Wednesday, July 8, 2009

David Berman's Portable February: Funny, or Just a Joke?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 8, 2009 at 11:55 AM

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You guys remember The Portable February, right? It's that collection of cartoons David Berman put together and released last month--the first thing he's done post-Jews. I wrote a little piece on it for the paper the week it came out, and it went something like this:

The illustrations themselves--which range from crudely rendered one-line ink drawings to thoughtfully constructed charts and sight gags--are mostly entertaining. And while some are best described as goofy and others simply impenetrably abstract, a sizable portion of the work retains an approach that will be familiar to fans of Berman: cerebral and poignant, but wistfully funny.

Generally forgiving, right? Since Drag City sent us a copy, The Portable February has been sitting on my coffee table at home. Over the past few weeks, people drifting in and out of the living room have casually picked it up, leafed through its pages for anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, and without fail, they offer one of two responses: They either have a light chortle at a handful of the illustrations and stare in puzzlement at a few more, or they become genuinely upset and disappointed and make some sort of comment about how they wish they were a cult icon so they could cash in on a bunch of half-ass doodles.

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Well for all the light blurbs, 30-second perusals and dismissive shrugs this thing may have garnered, it's good to know that someone out there has decided to give it a truly analytical inspection. Ed Park over at The Poetry Foundation wrote a fairly in-depth examination of The Portable February, and whether or not you think Berman's illustrations are intentionally obfuscated and inaccessible, Park's take on the book is informed and intelligent. Check it:

A cynic might see The Portable February as a quickie offering scraped from the bottom of the barrel, especially as it's being released by Berman's record label, Drag City, in the wake of his recent surprise announcement dissolving the Silver Jews. If so, it's a pretty impressive barrel. Like the SJ songbook and Actual Air, The Portable February is easy to like and hard to shake. These cartoons are more spontaneous than Berman's musical and poetic output--stick figures and wobbly lines dominate, and I counted more than one corrective scribble simply left to stand. (In "The Overthrow of Fine Dining," most of the captions have been blotted to illegibility, as if subjected to a censor.) But the humor and staying power of the best of these drawings (or, as I just mistyped, "rawings") has much to do with their complicated framing and conceptual playfulness.

I can't say I'd given the book that much thought, but maybe I'll leaf through it one more time when I go home. Then again, maybe I just want the dude to make another album and save the illustrations for the liner notes.

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