4/13/14

On the 100th Anniversary of World War I

World War I was the unfortunate result of mixing modern technology with traditional warfare.  Applying the assembly line mentality to the battlefield meant that thousands of new recruits and untried weapons could be quickly fed into the trenches, often with disastrous results.  Uniforms, and protective headgear were not made for modern warfare -- they were usually more of a liability than an asset.  And although planes, tanks and guns were changing almost daily, those so-called advances only made the weapons more unpredictable.  Meanwhile, medical treatment was the same as the previous century. Antibiotics and sterile environments were simply not available, and even a simple wound was often fatal. 

This year marks 100 years since the beginning of World War I.  Obviously, one hundred years means that hardly anyone alive today was there, and of those few, probably none of them remember it. So, it is up to the historians and researchers to keep the memories and experiences alive.  

Since 1991, and CNN's reporting on the first Gulf War, Americans have been used to immediate, and often sanitized, images of warfare.  Going backward in time, TV and newsreel footage of Vietnam, the Korean War, and World War II are also commonly available. But photos and movies from World War I are much less common. So, it is interesting to see two recent graphic novels covering World War I.

The Great War: July 1, 1916 by Joe Sacco is an epic accordion book focusing on one day during World War I: July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme.  The battle was supposed to be the turning point in the war, the Big Push, that would break the German line and morale.

The Great War is a 24-page long epic scroll of the battle.  It starts with a scene of British General Douglas Haig strolling the grounds of the Scottish Churches' Hut on the ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer in France. As the scene shifts we see the rear lines, new recruits, polished cavalry soldiers, and neatly packaged Howitzers alongside stacks of rations and supplies.

The scroll continues into the night before the battle, showing soldiers packed into trenches so tightly that most slept standing up, if at all.  And then, with a bang, the battle begins at 7 am as scheduled by the regimented British commanders.

Sacco says that one of his influences was the Bayeux Tapestry.  The reference is immediately obvious, although, the Normans were more successful in their attack than the British were at the Somme.  Of the 120,000 British troops in the battle, nearly half of them were dead by the end of the day.  The basic assumptions for the attack were horribly inaccurate, but once the machine of war was put into motion it was almost impossible to stop.  To call off any part of the attack would have branded the generals and captains as cowards. Additionally, military policemen were placed among the troops to stop any stragglers from retreating and turn them toward the front.

A detail of one page of the panorama of the Western Front in Joe Sacco's The Great War.
Accompanying the scroll is a separate book "On The Great War," with notes by Joe Sacco, and an essay by Adam Hochschild providing some historical context for the battle.

In Sacco's notes he mentions Goddamn This War! by Jacques Tardi & Jean-Pierre Verney.  Originally published in French in 1993, Fantagraphics has recently printed it in English.

Jacques Tardi has been a renowned comics artist in France since the 70s, but a lack of translation into English has limited distribution of his work in the US.  In the past couple years Fantagraphics, especially the late Kim Thompson, has been translating his books.  

   
Goddamn This War! is a punch-in-the-gut recounting of a French soldier's experience during World War One. The story is told from a first-person point of view, but it seems like we could be jumping from any soldier to another.  The narrative is disjointed, and most characters only appear briefly before they die in a trench, or are blown up, or are shot before a firing squad.  The only recurring character is a German soldier who appears from time to time as the opposing army's version of our unreliable narrator.


Simply put, war is hell.  Soldiers are shot, blown up, caught in barb wire, buried as trenches cave in, and die in myriad miserable ways.  Even when there's hope there's death. Men brought back from the front have simple wounds and are expected to recover, but then die from gangrene. One reason, is that the wounded are transported in 8-horse, 40 man rail-cars that are still soiled by horse manure, adding to the infection.

Goddamn This War! has a lot more narrative than The Great War. One interesting commentary includes the story of Maggi Kub stores.  These were Swiss stores that sold soup bouillon and other groceries, but because of the name the French thought they were German stores, and fronts for spies. In a fit of paranoia, their billboards were thought to be directions for the invading Germans, so a French minister ordered destruction of any sign near railways.



