11/30/14

"Blacksad" by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido

Blacksad is a volume of three graphic novelettes written by  Juan Diaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido centered around the character of John Blacksad, a tough detective who lives in a tough town.

The first story, "Somewhere Within the Shadows," centers around the death of an actress with whom Blacksad was once romantically involved. "Arctic Nation," the second story, is more forced but manages to work in the fact that the characters are animals a lot better. It deals with a small town where white power animals, such as weasels, polar bears, foxes and goats, are clashing with black activists such as crows, horses, and bulls.  The black vs white conflict also involves the local sheriff, a missing girl, and incestuous relationships. Of all the stories, this feels the most like a Dashiel Hammet story.  The final story "Red Soul" is set in the mid to late 50's, and concerns atomic research, communist bashing, and a small circle of poets, artists and intellectuals.  A rooster named Senator Gallo does a good job impersonating Sen. McCarthy.  I also enjoyed the characterization of the ferret reporter.


Canales seems to have a lot of fun matching the characterization with the appropriate animals.  Guarnido's art is lushly watercolored with amazing detail, yet the characters don't get lost in the composition. The stories seem, to me, obviously a European, although I couldn't put a finger on why.

Just the art itself is worth buying the book, but like Dashiell Hammett, the way the character and plot is woven together makes it worth reading and re-reading the stories.



"Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice" by Ivan Brunetti

In the 1970s I got a copy of Marvel's How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way which I was sure would turn me into a superstar artist and get me a place on the next issue of the Punisher.  From that book I learned some ideas - three point perspective, using "heads" to measure height, good composition and action poses, but somehow the book didn't inspire me to draw.  My results didn't look like John Buscema's or Jack Kirby's artwork (surprise!) and I gave it up.

Flash forward thirty-plus years to when I found Ivan Brunetti's "Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice."  Brian Michael Bendis was at Stumptown Comics Fest talking about teaching comics and mentioned "Cartooning."  He emphasized the "Philosophy" portion of the title. Brunetti believes that images should tell the story, adding dialogue only when it naturally evolves within the story line.  Intrigued, I had to get a copy.

This is not a beginner's art book or a "how to draw" book.  It's specifically for people who want to cartoon -- those who want to distill a story to the simplest necessary artwork, yet still convey the artist's message.  The book is based on Brunetti's 15-week class on cartooning.

If Jack Kirby is the Wagner of the comics world, Brunetti is more like Philip Glass. His images are distilled to only the most necessary lines, leaving lots of white space to for emphasis.  Achieving similar results is deceptively difficult.  Exercise 1.1 in the book is to draw a car in 3 minutes. Then draw it again in 1 minute, then 30 seconds, then 15, then 5 seconds. This exercise helps you understand what is essential to the "car-ness" of the drawing.  The second chapter explores doing a similar exercise for a story.  He presents his version of "Catcher in the Rye" in a single panel.


The lessons cover spontaneous drawing, single-panel cartoons, four-panel strips, pages, grid layout, and more.  He includes tips on his tools, and talks about cartooning on computers versus paper.

Even for people who don't aspire to be artists, it is enlightening to do the exercises proposed in the book. Brunetti covers most of the questions that artists have to answer when putting together a visual story, and provides a vocabulary for discussing the problems.  Trying the exercises will give the reader a better understanding of the problem space.  Even without doing the work, "Cartooning" can be read cover-to-cover (70 pages) or used as a reference or inspiration.  It's worth owning.

"Lazarus" by Greg Rucka

"Lazarus" volume one begins with a plot like a roller-coaster chased by a tidal wave. Set in the nearish future, drought and famine has left the US collapsed into feudal clans, with the rest of humanity considered waste. Among the top soldiers of the clans are the bio-engineered assassins. The Father of Clan Carlyle is trying to hold his kingdom together while manipulating the Lazarus named Forever ("Eve") and the rest of the family into doing his bidding.

I bought a signed copy from Rucka and the inscription says "Hope you enjoy the world."  I have to confess, it's an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.  The family members are ruthless opportunists, and for the most part the landscape presents as desolate plains. In retrospect, it's like the TV show Dallas, except food is the new oil.

Like a roller-coaster, I'm looking forward to volume two, and the next terrifying ride.

