Graphic Novel About Writing Comics in Franco’s Spain

Paco Roca, the winner of the National Prize for Comics (Premio Nacional de Cómic, 2008), has published a new book about publishing comics during the height of the Franco regime in the 1950s. The review in El Pais likes the book quite a bit. The book is based on a true story and detailed research and sounds interesting.  You can read the first 18 pages and even if you don’t understand Spanish decide if his style is interesting. Excerpt.

Todo lo que cuenta el autor es real, todos los personajes existen o existieron, lo que se describe es fruto de una minuciosa investigación. Cuando termina El invierno del dibujante, después de volver a algunas de sus viñetas, de perderse un rato por sus páginas para disfrutar de nuevo de las composiciones y de los dibujos, al lector le vienen muchas preguntas a la cabeza y muy pocas respuestas y, quizás, una certeza: que la aventura de un grupo de dibujantes por sacar adelante una revista en la que tuviesen más derechos y fuesen más libres en la España franquista mereció la pena. Que Vázquez se equivoca, que David puede derrotar a Goliat solo por intentarlo. Porque, aunque se pierda, aunque uno salga derrotado una y otra vez, siempre merece la pena luchar por la dignidad.


I Remember, Beirut (Me acuerdo, Beirut) by Zeina Abirached – A Review

Me acuerdo Beirut (I Remember Beirut)
Zeina Abirached
Sinsentido, 2009

I Remember Beirut (Me acuerdo, Beirut) is a short graphic novel that forms a kind of addendum to Zeina Abirached’s excellent The Swallow’s Game. Where Swallows told a complete story and interspersed the stories of the war, creating a large work that feels complete, large, as if she had captured at least one moment of experience. I Remember Beirut, on the other hand, is brief, a longing for something that no longer exists, or if it does it is out of reach of the author. Compared side by side, the smaller volume feels some how lacking. Perhaps that isn’t fair, but it is hard not to.

I Remember Beirut has new stories, but the characters are familiar if you have read Swallows. Included, are the narrator and her family, the brave taxi cab driver, and Victor the French speaking gentleman. She writes with the same humor, contrasting the dreams of a young girl with those of the war. It isn’t a particularly dark book and has many moments where she remembers how to make a paper boat, what Florence Griffith-Joyner’s finger nails were like, or the fruitless attempts to calm her curly hair. At the same time there are childhood memories that make war seem like a game. For example, her brother collects scraps of artillery shells, she takes a Zodiac ride to the ship evacuating the family from Beirut, the make an impromptu swimming trip where even asking directions uncovers refugees. She also returns to the daily hardships that fill The Swallows Game. It is the man in the horse drawn cart who delivers kerosene because they have no electricity, the explanation of how they stored water and took showers that makes the book intriguing. War is brutal, but how is it that people survive and continue on? That is the interesting question. In one scene towards the end, the narrator shows herself as an adult terrified by a thunderstorm in Paris; the war has a long reach. The best moment of the book comes, though, when the war ends and the family goes for a walk through what had once been no man’s land. There is nothing there, just rubble, but the parents narrate the journey of what had been, pointing out the stores that no longer exist, the street car tracks with out street cars, where the best bakery had been. And when the father is depressed after wards she notes that her brother is so happy, because he had found even more shell casings. Not only has the war divided the past from the present, but it has separated the generations. Beirut has changed and all one can do is remember it.

I Remember, Beirut is a good book, a kind of desert after Swallows. But what I’m also curious about is what is next? Now that her coming of age stories are over, can she go onto something else? It seems that so many graphic novels are based on the coming of age story. Fine, we all have one, but after that? Her skill as an artist is certainly impressive. I’m curious, though, if she has the skills as a story teller to continue on. I Remember Beirut has the slight feel that she used the last of her material. But she’s young, so there is a lot of time to find out.

The Swallows Game (El juego de las golondrinas) by Zeina Abirached – A Review

El juego de las golondrinas
Zeina Abirached
Sinsentido, 2009

I have a rule about what I read in Spanish: no translations. It makes little sense to me to read something translated into Spanish if you can read it in English, especially if it was written in English in the first place. But I have one exception to the rule, too. If the book is not available in English then I will use Spanish as another means to read it. Lamentably, I had to invoke the second rule to read Zeina Abirached’s El juego de las golondrias (The Swallows Game). It is a shame that the English speaking world has to content itself with a few page at Words Without Borders, because The Swallows Game deserves an English edition.

The Swallows Game takes place on one day in 1984 as the war rages all around. The narrator, a girl of 8 at the time, but now an adult, is waiting for her parents to return from a visit to her grandparents. They have made the perilous journey that takes them just a few blocks away, but whose route is filled with snipers, barricades, barbed wire and sandbags. It is a dangerous visit and the girl, her brother and the an old servant who has been with the family for years are waiting nervously for them to return. When they are delayed, the tension mounts as the the family tries to call, which is nearly impossible, and neighbors come by to offer advice and suggestions. During the waiting Abirached adds back story to each of the characters, and explains the difficulties of living in a war zone. The interplay between the waiting and the characters make the story, at once funny and dark.