The story is tough, and the artwork holds up its end of the work.  While it starts full of color, after the first year of war the drawings are mostly shades of grey punctuated with red. After the war ends, some colors return, but not many.

As living memory of World War I fades, both Sacco in The Great War, and Tardi and Verney in Goddamn This War! provide a "you are there" perspective on events of the war. They do this with cartoons, but the artwork provides enough immediacy that you feel for the drawings on the page.  This is important. As Sacco mentions, it is not for him to indict anyone, it is enough to present the images to make one realize the futility of war.

4/12/14

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

This review should open with a warning: reading Relish will make you hungry.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a foodie graphic memoir with recipes.  It's less like Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" and more like Ruth Reichl's "Tender at the Bone," exploring the influences her family and friends had on her food experiences as she grew up.  There are twelve chapters, ranging from her memories growing up with foodie parents living in New York to trips to Mexico, Japan and Italy, and her later experiences as she lives on her own.

Much of the book looks at her family.  We learn that when her mother was pregnant with Lucy, she worked as a cheese monger at Dean & DeLuca, and also found catering gigs.  Her father puts a strong emphasis on culture in books, music and art, as well as enjoying fine meals.  Together, they provide both the environment and genetics that spur Knisley to create Relish.
Young Lucy is unaware she's a foodie
Although this memoir is personal, it is easy to find common themes that everyone can relate to.  Her trip to Japan sounds a lot like my own experience when I chaperoned a group of school kids to that country. I also recognize the feeling of having a craving, and then baking a batch of cookies simply to eat one.  Similarly, her story of eating a croissant (or four) early one morning in Venice, Italy sounds familiar.  All this underscores her point: food brings us together, and many of us live to eat.

The cartoon style does a great job at visual short-cuts.  I particularly liked one frame showing her looking into a window at the cute cheesemaker guys -- no need to describe further. Also, she puts the cartoon medium to good use.  Rather than find actual portraits of Mr. Fox and Mr. Obel, the founders of the store where she worked, she draws them as she imagines them.  I also liked the cartoon comparisons of her mother as Demeter, and her father as Zeus.


The drawings of the food, while cartoony, still make me hungry.  Even better, the recipes sound delicious.  I'll have to try her sushi drink -- ginger, lime and maple syrup over seltzer water ("add vodka to taste").

Relish works on many levels: as a memoir, as a YA reader, as a recipe book. Best of all, the levels mix together, like the layered enchilada her mother made.  Excuse me now while I go shopping for ingredients to make the sauteed mushrooms with garlic and olive oil.

These tamales, even though they're comics, look so good.
From "Relish" by Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley is also the author of French Milk and Make Yourself Happy. Her website is www.lucyknisley.com.

3/12/14

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Four years ago, before "Habibi" was published, Craig Thompson was at Stumptown Comics Fest to explain his work in progress. The answers were obscure, as if he himself was not entirely clear what he had wrought.

Later, when I had a chance to actually read the story, I realized the problem was not with Thompson's understanding, but the arena for discussion. Habibi is like a golden braided cord, woven through with layers both visual and metaphoric.  In many ways it's a meditation on stories, presenting many other stories within the book, similar to Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights. Next to this complexity, Thompson's brief presentation is excused for being only superficial and vague.

Massive in size and content, the book presents a world that could be the the present or the near future.  It focuses on two two orphans, Dodola and Zam, who escape slavery to grow up together on a boat in the desert.  For a while their stranded boat is an oasis, until they become slaves of one kind or another once again.


As mentioned, the setting at first seems ancient, but things like motorcycles and plastic bottles, modern cities and water wars intrude. While Habibi also explores the stories of the Quran and the Bible, it focuses on the story of desert life, water lost and found.

