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Over a few recent days I’ve been listening to an interview with Jack Kirby, done in L.A. in 1990, posted on YouTube by the Jack Kirby Museum. He’s 72, and he rambles and loses track of the questions, and you get the feeling the show hosts don’t quite know what to do with him. But he’s fun to listen to, on the whole. A theme he seems to like returning to is the idea that storytelling runs in his family. I can’t help thinking that he was probably always the rambly, discursive, storytelling type of conversationalist. Maybe the guy we’re hearing on tape is someone really not far removed from the guy who started out in Superman and Batman knockoffs during the Depression, fifty-odd years earlier.

wait, there’s more.

PBS has a three-part series on the American comic-book superhero running now — from Siegel & Shuster to the recent summer blockbusters. I watched (minus dozing) tonight while doing some bookkeeping. If you get your comics history largely from Wikipedia and YouTube, like me, you’d say it feels sketchy. At times, seems not much more than a long commercial for the Marvel and DC media shops. It may be the work of a Ken Burns alumnus, but it’s some way from doing what Ken Burns does for Americana.

wait, there’s more.

What’s kept the American comic-book superhero stories going since the creation of Superman, anyway? Why doesn’t it die? Why didn’t it already die but good, like the unlikely faddish twist on pulp it surely was in inception, like so many other lifestyle and entertainment fashions of its day did, a long time ago? There are bound to be some good answers to this, proposed by learned & unlearned persons in books and magazine articles. Someday I might find time to look into it.

wait, there’s more.

I said it’s occurred to me that H.B. is an answer to Superman. Well, but aren’t all the comic-book hero figures who come after Superman answers to Superman, one way or another? Heck, Superman’s been cast as answer to himself often enough by now, maybe.

Then again, these answers to Superman come in different kinds, and there might be something to be said for comparing them. So, where does Mignola’s turn at it belong in the whole range of such ‘answers,’ and so on — we can always talk about that. Or rather, somebody can. That’s a project better left to the real comics geeks.

wait, there’s more.

One of the notable curiosities about the ‘Mignolaverse’ is that it kicks off in 1994, seemingly, as a team hero series of the by then thoroughly worked-over X-Men gifted-children type but, without ever taking that convention very seriously, soon abandons it, splitting Hellboy’s story off from the Bureau’s, or its from his, whereafter they’re maintained as essentially separate series. The B.P.R.D. carries on, of course, in something like the original team vein, with the hero angle considerably diminished and a heavy dose of X-Files to round out what it lacks in the way of X-Men substance. And Hellboy, title and character together, is plunged in what ends up being clearly another direction altogether, borrowing apparently from Gaiman and who knows what other long list of sources.

wait, there’s more.

A theory of man must account for the alienation of man. A theory of organisms in environments cannot account for it, for in fact organisms in environments are not alienated.

Judeo-Christianity did of course give an account of alienation, not as a peculiar evil of the twentieth century, but as the enduring symptom of man’s estrangement from God. Any cogent anthropology must address itself to both, to the possibility of the perennial estrangement of man as part of the human condition and to the undeniable fact of the cultural estrangement of Western man in the twentieth century.

wait, there’s more.

Stewardship of words is a high calling, though not one that can be relegated to professionals. We are all called to be responsible hearers, speakers, and doers of the word. Still, telling the truth is something like an extreme sport for the very committed. . . . We learn, gradually, from those who do it well, how to tolerate the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings,” as Eliot put it, and even to delight in it. We calibrate the differences between what we want words to mean and how they may be heard; we pick them up from the dusty corners where most of the good ones have been consigned to disuse and re-introduce them, hoping to ambush the listener who is contented with cliché. Like Adrienne Rich, who called herself “a woman sworn to lucidity,” we pledge our energies to the work of smithing words for purposes they have never before had to serve. We temper our urgencies (if we are inclined to prophesy) with play because no responsible word work can happen with out it . . . .

 
From Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.

