Friday, February 02, 2024

From the Depths of SDSU Press: Four Trips to Antiquity (1991)

 Hello, and welcome again, loyal readers. This is Robert Lang, full-time MFA student, SDSU Press editorial assistant, and part-time archeologist. I'm proud to welcome you back to yet another edition of 'FROM THE DEPTHS OF SDSU PRESS'. This week we'll be journeying through ancient Mayan ruins with an artist and anthropologist, but FIRST a bit of modern archaeological anthropology.

Perched above the desk of hardworking Press staffers is what I've come to lovingly refer to as the 'Winnebago of Wonders'.

Where else will you see Godzilla, a moose, a carnivorous dinosaur, Rambo, and Regan on the same bus? Only at SDSU Press!

The 'Winnebago of Wonders' is one the first things that draws the eye of any weary traveller coming across our offices. I ask you, dear reader, what does the 'Winnebago of Wonders' say about our humble little publication? I recently had a colleague and friend ask me, "What is it you do here?" while sitting across from my desk staring directly at our yellow cavalcade of terror and delights. No matter what I responded with, the only thing they were leaving this office with was the image of this bus so amazing that even planes want to get on board. 

Working under these conditions, I hope you understand how much work is required to keep ourselves grounded here at SDSU Press. My outlet is reviewing our catalog with you fine folks. In the spirit of travel, inspired by the 'Winnebago of Wonders', today's publication takes us to Guatemala City and through the ruins of an ancient civilization. Join me as we check out "Four Trips to Antiquity" by Everett Gee Jackson.

Published in 1991

The book opens with preface about Jackson's childhood encounters with thoughts of indigenous peoples and sets the stage for his future artistic urge to continue coming back to Guatemala and the ancient city Copán.

Our first trip with Jackson starts in 1952. There's political turmoil in Guatemala City with bombs exploding constantly. Jackson receives a letter from the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate an english edition of the Popol Vuh. The text is an ancient manuscript that is something akin to a religious narrative text of the Kʼicheʼ(spelled Quiché by Jackson) people. The title roughly translates to the 'Book of the People', which is deliciously poetic given the contents of Four Trips to Antiquity. 

Jackson is an artist, not just an artist but an art instructor at none other than our very own San Diego State University. With his journalist wife attached to her work, Jackson is ready to set off for the ancient Mayan city of Copán on a solo adventure...

Until he gets a call from an old friend. His friend's 18 year old son is going to be tagging along. 

I realize this sounds like the setup to a 80s buddy comedy film, but bear with me. 

Craig, the 18-year-old son is one of my favorite characters in literature and to know that he's a real person who existed brings me immense joy. 

What follows in the first three chapters of the book IS an 80s buddy comedy film as Everett and young Craig traverse ancient cities in Honduras and Guatemala with the Guatemalan Revolution as the backdrop. 

There's a great scene in the book where Jackson and Craig are entering their hotel for the first time and there is a loud explosive sound nearby. The clerk tells them there's nothing to worry about as Craig's eyes light up. Later the two have dinner with the hotel owner who tells them they have to keep quiet around the waiters as some of them might by Communist spies. Craig is very excited to be involved with espionage.

I love Craig. 

Jackson is eventually taken to a Quiché village where he witnesses the local culture and the distinct class between the Spanish Christian influence and local traditions. They travel up a steep mountain side to find a stone altar that the locals pray to after sending smoke up to the Christian God. A local religious figure warns Jackson that the locals might not be too happy with him drawing their altar.

On the way up the side of the mountain, Craig wanders off the path to find a big stick to protect Jackson, becoming his de facto body guard. Craig is the best. 

Each description of an artifact, ruin, or structure is accompanied by Jackson's artworks. It's like peering into the mind of artist at work. 

The first two chapters cover Jackson's first time really visiting and taking in the Maya ruins with the intent of painting for the commissioned artwork, but interspersed are his first encounters with a very complicated culture. There's another great sequence set before Jackson and Craig are supposed to set out on a plane ride to another part of Honduras and they stumble across a market full of bananas.

Craig, of course, wants an entire bundle of bananas to bring on their tiny charted plane before Jackson talks him down to just a dozen (Bless you, innocent Craig). While talking to the women who operate the stands, he learns that they don't have many bananas to sell and offer them only a few. This confuses Jackson, initially, realizing that the 'bananas' he was seeing were different types of plantains. This leaves Craig to make a truly philosophical statement, "Not Every Banana is a Banana in Central America". 

As profoundly silly as that may sound, that statement winds being very illustrative of Jackson's further exploits in Guatemala. While he's focused on the history and the art not everything is as it seems in the land. 

Craig makes yet another profound observation "We are in a football field!" before quickly changing his mind. I didn't even mention that he befriends and has a conversation in English with a local who can only speak Spanish. Craig is truly a treasure. 

Jackson describes his process throughout the book, but here is an instance of visualizing it. It's incredibly cool for anyone interested in the creative process.