Craig Thompson has had a quirky body of work. From his early cartoonish and poignant "Chunky Rice," to the breakout memoir "Blankets," to his sketchbook "Carnet de Voyage," all of them and none of them prepare you for "Habibi."  The black and white art is stark, at time feeling like a linoleum or woodcut. Thompson often pauses in the story to present full page musings on Arabic history, or comparing the Muslim and Christian cultures.  Later, he has a full section consisting of only words contained in otherwise blank frames.


Here are my notes from his appearance at Stumptown Comics Fest 2010:
As of 2010, Craig Thompson had been working on Habibi for the past six years.  He said that "Blankets" took three and a half years, completing about two pages a day.  A lot of the background patterns in Habibi were inspired by calligraphy and doing the patterns was a way for him to meditate on them.

Q: Why not do your work on a computer?
A: Many reasons. American guilt, craftsmanship, (he) wants to be egoless, humble. Drawing this way is taking the glamour out of the process.  It's also a sort of a psychedelic experience, a Unity of experience like Sufi meditation.  Influenced by Rumi and Hafiz  (Persian poets).  (He is) trying to achieve unity through drawing, which is sort of ironic because he's doing this alone.

At this point Thompson follows a tangent, talking about which artists he likes to draw with:

  • His favorite drawing days are with Theo Ellsworth.  He notices a difference between drawing with American vs European artists. The American school is very precise, controlled.  The French disdain this: they scorn penciling, preferring to go direct to ink.
  • He has traveled with Chris Ware and also with Seth.
  • He mentions a French cartoonist Edmond Baudoin, whose work has not been translated into English.
  • Q: How did your travel influence your work?
  • A: The sketches from his sketchbook influenced Habibi.  (He) had broken up with his girlfriend, so he was traveling alone.  During a trip to Europe the publishers set up too many signings, stressed. So he took off to Morocco. Due to a deadline he had to do production work in the middle of the trip.

Q: Can you read Arabic?
A: He can read the alphabet and can sound out words, but can't translate.

Q: Where the character names in Habibi come from?
A: "Zam" comes from the sacred well of zamzam.   Dodola is a Serbian rain goddess. There was a long research phase for Habibi.

Q: What's your process?
A: Did an initial sketchbook as stream of consciousness. Hated it. Then created a nonlinear structured and that punched it up. Took years before he realized the ending of story-- only last year (2009).  Fall of 2006 is when he actually started drawing the book.  The publisher did not ask for a lot of editing, but they mostly acted as a proofreader.  Thompson spent six months revising the ending.

Q:Where did you get the inspiration for Habibi?
A: (The settings come) from actual architecture and photos, but it's always tweaked.  In the mornings, he does sketches and writes ideas. Afternoons are for revision and finishing. Almost every day he wings it a bit.
Thompson's goal with Habibi was to humanize and compare Arabic society with Christian society.  At the time in 2010 he said he had set a personal challenge: five books in five years.

"Habibi" won the 2012 Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist, and has been nominated for a 2014 Oregon Book Award Best Graphic Novel.  Craig Thompson's website www.dootdootgarden.com.

3/10/14

Journalism by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco doesn’t make it easy for anyone.  


He doesn’t make it easy for himself. In an era when printed media is dying, and news stories have to travel at the speed of light just to make a dent in public perception, he has chosen to become a cartoon journalist.  Not only is that an uphill career path, but he is determined to tell the stories of the under-recognized refugees and victims of wars and national conflicts. So, he travels to some of the most dangerous spots on Earth, sometimes accompanied by bodyguards, to sketch a woman’s story of how her daughter was killed in a rocket attack on their house.


He also makes it tough on the reader. These stories aren’t pretty. For example, it is hard to grasp the silver lining in a situation where a man in a Chechnyan refugee camp has to build his own mud hut because Russian army soldiers have stolen his tent in a ploy to make him leave the camp.