Abirached’s Beirut is not only a city amidst a war, but the passing of a way of life. The physical manifestations of the world they knew, of course, are the first to go. As the shelling and snipers slowly chip away at the buildings the family moves one by one from each of the rooms in their apartment until they inhabit the one inner room that offers the most protection. Naturally, their possessions also ebb away, until they are left a few keep sakes or precious heirlooms. She also describes the people who belong to a different time, such as Ernest, a dapper man who used to teach french. Always dressed impeccably, he looks like a gentleman from decades earlier. He is a charmer and when she describes him, it is not only the characters like him who have disappeared, but a Beirut that was more cosmopolitan and international. It is also the end of Francaphone Beirut and a man who can recite passages from Cyrano De Bergerac is probably a thing of the past.

Abirached avoids anything graphic or gory about the war. Instead, she focuses on the emptiness of it, accentuating the empty streets and deprivations. At its most stark she will draw empty streets in clear and repetitive detail, avoiding words, and letting the impersonality of peopleless streets say it all. Once in the apartments where the story takes place she describes the privations the residents have to go through, from saving bottles for water and gasoline, to enduring shelling, to at its most extreme having one’s father murdered by a militia at a check point. The brutality and hardship is ever present. And even though The Swallows Game is a child’s story, she never lets the war fade too far into the background.

Artistically, the book has some moments of visual brilliance. The opening sequence of empty streets with barricades, brick walls, and empty oil drums all marked with bullet holes is impressive visual story telling. Abirached likes to use subtle repetition to reinforce a moment or an idea. In addition to the the empty street scenes, she will draw a series of repetitive panels illustrating a conversation. At first it looks like they are the same, but she has made small changes to the eyes or the mouths of the characters. It takes a close read to see the changes, but in those subtle movements you can see the tension, boredom, and youthful energy of the characters come through. Through out the book, she has moments where the visual is as important to the story telling as the text. This isn’t always true in graphic novels and in The Swallows Game it is a welcome addition.

Obviously, the black white drawings are going to draw comparisons to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. While there are certainly similarities, Abirached’s style is different and her art is more interesting and has a stronger visual style. Both are also coming of age stories set against a back drop of political troubles, and they both use humor to tell what could otherwise be dark books. Abirached’s book is not an autobiography since she was born in 1981 and it takes place in 1984, but it does have the feel of so many graphic novels that are autobiographies. While autobiographies can err on the light side, it is a mistake to confuse the reading time (always short with graphic novels) and to mistake a child’s perspective for lack of depth. The power in the story is the contrasting of the children against the war itself. Despite the deprivations going on, the children had a childhood, and it’s the dissipation of the world around them as they grow into the new one that is being formed that makes The Swallows Game interesting. Hopefully, someone will find it interesting enough to translate.

Seattle’s Fantagraphics and Rosebud Archives reclaim vintage comics Via Seattle Times

The Seattle Times’ book blog has a good article about Fantagraphics new series of reprints of the Rosebud archives, which contains many early American works that helped define the genre. The drawings are beautiful and have an attention to detail that seemed to disappear during the golden age of comics. There is a reason I don’t go to the Fantagraphics shop too often, which is just down the road from me. I’d end up buying too many books. But a trip to their site is worth while.

Now Marschall’s company, Rosebud Archives, and Fantagraphics have formed a joint publishing enterprise that will draw from Marschall’s immense collection, reclaiming the work of the great 20th-century magazine and newspaper artists for the 21st-century public.

The Fantagraphics website is already a portal to Rosebud’s collection of prints, posters, framed art, books, and stationery. Later this year Fantagraphics will issue the first book in a new imprint, Marschall Books — forthcoming volumes include a compendium of cartoon advertising, a book devoted to Johnny Gruelle’s lost masterpiece Mr. Twee Deedle, a book on Krazy Kat and a volume devoted to Sherlock Holmes illustrations and art.

Michigan resident Marschall and his partner, preservation expert Jon Barli, have complete runs of newspapers and magazines to draw from (some rescued from the trash bin). An entire run of Vanity Fair magazine from 1913 to 1936; Harper’s Weeklies from the Civil War years; New York Herald Sunday Color comics 1894-1911; a mostly complete collection of Puck Magazine from 1877 to 1918.

Comics and Graphic Novels Emerge in the Middle East

Publishing perspectives has an article called Undiscovered Art: Comics and Graphic Novels Emerge in the Middle East. It is interesting overview of graphic novels in the middle east, few of which make it into English.

