#tobyreads: Critiques and Celebrations From Laina Dawes, Mary Ruefle, and David Hine & Shaky Kane

Reviewed in this edition: What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal by Laina DawesMadness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary RuefleThe Bulletproof Coffin by David Hine and Shaky Kane

One of the books discussed this week is an examination of a particular genre, and the ways in which it can be both inclusive and (sadly) exclusive; another is a post-pulp comic featuring zombies, agents of a sinister power, and time travel. And yet they share both a willingness to criticize things they love in order to make them better.

The fact that reading Laina Dawes’s What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal made me want to delve into the faster & louder section of my record collection wasn’t much of a shock; Dawes knows the metal scene well, and her enthusiasm for the genre is hard to resist. With her book, she touches on an uncomfortable fact about the metal scene: that for all of its musical inclusiveness, it can occasionally be a less-than-welcoming place for metal enthusiasts who aren’t white and male. Dawes also touches on broader issues of racism and misogyny, as well as a short detour into the rise of the Afro-punk scene (which left me curious to read more). Dawes makes her love of metal clear throughout, but she’s also intent on making it live up to the promise of its inclusiveness.

Ride a subway car these days and you may well see Mary Ruefle‘s poem “Voyager.” Her Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is, well, a collection of her lectures — which are less musings on poetry specifically as much as they are discussions of aesthetics, writing processes, and the difficulties of transmitting certain thoughts and emotions. (The collection ends with a selection titled “Lectures I Will Never Give.”) I daresay those working in any artistic discipline will find much to ponder here. And Ruefle’s observation about the way we perceive work from living poets and poets who have died is something that will remain in my head for a very long time.

Admittedly, sometimes the work is the critique. That’s very much the case with the comic Bulletproof Coffin, from writer David Hine and artist Shaky Kane. It’s a meta-meta-metafictional work in which the protagonist — a man disposing of waste in abandoned homes — slowly recognizes his alienation  from the world around him. He can’t remember marrying his wife or starting his job; his children seem alien; his dog resembles something that might have emerged from Jim Henson’s nightmares. There are pastiches of EC horror comics, angry zombies dubbed “The Hateful Dead,” and a raygun-wielding superhero known as Coffin Fly. And it’s bizarrely and memorably structured: characters read their own lives as comics; roles and identities are shifted; multiple variations of the same character show up. There’s a critique of the past half-century of comics to be found here; riffs on creator-ownership; and spot-on riffs on letters pages, next-issue promotions, and more. It’s utterly insane, and never less than compelling.

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