Saturday, March 26, 2011

Treasure Trove

While searching for the Adventures of Jon Fury in Japan—a collection of a previously unreprinted series by “artist’s artist” Alex Toth that was not carried by my local comic-book store—I discovered it was available online at Stuart Ng Books. Fortunately, the company’s storefront is not too far from me in the Southbay area of L.A., so I was glad to save the shipping and take a trip down to the store to pick up the issue. This also was a perfect excuse for me to visit the store for the first time.

Cover to Jon Fury in Japan
I always enjoy visiting bookstores that specialize in artbooks—I’m fortunate that there are a few local to me—so it was a real treat to visit one that specializes in artbooks, graphic albums, and cartooning. (Ng is a regular exhibitor at the San Diego Comic-Con, where he generally emphasizes hard-to-find and upscale artbooks.)

Though no longer really the norm, comic-book stores used to have the reputation of looking like a boys’ clubhouse, with comics and magazines stored haphazardly in boxes or stacked to the ceiling. (Believe me, I’m not dissing this—the first comic-book stores I frequented back in the 1970s definitely fit this profile, and I have nothing but fond memories of my weekly pilgrimmages to these stores).

In contrast, by any standard, Ng’s store is extraordinarily clean, professional, and well-maintained. Located in a newish, non-descript business park in Torrance, a Southbay community in Los Angeles, the bookstore is airy and inviting, conducive to browsing.

In addition to artbooks that feature the work of a wide range of cartoonists and illustrators, there are also plenty of European graphic albums (many imported, meaning they’re not translated), sketchbooks by fan-favorite artists, and classic comics collections. Many of the items are rare and hard to find—indeed, I was interested to discover items I personally already own for sale at prices that reflect their rarity and desirability. Along the same lines, I spotted a book available there that was out of print at Amazon.

Anyone with an interest in cartooning, comics, commercial art, and illustration definitely owe it to themselves to visit the store if they are local or the website for hard to find items and collections.  

Visit the Stuart Ng Books website for address information and directions.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Nation's Capitol

As a history buff, one of my favorite places to visit is Washington, DC. My wife and I were last there in 1998 and we had an opportunity to return earlier this month with our two young children. (Before that, I visited DC as a kid with my family back in the ‘70s.)

Since it’s easy to tire yourself out trying to fit everything in when you only have a few days, we chose instead to spend good, quality time at a few key places. It helped, of course, that we’d been to DC before, so we had a sense of what was realistic for a visit of a few days. For example, we decided the kids probably wouldn’t find seeing graves and monuments at Arlington Cemetery particularly meaningful or interesting. (Back in ‘98, my wife and I also visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Virginia and the Manassas Civil War battlefield.)

Partly for this reason, we spent a surprisingly brief time at the National Mall. I actually was in DC on business for a conference the first few days. At the end of the first day, having been indoors all day at the hotel for meetings, when I met the family for dinner that evening, I suggested taking a quick cab ride to the Lincoln Memorial at the Mall. My daughter was thrilled to see where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered at his address in front of the monument; from there, we walked to the Korean War Veterans’ Monument, and the new World War II Veterans’ Monument. As it began to get dark, we hopped back in a taxi for our hotel near Dupont Circle for dinner. In retrospect, it’s good we made this quick visit, because we never found time to return and explore the other monuments at the Mall! Though I would like to have seen the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam War Monument, and the FDR Memorial, they’ll have to wait for another trip.

The first full day we spent together, we visited the Museum of Natural History and the American History Museum, both part of the Smithsonian. Actually, to be more precise, my wife and children visited the natural history museum while I visited the American History Museum. The kids had gone inside the natural history museum only briefly the day before (they ended up ice skating outdoors instead) and wanted to go back and spend more time there. As for myself, as fine as I’m sure the museum is, I wasn’t interested inseeing displays of things like dinosaur bones which I could see anywhere else, so I went instead to the American History Museum where my wife and kids caught up with me later in the afternoon. (They did get to see the Hope Diamond, which I saw back in '98.)

