Wordless Books – A Review

Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels
David Beronä, Abrams 255 pg.

Wordless Books is a collection of excerpts from graphic novels that were drawn in the first half of the 20th century. Despite the range of styles and themes they all have one thing in common: they do not use dialog or narration to tell a story. Instead, the artists structured their stories as a progression of images, each hinting at the next and forming a narrative thread. It is a difficult task to do and one of the drawback of the book is that Beronä has to explain how the excerpts fit together so that the reader can see how the artists structured the narrative. Nevertheless, Wordless Books contains some fascinating work from the early 20th century.

Since much of the work was produced during the turbulent periods of World War I, the depression and World War II, anti-war and anti-capitalist themes link the artists. For the American artists such as Lynd Ward, fit amongst other socially committed artists like Stienbeck or Odets. Each, though, focuses on the struggles of the individual against larger forces, whether it be state power, especially the army, large corporations, or church.

Frans Masereel - The City

Of the artists covered in the book, the most interesting were the Belgian Frans Masereel, the American Lynd Ward, and the Italian-American Giacomo Patri. All three worked with bock printing using wood and black ink. Masereel’s work is blocky and less stylized than the other two and seems to draw more inspiration from late 19th century graphic arts. His saw the modern world as brutal, dark and unforgiving to the less powerful:

Masereel’s depiction of the Western industrial world is so complete that his friend, writer Stefan Zweig, wrote, “Should everything perish, all the books, the photographs and the documents, and we were left only with the woodcuts Masereel has created, through them alone we could reconstruct our contemporary world.”

Lynd Ward - from Song Without Words
Lynd Ward’s work, while following thematically Masreel’s work, is centered in a mix of industrial arts, almost a futurist vision, an American as seen in the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, possibly cinema like Fritz Lang, and one can even see some of the ideas of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orrozco. Using intricately carved wood blocks, he presents an America in the midst of turbulent economic times, filled with strikes, gaunt men in gaunt and defeated men, but also includes in a mid-century ethic that praised the industrial worker energetic, almost neo-Gothic images of men working amongst the dehumanizing machinery. His work is the perfect graphic aesthetic of the era, one that mixes criticism of capitalism with a celebration of industry and the worker who keeps it running.

Giacomo Patri’s work follows in the tradition of Lynd Ward, but begins to add text into scenes so that the reader has more ways of putting the story together. Again his drawings are a mix of the industrial and the energetic, but he focuses more on the individual in everyday life, not abstract beings caught in a modern drama. Moreover, his work is less ornate and leaves the characters as the center piece, not the energy or emotion of Ward.

The drawings in Wordless Books still have a power that resonates, perhaps at times it is a distant power caught in a history now quite distant, but the images of humans against machines is still salient. Perhaps one must substitute Masereel’s  draftsmen in the City for workers in cubical, but it is still the idea, although a contemporary artist might paint it in Starbucks green. While Wordless Books lacks the complete stories these authors tried to tell, it is a great introduction and should make anyone interested want to search for more of these works.

Samandall – Graphic Novel from Beirut on-line

The blog Arabic Literature (in English) tipped me off to the Beirut based Samandal magazine of “Picture Stories from here and there.” While they don’t require the art to be from Lebanon or in Arabic or French, most of the writers and artists from the first four issues are from that region of the world. You can down load the first four issues of the magazine in pdf format. I looked through some of the issues and there was a wide range of stories and artistic styles that make the magazine a good read. Supposedly you can get issue from Forbidden Planet Comics in NY City, although it is not listed on their website.

Issue 1

Issue 2

Issue 3

Issue 4

On-line Graphic Novel About Iranian Election and Aftermath

The excellent blog Arabic Literature (in English) turned me on to this site. It is a graphic novel about the aftermath of the Iranian election in 2009. Written by a Persian (American) writer, an Arab artist and a Jewish editor it and “Zahra’s Paradise weaves together a composite of real people and events.”  It comes out Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in installments of one four to six page panel, which in itself I like. There is something about stories that are published serially that makes the experience of reading them interesting. There are only a few installments, so it is a little difficult to tell how good it is going to be, but a first read it is interesting. I’ll be curious to see how the art evolves, if at all during the run. I imagine it is a difficult task to create the same characters week after week in the same style.

You can start at the beginning here, or go to the most recent episode.

