Briefly Noted Books, DVDs, and More

The Whole Earth Catalog, Generation Kill, Reagan in Hollywood, and the art of Steve Ditko


Frontier Greens

In 1968 the first Whole Earth Catalog invoked the "power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." Four decades later, a new wave of scholarship is exploring that publication's influence. On the heels of Fred Turner's 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which examined the Catalog's connections to today's "digital utopianism," the cultural historian Andrew Kirk has published Counterculture Green (University Press of Kansas).

Kirk's topics range from space colonies to the origins of the PopTent. But his chief concern is the Catalog's pragmatic environmentalism, a mindset that rejects both heavy regulation and the romantic ideal of an untouched wilderness. Kirk identifies this attitude with the Western states—and with a "libertarian sensibility" that "blended the individualism and liberal social values of the counterculture with a traditionally western distrust of big government and centralized authority."—Jesse Walker

Bureaucracies at War

David Simon and Ed Burns, co-creators of the celebrated HBO crime drama The Wire, have brought their seven-part miniseries about the first 40 days of the Iraq War to DVD. Based on the book by former Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, Generation Kill offers a hyperrealistic portrait of the Marines' elite First Recon Battalion as the unit led U.S. forces into Iraq in 2003.

Though both Burns and Simon opposed the war, the series is light on editorializing. Ever eager to skewer the absurdities of cherished institutions (as The Wire did so masterfully), Generation Kill is more a critique of bumbling military bureaucracy (with a particular affinity for the soldiers on the ground who have to work around it) than a commentary on the war's politics.

Praised by critics for its storytelling and by Iraq war veterans for its accuracy, the eight hours do not contain many battle sequences. In fact, the series' greatest accomplishment may be the way Burns and Simon craft such compelling television from the war's day-to-day monotony.—Radley Balko

The Bonzo Years

The 40th president of the United States (along with his simian co-star) finally gets his due as a matinee idol in Marc Eliot's Reagan: The Hollywood Years (Harmony Books). Often used as a punch line, Reagan's screen career was much more than a Bonzo movie; indeed, he was one of the highest-paid actors in the studio system.

Eliot documents in compelling detail how Reagan's transformation from an FDR Democrat to a Goldwater Republican was tightly linked to his experiences within the film industry, always a hotbed of leftists and limousine liberals (such as James Cagney, who funded the pro-communist Abraham Lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War). Reagan, writes Eliot, "holds two unique places in American history, one as a minor cultural figure, the other as a major political one." In explaining how those two characters influence each other, he not only has broken new ground but has written a compulsively readable about the ongoing intersection of popular culture and politics.—Nick Gillespie

The Amazing Ditko

"With great power comes great responsibility" was the message writer Stan Lee saw in Spider-Man. The superhero's co-creator, artist Steve Ditko, adored Ayn Rand and didn't believe his artistic power created any obligations. Thus, one of comics' greatest artists languishes in self-made obscurity, living out a Roark-at-the-quarry scenario, refusing to grasp most of the work opportunities that awed acolytes offer him.

In Blake Bell's gorgeous coffee-table art book and biography, Strange and Stranger (Fantagraphics Books), we see Ditko's vividly grotesque gift, and we contemplate how being robbed of the recognition and money that being Spider-Man's co-inventor should warrant, and having his Objectivist superhero "Mr. A" ignored or mocked, led Ditko to self-imposed exile. He refuses for reasons of integrity understandable only to him even to sell off his old pages, which could make him a very rich man. Rand taught Ditko that the artist is the world's fountainhead, and he has poured on our ungrateful heads all he cares to.—Brian Doherty