And he probably makes it difficult for the subjects of his stories, who have to relive the worst days of their lives as they re-tell their stories to Sacco: an Eritrean refugee who survived a war and a trip across the desert of northern Africa only to meet injustice in Malta, a woman who cries when she sees Sacco's bodyguards, worrying they are Russian thugs, and the man who loses all hope as he recounts how Israeli Defense Forces bulldozed his home.


Yes, these stories are not easy reading, but valuable.  And when Sacco takes the time and effort to compose these people and their stories into the comics we see in his book “Journalism,” it magnifies the details of their stories to have more impact than a photograph or news article.  Reading this book brings out the full power that comics, as image and narrative combined into a linear story, can have on an audience.


“Journalism” is a series of articles compiled from work done between 1998 and 2010, and it shows Sacco’s artistic style grow from a journeyman to a master.  Each story stands as an example for his attention to detail -- a fully rendered a military checkpoint complete with sandbags, razorwire and radio antennae - a refugee camp with laundry, water pipes and crumbling buildings -- a Bosnian street, shelled until the houses are collapsing, but with people still on their way to work.  But Sacco’s real art is as his subjects evolve beyond mere caricatures to become living people. Yet he always insists on introducing a slightly cartoonish version of himself as the narrator, so we never lose focus of who’s telling the story, and who’s recording it.



Sacco mentions this himself in the preface.
“Objectivity...I have no trouble with the word itself, if it simply means approaching a story without any preconceived ideas at all. The problem is I don’t think most journalists approach a story that has any importance in that way. I certainly can’t…” 
He continues, “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing.”

Each comic section has accompanying text providing insight into why Sacco wrote the piece, who might have hired him for the job, and adding his personal retrospectives of the work.  He’s honest, and you can get a sense from his voice what drives him to create these massive comic documentaries.


“Journalism” shows what journalism could be doing better: bringing the small, humanizing details to life, making people more connected rather than more disenfranchised, and telling the stories of those people who don’t have the voice to tell their own. Sacco doesn’t make thing easy for anyone, but hopefully some of his stories will make things better for some.

One of the sections in "Journalism," titled "The Palestinian Territories," was expanded into his book Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel. "Gaza" won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in the category of best "Graphic Literature" and it has been announced that the book is in development to become a film.  

Joe Sacco doesn't appear to have a website, nor is he on twitter.

2/22/14

Between Gears by Natalie Nourigat


“Was I ever so young?”  That’s the question that pops into my mind as I read the bio-comic Between Gears TP by Natalie Nourigat.  The answer is: Yes, but I don't remember it that way. One reason is because I lacked the discipline and perseverance to document a full year of that youth.


“Between Gears” is a slice-of-life diary of Nourigat’s senior year in college.  It begins September 17th as she returns to school, and wraps up on June 14th, a couple days after graduation when she moves back to Portland.  “Between Gears” is similar to a blog, or the original diarist, Samuel Pepys, but the comic form makes it more accessible, each page bringing a day to life using only five to ten panels.


I’ve seen many autobiographical comics, but unless the author has a good hook, like in Maus: A Survivor's Tale, or an epic story such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the challenge is for the author to bring structure to daily life.  Nourigat only touches on this tangentially, opting instead to highlight the plot twists that make days memorable: finding a cat in an alley, spending a happy-hour eating nachos with a friend, or a successful trip to Emerald City Comic Con.  For the most part, her microscope finds some interesting moments.


Nourigat has a deft hand for cartooning, jumping from mini-manga, to heavier line caricatures, and tossing in the occasional larger, more detailed drawings.  Most of the style reminds me of something between Scott Pilgrim and Raina Telgemeier's Smile.  I also appreciated the bonus material at the end that describes her process.


As a diarist, Nourigat chooses not to push any boundaries.  There’s not a lot of tension in the comic, especially on any day. The major crises that arise are: tonsillectomy, whether to participate in a Japanese immersion program, and whether she will be successful in her bid to become an artist or whether she’ll succumb to a “salary job.”  (Spoiler: if you're reading “Between Gears” you know the answer to the last question.)  Day-to-day problems concern spiders, lost debit cards, sudden rainstorms, and mildly embarrassing situations.  Even her relationship with a boyfriend arrives quietly like a cat, and leaves with only a slight bump. (Like a dog pushing open a screen door?)