11/2/14

French Comic Magazines - The Ninth Art

For as long as I can remember, people always told me that comic books in France were more respected, read by grown men on the Metro on their way to work.  When I finally visited France for the first time in the 1970s I found out this wasn't entirely true. In fact, comics in France cannot be compared to the floppies published by Marvel, DC and Dark Horse in the US.  One reason is that the form of the "comic" is different.

From early in the 20th century, European floppies were published weekly or monthly, but contained only a couple pages of any particular story. The publishers found a couple benefits in this: they could have a wide variety of stories in each magazine, readers would buy their favorite stories and discover other characters, and the artist could be paid a little at a time. When the story finally ended, it was often published in a hard-bound album. For example, Herge's Tintin stories were originally published in Le Petite Vingtieme, and then were later bound in the volumes readers in the US are familiar with.

Since the mid 1980s US publishers have begun to embrace the square bound compilation we call a "graphic novel," or trade paperbacks (TPBs).  Now, it's so ubiquitous that for the past 15 or 20 years Marvel and DC have regularly republished story arcs from monthly titles as compiled TPBs.

Aside from the form of comics, what about the content? Are comic stories and creators more respected in Europe?

In France and Belgium comics are referred to as BDs (bay-days), an abbreviation of phrase bandes dessinées which translates from the original description of the art form as "drawn strips". Since the 1960s comics in Europe have been recognized as "the ninth art." This phrase comes from a series of articles by Morris' (Maurice De Bevere) about the history of comics, which appeared in Spirou magazine from 1964 to 1967.

For years comics were primarily for kids. For example, one of the earliest French comic magazines, Le Petit Vingtieme published before WWII, had the original appearance of Tintin. Other popular comics were (and are) The Journal Mickey and Donald Magazine, which published many of the same Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck stories as Walt Disney Comics and Stories.  These comics may have been read by adults, and in later years the stories were more sophisticated and often by artists not found in the US, such as Floyd Gottfriedson, Don Rosa, but they were still primarily marketed toward kids. Other popular magazines for kids were Spirou, Tintin Magazine, and Pilote.


Spirou magazine (Le Journal de Spirou) is still published, a weekly Franco-Belgian comics magazine. Starting out in 1938, it was an eight-page weekly magazine with a mixture of short stories, gags, serial comics, and some American reprints.  Some of the more notable characters that ran in Spirou were Lucky Luke by Morris, the Smurfs by Peyo, Gil Jourdan by Maurice Tillieux, and Gaston Lagaffe by Andre Franquin.  These artists were often stylistically grouped as the Marcinelle School - a counterpoint to the ligne claire of the artists who appeared in Tintin magazine.



Tintin Magazine (Le Journal de Tintin) was published weekly from 1946 until 1993. In addition to publishing some Tintin stories, some artists and characters that might stand out were Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese, Will Eisner's The Spirit.  Also, Willy Vandersteen's Bob et Bobette was a long-running popular comic.

Pilote was published in France from 1959 to 1989. While it was a magazine for kids, many of the artists who had work in the magazine went on to become major talents drawing stories for adults and beyond.  Most of the major French or Belgian talents of the magazine introduced major series in Pilote.  The examples are astounding: Astérix, Barbe-Rouge, Blueberry, Achille Talon, and Valérian et Laureline. Major writers like René Goscinny, Jean-Michel Charlier, Greg, and Jacques Lob, and artists such as Jijé, Morris, Albert Uderzo, Jean (Mœbius) Giraud, Enki Bilal, Jean-Claude Mézières, Jacques Tardi, Philippe Druillet, and Marcel Gotlib published in Pilote.

In a way, Pilote was an incubator for the more mature European comics that began to appear in the 1960s. Pilote also published several international talents such as Hugo Pratt, Frank Bellamy and Robert Crumb.  Some of the characters seen in Pilote were Asterix (1959–1973), Lucky Luke (1967–1973), Iznogoud (1968–1977), Petit Nicolas (1959–1965), Blueberry (1963–1973), Lucky Luke (1967–1973) and Lone Sloane (1970–1974).  You can find an index of Pilote issues here.



So, where is the cultural legitimacy?

Perhaps it started with the left-leaning satire magazine Charlie Hebdo (1969-present) and its precursor Hara-Kiri (1960-1970).  These were satirical magazines similar to Harvey Kurtzman's magazines Trump, Humbug or Help! The magazine ran under the title Hara-Kiri, but it was banned after they ran a cover joke about French president Charles de Gaulle's recent death. To side-step the ban the publisher renamed the magazine to Charlie Hebdo - an inside joke referring to a magazine that ran Charlie Brown comics called Charlie Mensuel (Charlie Monthly), and also to Charles De Gaulle's death.  Charlie Hebdo is still published, and apparently it's still edgy - a 2011 issue was renamed "Charia Hebdo," guest-edited by Mohammed.

