The Abominable Mr Seabrook by Joe Ollmann – A Review

The Abominable Mr Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly, 2017, pg 296

theabominablemrseabrook_thumbPassion projects don’t always succeed. They can bog down in details that are only interesting to the idiosyncrasies of the author.  Fortunately, Joe Ollmann’s The Abominable Mr Seabrook is the opposite: a well written and sensitive exploration of a forgotten writer from the 1920’s and 30’s.

William Seabrook was a travel writer, adventure journalist, and a best selling author during the 20’s. He was also a self destructive man who drank too much, was in and out of asylums, and ultimately committed suicide.  The Abominable is at times a sad story, but it is an endlessly fascinating one, too. Seabrook’s adventures were impressive. He showed Crusoe around Atlanta. He was an ambulance driver during WWI. He lived with the Bedouins for a couple years, which he wrote about in his book Adventures in Arabia (27). He went to Haiti and studied the rites of Voodoo, the Magic Island (29). It was the book that introduced zombie to Americans. He traveled through West Africa and supposedly ate with the cannibals. Jungle Ways (30).

_seabrook_aWhile those feats might be interesting on themselves, what makes Seabrook interesting is his chaotic life. He was friends with many of the writers and artists of the Lost Generation: Gertrude Stien, the Manns, Man Ray. He was famous and moved amongst some of the famous people of the 20’s and 30’s. Seabrook both enjoyed the fame and let it ruin him. He was constantly at parties and was a raging alcoholic.  On top of all this, Seabrook was a sexual sadist. He derived pleasure from tying women up and though he was married several times, he never gave up his practices. At one point he and Man Ray worked on a project about bondage together.

Ollmann weaves all these threads together with skill and sympathy. While the entry point to Seabrook might be his adventures, its the exploration of his personal life that really makes the story stand out. This is where Ollmann’s extensive research and affection for his subject comes through. While this is not a scholarly biography. Ollmann is clear on his sources and as he narrates Seabrook’s life, he is also narrating the construction of a biography, showing us how each source viewed Seabrooks descent into alcoholism. Ollmann isn’t afraid to call out some of Seabrook’s lies of omission. Seabrook was a complex man and Ollmann shows him as such. It is what makes The Abominable Mr Seabrook such a good book.

My favorite part of the book, the one that shows Ollmann’s dedication to his subject, is at the end. It’s a two page spread. On one side is a photo of a stack of Seabrook’s books that Ollmann has bought over the years. The other is a little one to two sentence description of each. It captures the beauty of a well written passion project and celebrates the world of books. It’s also a bibliophile’s book: Ollmann mentions he has “spent thousands on out of print books and magazines.” A good book indeed.

 

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Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde – A Review

Southern Cross
Laurence Hyde
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, pg 255
Original Publish Date Ward Richie Press, 1951

Laurence Hyde’s Southern Cross is a wordless novel made from wood cuts. Much as Lynd Ward, Frans Massreel, and Otto Nuckel before him, Hyde wrote his novel with images, relying on his skills as an artist to create a visual language. It is a difficult art, as he points out in his survey of the art included with the book. One that takes careful planning. A rewrite means he has to recarve one or more of his blocks. The results, though, can be evocative.

Southern Cross is fiction, but it tells the story of the American atomic bomb tests at the bikini atoll during the 40s. He tells the story from the perspective of the native islanders and sees the tests as not only an invasion, but a literal rape of a peaceful people. Hyde contrasts idelic drawings of the islands and its sea life with the arrival of the Americans. While the Americans seem peaceful, not only do they want to take the people from their homes, an American rapes one of the native women. Nothing will stop the bomb. The woman’s husband kills the American and they hide on the island. When the bomb is detonated they die.

l-hyde-southern-cross-image-1
A shark

Hyde is none too subtle in his criticism. While his story of an ideal people destroyed by the modern world at its most destructive is well tread, for its time, 1951, it is a brave statement. The rape seems a little over the top, as if the crime of stealing someones home for atomic tests wasn’t bad enough. Is rape really the only crime that make Americans look bad? The escaped to a doomed freedom is the much more compelling aspect of the book and on its own might have been enough.