Perhaps because this diary was created to be published, Nourigat omits some of her more personal issues. She mentions this in the bonus material.  Yet, I felt there were too many things left unexplained.  I’m accustomed to an author like Patrick O’Brien throwing a situation out there, and leaving it untouched for a couple pages, but in “Changing Gears,” some things were permanently unexplained.  I read twenty pages before I understood that “J.E.T.” had to do with the Japanese exchange program.  There were also references to her friend Emi’s bio-comic EmiTown that could have been expanded.  Is this on purpose, or due to an oversight?  I would have liked to have seen fewer assumptions made regarding people and events from Natalie Nourigat’s Portland comics world that appeared and disappeared but without much elucidation.


The ending makes a conscious effort to bring the story to a close, and that worked for me. After hundreds of pages, I was enamored of her character, but I was also ready for her to move on to life after college.  Some day, when she’s even more accomplished, she’ll look back on “Changing Gears,” and think “Was I ever this young?” and the answer will be there, in book form, the young Natalie, living life day-by-day on the page of this charming bio comic.
 
Natalie Nourigat works with Periscope Studios in Portland, Oregon.  Her art can be seen on Deviant Art, and on her website natalienourigat.com. "Between Gears" has been nominated for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards (OBA) in the Graphic Novel category.


Oil and Water by Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler


After the fatal explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, the oil spill seemed to seep like a fever dream, ultimately lasting 87 days before it could be capped.  The news of the environmental and economic disaster blanketed news media until eventually the public became inured to the catastrophe, and people moved on. Except, in Grand Isle, Louisiana where the oil remained, seeping into the bayou and coating the ocean’s floor.


That same year, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler traveled to Louisiana to bear witness to the devastation, and to try to understand the event on a personal level.  The result of their visit has been transformed into the graphic novel Oil and Water.


Instead of literally describing Duin and Wheeler’s visit to the gulf, “Oil and Water” depicts a fictional delegation of ten Oregonians sent by the governor to help document the environmental and economic impact of the spill.  Among the group is an ornithologist, a Congresswoman, a reporter and some high school students.  The story is set after the spill has been capped, and the cleanup is in progress.  The delegates visit a bird rescue center, take a trip on a crab boat, talk with the locals and wrestle with their own feelings about the catastrophe.


In addition to the sparse line and watercolor art from Shannon Wheeler, I like the way Steve Duin has decided to explore the issue. By splitting the observers into a group, it provides a way to examine the incident from multiple viewpoints. Much like blind men understanding an elephant, the characters explore the massive oil spill from the edges, finding small parts to the puzzle and trying to fit it all together. This piecemeal discussion not only brings the catastrophe down to the human scale, but also gives an impression of isolation in the face of an overwhelming event.


Still, it’s not all depressing. “Oil and Water” has bits of often wry humor.  For example, when a crab fisherman talks about skipping dinner because he’s worked a long day, the car drives past a local restaurant serving a special on imported Alaskan crab.  Also, in a different exchange, one character questions another whether they know the difference between Katrina, a natural disaster, and the BP oil spill. Although it sounds dry, the dialogue and cartoons make it funny.


It’s a bit frustrating, but the choices they have made in creating “Oil and Water” are also what could potentially lose readers. For example, some characters may seem disjointed.  As I see it, the gaps are choices, similar to the way Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants” never discusses the actual tragedy, but lays out all the facts around it.  This method of storytelling requires the reader’s participation to fill in the gaps, but it could be offputting to some. (Incredible but true, I've met people who don't like reading Hemingway!) I would have like to have seen closure on one particular character that disappeared halfway through the story.


In his role as a Steve Duin columnist for the Oregonian, many of his articles are based on personal slices of life, and “Oil and Water” is as good an example of this as any of his other work. He also co-wrote “Comics: Between the Panels,” a history of comics, with Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson.


