You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

MANGA MANIA: ULTRA GASH INFERNO by Suehiro Maruo






If your own nightmares have not been up to par of late, I recommend you take a look at this book. Suehiro Maruo (B. 1956) is the master of ero-guro (erotic grotesque) manga. I first read his book-length work Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. It was an outrageous grand guignol of misery, weirdness, and degradation. But compared to Ultra Gash Infrerno, it was Saturday matinee material.

This volume contains nine stories from the 1980's to 1993. Possibly they have been chosen for English translation to give the uninitiated an extreme immersion into Maruo's world. Or they may be typical. Titles like "Putrid Night," "Shit Soup", and "Voyeur in the Attic" let you know what you are getting in for. I doubt that characters like Spiderman and The Hulk need fear being replaced by Sewer Boy or The Great Masturbator in the hearts of the American reading public. 

 Maruo's work is elegantly drawn and according to commentators has its roots in everything from 1930's Japanese children's books to atrocity prints of the 19th century. I'll have to take their word for it. He excels are gore, sex, and combinations of the two. Female characters endure sex acts that leave them bloodied and injured, but they are capable of graphic revenge. Typical plop points include eyes gouged out, limbs lopped off, and wounds opened for reasons I will leave to your imagination. For me the scatology and coprophilia were the most disturbing elements. Moments of "Sewer Boy" struck me as merely disgusting. But maybe that is because it is the second story in the book and I hadn't yet been mentally whipped into submission. The essentially plotless "Shit Soup," on the other hand, was a beautifully rendered nightmare of degrading, repulsive images. Often with this sort of material, when I have encountered it in films, anime, or books, I have asked myself, "Is this trip really necessary?" I think to say something like, "Maruo's elegance and economy of style elevates his material to realm of poetry," risks making one sound ridiculous. But I never felt he was asking me to wallow in filthy junk. I never felt like some teenager getting a thrill from watching Faces of Death.

"Non-Resistance City" (1993) is the longest story in the book. It take place during the Americanoccupation, a time Maruo did not experience first hand but he would have known from the films of Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, and the photography of Daido Moriyama. Maruo's story chronicles rape, social degradation, and ultimately cannibalism. It also contains an evil dwarf, a type of character he used often. 

Maruo's is a dark grotesque that reminds me of when Joel Peter Witkin first seemed like he was going to be a serious artist. Witkin isn't holding up over time. I am curious to see more of Maruo.




Tuesday, November 6, 2012

SWEET TOOTH (1): THE PAYDAY

The story of the PayDay, one of America's most underrated  candy bars, is the heartwarming tale of the survival of a unique American confection in a world of corporate takeovers.

A wrapper from when the PayDay went from 3 cents to a
nickel

Frank Martoccio, whose main business appears to have been macaroni, created the PayDay in 1932. Martoccio was an entrepreneurial sort who had bought the largely defunct Hollywood Candy Company in 1912. (That's Hollywood, Minnesota, by the way, not the Sodom of the West.) Hollywood had introduced the Zero Bar, like the PayDay a vastly underrated product, in 1920, and they had several other, admittedly less notable brands. Through his additional purchase of the Pendergast Candy Company in 1927, Martoccio obtained the secret recipe that allowed him to make fluffy nougat that did not go stale on the shelf. Apparently this was not a trademarked product, because the Mars Company would soon become famous for the Milky Way that used a similar recipe and technology.

Now comes the progression of sales and industrial accidents that transforms Martoccio's small but successful business into a marginal sideline for a giant American corporation. Frank's family sold the business in 1967 to Consolidated Brands, the company that became Sara Lee. In 1980, the Consolidated plant in Centralia, Illinois, a building that was once painted to resemble a giant Zero bar, burned down. Sara Lee sold what was left of Hollywood Brands to the Leaf Candy Company in 1988. Leaf is a leading European manufacture of pastilles -- yuck -- and chewing gum. In 1996, Leaf's North American operation was purchased by the Hershey Food Company.

Where does that leave the Payday?

Hershey Food Company has successfully passed off their mediocre chocolate products on the American public since 1873. Perhaps when Milton Hershey was mixing his chocolate by hand he was making something worthy of the name, but for the greater part of the last century the brown stuff that comes from the Hershey's plant has been a lackluster, chocolate flavored chemical stew with a gillion dollar advertising budget. With the PayDay they faced a real conundrum. Here was a product that had existed for sixty some years without a drop of chocolate on its tasty, salty and sweet blend of peanuts, caramel, and nougat. In 2007 they tried to muck it up by arbitrarily coating it with what  they insist on referring to as chocolate. Although rarely seen, this abomination, known as the PayDay Chocolatey Avalanche, remains in the marketplace. (I would have liked to have been at the meeting of the Hershey marketing brain trust where that name was approved. "Chocolatey"? )

An abomination


And yet the Payday lives on, essentially unchanged for eighty years. But how to you improve on perfection.  You get a handful of peanuts on every bar with just a hint of caramel anchoring them to the nougat center. And about that nougat. Although Martoccio had the  technology to fluff up his candy bars, he wisely left the center of the PayDay slightly dry. That almost chalky texture perfectly compliments the crunch of the nuts and the trace of sticky caramel sweetness. You no longer get a nickel stuck to the bottom of every bar -- that was a short-lived promotion in 1989 -- but you are guaranteed a unique candy bar experience. Subtle taste, excellent "mouth feel," -- I should stop before this becomes embarrassing.

Perfection

I meant to post this pre-Halloween and encourage readers to share the PayDay experience with trick or treaters, but I never got around to it. I haven't had a trick or treater come to my door for the last four years, but I still use the occasion to buy a couple of bags of bite-sized PayDays to keep around the house for the day or two they are likely to last me.