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Firing the bomb

The plot aside, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ferocity of the bomb is the most striking aspect. It is also the easiest to render visually and in pure symbolism holds up the best. Hyde sees such destruction as an obscenity and in rendering the natural world so carefully he seeks to reconstruct and lament what was lost.

Southern Cross is a fine example of the art of the wordless novel. Perhaps a little one sided; still, an important addition to any collection of these works. Drawn & Quarterly should be commended for their high-fidelity reprint. Not only is it printed on high quality paper, it preserves every detail of Hyde’s original addition, including his overview of the wordless novel up to that point.

Building Stories by Chris Ware – A Review

tumblr_m4doenYhNZ1r4t46jo3_1280Building Stories
Chris Ware
Pantheon Books, 2012, pg 200

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is not only a genre bending work, but a form bending work that seeks to create a graphic novel that is more than just panels and words, but an expression of the full potential of the form. While the graphic novel, at least since Maus, has been respected for its content potential, in other words, the ability to tells stories that heretofore had been the domain of text only forms, often what I see released are 60 pages of panels that relate a rather straight forward short story. Sure, the drawing styles are all different, but fundamentally it seems as nothing has changed since the early days of Superman. Naturally, there are exceptions, such as a favorite of this blog, Joe Sacco, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with panels and text. But the form has existed for close to a century now and it’s time for a little more experiments with form. All of this is to say, Building Stories is something new that takes Ware’s already know penchant for genre mixing in his Acme Comics Library works and creates his most interesting and form breading work.

Contained in a box and composed of multiple different pieces, all in different sizes an formats, from books to newspaper size folded sections to a board game like tablet. It may be that the format is a legacy of the publishing history of these pieces, many of which have appeared in various forms over the last 10 years.  Nevertheless, the different formats play with the history of the comic form, from newspaper section to comic book to graphic novel. It is a tactile game that makes reading each section different from the previous. More over, there is no order to read the pieces. They can be read in any order and the story of the four lives contained within continually rewrite themselves as you begin each new section and have to rethink a previous piece. What makes Ware’s work even more interesting is that he uses the graphic elements to their fullest. He is well known for using popular forms as newspapers and advertizements within his work, and he continues that is these pieces. But he also plays with the form, often rearranging the way a series of panels should be read on the page, allowing the placement of his images, not the narrative to dictate the art. It also makes for a more engaged reading, because the reader can not just slip from panel to panel, but must stop and take stock of the page as a whole to navigate. Where Ware is often at his best are in the moments where there are no words and he just has a series of panels that express in a subtle way, the emotional state of his characters. Given that much of his work is precise and geometric, often eschewing great detail, his skill at showing the internal desperation of a character, often in just subtly repeating a frame, is impressive.

Building Stories follows the lives of the residents of a turn of the century apartment building as they lead lives of quiet desperation. Ware’s most evocative writing comes in the untitled hard bound book, which provides an alternating view into the lives of four people who live in the building: the old woman who owns the building; a couple who always fights; and a one legged woman who works in a florist shop and spends most of her time apart. Their stories intertwine the loneliness that can come even though one lives right next door to someone else. The desperation is every present through out the work as a whole, and is a reflection of failed dreams and lives that have settled into a rut. For the florist, the character Ware will develop throughout the work, her life has never lived up to expectations and she is constantly aware of it, equipped with all the tools an art school education can give to analyze the world, and yet never come to any realization of where one should go.

Also included are two booklets about a bee and the alternate universe he lives in. The bee is a hard worker and the stories follow his attempts to be a good provider for his family. The bee stories provide some comic relief, but only slightly. There, too, is the same sense of longing to find ones way, Ware has just recast from the point of view of a bee. They are fun stories that make what could be a very self absorbed collection about humans, into something a little broader that can describe the real sense of loneliness of the characters, but also poke fun at the way humans create the  conditions that make them so unhappy.

