Featured Book Reviews Razorcake 114: Dog Days of Snakepit, Come Again, Girl in the World, Teen Movie Hell, What about Tomorrow?

Dog Days of Snakepit illo by Becky R Minjarez

Dog Days of Snakepit
By Ben Snakepit, 285 pgs.

This week has been all about cat drama. My wife and I took Spippy and Tilly up to New Hampshire with us for Thanksgiving. Tilly shit her cat carrier (twice!) and Spip lashed out at anything that moved. When we got home, it was like the two cats had never met before, even though they’ve been living together for more than two months: Spip keeps attacking Tilly, and even us. So we have to start them from scratch. One cat gets the run of the house, and the other one has to hang out in the basement. There’s yowling, of course. Tons of it.  And why not? Both cats have had their worlds cut in half.

By the time this review hits print, hopefully all of the cat drama will be sorted out. But we’re in it now, and it feels endless, especially when there’s regular life stuff going on—birthdays, holidays, end of the semester assignments, prepping final exams, and trying to get students through accelerated classes. You know how it is.

Razorcake readers likely know Ben Snakepit: he’s been contributing a column here for years, and his bands and comics have been reviewed a bunch. In Dog Days of Snakepit, like his previous anthologies, Ben draws a three-panel strip for every day, this time for the years 2016-2018. There’s the same day-to-day stuff that Chekov (not the Star Trek guy) famously said wears us out: traffic, errands, work hassles, bullshit. After some time passes, the dust settles, but while happening it’s a drag. There are long, slow stretches where everything is good: Ben and his wife Karen go to thrift stores, cook dinners, watch TV, go out to eat. Then there are punctuation marks: friends in bands come through town and Ben gets hammered, holidays require trips, Ben plays music—and there’s dog issues, on a scale that diminishes hisses and a turd in a cat carrier to nothing.

What makes these comics so compelling—so hypnotic—is the ability for readers to plug situations from their own lives into Ben’s framework, which make his own situations relatable and sympathetic. It’s easy to see patterns emerge in Ben’s life the same way it’s easy to look back at an old journal and see threads in one’s own life. And new situations create new resonance. Since my wife and I bought a house, it’s easier to identify with the fatigue of coming home from work to sand a ceiling, say. 

Ben’s daily journal comic anthologies reliably appear every three years. I look forward to the day when the new one arrives: I try to set aside a few hours and read the whole thing, straight through, even if the cats are hissing and there’s a huge pile of papers to be graded on my desk. Once you start reading Ben’s stuff – whether you start at the beginning of his run in 2001, or jump into the present, or what passes for it—you’ll feel the same way. –Michael T. Fournier (Silver Sprocket, silversprocket.net)


Dog Days of Snake Pit
By Ben Snakepit, 285 pgs.

Ben Snakepit has drawn a three-panel comic strip representing every day of his life since 2001. Most of the strips are a narrative without any word bubbles except when Ben noticed he drew something poorly and one of the characters points out the mistake.

You would think after 6,205 plus strips this would get pretty boring. But there’s just something about Snake Pit comics that keep you entranced and making these books hard to put down.

Dog Days of Snake Pit chronicles 2016-2018 of Ben’s daily life. Early readers of Snake Pit will notice that Ben no longer works at a record store and goes to shows every night. Ben now lives outside of Austin, Texas with his wife Karen. He works at a print shop and only plays in one band. Does the older version of Ben make Snake Pit less exciting? Well, yeah. Gone are the days where Ben would go to a show, get super trashed and be witness to his housemates having naked parties. But does it make Snake Pit boring? Absolutely not.

The wild-times action is not what makes Snake Pit great. Since it’s more of a narrative, we get to read Ben’s constant internal struggles. Ben is now in his mid-forties and still trying to figure out what he wants out of life. We often see those thoughts play out almost in real-time as the daily strips go on. For example, Ben decides he needs to go back to school so he can get a better job. Over the weeks, Ben attempts math problems and realizes it’s not worth the added stress and potential failure.

And of course, Snake Pit is still really funny. You will find yourself laughing out loud at the dumbest visual jokes, usually at the previously mentioned panels where Ben draws something wrong.

In the book, Ben goes through several job positions, buys a couple of pairs of pants, goes on numerous road trips, and, sadly, has a dog pass away. As dull as some of that may sound, this collection is definitely a page-turner and will have you patiently waiting another three years for the next volume to come out. Put these out yearly again, damn it! –Rick V. (Silver Sprocket, silversprocket.com)


Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America
By Box Brown, 244 pgs.