As the book goes on it follows Jackson back to Guatemala in 1954, 1962, and later 1978. The section covering 1954 is probably the juiciest part of the book covering his time with a San Diego State Anthropologist, an archaeologist, his run in with the Communist presidential candidate Seńor Williams, and his prolonged encounter with an enigmatic Tobacco company representative 'Mr. Smith'. 

The 'Torchman' Carving that inspired the cover painting. 

The book is an incredibly breezy read at 170 pages, and it's manages to tell one of those stories that keeps you wondering what other bizarre and extraordinary encounter is going to happen next. What I love most about it is how it's nested in an appreciation and consideration of the indigenous history, art, and culture. There is admittedly some dated language in the book, but Jackson's writing actually holds up as very approachable.

This book could just as easily sit on your shelf as an art book full of representations of Mayan works, but it comes attached with the somehow more incredible anecdotes of the artist behind them. This is an part-art book, part-adventure story, part-anthropology book. A revolution viewed through the eyes of a wandering artist focused on the past. 

I'd love to gush about it more, but I'm not being paid to shill for this book but it's genuinely something better experienced then discussed, much like any historical site or artwork. 

If nothing else, I say read this book for Craig. He's not in it for as long as I would have wanted, but his spirit for adventure is infectious enough to inspire any reader to go out into the world and experience it in full. 

I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I first dug this artifact from the depths of the archive, but what I found was a genuine treasure. As artist and a student who has recently had his own experience traveling amongst the ruins of an ancient civilization, I found a lot of heart and inspiration in Jackson taking me along on his journey. 

Everett Gee Jackson passed away the year I was born (realize I'm literally dating myself here), so I never would have had the chance to speak with him but this book has managed to make me feel like I've known and travelled with him for years. It's an experience I highly recommend.

Thank you so much for joining me on yet another look through the annals of SDSU Press history. Join me next time as I wander through a sea of cardboard to venture deeper into the depths of time here at SDSU Press. Wish me luck, for I'll need it. Until then, take care loyal reader!


If you're interested in picking up the book, you can find it from our catalogue -> HERE <- and contribute in the effort to help clean up these four walls of chaos we call an office.

Friday, January 26, 2024

From the Depths of SDSU Press: The Comic Trial of Joseph K. (1996)


   WRITER'S NOTE: This post was meant to be finished in the year 2023, but in the fast moving world of academia, a 2023 deadline means January of the following year. So without further ado, onto the review!


    Hello loyal readers (and future loyal readers) of the Aztec Paper! My name is Robert Lang, an MFA Creative Writer at SDSU and proud staffer for SDSU Press! 

    Some of you may not be aware of the absolute state of the SDSU Press offices. 

Yes, it does look like San Diego Comic-Con threw up in here. Because it has.

       Truth be told, dear readers, it's difficult working under these circumstances. To keep myself sane, I've decided to dig around the depths of the Press archives, not unlike Dr. Jones, to try and find hidden gems.

So join me as we take our first trip in a series I'm dubbing "From the Depths of SDSU Press". 

Hidden in the far corners of the office archives I found a title in black that caught my eye, 

I have to note that there is a second ominous stack of the book that's tucked away behind a mountain of cardboard boxes. The sight would be too horrifying to your virgin eyes, dear reader. Be grateful I found the marginally less ominous stack next to a single copy of Cultural Studies in the Digital Age

      The publication I've rescued from the bowels of the Press this week is "The Comic Trial of Joseph K." by Héctor Ortega, edited in English by Manuel Flores.

    Published in 1996, the back of the book promises Ortega's adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, written as a stageplay, along with a series of artists and critics' reflections. D. Emily Hicks, author of Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text promises "Ortega's version of The Trial reveals the mexicandidad of Franz Kafka's works." Considering Kafka is one of THE most European authors I know, that's a claim I needed to verify for myself. Alright, D. Emily Hicks, I'm willing to take a chance with you. Let's get into this book.

    I'm immediately greeted with...

Ok, there's a lot to unpack here.

    Anyone familiar with Kafka's work should be familiar with the type of surreal imagery his works inspire and the book is filled throughout with the drawings of José Luis Cuevas inspired by the Austrian author. The art, and more importantly, the artist set the scene for the cross-cultural nature of this work. 

In a solidly written introduction by Harry Polkinhorn, he discusses the cultural divide between the two authors of focus in this text. Franz Kafka and Héctor Ortega. One a "Polish Jew living in Prague and writing in German (instead of Yiddish)" and the other a Mexican actor, director, and writer living in Mexico City. When you discover that the art comes from the Mexico City-based Luis Cuevas and Ortega insisted on it's inclusion in the book, an image forms of this web of inspiration projecting from from 1914 Prague to 1940s America and France, 1950s Germany, 1970s Israel, and 1980s Mexico. 

You'll have to excuse me this indulgence, I went down a The Trial adaptation rabbit hole and I'm bringing you with me.

The play was originally produced in 1982, the same year a BBC Radio 4 production of Kafka's The Trial was broadcasted. If I had a nickel for every non-German language production of The Trial released in 1982 I'd have two nickels, which isn't a lot but it's weird that it happened twice right?

