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."



4/23/14

Inside the Baxter Bldg.

I always loved the maps and cutaway views of the Justice League's headquarters, Challenger Island, or the Bat Cave.  Switching from DC to Marvel, here's "Inside the Baxter Bldg." from the Fantastic Four Annual #1.  Pencils by Kirby.

Note that "Torch and sister Sue Storm commute from suburbs -- use rooms below for convenience."  Both Ben's room and Johnny's room stand between Sue and Reed.  Sue's room is dangerously close to the exhaust pipes from the rocket silo.

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.


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