If I have any complaint, its that only in the hard bound book do we get a complete picture of the residents of the building. After the florist leaves the building and begins her life outside of it, the other characters disappear. While it may have been impossible to work characters together that really had no relationship other than proximity, it would have been an interesting task. I suspect it’s because Ware wrote the sections independent of the Building Stories concept. That said, the life of the florist as she becomes a mother and moves to Oak Park, Chicago confronts middle class anxieties in Ware’s visually arresting style, and is still as interesting as the life in the building.

Metro: A Story of Cairo by Magdy El Shafee – A Review of a Censored Graphic Novel from Egypt

Metro: A Story of Cairo
Magdy El Shafee
Metropolitan Books, 2012, pg 95

Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo is the much anticipated publication in English of the Egyptian author’s banned work. When published in 2008 it was banned for “offending public morals” and remains banned despite the change in government. The offending public morals is one of those classic phrases of despotic regimes and rarely do the artists condemned with those words actually offend anything but the regime’s sense of invincibility. Given the profound changes that have swept over Egypt in the last year and a half, Metro, which was written and baned several years before those events, has taken on not only the voice of protest it has always had, but also a document of the problems that led to the Arab Spring.

The story itself is rather simple: two young software developers Shehab and Mustafa who get shafted on a business deal by a corrupt businessman. They are broke and a friend of theirs, an old man, tells him he is going blind. The two men decide to steal the money using their electronic know-how. It fails but on the way out of the building they come upon a government official demanding a payoff from the head of the bank. In one of those great lines that catches the flavor of the whole book the banker says,

Collateral, your excellency? What collateral? You honor us by taking our loan…

Running parallel to the story is a murder that the boys witness and try to solve . The murder brings them into the ins and out of corruption. The police are untrustworthy, the press is week, and no one seems to care. At one point the one of the boys says,

People are numb. Nothing has any effect on them. They put up with so much, they just say. “Well, that’s how things are in this country of ours.”

And to illustrate that the last third of the novel breaks out into a violent protest march that is  broken up by government thugs pretending to be protesters. It is a prescient part of the book, foretelling the types of protests that were to happen a few years later.

Shafee’s Egypt is burdened down by corrupt politicians, unreliable  police, businessmen who’ll cheat you every chance they get knowing there is no recourse to complain if they are connected, and an economic system that is so dependent on payoffs that it is virtually impossible to start a new business. When the young men try to sell their software they are completely blocked by inaccessibility to funds and corruption. Their only hope is to steal, or to immigrate. To show this complete collapse of possibilities their friend, an old merchant, has given up and has taken to begging. But his begging is just as corrupt and what he says has nothing to do with his economic circumstances. It is impossible to trust anyone when the only way to succeed is to cheat, to steal and to lie. It is a truth that not only fills almost every encounter in the book, but one that Shehab will find even destroys his closest illusions.

Metro is written as a noir with  Shehab narrating in much the same way. He opens the book saying, “We’ve spent our whole lives in this cage, but two weeks ago, when the bars began to close in, things became clearer. Our eyes were opened and we made a decision.” Shehab is a modern outsider, both a hacker and a ninja-like figure who welds a staff like Bruce Lee, one of his heroes. Since computing can be mysterious hacking makes for the perfect type of priestly warrior, one whose special skills allow him to combat the abuses of society. He is a mix of Batman, Philip Marlow, and a Shaolin monk. It can be a stultifying image, one that takes away from the brutal realities he is describing. What saves the book is that almost no one gets what they want. As with all noir the power isn’t necessarily in the reality, but the but the power to show all the corrupt elements of a society at once, even if that creates mythic heroes that lead to their own escapist fantasies.

The art work of Metro is much like that of the cover photo. Occasionally, a guest artist will do a page or two in a completely different style. Many frames are rough and still have the original pencil tracings. It all leads to an impression of a hurried and unfinished place. He also shifts his style to accentuate the comedic as when he draws the beggar in his comic moments. The most polished moments are during the protests when the wide sweep of violence are shown in sweeping gestures, more abstract and more brutal. They were the most effective sequences in the book.