Zahra’s Paradise isn’t just a cemetery where the world comes to an end. It’s also a womb, a garden, where the world is reborn. Sure, Neda is dead, Sohrab is dead, Mohsen is dead, and they’re all buried in Zahra’s Paradise. But just as there is death, so there is life and light bursting out of their shadow. Their virtual reflection, wrapped as fictional characters, allows us to raise our own imaginary army to intervene in history in real time.

Zahra’s Paradise is a wall drawn around the constitution of Iran’s children. Initially, I wanted to avoid grief by taking refuge in farce. The events in Iran, the protests, broke through. Every day, we’d catch glimpses of Iran’s youth (anyone under eighty), their faith, dreams, courage and cool, breaking out through an electronic wall. But their story appeared as fragments scattered across the face of time. Zahra’s Paradise is the garden where we’ve tried to piece together the fragments, and put a name and face to the story. Mehdi.

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater – A Review

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater
Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is a beautiful book about the art of Manga Kamishibai, a precursor to manga, and a phenomenon that lasted for only about 30 years in Japan before succumbing to the powers of television. Manga Kamishibai is the art of story telling using a series of pre-drawn comic panels of about 12 x 12 inches to entertain and later educate. The Kamishibai men would set up in a park or public space in Tokyo or other big city and entice the local children to come see the show. They would sell the kids candy, which is how they made their money, and then would narrate the adventure described on the cards. The men would use different voices and act out the stories, keeping the children entertained with a hybrid of theater and comics. It was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that disappeared with the coming of TV and after school study sessions that left children with little free time.

The art runs the gamut from western movie inspired work, to more traditionally Japanese styles. However, they all have a comic sensibility with broad strokes instead of fine detail which made it easier for the audience to see the drawings. The stories were a mix of super heros, such as the Golden Bat who looks more like Superman with a skull for a head, and samurai tales. The stories will last about 20-40 stills and each week, and like the Saturday serials in the US the stories would change rapidly to insure the kids would continue to come. At its height before the WWII, there  were 100’s of Kamishibai men and near 40 studios producing the slides.

The book also has a chapter on Kamishibai during WWII when it was converted into propaganda. The charactures of the evil Americans is somewhat funny. They all look like Alex Guiness in Bridge on the River Kwai. The focus of the propaganda was to tell the Japanese that the Americans were brutal savages who took no prisoners. At the beginning of the war, the Kamishibai told of Japan’s great victories, but as the war began to go badly the Kamishibai switched to an educational focus and explained how to fight fires and other civil defense matters, most of which were useless against fire bombing. Unfortunately, during the fire bombing many of the Kamishibai publishers were destroyed along with the art work. After the war, the US used the Kamishibai men to spread the new changes that were coming to Japan.

Eric Nash’s text makes for interesting reading and Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is more than just a pictures of comics, but a cultural history of a little know element of Japanese culture.

The Unknown Soldier from DC Comics

I used to read DC war comics when I was younger, finding even then the superhero comics less than interesting. Which is not to say that if drug my copies of those comics out of the closet I might not find them insipid. Yet there was a reality to them that was more than real, less trapped in the generic conventions of super heroes which despite the fans of the genre who see a larger world reflected in them are still a let down when reading. I can still remember when one of the crew from the haunted tank in G.I. Combat was killed by a strafing airplane.

I mention this because the New York Times has an article about the reworking of the Unknown Soldier series from Vertigo and DC. In this reworking the Unknown Soldier takes place in Uganda and explores the civil war and its atrocities. It looks like tough stuff:

Unknown Soldier is unflinching in its depiction of violence, and that comes across even more strongly in the collected edition, without the monthly break between issues. One particularly horrific scene deals with the disfigurement of the title character: an inner voice navigates him through the violence, but when he reaches his breaking point, he hacks at himself to try to silence it. That gruesome episode came from Mr. Dysart’s imagination; some details he learned from his trip, he said, were too awful for the comic.

The art, too, communicates the violence in a stylized fashion and expands the work of comics as journalism that authors like Joe Sacco have created.

War’s End – A Review

Joe Sacco is a writer whose work has always seemed to show the great power of the Graphic Novel. His comic journalism (not a disparaging description) is some of the best work I’ve seen in the field (and thankfully avoids the self obsessed woe is me story of other graphic novels). His artistry is in the comic genre, tending towards the caricature with people, but his drawings are realistic and detailed in a way that strives to document and highlight the story at hand. The stories in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996are those of Bosnia at the end of the war. This is the third of his books in Bosnia, obviously not as strong as his master work Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, but still showing his deft ability to write about war and yet never forget that for good or bad, he as a journalist is part of the story.