In any case, I wasn’t disappointed! The exhibits there included “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” the First Ladies exhibit (a lot of gowns!), the American Presidency, Julia Child’s Kitchen, and an exhibition about Thomas Alva Edison and science in America. The Lincoln exhibit and another called the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” (stretching from the French-Indian War to the War in Iraq) were especially memorable. The permanent display of the Star Spangled Banner flag, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became the national anthem, was also impressive, partly because I was shocked by the flag's huge size!

The next day, we drove a rental car to George Washington’s residence and plantation at Mount Vernon, which is about 12 miles outside Washington, DC. My wife and I visited Mount Vernon in 1998, but we were impressed by the changes since then. A huge state-of-the-art museum was completed there in 2006, but it’s mostly underground to preserve the original grounds.

Mount Vernon is one of my favorite historical places. It has a spectacular view that overlooks the Potomac—when you stand on the back porch of the main house atop Mount Vernon which looks out over the river (especially on a stifling summer day, as we did back in ‘98), you get a real sense of what it must have felt and looked like to George and Martha Washington back in the 18th century. It helps that the community has kept the surrounding area in its original state, including the woods across the river. I thought we would visit Mount Vernon for just a few hours then go off to see something else later in the day, but it was so interesting and immersive, we ended up staying there the whole day, arriving at 9:30 a.m. and leaving near closing time at 4:45 p.m.! Mount Vernon has also made an effort to deal with slavery honestly and directly. Slave quarters have been preserved and a monument to the slave population at Mount Vernon (and a discovered unmarked cemetery) has recently been erected. (One changed we noticed since 1998 is a reference in plaques and in the brochures to the slave population as “enslaved people” rather than “slaves.”) It was fascinating learning about Washington’s life as a farmer, which he considered himself even before a soldier or statesman.

On Tuesday, we visited the White House and the U.S. Capitol, arranged in advance through our local Congressman. Because visitors are not allowed to take cameras or backpacks into the White House, we kept the rental car overnight so that we could park in the city and ditch our belongings in the car during the tour. (We returned the car after the tour and used the Metro after that.)

The White House tour was primarily restricted to the East Wing, but it was still a thrill to be inside. We learned one room was about to be closed for an event that Michelle Obama was hosting. A uniformed Secret Service agent in one of the rooms even graciously let our children behind the security rope so that they could get a close up view of a painting of George Washington while he pointed out interesting features of it. This is the same painting that has been in the White House since 1800 and was saved by Dolly Madison when the British burned down the structure during the War of 1812. At the same time we were on our tour, we noticed a Secret Service man giving a personal tour to two Russian dignitaries, who were accompanied by an interpreter to translate what the Secret Service man was describing.

After we returned the car, we took the Metro back to the U.S. Capitol for a tour that was given to us by the Congressional staffer who set up the tour. Since we met her at the Congressman's Office in one of the outlying executive office buildings for Congress, we used the underground tunnels that connect the Congressional buildings to the Capitol It was nice to have a personal tour by a Congressional aide; she also got us tickets to sit in the House and Senate chambers. Although not much was going on, we saw Minnesota Senator Al Franken presiding over the Senate chamber. The kids were really quiet and respectful, even though my 5-year-old son said afterwards, “It was boring!” But he was quiet and well behaved as we sat in the Senate gallery. Because we didn’t get to the Capitol until the afternoon, we didn’t get to see the main museum there until just before it closed. I would have liked at least one more day in Washington to see it.

Anyway, it was a terrific family trip!

Below are the links to the photo galleries from this trip:

REVIEWS: Unbroken

Like many people, when I go on long trips I take a book for the plane ride and other downtime. For a recent trip to Washington, DC, from my home in L.A., I took along Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by author/historian Laura Hillenbrand, who gained prominence for her book, Seabiscuit (made into a film in 2010). I’ll be posting soon about my trip to the nation’s capitol, but wanted to also mention this remarkable book—it was such a page-turner, I finished it well before the trip was over, meaning I had nothing to read during the five hour return flight home!

I first learned about the book through Vanity Fair, which ran an extensive excerpt late last year. The excerpt covered the extraordinary story of the 47 days a downed airman named Louise Zamperini spent adrift in the Pacific Ocean (along with two companions, one of whom died before the end of the ordeal) after their malfunctioning bomber went down while on a search mission. (The week before, they’d already been in a hellish bombing mission that nearly took their lives and killed and wounded half the crew.) It was a mesmerizing tale, so I was delighted to get the book for Christmas and to bring it along for my trip.

