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The Portable February
posted November 19, 2009
Drag City, hardcover, 97 pages, June 2009, No Price Indicated but likely less than $10
0982048017 (ISBN10), 9780982048016 (ISBN13)
I wanted to like this book of random doodles from musician/poet David Berman a heck of a lot more than I did, and I'm still not sure if my opting out is more my fault or Berman's. The Portable February
is an attractive object, there aren't a whole lot of books featuring single-image cartoons from anyone these days, and the entire venture exudes an appealing "I don't give a shit" aura. I enjoyed some of the cartoons, which as a group of individual efforts could be plotted to best effect on a chart with funny/not-funny and obtuse/perfectly-clear axis. Berman's best efforts bump up against incoherence yet fail to cross over into dependence on a visual iconography he frequently employs where every cartoon looks like something drawn by marsupials. One of my favorites is the silly "Irrational 15th Century Battle Scenes," where I can't decide if the quality of the drawing on display either doesn't matter or serves the cartoon's overall meaning because
of its visual crudity.
Unfortunately, I found the effective concepts to be and far between. Additionally, the book fails to cohere over multiple readings into something greater than the sum of its kaleidoscope of gags. It may be that those coming to this book with a more intimate understanding of Berman's music and prose writing will see a framework connecting a lot of this work that completely slipped past me, a tendency towards a certain kind of allusion maybe, or a love for certain types of wordplay. This wasn't me. Without some sort of connecting element, I don't think the work in Berman's book is strongly enough executed for "general awesomeness" to be the connecting idea. Too many of the single-pagers feel more obvious than clever, more labored than something that tumbled free from an overabundance of inspiration, like one entitled "White Cartoon Voters." While I wholly appreciate the effort involved, I wish I didn't always have to look at the end result.