Miami Book Fair International

What's most compelling about this year's landmark 25th incarnation of Miami's literary hoedown?

Maybe the reading by renowned theoretical physicist Brian Greene from his book Icarus at the Edge of Time, which describes the winged punk's dicey approach to a black hole. "It's going to be a sleeper," suggests Mitchell Kaplan, the tall, wiry owner of literary mecca Books & Books and the event's co-creator. "But it will be amazing."

He's also looking forward to Tavis Smiley and Cornel West's evening — as well as a gathering of poet laureates Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Mark Strand.

Oh yeah. How about Salman Rushdie? Or former Miami Herald reporter and Iraq war correspondent Dexter Filkins? Or the legendary Derek Walcott? When Kaplan declares that the nation's largest, most prestigious, most consistently amazing literary festival, which begins this weekend, will have "an incredible year," he isn't blowing smoke.

One theme for the 2008 edition is an oft-overlooked art form — comic books with both literal and figurative spines. "The graphic novel is something that got so much growth in the marketplace," Kaplan says. "So many different things are happening in that genre. It was time for us to celebrate it."

So he and his co-conspirators created Comix Galaxy, the fair's extensive graphic novel program. It will make up a large part of the street fair November 15 and 16, and will include programs and appearances by genre superstars such as Travis Nichols (who illustrated this week's New Times cover), Chip Kidd, Jessica Abel, Frank Beddor, and David Hajdu, whose new work, The Ten-Cent Plague, chronicles the controversial early rise of comic books in the Fifties.

To us, the LeBron James of the graphic novel is David Heatley, the 33-year old artist whose debut book, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, takes a, shall we say, creative approach to the concept of memoir. This book's first section is "Sex History," in which Heatley draws in painstaking detail every carnal encounter before marriage. In the next section, "Black History," the white author describes every significant encounter he's had with a black person, not shying away from his stubborn subconscious racism. It doesn't get much more original, or honest, than this.

If Heatley is LeBron, then Michael Jordan is also coming to the fair. Art Spiegelman, one of the founding fathers of the literary comic, will tout two new releases. The author of the Maus series, special Pulitzer winner, and former New Yorker top gun has re-released Breakdowns, a comic collection he first published in 1978. He has added a comic introduction that rivals the original work in length, plus a new subtitle: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!.

We caught Spiegelman last week at a hotel in Boston between university talks. "Whenever I have a new book out, I feel like Willy Loman, packing all my wares into a leather suitcase and going out on the road," he jives. "But I should be grateful: When Breakdowns first came out, I couldn't get a wino to read it if I bribed him with a bottle of brandy."

That volume's cover is branded with the disclaimer "Adults Only," and the often-surreal collection includes carefully sketched re-creations of two-guys-on-one-girl porno. Spiegelman's other new comic book, Jack and the Box, is directed at another demographic: three-year-olds. "It's trying to resurrect a literary category that's been totally neglected — the early-reader books," says Spiegelman. "It's meant to rescue kids from 'See Dick run. Run, Dick, run' and bad retellings of Cinderella."

Jack and the Box doesn't demean its toddling demographic — its main character is initially terrified (but irresistibly intrigued) by a new, strangely creepy toy his parents give him. "I don't think this is one of those robbing-a-kid-of-childhood books," Spiegelman maintains. "This, to me, is what childhood is — waking up in the middle of the night curious and excited to find out what this world is."

Like Spiegelman, Pulitzer winner and Miami Herald cartoonist Jim Morin tackles timely issues with courage and humor. When he first began drawing George W. Bush as a cowboy more than eight years ago, he had no idea how accurate his depiction would become. Now, as Dubya's presidency comes to a close, Morin has documented his legacy in Ambushed!: A Cartoon History of the Bush Administration. In a departure from his past collections, Morin enlisted Harvard political scientist Walter C. Clemens Jr. to write fact-based accounts to run alongside the cartoons.

"I went through a long period where I think I was trying to put too much into the [cartoons,]" Morin says. "I was trying to convince people, which is fine, but there was a power missing." Playing against Clemens's prose, Morin simplifies the cartoons, returning the focus to the images. The result tracks Bush's transformation from a moderate to "dividing this country way worse than I've ever seen it since the Sixties," Morin says. His work poignantly makes that point: "What makes [political cartooning] special is the marriage between art and communication," he says. "You see that image and it sticks with you."

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Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik