Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists – A Review

Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists
Santiago Garcia, ed
Fantagraphics Books, 2016, pg 283

There was a moment when I first began to read Spanish Fever I thought I had made a mistake: not another anthology of excerpts that propose to give you a sense of a writer’s work, but given the brevity of the sample all you get is sections of novels that don’t really say anything. Fortunately, Spanish Fever is better than that. Fist, the pieces are not excerpts. The selected pieces are self contained, almost short stories, and that gives a sense of completeness to the works. While many of the pieces are collaboration between writer and artist, especially older authors, it is critical to see an artist’s work as a whole.

While I’m familiar with recent Spanish history and how that has played out in literature, I’m less familiar with comics and graphic novels. The only graphic novel I’ve ever bought in Spain was actually Lebanese. The brief introduction from Santiago Garcia is quite helpful in showing how the transition from dictatorship to democracy actually slowed the development of the graphic novel. Tebeos, as they are called in Spain, were associated with the Franco regime, and in the 80s, despite the arrival of mature and irreverent comics, attempts to create graphic novels failed. Only in the last fifteen years or so have writers found success.

Of the writers included here, Poco Roca might be the most famous. His book Wrinkles about Alzheimer patients was made into a successful animated move. His piece here is Chronicle of a Crises Foretold, which describes the economic crash of 2008 and its effects. It feels as if it was an newspaper supplement explaining what happened. It is quite successful and the art is solid and his drawing of monopoly board is very effective.

Other writers of note were Jose Domingo’s Number 2 Has Been Murdered, which is one of the most stylistically drawn works. It is uses very precise angular drawings with stark contrasts between black and white. It is also one of the more sarcastic pieces, making fun of corporate culture. Javier Olivares Finland uses a an approach that is closer to Clowes, with a nice use of color and solid geometric lines. The story is meta and shows strong story telling skills. Both Max and Micharmut’s work eschew realism in narrative and are more symbolic. Max is the more famous of the two and his work is very recognizable. Gabi Beltran and Barolome Segui’s Mathematics is taken from another work and looks interesting. The piece stands on it own, but the stories of his childhood, if they are the same quality as Mathematics, have potential.

As usual, the number of women included in the volume is quite small. 4 out of 28 pieces are by women, which is a pretty bad ratio, especially given that there are many stories with women as protagonists. Ana Galvañ’s Horse Meat was better than I thought it would be. I’m not a big fan of the art, but the story two teenage friends who have the shape of horses was interesting.

It is a collection that is worth using as an entry in to the world of Spanish graphic novels.

Finally, the blog Historia y Comic is a great resource for finding comics, in Spanish, about history.

The Complete Eightball 1-18 By Daniel Clowes

The Complete Eightball 1-18
Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics Books, 2015, 560 pg8ballc-3d

The complete Eightball collects the first 18 issues that Daniel Clowes published between 1989-1997. It is a beautiful two volume set encased in a newly drawn slip cover. Clowes is probably most famous for Ghost World which originally appeared in Eightball. Those who’ve only read Ghost World, which I would count myself amongst, will perhaps be a little surprised by tone of his work. However, after reading the collection it is clear that Ghost World is just another facet of Clowes work and vision, which is dark, comic, and at times caustic, always drawn with a detail and precision that make him one of the most interesting comics artists out there.

The first 18 issues of Eightball usually comprised three or four stories and perhaps a few single page items each issue. During the first half of the run each issue contained an episode of his episodic comic, Like A Velvet Cast In Iron and in the second half, Ghost World was his episodic story of choice. While his two long form stories gave Clowes an opportunity to tell larger and more complicated stories, his short form work is well written and worthy of comment. Thematically, it focuses on common alt-comic themes of alienation and frustration. Written between the late 80’s and through much of the 90’s there issues of the day that show up in the pages. That is not to say, his work is dated, but the obsessions with alt culture and the conflict with corporate comics culture is clearly of the era. The conflict brings me to the second common theme: what it is to write comics. Every issue has some reference to writing comics, often in the form of the Dan Pussey story. Dan is a comic genius who gets too full of himself, thinking he can control his publisher, and ends up as a slave in the corporate empire. While not of  obvious interest to the general reader, the tone of his stories are often funny, definitely irreverent, and filled with just enough self loathing to make them a perfect read when one is in a dark mood.

Of the the two long form stories, Velvet Glove is the strangest and least interesting of the two. As story telling goes, it might be better than Ghost World, since in sustains one story over nine issues. However, it is a very fantastical and nihilistic story that charts a search for a mysterious film and actors that ends in a dark end that is just the last of many indignities heaped on the protagonist. If one likes a dark fantastical vision of the world, it is a delightful story.

Ghost World, on the other hand, is more successful in that it brings that self loathing and the biting sarcasm under the control of a human touch. Most of Eightball is working towards Ghost World in the sense that Clowes is playing the outsider as an alt writer, but in Ghost World, he takes that sense of being surrounded by stupidity and uncertainty and hones it, placing it in his most fully formed characters. The characters have inner lives, something missing in the grotesques that are a staple of his work. Enid becomes Clowes alter ego and in doing so makes a more compelling and less self absorbed character. Clowes is deft at creating characters infused with a sense of alienation, yet making them compelling, characters you want to return to whether or not you relate to them. If I have any complaint with Eightball, it is that dichotomy represented between the self-absorbed frustration of the characters and the more open Ghost World so stark.

Any mention of Eightball, is not complete without a note of his art. Clowes, in terms of art, is a brilliant artist. One thing that strikes you is his detailed line control and use that to make grotesque exaggerations is powerful. His work is never sloppy and so when a charters has a wild facial expression you see every bit of sweat and know that the weight of his pen carries real passion. Even when a story is misses the mark, his art work makes up for it.

Finally, Fantagraphics has done amazing work with this reissue. Not only have they matched the original color, they have matched the original page weights. Given the ever changing publishing history of Eightball, from just a color cover, to later several pages of color, to occasional cardboard covers. That Fantagraphics reprinted each pages as it originally appeared, is testament to their careful and detailed reprint. It is what makes Eightball a great pleasure to read.

Cartoons for Victory by Warren Bernard – A Review

9781606998229Cartoons for Victory
Warren Bernard
Fantagraphic Books, 2015, 255 pg

WWII was a total war and the war saturated everything as all means of communication became another means to further the war. Cartoons and comics were no exception. While the WWII services of the famous names in comics such as Super Man are easy to find in reprints, they lead to a juvenile view of the war. Warren Bernard’s Cartoons for Victory examines a different side of the war, one whose aims were to instruct, to propagandize, to reflect a society where every last detail of life was tied to war. While the art of many cartoonists is worth of reprint on its own merits, the book provides a glimpse at the little ways the war entered the lives of Americans, ways that seem almost inconceivable 70 years plus on.

Cartoons for Victory is divided in thematic sections that illustrate the ways the cartoons were used. There are sections on war bond drives, scrap drives victory gardens and proper lights out procedures, all of which mix a kind of light humor with serious home front campaigns. The target audience for the cartoons ranges from children to adults, although given the medium there is a pronounced targeting of young people. The cartoons themselves are a mix of the well known, Micky Mouse for example, and one off advertisements. While the former could take the shape of newspaper supplemental or a few pages in a comic, the advertisements, not for the war aim itself but a consumer product, are a mix of capitalism and patriotism. It is a fascinating mix that you see throughout war time advertising (Taschen’s All American Ads 1940’s is particularly revealing). For example, there is a Sunco Oil add with Donal Duck that touts the properties of an oil that doesn’t clog engines that are not in use due to rationing. The tag line is, Care for you  car…care for your country. These kind of ads served two purposes: advertise a company’s product so after the war consumers will buy it; and support the war. Some of the ads play on a humor of shared sacrifice. In one Parkay Margarine ad three women standing in front of a shop keeper say, What do you say girls? Should we flip for that last pound of Parkay Margarine? As Kennedy pointed out in Freedom from Fear, the United States did have guns and butter and these kind of ads are a window into a consumer culture at war.

In addition to advertorial cartoons, cartoons commissioned by the government are also well represented. Government cartoons are more serious and focus more on education. Included is a pamphlet on how to prepare for an air raid. It lacks any humor and, instead, shows determined Americans preparing themselves the best they can. In the last image, which is used on the book’s cover, a group of Americans are shown banding together with Uncle Sam pulling his selves up in the background. In more egregious example, the Office of Price Administration promotes rubber rationing with a cartoon of a racially exaggerated Japanese soldier standing in front of a stack of tires.

It’s the one panel cartoons from magazines and newspapers that are, perhaps, the most revealing of the war’s everyday nature. Most of the cartoons excerpted make light of all the inconveniences the war brought on. They also highlight the social changes the war brought on. In one cartoon some children look up at a bomber flying overhead and one says, my mother built that. But for all the Rosie successes, there are negative consequences too and a whole chapter is dedicated to the fear of juvenile delinquency and another racism. In all of these cartoons there is a reflection, at once humorous, proud, and concerned, as the war brought huge changes to the home front.

Finally, Cartoons for Victory celebrates some of the great cartoonists to come from that era such as Will Eisner and Theodore Gisel, and some lesser known such as Miné Okubo. For anyone interested in graphic art the collection is a rich store of work. The section dedicated to Eisner is particularly solid, showing a real command of his art.

Cartoons for Victory is not just for a specialists, but anyone interested in a different take on World War II. For those interested in cartoon history it is even more important.