We can mostly agree that anybody pulling chain over marijuana possession is complete garbage. Even us who don’t partake in the ganja can back that sentiment. Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America is a graphic novel that focuses on the impact of marijuana in the first half of the nineteenth century.

For those who are unhip, Box Brown is an illustrator/cartoonist from Philadelphia, Pa. His most notable works are historical biographies about Andre the Giant, Andy Kaufman’s wrestling career, and Tetris. This time around, Brown takes on what led marijuana to be hated by the government and celebrated by the people.

We go from the earliest known use of marijuana in India where it was mixed in with yogurt and fruit and made into a drink. Then onto the 1930s where Harry J. Anslinger, the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, fought to make weed illegal. Anslinger tried as many scare tactics as he could to convince the higher-ups that marijuana was extremely dangerous and lethal. Most of his scare tactics poked racists’ nerves in order to rile them up. Anslinger fabricated incidents that involved minorities kidnapping white people and forcing them to use the weedpot, usually turning them into dope fiends and serial killers. Brown illustrates these beautifully.

Box Brown’s style of drawing simple characters with very straight and neat backgrounds is very appealing. He has a very unique style and you could spot a Box Brown illustration with a glance from ten to fifteen miles away. In this book, Box does little things like let a character’s ear extend outside of a panel line. And that for some reason brings me great joy. It’s an easy read that flows great and will turn the suburban-ist of moms into an organizer of a cannabis reform group. Who am I kidding? Most suburban moms get high every day. –Rick V. (First Second, firstsecondbooks.com)


Come Again
By Nate Powell, 272 pgs.

It’s 1979 and Haluska lives in a back-to-the-land community in the hills of Arkansas with her child. She doesn’t mind it, but she doesn’t appear to love it either. The only escape she has is an affair with her friend Adrian, a man in a monogamous relationship with Haluska’s other friend Whitney. The only place they can feel alone to get their thing on is in a cave with a tiny hobbit door that Haluska uncovered years before.

Things get weird when Adrian’s son Shane uncovers the cave and disappears. It gets weirder when the hobbit door disappears and Haluska seems to be the only person on the commune who remembers who Shane even is.

As usual, the graphic novel is beautifully illustrated by Nate Powell’s signature brush style. This book is very dark and I mean that very literally. Lots of solid black on many of the pages, especially within the caves. It is pretty effective. You are engulfed in darkness. The way Nate does word balloons is very unique too. You’ll never see a more artistically done two-word sentence.

I felt that Nate Powell thrives on collaborative works where he illustrates other authors’ stories, like the March series with John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. But Come Again is a solo book by Nate and his best work yet. It’s a slow burn with the last fifty pages keeping your eyes glued to it with your butt glued to the edge of your couch. Rick V. (Top Shelf Comix, topshelfcomix.com)


Girl in the World
By Caroline Cash, 64 pgs.

An insanely beautifully illustrated comic revolving around several young twenty-somethings’ night in a city landscape. A couple are at a “Creatively Named Facebook Party,” some are making their post-work commute home, one is out spray painting that “S” (you know the one) on buildings, while others are just chilling in a bedroom passing a bong around.

Without sounding too much like an old pee-paw, Girl in the World perfectly encapsulates what youth culture is like in 2019. The kids eat fast food, are ’90s and Garfield obsessed, and have an extremely low tolerance for creeper dudes.

Cash’s style is almost graffiti-like but with colored pencils and markers. You’ll have a rough time wrapping your head around trying to figure out what tools they used to illustrate this book. It truly is a masterpiece of style, humor, and further down the road, a window into a specific era. Think of it like Love and Rockets minus the butt obsession. –Rick V. (Silver Sprocket, silversprocket.com)


My Best Friend the Monster
By Dillon Hallen, 24 pgs.

This is absolutely delightful. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the read-along record and books that came out in the early ’80s. You could listen to a sound effects-laden tale of Gremlins or Star Wars or something while reading along in the illustrated picture book. My Best Friend the Monster takes that idea and puts a punk rock spin on it. This is the story of a young outcast who befriends a frankenpunk that was created from old B-movies. It’s a pretty sweet tale, filled with fun references that the horror nerds will catch. The record is punctuated by a theme song and a bonus jam by the author’s band, T.V. Tombs. If you can’t have a good time with this you gotta sort your life out. –Emma Alice Johnson (Fizz Books)


Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance
Edited by Bethany C. Morrow, 272 pgs.