Soba, the first story, is not so much a story of war, but aftermath, an exploration of PTSD and rootlessness that comes after war. Yet it is more than just the soldiers coming back from the front, but a whole generation, a whole society that thought it was civilized and modern. What Sacco finds is the self destruction and disappointment that often comes with at the end of such wars. It is a solid, if brief, examination of the all to common and I think not repeated enough result of intense combat.

The second story, Christmas with Karadzic, isn’t as strong, but it does show that Sacco is aware of himself as participant and doesn’t try to deceive himself that he is an impartial professional. During the Christmas of 1995 he with several other journalists goes to interview Karadzic. It is not a particularly perilous journey, but it has its adventure and adrenaline. They get the scoop in the Republica Serbska and return to Sarajevo. Joe finds that he loves it; it was exciting and the other journalists, who live on cigarettes and tips, give him a rush. It is a two edged sword, because the idea is they are sending facts back to the papers, but it is as much an adventure as anything else. The willingness to show the reporters as part of the story is what makes Sacco interesting.

It is too bad that he has said that he probably can’t keep writing books like this because he can’t keep doing the journalism. Hopefully, the next one will be as interesting.

Black Jack Vol 1 – A Review

I continue to read graphic novels because I think I’ll find some gold in them, and occasionally I do as with the work of Joe Sacco. Lately I’ve been trying Manga, and except for the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi in Good Bye I have been disappointed. Black Jack, Vol. 1was not an exception. Although Osamu Tezuka is a pioneer and master of the form, I found his work, or perhaps it is just the form, lacking much depth.For those who don’t know, Black Jack is a mysterious doctor who doesn’t have a license but is the greatest doctor on earth and can save patients in complicated surgeries all by himself. While the concept itself is not bad, in execution the mysterious doctor flies in for the life saving surgery just at the right moment not only to save a life, but to give someone his due. The stories are formulaic: someone is ill or injured; they deny they need help or denied help; Black Jack shows up and offers to save the ill person and against everyone’s wishes he succeeds to everyone’s amazement. Black Jack pretends to be a selfish man, but in reality he has a heart of gold. While Black Jack does play with themes of health and the power of science, the stories are not particullarly long lasting and are emphemoral like so much pulp. I hold out hope that Manga will truely be interesting, and will in the words of Yani Mentzas will “stay within the framework [of Manga]to analyze and foreground its themes, especially the controlling one, that which exceeds man.”

Jetlag – A Review

Jetlag by Etgar Keret is a short but fascinating collection of five short stories set to drawings by five different Israeli artists: Mira Friedman, Batia Kolton, Rutu Modan, Yirmi Pinkus, Itzik Rennert. Keret, one of Israel’s best writers, creates what might be better called fables. His stories are brief and always have an element of unrealty to them. The unreality, though, is designed to turn the reader back to the strangeness of reality.

The first story is about a magician who suddenly begins to have trouble pulling the rabbit out of the hat. One time he pulls a bloody rabbit’s head from the hat and in a another he pulls a dead baby. But the audience seems to love it and a child keeps the bloody head of the rabbit as a memento. Instead of magic revealing the wondrous, the unfathomable becomes the way the audiences accept death and the grotesque as entertainment. The magician gives up his trade, and finishes the story saying,

…I don’t do much of anything. I just lie in bed and think about the rabbit’s head and the baby’s body. As if they’re some clues to a riddle, as if somebody was trying to tell me something; that now it’s not really the best of times for rabbits or for babies. That it’s not the best of times for magicians.

In the story Jetlag the narrator finds himself on an airplane where a flight attendant is paying extra attention to him. At first it seems as if she wants him to join the clichéd mile high club with her. A ten year-old girl at his side tells him he should go have sex with her, then claims she is a 30 year-old dwarf smuggling heroin. Eventually, the narrator goes to the back of the plane to talk to the flight attendant. She doesn’t want to have sex with him, but instead, wants to give him a parachute because the plane has orders to crash. The flight attendant says they crash a plane every year or two so that passengers will take flight safety seriously. As the story ends he says, the rescue looked quite heart warming on TV. Again, Keret takes liberties with a reality that has become all too common—the disaster coverage on TV—and uses it as an opportunity to look at it as a fiction, switching genres to make it observable. What should be a horror, becomes just entertainment.

In each of the stories Keret is able to say something about modern society, its violence, its loneliness, its spectator culture, and question how it effects us. His stories are marvels of compression and an unreality that seems real.