Child of Tomorrow by Al Feldstein – A Review

Child of Tomorrow
Al Feldstein
Fantagraphic Books, 2013

5b0cbb4257f556c8f92efbd70096b60eChild of Tomorrow is a collection of Al Feldstein’s science fiction work for EC comic’s Weird Science. All of the stories were published between May 1950 and July 1952 and present a fascinating view of an America terrified by the the atomic age. While the stories are science fiction with their requisite optimism, there is always an unease working through these stories, as if the technological future is not going to turn out so well, something more than evident when talking about atomic weapons. A prime example of this fear is the story called “The Utterly Fantastic Events Leading up to the Destruction of the Earth!”, where the creation and testing of the hydrogen bomb ends up pushing the earth out of orbit and into the sun, destroying, naturally, all of man kind. And in typical Twilight Zone style the twist is that the narrator is an alien on some planet warning his students of human folly. Many of the stories for a lack of a better word are silly and the story telling hangs on some twist at the end that makes you realize that the story is about you. It was a rather popular technique showing up in the Twilight Zone and X Minus One a radio science fiction show from the same era, as well as in comics. However, when taken as a whole body of work, the stories have a weight that makes them a fascinating insight into an anxious era, much like the sci-fi movies of the time.

Despite the formulaic nature of many of the stories, there are some clever ones that show wit and self depreciation that suggests the authors didn’t take themselves too seriously. My favorite of the bunch was “The Unbelievable Events Leading up to the Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion” wherein the writers of Weird Science magazine create a story based on minimal science that ends in the destruction of Washington. There are even scenes of the men laughing at the outlandishness of their command of the science. A nice touch showing had serious they take things. When the issue is published, though, foreign agents get a hold of the magazine and build the bomb described in the story and destroy Washington. The story was clever, loping back on itself in a kind of meta manner, never taking itself seriously and yet giving the writers an outsized impression of their own importance.

chitom-catprevTime travel offers many opportunities for paradox and these stories are no exception. Made of the Future! is the best, and perhaps worst, of these. In the story a man stumbles on to a tour of New York given for people from the future. He sneaks along with them and in the future finds a place that makes instant wives. He brings here back to 1950 and enters bliss. But then she goes out for a walk and never returns and he realizes she must have ended up on the tour and never returned. Despite the leap in logic to her eventual fate, it has some nice touches, especially the notion what comes easily disappears easily. I called it perhaps the worst story because the sexual politics of the story are rather strange. The idea that you can just buy the perfect woman in the future is not a healthy prospect and once again turns women into commodities.

In a similar vein, Space-Warp! has a time travel paradox that has a bizarre romantic conclusion. A space explorer leaves his wife, friends and earth and goes far into space. On returning he finds that everyone has aged and he has lost everyone, even his wife. Or so it seems, then he sees her and calls her name. But it isn’t her, it is her daughter with his best friend. No big deal, the explorer is happy with that and marries her. You might think something interesting might occur here with the emotional consequences of such an occurrence, but no. These are, after all, stories for juveniles.

Despite the short comings of the stories, they are an interesting look into a kind of science fiction that to modern eyes seems quaint and anything but technologically advanced. They are a fascinating curiosity of a lost time and Fantagraphics has done a great job reissuing these.

Goddamn This War! by Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney – A review

Goddamn This War!
Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney
Helge Dascher, trans
Fantagraphis Books, 2013

e4a0b604e5e23a2777988cfd2b4a1efcJust in time for the 100th anniversary of World War I is Goddamn This War! by Tardi with chronology by Jean-Pierre Verney (translated by Helge Dascher). The book is a brief history of World War I that eschews plot or characterization and instead dwells on the massive incompetence and horrid logic of the war, using mounting barbarities as an indictment of the war. The book seems as if it is narrated by a soldier and in a way it is: the voice of the nameless, a kind of chorus, recounting pointless act after another. Told in little short vignettes that relate everyday life of the war, Tardi shows the pointless of it all. From relating the death of a man while doing his business to showing the graphic moment results of a shell landing in a trench to showing a snow covered field with blood leaking through. No moment of the grotesque escapes his vituperation and sarcasm. If you’re squeamish this is not a book for you; however, there is more here than just war porn. Tardi is reasonably effective in showing the low points of the war (mostly that’s what they were). The basic chronology and graphic depiction of it will give anyone reading this an excellent insight into the war. He does narrate the major events, such as when Italy enters the war or the Battle of Verdun is taking place, what interests him, though, is not the movement of troops or the political implications, but how little it matters. In addition to Tardi’s narrative there is a fine chronology of the war written by Jean-Pierre Verney. Like Tardi’s work it show’s just how badly run the war was and how unprepared the French and British were. The chronology and Tardi’s work make this anything but a typical work of military history. It seems more like the work of the German anarchist Ernst Friedrich’s Krieg dem Kriege (War against War!), published in 1924 and filled with images what really happens in war, the maiming, deaths, etc. It is in this focus on what happened, what the aftermath was like for those with facial wounds, what little support the disabled were given, that his book takes on its real power: the reminder that war is more than just movement of little ticks on a map.

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.

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.