The Scholastic publishing and distribution company still exists, and an elementary teacher not long ago told me that kids get still get as excited when the company’s catalog arrives in the classroom as she and I did decades ago. And I recently read there are Scholastic books fairs now.

But whereas when I was ordering the Welcome Back, Kotter tie-in novel 10-4, Sweathogs! (in which Mr. Kotter’s students get a CB radio for the classroom), today’s kids can read Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance, a Scholastic-imprint collection of short fiction, poetry, and graphic art, including Ray Stoeve’s story in which a genderless student joins the occupation of the principal’s office to demand a genderless restroom. (The Sweathogs weren’t big on direct action, though they did smart off a lot.)

You know your mind’s constant hum of composing refusals to take shit from anyone (including rewrites of your failures to do so)? Editor Bethany C. Morrow has tapped into YA readers’ collective hum and connected it to the energy of aspirational narrative. A common theme throughout the collection is, You don’t have to put up with assholes.I’m not sure that ever occurred to me before graduating high school. Had I but known…. And a subtheme is, A friend who doesn’t know any better isn’t necessarily an asshole.

If you’re an adult, am I making this book sound appealing to you? The Harry Potter novels are filled with lessons (or so the movies suggest), and adults love those. Or if you don’t, a YA reader who’s actually a YA would be glad to get this as a gift. It has profanity, I should mention, though I don’t know whether that’s an issue anymore. (The Sweathogs never worked blue.)

It was Morrow’s editorship that got me to read Take the Mic—check out her 2018 speculative novel Mem—and she has a story in the book with a moment that made me sit up straight in my chair, then lean forward and look closer at the page—Did I read that right? Then, after rereading it, Yes… yes I did. It was very much like learning one of the secrets at the heart of Toni Morrison’s novel Tar BabyIsn’t this monstrous behavior a little over the top? Then, after pondering it, No… no, I guess it isn’t…. –Jim Woster (Arthur A. Levine Books, arthuralevinebooks.com)


Teen Movie Hell: A Crucible of Coming of Age Movies from Animal House to Zapped!

By Mike “McBeardo” McPadden, 351 pgs.

Back in the nineties, when I didn’t sneak out and run around breaking stuff, I would often hole up and watch USA Up All Night, a late night B movie show hosted alternately by a younger, but still not quite young, Gilbert Godfrey who’d be replaced the next week by the ditzy, bubbly Rhonda Sheer with her over-sprayed blonde hair and ample bosom. Aside from the occasional slasher movie, USA Up All Night would play teen sex comedies, a genre of exploitation film based entirely off teenage boys’ desire to gawk at boobs in a pre-internet world. The genre started in the drive-in circuit and exploded on the arrival of VHS. Non-existent plots revolved around some snooty fat cat developer trying to shut down the beach or summer camp while dimwit bros struggled to keep the party going.

Problematic as this genre was—and its sister genre, the tame, star-crossed romances of John Hughes (also covered in this guide)—it was a huge part of my cultural DNA. I wanted to check the book out and I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer amount of movies they review is vast. The tone is funny and charming, but at the same time insightful. For instance, Beardo’s hot take on the class warfare in these movies. He sides with the “slobs” over the “snobs,” taking shots not just at the ubiquitous rich kids from the competing fraternity or camp, but also at the snide, condescending Ferris Bueller and the bottomless financial privilege he throws around to keep him out of trouble. You can expect everything in here to be written with humor and aplomb, in spite of the puerile and scatological nature of the films it covers.

My love of this genre, however, does not come without some chagrin. I’m a lot older than I was when I sat up late watching, edited nudie vehicles on cable TV. I know how offensive, sexist, and problematic these movies are. Fortunately, so does the author. Beardo addresses this by getting a lot of women to write essays and reviews in here. Some of the writers are old school punks or zine makers, like Lisa Crystal Carver. Not only does this allow for a more ethical delving into the genre’s patriarchal pathology, it also makes for a much more interesting read. This book deserves its place on the shelf next to Michael J. Wheldon’s, The Psychotronic Video Guide and in the home of any exploitation film fan. –Craven Rock (Bazillion Points, bazillionpoints.com)


What about Tomorrow? An Oral History of Russian Punk from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot
By Alexander Herbert, 288 pgs.