As the title suggests, Unbroken is the story of Zamperini's World War II experiences. In many ways, Zamperini led a charmed life—he was a wild and often angry child from a poor immigrant family in Torrance, California, whose behaviors seemed to suggest he would come to no good end until he found a way to focus his energy as a track star. Indeed, his high school record for the mile held for nearly 20 years, and he crossed the Atlantic as part of the 1936 U.S. Olympics team, which included Jesse Owens (Owens tried to keep an eye on Zamperini who, in return, played a small practical joke on the track and field star). Though he knew he had little chance of beating the world class Finnish runners who dominated his event, he acquitted himself well, surprisingly making the best showing among the Americans in his event. He even was introduced to Adolf Hitler at the games, who had noticed and remarked on his strong performance. (Zamperini’s hell-raising past never entirely left him—while in Berlin, he stole a Nazi flag flying over the German Chancellory as a souvenir, successfully talking himself out of getting shot and arrested by the authorities. They let him keep the flag.)

Although Zamperini set his sights on medaling at the 1940 Olympics which were scheduled for Tokyo, the outbreak of World War II cancelled the games and led to his enlistment in the Army Air Force, where he served in the Pacific. As brutal as his weeks at sea was (he and his companions drifted 2,000 miles into enemy territory, battling sharks and, at one point, a Japanese bomber that strafed them at sea), that experience turned out to be nothing compared to his next two years plus in captivity as a prisoner of war in Japan to where he was eventually expatriated. Partly because of his minor celebrity as a track star, Zamperini was singled out for especially vicious punishment by a guard nickamed by prisoners as the Bird, who was perverse and brutal even by the standards of Japanese POW camps, which already were notorious for their mistreatment of POWs. (Immediately following the cessation of the war, the Bird’s reputation earned him a spot as one of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan alongside prime minister and army minister Hideki Tojo.)

The book describes in vivid detail Zamperini’s experiences at the mercy of his Japanese captors, as well as the appalling conditions under which he and his fellow prisoners survived. The story tracks to a lesser extent the experiences of other prisoners, including Zamperini’s friend and lead bomber pilot who was shot down with him, Russell Phillips. (Phillips ended up at at a slave labor camp, also in Japan.)

In addition to serving as another example of the courage and sacrifice of what has been deservedly called “the greatest generation,” the book underscores the incredible amount of adversity and hardship the human body is capable of enduring, as long as the spirit and mind stay intact (sometimes even beyond). While it would be inaccurate to say that Zamperini and his fellow prisoners never gave up hope, the will to live and survive at any cost was nevertheless an essential part of their character.

The last part of the book covers Zamperini’s last years, particularly right after the war. As one can imagine, after years of privation and abuse, adjustment to “normal” life did not come easily. Even in captivity, he and the other prisoners recognized that their captors’ goal was to completely dehumanize them and take away their dignity, which the prisoners fought—often surreptiously—to maintain as much as possible, since it was all they had left to them as men.

On top of the post-traumatic stress he no doubt suffered which manifested itself through blackouts, flashbacks and nightmares, Zamperini sunk into serious self-destructive behavior that included drinking heavily and very nearly sabotaging what otherwise seemed like a loving relationship with a new young wife and, soon, a new baby. After some time, his belief that returning to Japan and murdering those responsible for his suffering during the war became his only hope for recovery.

Eventually, Zamperini found peace and even achieved closure with many of his former captors, through a spiritual awakening that harkened back to brief visions he experienced during his incredible ordeal at sea and in captivity. After some resistance, his awakening began with a revival meeting in Los Angeles led by a very young and emerging Rev. Billy Graham.

I am not particularly pious and, frankly, I’m usually suspicious of those who wear their faith on their sleeve. But given his incredible experiences, one cannot doubt that Zamperini’s path to discovering his faith was genuinely achieved. Indeed, his story in some way affirms the power of faith and belief. Once he embraced God, he turned his life around and the nightmares and other symptoms immediately stopped. He devoted his life to good work, God, and inspiring others, particularly troubled youth. He met with his former guards in Japan to offer his understanding and in 1998, at the age of 81, he carried the Olympic torch on a leg of the run in Japan for the Winter Olympics.