Shannon Wheeler is a cartoonist best known for his creation “Too Much Coffee Man,” but also a contributor to the New Yorker, and author of many other books of comics.


“Oil and Water” has been nominated for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards (OBA) in the Graphic Novel category.


Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch


Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite is the second "Hereville" book from Barry Deutsch. In the first book the heroine Mirka outwitted a witch, won a magic sword, and defeated a goblin. In “Meteorite,” Mirka re-ignites the feud between the witch and the goblin, and ends up bringing down a meteor on Hereville.  Fortunately for the town, the witch changes the meteorite into a twin of Mirka, called Metty.  The girl and the meteorite decide to share Mirka’s life, until  Metty shows herself as extremely competent at everything, and Mirka feels useless.  She challenges Metty the meteorite to three tests. If Metty loses to Mirka on any one of the tests, the meteorite girl must return return to space.  Unfortunately, Metty is so good at everything, Mirka starts to despair whether she will ever get her life back.


“Meteorite” does a nice job of expanding Hereville. It seems more like an amalgam of modern life (or, maybe the 60's) overlaid with a template of 1900s rural living.  For example, at one point the goblin refers to NASA, but Mirka doesn’t seem to know the acronym.  She is also confused by a design tattooed on the witch’s arm.  All the clothes look like handmade articles, but a scene of Mirka running down a street of craftsman bungalows with a VW Bug parked at the curb looks like NW Portland. Could it be that Deutsch is dropping these small hints as he prepares for a larger story?


The ultimate resolution to Mirka's predicament is as clever, exciting, and satisfying as any fairy tale. And it is a fairy tale -- witch, goblin, magic swords and all.  But, it is also a modern story. Mirka is a self-rescuing princess, and the world she comes from is woven from a rich tapestry.  Like the first book, I enjoyed the infusion of Jewish culture into the story.  Deutsch annotates many of the pages with footnotes translating the Yiddish words that the characters use.  The effect adds a solid touch of the exotic to Hereville.


The artwork is competent, clean and engaging.  His mastery of the characters shines through. For example, Metty is drawn neater, happier and more confident than Mirka, who has a slightly frazzled look.  The slapstick feeling of the art enhances the story, and the final sequence in space goes completely off the rails, shedding all rules of physics and biology. But that’s OK. We still feel for Mirka, and want her to return to her life safely.  And, hopefully, for a third Hereville story!


"How Mirka Met a Meteorite" has been nominated for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards (OBA) in the Graphic Novel category. You can read a preview of the book online. 



2/4/14

List of comics I wish I had time to read

I've been reading (and re-reading) the nominees for graphic novels for the Oregon Book Awards this year.
Meanwhile, I have this other list of comics that I want to read, but haven't yet gotten around to...
  • The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun
  • Stumptown
  • The Legend of Bold Riley
  • Sketch Monsters
  • Bad Medicine, Vol. 1: New Moon
  • The Creep
  • Upgrade Soul
  • Alabaster: Wolves 
  • Blacksad: A Silent Hell 
  • The Black Beetle 
  • The Secret History of D.B. Cooper 
  • The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln 
  • Finder: Talisman
  • Crogan’s Adventures
  • The Yellow Zine
  • Jumbo Deluxe
  • Wings for Wheels, “Home is Where the Boss Is”
  • Heads or Tails
  • Skin Deep: Exchanges
  • A Comic Guide to Brewing Coffee
  • Grandville
  • Bucko
  • Heads or Tails
  • Once Upon a Time Machine
  • No Straight Lines
  • Creepy
  • The Devastator
  • Smut Peddler
  • Poorcraft: The Funnybook Fundamentals of Living Well on Less
  • Terra Tempo: The Four Corners of Time
  • Devastator #7
  • Fame and Misfortune
  • Decrypting Rita
  • High Crimes
  • The Legend of Bold Riley
  • Polterguys