While comics have long been popular among children in the Arab world (two of the biggest series are the venerable “Mickey Mouse” and the Egyptian-based “Aladdin” comics), there is a new spark of interest in adult comics in the region. “In the last two years, there’s been a kind of synchronicity in Egypt, Lebanon, and Emirates for graphic novels,” says artist and writer Magdy El Shafee. In March, for example, the young Emirati author, Qais Sedki, won the prestigious Shaykh Zayed Book Award for his graphic novel Siwar al-Dhahab (Gold Ring), the first Arabic-language manga comic.

Samandal Inspires Others

Also participating in the Cairo workshop was one of the leaders of Lebanon’s growing field of comics authors, Fadi Baki (who goes by the moniker “the fdz”.) He is one of the publishers of the Beirut-based Samandal, which bills itself as “a multilingual comics magazine” with the aim of “produc[ing] a comic book revolution that will herald a new era of peace and understanding between cultures in the Middle East and the rest of the world.” On a more practical level, Baki and his co-editors see Samandal as “a showcase for comics we find interesting…We hope that this gallery will coalesce into a distinctive identity with serialized stories and returning artists and thus become a conduit between them and a wider public thirsty for comics that speak their realities.”

Baki cheekily describes himself as a product of “a childhood rife with comics, telly, and Nutella,” and like his co-editors, he is a graduate of the American University of Beirut. Samandal publishes comics in Arabic, French and English in each issue: with sections switching between left-to-right and right-to-left scripts, they hit upon the innovation of what they call a “flippy page” — a page instructing the reader to flip the magazine upside-down to continue reading the next section.

Cecil and Jordan In New York by Gabrielle Bell – A Review

Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories by Gabrielle Bell
Gabrielle Bell
Drawn & Quarterly, 148 pg

Gabrielle Bell’s Cecil and Jordan in New York is an inventive and funny collection of short comics that is able to take youthful angst and not dwell on its difficulties, but expand the experience into stories that read like fables. The 11 unconnected stories collected in this volume follow high school misfits in small towns, and new inhabitants in the big city as they struggle to make ends met. While the ground has been covered many times in graphic novels, and sometimes seems a requirement that every graphic novelist write about their struggles, Bell shows promise as a fabulist. At her best she creates stories that surprise you with a the unexpected.

The eponymous Cecil and Jordan in New York is a good example of her ability to express angst through fable-like stories. The story starts off common enough: two friends move to NY and find that the city is a harsh place and the friends they were relying to help them don’t have the time. Cecil is Jordan’s girlfriend and has nothing to do: she is the girlfriend, as she says in one panel. It is a lonely experience as her boyfriend pursues his film making career. As she is wandering the streets during winter she decides to become a chair. Once the transformation is complete she lives a new life as a chair when people are around, and as herself when the chair’s owner is not home. The transformation to chair  is both an escape from the hardness of reality, but also a longing to be wanted. In the last panel she says, I’ve never felt so useful. The ideal life isn’t to be ensconced in an apartment, but to have a purpose and be with people who need you. It is here that Bell captures loneliness so well, yet leaves the reader laughing (there are more difficulties in being a chair than you would think of).

In My Affliction a young woman is captured by a giant and in escaping falls from a great height. Hurtling towards her death she suddenly stops mid air and it turns out she can now float. This is the first of many strange episodes as she begins various relationships with men that all turn out to be wrong for her. The men range from a truck driver with a myna bird that swears at ever turn; a giant that keeps her in a cage; a rich man who’s more interested in making his boat perfect. Each, though, is only someone she has to bond with because her affliction, the same one that lets her float, makes her give herself to others. Using the episodic structure of a fable she has fun with relationships, ultimately creating a story that condenses the story of five relationships into a brief comic, and finds a triumph in surviving them.

Several of the stories take place in a small town where the narrator lives with her parents in small cabin that without electricity. These stories are a good laugh at the expense of hippies who tried to live off the grid and found out it was hard, not only physically, but socially. The focus, of course, is on the young protagonist who hates the lifestyle and who obviously wants a different life. Yet as with most of the stories the desire to escape is subtle and Bell creates a character whose way of coping is to not rebellion, but just to survive. As in Hit Me, the way to escape is to no longer be the strange, smelly kid, even if that means turning your back on friends. Like many of her stories, Hit Me ends in a realization that relationships so often dissolve this way and leave one regretful.

Gabrielle Bell’s collection is a funny and shows some inventive story telling ideas. Hopefully, her coming work will continue to evolve from this good start.

Marta Chudolinska’s Wordless (graphic) Novel ‘Back + Forth’

I just saw this note at Book Patrol about Marta Chudolinska’s Wordless Novel Back + Forth. In the same vain as the works of early wordless novel writer Frans Masereel, she uses wood cuts without any dialog to tell the story. It looks like an interesting bit of work. You can see all the panels in one large photo here.