On their way East they stopped two days in Washington, strolling about with some hostility in its atmosphere of harsh repellent light, of distance without freedom, of pomp without splendor — it seemed a pasty-pale and self-conscious city. The second day they made an ill-advised trip to General Lee’s old home at Arlington.
    The bus which bore them was crowded with hot, unprosperous people, and Anthony, intimate to Gloria, felt a storm brewing. It broke at the Zoo, where the party stopped for ten minutes. The Zoo, it seemed, smelt of monkeys. Anthony laughed; Gloria called down the curse of Heaven upon monkeys, including in her malevolence all the passengers of the bus and their perspiring offspring who had hied themselves monkey-ward.
    Eventually the bus moved on to Arlington. There it met other busses and immediately a swarm of women and children were leaving a trail of peanut-shells through the halls of General Lee and crowding at length into the room where he was married. On the wall of this room a pleasing sign announced in large red letters “Ladies’ Toilet.” At this final blow Gloria broke down.
    “I think it’s perfectly terrible!” she said furiously, “the idea of letting these people come here! And of encouraging them by making these houses show-places.”
    “Well,” objected Anthony, “if they weren’t kept up they’d go to pieces.”
    “What if they did!” she exclaimed as they sought the wide pillared porch. “Do you think they’ve left a breath of 1860 here? This has become a thing of 1914.”
    “Don’t you want to preserve old things?”
    “But you can’t, Anthony. Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for a while in the few hearts like mine that react to them. That graveyard at Tarrytown, for instance. The asses who give money to preserve things have spoiled that too. Sleepy Hollow’s gone; Washington Irving’s dead and his books are rotting in our estimation year by year — then let the graveyard rot too, as it should, as all things should. Trying to preserve a century by keeping its relics up to date is like keeping a dying man alive by stimulants.”
    “So you think that just as a time goes to pieces its houses ought to go too?”
    “Of course! Would you value your Keats letter if the signature was traced over to make it last longer? It’s just because I love the past that I want this house to look back on its glamourous moment of youth and beauty, and I want its stairs to creak as if to the footsteps of women with hoop skirts and men in boots and spurs. But they’ve made it into a blondined, rouged-up old woman of sixty. It hasn’t any right to look so prosperous. It might care enough for Lee to drop a brick now and then. How many of these — these animals” — she waved her hand around — “get anything from this, for all the histories and guide-books and restorations in existence? How many of them who think that, at best, appreciation is talking in undertones and walking on tiptoes would even come here if it was any trouble? I want it to smell of magnolias instead of peanuts and I want my shoes to crunch on the same gravel that Lee’s boots crunched on. There’s no beauty without poignancy and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books, houses — bound for dust — mortal —”
    A small boy appeared beside them and, swinging a handful of banana-peels, flung them valiantly in the direction of the Potomac.

 
From The Beautiful and the Damned, by Fitzgerald, one of the things (& the only fiction) I’m picking at lately. (I have something like a literary life these days mostly thanks to the iPhone — & trips to the bathroom.)

On this collateral question I wish the reader’s mind to be fixed throughout all our subsequent inquiries. It will give double interest to every detail: nor will the interest be profitless; for the evidence which I shall be able to deduce from the arts of Venice will be both frequent and irrefragable, that the decline of her political prosperity was exactly coincident with that of domestic and individual religion.
    I say domestic and individual; for — and this is the second point which I wish the reader to keep in mind — the most curious phenomenon in all Venetian history is the vitality of religion in private life, and its deadness in public policy. Amidst the enthusiasm, chivalry, or fanaticism of the other states of Europe, Venice stands, from first to last, like a masked statue; her coldness impenetrable, her exertion only aroused by the touch of a secret spring. That spring was her commercial interest, — this the one motive of all her important political acts, or enduring national animosities. She could forgive insults to her honor, but never rivalship in her commerce; she calculated the glory of her conquests by their value, and estimated their justice by their facility.
    The fame of success remains, when the motives of attempt are forgotten; and the casual reader of her history may perhaps be surprised to be reminded, that the expedition which was commanded by the noblest of her princes, and whose results added most to her military glory, was one in which while all Europe around her was wasted by the fire of its devotion, she first calculated the highest price she could exact from its piety for the armament she furnished, and then, for the advancement of her own private interests, at once broke her faith and betrayed her religion.

And yet, in the midst of this national criminality, we shall be struck again and again by the evidences of the most noble individual feeling. . . . The habit of assigning to religion a direct influence over all his own actions, and all the affairs of his own daily life, is remarkable in every great Venetian during the times of the prosperity of the state; nor are instances wanting in which the private feeling of the citizens reaches the sphere of their policy, and even becomes the guide of its course where the scales of expediency are doubtfully balanced. I sincerely trust that the inquirer would be disappointed who should endeavor to trace any more immediate reasons for their adoption of the cause of [Pope] Alexander III against [Frederick] Barbarossa, than the piety which was excited by the character of their suppliant, and the noble pride which was provoked by the insolence of the emperor.
    But the heart of Venice is shown only in her hastiest councils; her worldly spirit recovers the ascendency whenever she has time to calculate the probabilities of advantage, or when they are sufficiently distinct to need no calculation; and the entire subjection of private piety to national policy is not only remarkable throughout the almost endless series of treacheries and tyrannies by which her empire was enlarged and maintained, but symbolised by a very singular circumstance in the building of the city itself. I am aware of no other city of Europe in which its cathedral was not the principal feature. But the principal church in Venice was the chapel attached to the palace of her prince, and called the “Chiesa Ducale.” The patriarchal church [i.e., cathedral or bishop’s seat], inconsiderable in size and mean in decoration, stands on the outermost islet of the Venetian group, and its name, as well as its site, is probably unknown to the greater number of travellers passing hastily through the city.
    Nor is it less worthy of remark, that the two most important temples of Venice, next to the ducal chapel, owe their size and magnificence, not to national effort, but to the energy of the Franciscan and Dominican monks, supported by the vast organization of those great societies on the mainland of Italy, and countenanced by the most pious, and perhaps also, in his generation, the most wise, of all the princes of Venice, who now rests beneath the roof of one of those very temples, and whose life is not satirized by the images of the Virtues which a Tuscan sculptor has placed around his tomb.