Overall its a fascinating book that still has its roots in the comic, but whose power comes from criticisms. It will be interesting to see if without the urgency of the times, the story will still stand up and not turn into a noir that does not have the power to evoke a society on the edge.

You can read an interview with Shafee at Arab Lit in English.

Frans Masereel – The City, The Idea, The Sun, Story Without Words – A Review


The City: A Vision in Woodcuts (Dover Books on Art, Art History)
Dover, 112pg


The Sun, The Idea & Story Without Words: Three Graphic Novels
Dover, 224pg

Frans Masereel was an early proponent of the graphic novel and the sub genre the wordless novel. Most of his famous wordless novels which use the wood cut printing technique date from 1919 to the 20’s, are beautiful documents of its time, at once impressionistic and documentary. Although his work was not overtly political, he was a critic of a society that valued wealth and power above all things and his stories usually reflect some element of that criticism. At all times he has a great fascination with the little details that make up every day life. It is in that juxtaposition of layers of little details that his works build their narrative, or as it often seems, makes his case, since some of these might be better called wordless essays.

The most complete and compelling of the the works listed here is The City: A Vision in Woodcuts. Vision is the correct term, because there isn’t a narrative but a series of impressions of what the city is. In one sense it is the day in the life of a city, with images of workers in factories, weddings, parties, brothels, military parades. But looking closer at the details he places throughout there is a definite hierarchy in the images and it is obvious that despite the trappings of prosperity and modernity the city is a rough place and only a few win. In an image of a rich couple leaving a fancy cafe, off to the corner is a beggar. In another, a man takes advantage of a maid. He progress into even darker scenes of rape, and violent suppression of protests. The sum of all these images is a sense of isolation and loneliness that is often the early 20th century embodiment of the city.

The Sun takes a more light hearted approach to looking at the city. Instead, of a series of unrelated images, Masereel uses a narrative. The story opens with a man at a desk day dreaming and looking at the sun. He falls asleep and from his head emerges a figure who tries to reach the sun. From there on the figure walks through town and country looking for the sun, never quite reaching it. It is a satirical piece because the sun takes many different forms, all of which are chimeras. He looks for it in books, a crucifix, drink, up a woman’s dress, a brothel, at the top of a factory smoke stack, in the coin a rich man throws him from a car. None of it helps and he continues to seek and never quite gets there despite going by boat to the horizon of a setting sun, or in an airplane. As the story ends the figure, now Icarus like, returns to the sleeping man who laughs. While it has the same social criticism as The City, he also shows an element of the surreal and an interest in the origins of art. And what ties the two elements of the story together are the panels where the figure is constantly set upon by the crowd, as if the seeking is something forbidden. In Masereel you always have the sense that upsetting the social order will only bring trouble.

The Idea continues many of the elements in The Sun. In it an author sits at his desk and struck by lightening he creates the figure of a naked woman. He puts her in an envelope and sends her out into the world where she is hated. Men try to clothe her, but she refuses; when she is loved, the men kill her husband; when she meets a young boy, his parents spank him. And in the most amusing, when her image is printed it has to be burned. Eventually, she has to flee and returns to the author, but he has created a new figure, so he places her on a crucifix and hangs her in a painting. The last scene is the author crying as his newest figure is sent into the world. Despite its fantastical nature, it shares with The Sun the idea that ideas are dangerous, in what ever form. The religious overtones of a creator sending out his children only to see them persecuted, adds to wildness of the story and makes for a bitting satire also of religion.

The final work Story Without Words, is probably the least interesting. The story is fairly simple: a man seeks a woman, and when he finally gives herself to him, he abandons her. Within the context of his other works, he does show a concern for women who are used carelessly by men. In many of his drawings there is the figure of a woman whose desires for freedom, self hood, love are repressed, or her physical being is threatened in someway. Given that context the story has more weight, but it is not his best work.

