Figures vary, but experts (those guys) contend that we are barraged with something on the order of 6,000 signs, messages, and missives a day. The short, punchy, condensed, in-your-face verbal and visual assault that surrounds us beats a non-stop background to our modern urban consciousness, just as twittering birds and babbling brooks once inspired Wordsworth and Longfellow. Artist/writer Steve Powers has noticed our signboard cacophony, and in his surprising, exciting, and totally original new "book," First & Fifteenth, he mines the lingua franca of our cultural garbage to create a completely wonderful reading/seeing/feeling book, although I use the word "book" cautiously.
Powers's "Pop Art Short Stories," as he calls them, are narratives with real beginnings, middles, and ends, but they are also signs, poems, screeds, shouts, slams, and punches. To create these eight "tales," the signs he takes his inspiration from are not the kind of Madison Avenue slickness you might see in fat, glossy magazines packed with anorexic cokehead models; instead, Powers revels in the gritty sloganeering of signs, billboards, warnings, bus-stop benches, placards, handbills, and ephemera you might see swirling in an angry March wind on the sidewalk in front of a bulletproof-glass-sheathed bodega. These are the words and images of the "hood." An imaginary but real -- hood populated by cripples with righteous anger, substance-abusing superheros, ham-toppling pregnant women of dubious intent. In short, the neighborhood you might actually find around First Avenue and Fifteenth Street on the fringe of what was once known as the East Village. You can plow through this book in minutes -- it's really like a children's picture book in terms of word count. But you can't shake the feelings of joy and pause and rage and laughter and questioning that its stories leave you with. Like a great Tom Waits song, once you experience First & Fifteenth (because that's what you do with this book: you don't read it, you see it, you ingest it, you feel it) you'll want to flip through it again and again. You may find yourself gravitating to certain tunes, er, I mean stories, just like when I'm I-podding Waits I keep returning to "Heart Attack and Vine" or "The Piano Has Been Drinking." If you notice a Waits-ian theme emerging here, it's no accident, because First & Fifteenth is the closest approximation of a paper and ink Tom Waits album as you're ever likely to come across. It's bright, loud, politically incorrect, with an unblinking eye and a gruff, growling voice that makes you smile till it hurts. And then some more. As Tom would say, "Step Right Up."
'Til next time...
Ken Krimstein Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.