After 1970, the market for mature, envelope-pushing, and bizarre comics seemed to explode with publications such as L'Echo des Savanes, Metal Hurlant, À Suivre, and Fluide Glacial.

L'Echo des Savanes (1972 - 2005)
L’Écho des Savanes featured the work of French and international authors and graphic artists in mature-oriented comics over the course of 34 years, temporarily ended publication in 2006 and relaunching in 2008.

In the early 70's notable artists were Alexis, Harvey Kurtzman, Jean Solé, and Moebius.  From 1975 to 1976 the magazine published work by Neal Adams, Richard Corben, Robert Crumb, Dick Giordano, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jeff Jones, Gérard Lauzier, Jacques Lob, Georges Pichard, Jacques Tardi, Martin Veyron, Wallace Wood and Berni Wrightson.  The late 70s and early 80's saw stories from Jean Michel Charlier, Guido Crepax, Jean-Claude Forest, Carlos Giménez, Tanino Liberatore and Art Spiegelman. Later issues had work by Baru, Will Eisner, Milo Manara, Frank Miller, Jean-Marc Reiser, Alex Toth, Jano and Alex Varenne. In addition to "adult" comic strips, issues contained articles featuring photographs of semi-naked women.  Here is a link to an index of the issues.

Metal Hurlant (1975 - 1987; 2002-2006)
Métal Hurlant ("Howling Metal") was an anthology of science fiction and horror comics stories, created in 1974 by Jean Giraud (better known as Mœbius), Philippe Druillet, journalist-writer Jean-Pierre Dionnet and financial director Bernard Farkas. These four were collectively known as "Les Humanoïdes Associés" (United Humanoids), which became the name of the publishing house releasing Métal hurlant.  The magazine is perhaps best known in the US as "Heavy Metal", and inspired the movie by the same name. Many of the artists who published in L'Echo des Savanes can also be found in Metal Hurlant.  Here is a link to an index of back issues of Metal Hurlant.

(a suivre)... (1977 - 1997)
"À Suivre"  ("To Be Continued") is considered to have been one of the major vehicles for the development of Franco-Belgian comics during the 20th century.  It published major European comic book artists including Hugo Pratt, Jean-Claude Forest, Alexandro Jodorowsky, Milo Manara, Jean (Mœbius) Giraud, Jacques Tardi, François Bourgeon, F'Murr, Ted Benoît, Guido Crepax, Vittorio Giardino, François Schuiten, Benoît Sokal and François Boucq. Here's a link to the index of past issues.

Fluide Glacial (1975 - present)
Fluide Glacial is what might happen if Al Jaffee and Rod Serling were friends and talked Bill Gaines into doing a monthly anthology comic.  The stories are offbeat, sometimes infantile, and are often disturbing or have a shock twist ending.  During its years Fluide Glacial has featured the work of French and international authors and graphic artists such as Jacques Lob, Luc Nisset, Édika, Claire Bretécher, Jean Solé, François Boucq, Moebius, Jean-Claude Mézières, Loup, Daniel Goossens and André Franquin. It now sells some 120,000 copies a month.  Here's a link to the index of past issues.



B.D. L'hebdo De La B.D. (1977, 78)
This short-lived series, BD,  offered a platform for many influential artists, including Al Capp, Zippy the Pinhead artist Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, and Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte. Jacques Tardi first introduced his character Adele Blanc-Sec in BD. Here's the index of past issues.

So, do adults read comic books on the Metro in Paris? Probably not so much. But they do read comics, and many comics are written specifically for French-speaking adults.  From this list of notable Franco-Belgian comics, perhaps only a third of them are for children, so there must be a market for more mature material. This list of the top 20 "coolest" French comics has a similar makeup.

Unfortunately, a lot of the anthology magazines have given up publishing. This may be due to the internet, and it could be that many artists are trying their hands at publishing digital comics. So, the time for reading comic books may be passing.  Instead, adults will be reading comics on their phones and tablets on the Metro. What's the French word for iPad?