What does this mean about Kafka and his work that it's so resonant with so many cultures at different points in time? I think the book and the scholars featured within give some thoughts to that. The essays following the script discuss the social and cultural context of adapting Kafka and his humor. The humor is the most relevant aspect of the The Trial in Ortega's adaptation. 

If the title didn't clue you in El cómico proceso de José K, which translates to the English "The Comic Trial of Joseph K.", comedy is at the forefront of the adaptation. The original novel, for those of you who haven't read it, details an unfortunate year in the life of bank clerk Josef K. who is placed under arrest for an unknown crime and is ultimately (Spoilers, but it's almost a 100-year old novel at this point) executed. Now I know what you're thinking, that sounds like an absolutely hilarious romp. 

The comedy of Kafka, which is discussed by several of the scholars in the book most notably Hicks, is very absurdist and deeply satirical. Throughout the original novel, Josef finds himself at the mercy of a justice system that is so institutionally fraught with incompetence and corruption that even as he's being sentenced to execution no one is sure what crime he's being convicted for. The bizarre events that make up the year of Josef's life is given a very unique presentation in Ortega's adaptation.

Ortega doesn't just adapt The Trial beat for beat, but instead tells an abridged meta-version that features an omniscient narrator, characters who exist outside the narrative, an audience surrogate actor who speaks directly to the audience about Kafka, and even Kafka himself. It's a surreal read that I would have loved to seen live. The entire play is as much a celebration of Kafkaesque comedy as it is an adaptation.

It's a bizarrely entertaining two act play, but I was still left with the question of why this story, why Kafka, and why now (now being 1980s Mexico)? Thankfully the book isn't just the text, as the cover so helpfully points out, but also context.   

The political landscape of Mexico of that era was marked by widespread political corruption under then President López Portillo. The systems meant to govern and help the people of Mexico was being perverted to serve people with monied interests and power. A time when there was a civil war brewing between the U.S. backed institutional party and local dissidents. There was little faith in the powers that be in the Mexico Héctor Ortega was living in. 

Is it any wonder then that the absurdist depiction of a institution wrought with inadequacies and incompetence would speak to this disillusioned generation? One of the final lines in the play is a quote of Kafka's spoken by an actor that goes, "[l]iteraure is not much a matter of literary history but a people's matter." To me, that says it all. 

At the end of the year El cómico proceso de José K went into production, Miguel de la Madrid was elected president and ran on a "moral renovation" campaign aiming to balk back at government corruption. I'm not implying the play or Kafka is responsible for this, has been known to have strange effects on the world. 

The book also features stills from the original production which is cool, but only makes wish I could have seen the play myself. It's a blessing and a curse.

Unfortunately, we lost Héctor Ortega Gómez in 2020, but the work featured in this book stands as a testament to a longstanding conversation between storytellers that goes as far back as paintings on the inside of a cave. "The Comic Trial of Joseph K." is definitely worth your time if you're a fan of Kafka, interested in cross-cultural adaptation, or you're just looking to read something a little peculiar.

I want to thank you for joining me for this inaugural look through the annals of SDSU Press history. Join me next time as we jump back into fray and try not to get buried by old film props and Batman lunchboxes. Until then, take care loyal reader!


You can pick yourself up a copy of The Comic Trial of Joseph K. here and contribute in the effort to help clean up these four walls of chaos we call an office.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Perfect Graduation Gift is Here!

 Graduation is coming up, and with that comes the search for a thoughtful gift; whether that be your friend, child, or significant other. Luckily, SDSU Press has the perfect gift just waiting to be picked up by someone such as yourself.

San Diego State: A History in Word and Image presents you with the entire history, starting from its humble beginnings as a state normal school, all the way to the University’s position at the end of the 20th century. Raymond Starr’s (along with editing done by Harry Polkinhorn) chronicle brilliantly captures SDSU’s evolution and progress with succinct, yet descriptive writings, complimented wonderfully by photos and illustrations, as the title would aptly suggest. 

You can buy your copy right here! 

Follow all of our socials right here!

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Memes of Yesteryear in CABARET VOLTAIRE!

 “Long Before we had theories of such as transmedia and convergence culture, there was the late 1970s xerographed, radical mail art zine, CABVOLT” says Frederick Luis Aldama, Professor and Author of other books regarding comics, such as
Latinx Comic Book Storytelling: An Odyssey by Interview. This reprinting of CABVOLT, lovingly done by SDSU, in addition to essays and an exchange with the creator of the dadazine collection via mail, Ferrera Brain Pan, gives the reader a better understanding, insight, and appreciation for the predecessor of the alternative comics industry.  



 All in all, CABARET VOLTAIRE: FLUXUS WEST SAN DIEGO AND SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA is not only an entertaining collection of vintage mail art in which SDSU served as a hub for, but also gives context to the absurd, dadaist art movement of the late 20th century. 

You can buy your copy right here!!

Take a look at our entire collection over here, and keep up with us via social media right here.