There are, therefore, two strange and solemn lights in which we have to regard almost every scene in the fitful history of the Rivo Alto. We find, on the one hand, a deep and constant tone of individual religion characterising the lives of the citizens of Venice in her greatness; we find this spirit influencing them in all the familiar and immediate concerns of life, giving a peculiar dignity to the conduct even of their commercial transactions, and confessed by them with a simplicity of faith that may well put to shame the hesitation with which a man of the world at present admits (even if it be so in reality) that religious feeling has any influence over the minor branches of his conduct. And we find as the natural consequence of all this, a healthy serenity of mind and energy of will expressed in all their actions, and a habit of heroism which never fails them, even when the immediate motive of action ceases to be praiseworthy. With the fulness of this spirit the prosperity of the state is exactly correspondent, and with its failure her decline, and that with a closeness and precision which it will be one of the collateral objects of the following essay to demonstrate from such accidental evidence as the field of its inquiry presents.
    And, thus far, all is natural and simple. But the stopping short of this religious faith when it appears likely to influence national action, correspondent as it is, and that most strikingly, with several characteristics of the temper of our present English legislature, is a subject, morally and politically, of the most curious interest and complicated difficulty; one, however, which the range of my present inquiry will not permit me to approach, and for the treatment of which I must be content to furnish materials in the light I may be able to throw upon the private tendencies of the Venetian character.

 
From the first chapter of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.

Pente has spent his entire life in a one-block radius. In a world where many of us are transient, often crisscrossing the country to follow work or loved ones with our childhood homes a distant memory, this is awe-inspiring.
    He was born half a block away on Stiles Street, and grew up next door at 220 South High Street. After he married in 1936, he and his late wife Margaret moved to an apartment on Fawn Street (now an annex to Sabatino’s Restaurant). Purchased by his grandparents around 1904, the house at 222 South High Street was owned by his father, who passed it on to his son after Pente’s uncle died in 1941.
    At the time, it wasn’t much of a home. It was an instrument repair shop and a bachelor pad. But with the help of a few friends, Pente renovated the property and rebuilt it from the inside out.

 
From a forgiveably sentimental Baltimore Magazine profile published last year. I only learned of Pente today, in a notice about his death from the Baltimore Heritage Society. The Society — as the article tells — gave Pente the first instance of a new award, last year, for house love — for maintaining one home in the same family for more than a century.

* * * 

Little Italy,’ Pente’s neighborhood, is just east of the Inner Harbor, south-Baltimore focal site of the tourist-oriented downtown redevelopment begun when I was a child, growing up just a few miles further south in the working-class, commercial-strip suburb of Glen Burnie. Glen Burnie wasn’t a particularly nice place, I knew, but I also knew that where we lived wasn’t the city, that legend of tall fortress-office-buildings, too many black people, poverty, bad (read: not our) manners, and crime. The city, in truth so close (not only geographically), seemed in my ‘world-view’ altogether a world apart from mine. Old neighborhoods — much of what’s held to be charming about ‘Charm City’ — like Little Italy, in which families had taken pride and some, at least, still wanted to live out their lives, didn’t exist at all for me.

Those neighborhoods with their remnants of ethnic cultures were hardly a growth trend for Baltimore in the ’70s, of course. And they aren’t today, not in the historical way. ‘Mr. John’ Pente has had his bit of local media celebrity late in life not so much as the good man he was, known & appreciated by everyone within a few blocks of his home, but as a link to a once-common form of neighbor-life that may have many smart proponents today but that isn’t coming back (as surely, anyway, as the embedded idea of a parish being the heart of a neighborhood isn’t coming back). At least more of us seem to want to hold on to the memory of it, though, than did when I was a kid. Which is enough. The memory will serve.

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