10/18/14

"Dear Creature" by Jonathan Case

“Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak; 
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit, 
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak, 
The folded meaning of your words'  deceit.”
                       - Wm Shakespeare "Comedy of Errors"

Shakespeare's dialog appears in a scene in The Comedy of Errors where a stranger in town meets a woman who mistakes him for someone else, and he becomes enchanted by her beauty.  In Jonathan Case's graphic novel "Dear Creature" the stranger is an ocean-dwelling mutant monster and the woman is an agoraphobic spinster who lives with her sister in a dry-docked boat in a California seaside town circa 1960.

Using a quote from Shakespeare is appropriate, since the sea monster, Grue, has a penchant for the Bard and speaks mostly in iambic pentameter.  Giulietta attracts his attention by throwing pages of Shakespeare's plays packed into soda pop bottles into the ocean in a twist on the message in a bottle.  Unfortunately for these sea-crossed lovers, more than just family stands between their happiness.  Like many movie monsters, Grue has a hunger for human flesh, and it gets worse when pheromones are in the air.

Both the art and the story are solid. Grue's dialogue in iambic pentameter seems appropriate for this monster. In counterpoint, Grue's chorus of crabs talk more like Damon Runyon. The family, Giulietta, Zola, Joe and Roberto, act as if they've lived together for years on the boat. Characters that pop in for a page or two have distinctive dialog. Even the slightly wooden policeman Craw has a depth that we understand. He wants to marry Zola, but society of the time shuns woman who have been left behind by men.

Case explores a plethora of early 1960s references. Characters mention Beach Blanket Bingo and go to the drive-in. Of course there are allusions to atomic bomb tests, and mutant monsters as seen in the movies.  Giulietta and Zola's backstory explains that they were orphans in Italy at the end of World War II, and were whisked away to California by a rich suitor whose family made their money in soda pop.

The black and white drawings work in many ways. They remind me of the black and white Universal monster movies.  The shadows also carry enough weight to bring the story to life. Sometimes it's so dark, the panels seem be white on a black background -- with the image in relief like a woodcut.

Case has some unique comic skills. An iconic male/female/harpoon symbol always shows up when men and women get together.  This pheromone harpoon is often Grue's undoing, symbolically stabbing him in the brain and urging him into a blood lust.  At these times Grue is truly a monster, and the icon is a neat way to bring attention to this violence.

During a  panel called "Composing Comics" at Stumptown Comics Fest 2013, Case talked about his craft.  "Comics should be easier to read than not read."  He felt the art should facilitate the story. Comparing repetitive panels versus clarity, he feels that repetition works for comedy. The third beat comes around and you have a surprise. Whereas action scenes should have a clarity -- a clear focal point improves and increases dynamics.  He also mentioned he's a big fan of leaving areas of negative space. He compared the composition styles of Alex Toth with Wally Wood, referring to the latter's "22 Panels that always work"

"Dear Creature" is a lot of fun. The monster's face is stretchable and humorous. The puns, especially from the crabs are groan-able. And Case seems to especially enjoy the macabre humor that arises from the crabs wanting to feast on the remains of the teenagers killed by Grue, and Grue's unwillingness to face the facts.  As a reader, I felt invested in the fate of all the characters.  I wasn't disappointed by the conclusion.

"Dear Creature" is Case's debut graphic novel. He has also worked on the "Green River Killer" and done a stint as artist on the recent Batman '66 from DC. His website is www.jonathancase.net.


10/14/14

"Anya's Ghost" by Vera Brosgol

In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare uses a ghost to dramatize the young prince's internal struggle.  The ghost of Hamlet’s father claims he was killed by Claudius, and urges Hamlet to take revenge. As the story unwinds, however, we find the ghost is unreliable and it seems to others that Hamlet is acting irrationally. In “Anya’s Ghost,” Vera Brosgol uses a ghost in a similar way, as a friend, mentor and a danger for young Anya as she tries to fit in at high school.

Anya's troubles start at home. Her family emigrated from Russia to the US when she was five, and she has worked hard to lose her accent and look like an American girl. Unfortunately, her mother feeds her heavy Russian foods, makes her go to church, and encourages a friendship with Dima, a nerdy Russian boy who goes to the same school.  Anya has one friend, Siobhan, but their friendship is based more on cutting class and shared cigarettes than on shared interests.  After they have a disagreement Anya storms off to smoke in the woods. Unfortunately, she falls down a well and discovers not only a skeleton, but Emily, the ghost of the bones.  Although at first Anya is petrified, but after she escapes from the well she and Emily strike up an uneasy friendship.


