentence, which begins
the final chapter of Jane Eyre, brings the audience
into the story.  We are no longer merely reading a
book but being confided in.  This direct address of
the reader echoes the traditions of oral storytelling,
and to my mind that brings one closer to the author
and thus his (or, in this case, her) story.
   Oral storytelling depends a great deal on the
cleverness of the storyteller, and thus forms a good
showcase for that cleverness.  There's a feeling that
it's being made up on the spot, and what's more, that
it's being made up just for us.  It summons up a sense
of easy mastery and quick-wittedness.
   Look at this passage from Howard Garis's story
"Uncle Wiggily and the Willow Tree":

"Now in these woods lived, among many other creatures
good and bad, two skillery-scalery alligators who were
not exactly friends of the bunny uncle. But don't let
that worry you, for though the alligators, and other
unpleasant animals, may, once in a while, make trouble
for Uncle Wiggily, I'll never really let them hurt
him. I'll fix that part all right!"

It's the kind of thing that Garis did more than once
in the Uncle Wiggily stories, and I think it's kind of
remarkable, really-- a masterstroke that ensures, even
when you're in your twenties and far too old to have
your grandmother read it to you while you doze off in
an old canoe, that the story will always be told to
you-- even when you're reading it silently.
   I bring all this up because this is the kind of
fourth wall breaking that Mitchell does in some of his
stories.  And while it might not plunge into the
philosophical implications of creators and their
fictions, it does contribute to the feeling that
Mitchell is spinning this tale specifically for each
and every individual reading it, and that we're
commending ourselves to very able hands indeed.

SPORKMAN # 15.5 [Mar 9, 2008], Fishbone

   This issue is a recap of the last fifteen
installments, using actual quotes from those
installments to tell the story (rather than, say,
simply summarizing the events).
   While it's naturally no substitute for reading the
actual stories, as far as I can tell a surprising
amount of the humour, plot information, and
characterization carry over from the originals.  Greg
Fishbone isolates and focuses on some defining moments
for young Mickey Dunne, and thus brings them into
sharper relief.
   It's very readable, and if you're thinking of
starting to read Sporkman, it forms an excellent place
to jump-on.


   Recently, my wife and I have been watching "The
Wire"-- a serious contender for the title of Best
Television Show Ever (Seriously).  It truly is a great
show, and I just got to give mad props to RACC alumnus
Marc Singer for turning me on to it.
   It's a show that pays a lot of attention to
texture, detail, and characterization.  The writing is
top-notch and every single minute _counts_.  There's
not one false moment, and believe me, I've looked.
   It's also a show that could only work on
television.  If it was a movie-- if the same story was
told in, say, two and a half hours instead of
thirteen-- pretty much everything that's great about
it would be lost.  It would be just another police
procedural, instead of an incredible, flowing,
complex, multivariate epic of darkness, light, and all
the impossible decisions that live in-between.
   This realization, in conjunction with reading this
latest issue of SPORKMAN, got me thinking about
abridgement.  This then inspired some thoughts on the
Classics Illustrated line of children's books, which
basically mutilated great works of literature, and
about Reader's Digest, which did much the same though
not quite as drastically.
   And all these things combined lead me to think of
the challenge that follows, which I guess I'll call
"Newsreader's Digest":

   Take a story of your own that you've written for
RACC, and condense it.  Don't rewrite it or summarize.
 Just take the actual text of your story and cut huge
walloping portions of it out.  You can't add any new
text to the story though I will allow the addition of
"said [name]" to identify speakers.
   I'm not going to set any kind of length parameters
for this challenge.  The general idea, though, is take
a really long story and make it as short as possible. 
One could take a huge, sprawling multi-issue arc and
squeeze it into one installment, for example.  I
suppose jettisoning about ninety percent of your text
would be a good number to aim for.
   Of course, there's a little more to it than that. 
Make it as short as possible, sure, but also make it
as coherent as possible.  Ideally, the Newsreader's
Digest version of your story should "work" as its own
kind of story.
   It would be a different kind of story, of course--
perhaps the focus shifts or the theme changes
considerably.  Whatever the case, the challenge is to
make the condensed version a good story in its own
right.  Bonus points if you're able to carry over
things that made the original sparkle.
   One last thing, though: _don't_ take a serious
story and, by the time you're done with it, made it
into some kind of comedy.  That's really the easy way
out, and doesn't really respect the spirit of the
challenge.  Other than that?  Anything goes.
   So, that's my challenge; I've thrown down the

58.5 # 19 [Mar 11, 2008], Martins

   An earlier issue of the current storyline appears,
centered on the discovery of the Evil LNH.  It moved
fairly quickly and had some choice moments-- it was
nice to see my old friend Haiku Gorilla, of course--
choicest among them being the very clever use of
Pulls-Papers-Out-of-Hats Lad's method of discovering
the truth about the "returned" Legionnaires.
   Nice to see Contraption Man a traitor again, also;
this is the kind of continuity I like.  It builds on,
and plays on, one's knowledge of the past, without
being dependent upon it.  One can read this story
without ever knowing about the history of our
Contraption Man, while for those of us who do know a
thing or two about it, it adds a deeper layer of


   Speaking of Contraption Man, you should really
check out LNH TRIPLE PLAY # 5-- one of the best
Contraption Man stories and one of the best
Self-Righteous Preacher stories.  Jeff McCoskey had a
special gift for giving us new slants on old
characters.  Anyone who cares about the LNH should
also check out the classic Valentine's Ball story in

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