His art work is not as detailed and stylized as a Lynn Ward, but he captures, especially in The City, a richness of detail that make his work come alive. And it is that detail that makes Masereel’s work a fascinating vision of the enter war period.

 

 

 

Words Without Borders Graphic Novel Edition for 2011 Up Now

The ever interesting Words Without Borders has published its annual graphic novel edition. French and Chinese works predominate, but there is one from Israel and Italian.

February brings our annual celebration of the international graphic novel. From bomb shelters in Gaza to prisons in Greece, surviving famine in Ukraine and negotiating high school in Paris, these international artist-writers delineate character and plot with their singular styles. See how Nine Antico, Chihoi, Christophe-Ngalle Edimo and Simon-Pierre Mbumbo, Eom Jeong-He and Ko Im-Hong, Igort, Rutu Modan and Igal Sarna, and David Prudhomme make every picture tell a story. (Chihoi’s tale is a translation within a translation, a graphic version of a story by Xi Xi, also appearing this month.) Elsewhere, in a trio of anti-valentines, Kjell Askildsen’s resentful married couple seethe in silence, Guillermo Martinez’s pick-up artist blunders through a dance hall, and Teresa Solana’s elderly women dispatch an abusive son-in-law.

This month we also launch a new series, Our Man in Madrid, in which Jonathan Blitzer presents new work in Spanish by international writers coming through that literary hub. In the first installment, Venezuelan Juan Carlos Chirinos tracks the operatic last act of a despot.

It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi – A Review

It Was the War of the Trenches
Jacques Tardi
Fantagraphics Books

10pg excerpt from Fantagraphics.

Some books about war want to shock you, throw every image and arbitrary decision at you, and hope somehow that you’ll remember at least just a moment of savageness the next time you think war is interesting or good for something. The literature of World War I produced many books like that whose primary goal was to show the brutality and pointless of it all. From All Quiet on the Western Front’s body parts hanging in trees to A Farewell to Arm’s fatalism, the image of World War I was one of brutality repeated over and over again. During the war photos from the front were suppressed, and even now the images that are readily available from the war are relatively benign. But there have been exceptions over the years, such as 1924’s War Against War by Ernst Friedrich (a graphic excerpt) with its graphic images of death on the battlefield and the disfigured survivors. His book, though, was not a best seller and was eventually suppressed by the Nazis. It is hard to create lasting art with that goal in mind, which is not to say All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arm have other merits (I doubt Friedrich thought he was creating art, he had another goal), but so much detail, so much brutality, does not so much as overwhelm you, but inure you to what is coming. There is only so much you need before you get the point.

I mention all this because It Was the War of the Trenches is not for everyone, which is a shame in some ways, but also because in reading it I couldn’t decide if I was honoring the men, or going for a lark through the trenches. It’s not my war, and almost a 100 years latter why did an artist create a book that is surely in the War Against War mold. For It Was the War of the Trenches is a tough read occasionally: cartoon entrails can still seem disgusting. And the endless stories that end with the absurd death of the protagonist who never really seems that different from the last one and who you didn’t really get to know, leaves you with a sense of repetitive futility. I’ve read enough first hand accounts of World War I and II to know how it manifests itself. It is not a pleasant experience, and nor should it be, the anarchist Friedrich might say. However, he was a survivor of the war, Tardi only the grandson of one. It shouldn’t matter, but the book for all its good qualities, the research and the drawings, makes me wonder why, still this story? The story of a war this big should not be forgotten, or left solely to history books that are more about marching men than the quality of the ground after months of fighting, but the way Tardi approaches it the book feels desperate as if not enough people are listening to something that should have been told earlier.

Ultimately, It Was the War of the Trenches is what the title says. A book about the trenches of World War I, as illustrated by a cartoonist. I use cartoonist intentionally, and perhaps this is the strange feeling I get when reading the book, because at times the skulls and corpses that appear every few pages, seem straight out of the pages of late 50s EC comics and it is a little hard to take it seriously, which is a shame. That aside, if you need to be reminded of the futility of war, in general, and the specific futility of World War I, in particular, it is worth the read.