Personal Best 2008 | Santiago Rubino | Arts & Entertainment | South Florida

You can see Santiago Rubino's work on the hot, muggy streets of Miami or in an air-conditioned gallery. A native of Argentina, self-taught, he honed his craft under threat of arrest. He depicts melancholy waifs in attitudes stately and prim, their clothing often of the Renaissance era. Others are sultry, voluptuous, and sexual. All have raven hair coiffed in impossible geometric rigor. Anyone who has ever seen a Tim Burton film will notice the surrealist influence. It was Burton's dark dreamscapes that fueled Rubino's imagination, along with the works of Salvador Dali and, to some extent, H.R. Geiger, whose grotesquely beautiful horrors led to the design of the creature in the Alien movies. Another source of inspiration for Rubino: the highly stylized films of Quentin Tarantino, himself shaped by B movies.

NT: Which Tim Burton movies inspired you and how?

Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas, even the Batmans. I had never seen anything like it. Those are just inspirations. When I try to make art... I guess when I see it... Let me see how I can explain... The emotional impact, the way I see it in my mind... I see it as if it was another world.

Are there other films and directors in whose movies you see artistic merit?

Terror Planet. I'm sure its main inspiration was from B movies. It's supposed to be cheesy terror, horror, but it's almost funny at the same time.(Rubino turns on a clip of Tarantino's Terror Planet. It's the opening, where Rose McGowan's character is writhing on a pole in a strip club lit in all manner of gauche discothèque colors.)

Any crappy B movies from the '80s you recall?

Killer Klowns From Outer Space.

Could an artist draw any kind of inspiration from schlock like that?

Subliminally, yeah. When I'm drawing, a lot of ideas pop into my head. If I was going to draw something with ruffles, I'd think of the clowns.

What's most compelling about this year's landmark 25th incarnation of the Miami Book Fair International?

Maybe the reading by renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Bryan Greene from his book Icarus, which describes the winged punk's dicey approach to a Black Hole. "It's going to be a sleeper," suggests Mitchell Kaplan, the tall and 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 starts next week, will have "an incredible year," he isn't blowing smoke.

One theme this year 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," says Kaplan. "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 big part of the street fair on November 15 and 16, and will include programs and appearances by genre superstars like Travis Nichols, Chip Kidd, Jessica Abel, Frank Beddor, and David Hadju, whose new work Ten Cent Plague chronicles the controversial early rise of comic books in the '50s.

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 his 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.

Art Spiegelman, one of the founding fathers of the literary comic, will tout two new releases. The author of the Maus series, Pulitzer winner, and former New Yorker top gun has re-released Breakdowns, a comic collection he first published in 1978, adding a comic introduction and a new subtitle: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!".

"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," Spiegelman said last week by phone. "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 toward another demographic: 3-year-olds. Its main character is initially terrified (but irresistibly intrigued), by a new, strangely creepy toy his parents give him. "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."

Like Spiegelman, Pulitzer winner and Miami Herald cartoonist Jim Morin tackles timely issues. 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 to write fact-based accounts to run alongside the cartoons.

Playing against Clemens' 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 '60s," 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."

Another Herald alumna to read is the signature queen of the thriller, Edna Buchanan. "To me the Miami Book Fair is like Christmas, my birthday, and New Year's Eve all in one," says Buchanan after pulling off a bathing cap and postponing a morning swim with her dog. "It's a very lonely business, writing novels. I write at home alone with my dog every day, so it's incredibly exciting to be plunged in with so many fantastic authors at once," Buchanan says. "It's the biggest event of my year."

Virtually all of Florida International University's writing faculty will be at the biggest event. Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program, presents his newest non-fiction work, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Professors Jim Hall (Hell's Bay), John Dufresne (Requiem, Mass.), Denise Duhamel (Afortunada de mí/Lucky Me), and Campbell McGrath (Seven Notebooks) will also be speaking.

Their star pupil, Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, will rekindle his own South Florida connection. "I've known Mitchell [Kaplan] from Books & Books forever," Lehane recalls. "He got me on a panel at the Book Fair when my first book came out. I think like four people showed up, but it meant a lot to me."

It's a safe bet the crowd will be larger this time around. Critics have lauded Lehane's newest novel, The Given Day, a departure from his grimy Patrick Kenze thrillers in its re-creation of a riotous 1919 Boston police strike. And Lehane's audience has exploded since movies made from his novels Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, directed by Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, respectively, garnered several Oscar nods and a win for Best Picture. "I keep saying this, but there's no connection whatsoever between the films and my writing. I never give it a thought, not even a fleeting thought," Lehane says. "When I'm writing, it's between me and one reader. My job is to connect with this imaginary reader, seduce them almost into listening to what I'm trying to tell them."

The writer can't quite believe how well Hollywood has treated his work. Martin Scorsese is now directing another of Lehane's books, Shutter Island, and is said to have Leonardo DiCaprio lined up for the starring role. "I didn't tell anyone about Scorsese," he says. "When the announcement came out, one of the first emails I got was from a good buddy of mine, another writer who's going through the whole Hollywood thing. I opened it and all it said was: FUCK YOU. I mean, what else do you say when the reality is this amazing?"

Gus Garcia-Roberts, P. Scott Cunningham, and Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.

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