The theme of ghosts, whether literal or symbolic, weaves nicely through this book. At first the ghosts of the old country, embodied by Dima and Anya's mother, seem to be holding Anya back, but then she realizes she appreciates and loves them.  Brosgol was born in Moscow, and it seems she has put some of her own experiences into the story.

"Anya's Ghost" also explores what it means to be a teen, both 100 years ago and today.  It asks whether there is a schedule for falling in love, getting married, and taking on responsibilities.  Emily's ghostly origin provides a mirror for Anya to reflect on her own feelings and path.

Best of all, this is a ghost story, and at times it becomes genuinely scary.  Much more effective than a shocking surprise in a movie, Brosgol provides some psychological terror, which is effective no matter what age, young or adult.  The result is truly haunting.

I saw Brosgol talk about her book several years ago in Portland.  She says that inking is her favorite part, and it's evident by her clean, dark, lines.  (You can see a presentation of her process here.)  She spent three years working on "Anya's Ghost" and the beautiful black and white with shades of lavender result is worth it.

According to her talk, she likes to focus on the expressions. She has a mirror at work, and even if she's not looking in the mirror she's making the face of the character she's drawing. Like many artists, her day job takes priority over personal projects, and drawing at work uses the same part of her brain. Her real passion is telling her own stories. The problem us just that she's chosen an inefficient method of telling stories.  At the time she was working on a revised version of a web comic she did in high school called "Return to Sender."

Brosgol is also a storyboard artist at LAIKA, where she worked on the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Her twitter handle is @VeraBee and her website is verabee.com.  You can also check out her minicomic, "raised by wolves," at verabee.com/wolf/

9/21/14

Rose City Comic-con 2014

Here are some of my sketchnotes from Rose City Comic Con, 2014.


Gigi Edgley, who played Chiana on Farscape, as well as appearing in The Lost World, Beastmaster and Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge, was very charming.


Will Wheaton is known for playing Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as appearing on Big Bang, and producing and directing other TV shows and podcasts. He's also known for Wheaton's Law: "don't be a dick." The moderator led him into discussions of mental health, step-children, pets and board games.


Greg Rucka is a well-known thriller author as well as a voluminous comic-book writer. During this talk he shared some gems of inspiration and sweat on writing My favorite comes from his thesis adviser at Vassar.


Tom Cook worked for Hanna-Barbera and Filmation studios in the 70's and 80's. He worked on nearly every episode of Filmation's He-man and the Masters of the Universe. He talked about the process of making a cartoon for Saturday morning in the era before computers and animation software.


Jeff Parker is a comic-book writer currently working on Aquaman, Batman '66, and his own project Meteor Men


While at the con, I picked up a copy of Rucka's Lazarus, Natalie Nourigat's A Boy & a Girl, Jen van Meter's work on JSA, Jeff Parker's Meteor Men and Batman '66, and special thanks to Eric Trautmann for a copy of his work Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist.


Oh, and here's a crummy photo of Sean Astin, Joe Pantalione, and Garret Wang talking about The Goonies and the Lord of the Rings.  The talk was interesting, but I was too far back to (a) get a good photo or (b) see clearly enough to sketch Astin and Pantalione.

Speaking of crowded rooms, Ben Saunders' talk on Secret Identity Politics was surprisingly popular. I was approximately 120th in line, in a room that held 120 people. I decided to forego the talk, but having seen him speak before, I figured it must have been interesting.  He needs to bottle that. Or, at least write another book..



4/24/14

Secrets of the Batcave 1968

I always found Batman's tags and labels helpful and inspiring to a kid who wanted to build his own Batcave. At one point I worked with some friends to renovate an abandoned horse shed into a secret hideout. Although fun, it was never as impressive as Batman's Batcave from 1968.  Under Wayne Manor, Batman has it all: a lab, computerized crime files, trophy room and Batplane hangar.


While the Batcave was awesome, the Dynamic Duo's utility belts totally confused me. They always seemed to have the right gimmick stowed away, but these detailed drawings are pretty limited.
Time hasn't been kind to the utility belts. "Self-sealing flaps" are about as fancy as Velcro, and nearly everyone has a two-way communicator (cell phone, duh!).



This last panel is from a story where Batman and Robin design a new Batplane. I don't think I'd like to have to use the "human ejector tubes."



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