I tend to compare any “oral history of punk rock” to Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s classic documentation of L.A. punk We Got the Neutron Bomb. However, author Alexander Herbert strikes an entirely different out-of-tune chord in What About Tomorrow? As Surgey Guryev, singer of Moscow band Chistia Lobov, explains: “In the world of punk, there are two opposing poles, probably: California punk and Siberian punk.” Where the L.A. book is scandalous and fun, What About Tomorrow? utilizes a sociological lens that we are all familiar with (punk rock) to magnify life in the Soviet Union and its transformation into modern Russia.

In composing What About Tomorrow?, Herbert, a Brandeis University research fellow, traveled extensively to Russia to conduct interviews as well as utilizing a few secondary sources (such as everyone’s favorite/least favorite, Maximum Rocknroll). The interviews portray a parade of characters, each conveying their own mixture of guts, wit, and determination, using underground music to navigate their way through the doldrums and/or violent oppression of everyday life in their homeland. The outstanding social/historical research combined with the intensity of the characters results in a fantastic read.

While American punks celebrated excess and lawlessness in newly abandoned city streets, the early chapters of What About Tomorrow? document an entirely different planet, where Soviet punk pioneers fought cultural isolation and the threat of crucifixion at the hands of a hard-line government. They discover punk via European short-wave radio channels banned by the government (“In England there are idiots just like us!”). Rock clubs were moderated by KGB agents, and some of the interviewed recall backing out of their local scenes under KGB intimidation. Other characters completely and mysteriously disappear. Punks are conscripted into the military and/or institutionalized just for being punks. They discuss all of this as if it were a minor annoyance.

The book moves along in chronological order, and we find punk scenes suddenly facing the transition from authoritarianism into capitalism. “Chacha” of Moscow band Naïve states: “The new country that called itself ‘Free Russia’ had no idea what was going on and tried to create capitalism without anyone knowing what it meant.” We see a dominant interest in financial profit, a rise in violence from the culturally accepted far right, and smoldering government corruption. As this continues into modern times, there is a chapter on Pussy Riot who don’t seem to fit in here, aside from their politics.

I would have liked to see the pages labeled with chapter information, as there was plenty of cross-referencing to be done, and there could have been a little more info on each character as they were introduced to keep them from blurring into each other. Other than that, this book was a great read—a fascinating study of the history of punk rock in Russia and its relationship to the political/social climate. –Buddha (Microcosm Publishing, microcosm.pub)


Why Lhasa De Sela Matters
By Fred Goodman, 178 pgs.

This is the second entry from University of Texas Press’s “Matters” series that I’ve read. The first one I’d read, on the Ramones, was a fantastic effort which filled in gaps and made connections. With that said, I was already familiar with the band. It’s more difficult to come to these books without knowing the artist in question: certainly the singer Lhasa De Sela fits this bill. Prior to reading, I had never heard of her, much less listened to her music.

Born to itinerant parents, Lhasa’s innate curiosity as a child mixed with an artistic sensibility, allowing her to easily and seamlessly incorporate skills into her repertoire. She moved around as she came into her teen years, flirted briefly with hardcore—before splitting her head in the pit—and settled, for a time, in Montreal, where she began singing in clubs. Her 1997 debut La Llorona was comprised of songs full of heartbreak and wisdom that belied Lhasa’s youth, and garnered her attention in Canada. The record never broke in the States because it was too hard to sell: Lhasa De Sela was living in Canada and singing her songs in Spanish. Despite this, she played some high profile gigs, but felt unsatisfied and at wits end. So, she abandoned her singing career and joined a circus. Seriously: her sisters were living in France, working gigs as a traveling circus troupe, and she joined them. Wild, right?

After some years, she settled in Marseilles and began working with musicians on what would be her next record, 2003’s The Living Road. Her time off didn’t matter to critics and fans, who received her new stuff warmly as she toured widely. During preparation for her third album, Lhasa was diagnosed with breast cancer, to which she succumbed on January 1, 2010, shortly after her final album was released.

Throughout, Fred Goodman interviews band members, friends, and family, all of whom provide perspective on the travails which shaped Lhasa into the woman and artist she was. Writing an overview of such a bright and short life is difficult, but throughout Goodman managed to illuminate Lhasa’s motives, collaborations, and loves with the sort of rhythms and insights that felt more like a novel than a music biography. Despite the fact that Lhasa De Sela was completely new to me, I was engrossed though out my reading. Well worth the time of any music fan out there. –Michael T. Fournier (University of Texas Press)

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