Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg

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Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo – A Reivew

Citizen 13660
Miné Okubo
University of Washington Press, 2014, pg 219 pages

Cleaning Stable for Bedroom
Cleaning a Stable for a Bedroom

Citizen 13660, originally published in 1946, was one of the first accounts of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. It is also one of the first graphic novels. It is a work of both historical and artistic importance, one that gives an early voice to the same of the camps and helps set a new approach for visual narrative.

While comic books had existed in some form or another for at least 10 years, newspaper comics for nearly 50, and there were more serious narrative works from authors like Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel during the 30s, an actual graphic novel that we recognize today did not exist. Okubo’s work is not a true graphic novel either, at least in a modern sense. It is a more transitional work. Like Ward and Masreel, she uses single wordless panels to narrate her work, but unlike them she also includes a textual description below. Where as Ward and Masreel had to use their drawings as narrative, Okubo is free to use her work as something more documentary, which is important because she is more focused on reportage, rather than fictional narrative. As such each image stands alone, as she were a photo-journalist. Many of the drawings don’t need a caption as they explain themselves, but the use of the caption expands the meaning of her drawings and weaves them into a narrative that brings the whole experience together.

Building Furniture
Building Furniture

It is the experience, of course, that is Okubo’s main preoccupation. An experience that she lived. In almost every panel she can be found somewhere. The two in this review show her quite clearly, but even in a great crowd scene she is clearly visible. It is at once autobiographical and a statement of power, as if she were saying, I know this because I was there. The visual approach can become sardonic, as when she shows a Caucasian spying through a peephole while she, in turn, is poking her head around a corner spying on him. It is in these moments she shows not only how the internees survived, but tired to take as much control of their own situation. You can’t stop a spy, but at least you can keep track of him.

Most of the drawings, though, are of daily life, both the indignities of the whole internment process, and the way the internees made the best of what they had to create a new life that put them in degrading and difficult circumstances. Okubo does not avoid any detail, from the way the bathrooms were configured for the women, to how they were forced to sleep in horse stables, whose smell was terrible. After spending several months at horse race track in California, she was sent to Topaz, Utah. Topaz was an inhospitable place, where wind storms blew alkaline sand everywhere and the winters were cold in their tar paper dormitories. Topaz, like Manzanar and other camps, was not placed in an area where anyone would want to live. Yet the internees built the best version of their lives they could. From baseball to sumo wrestling to gardening, they reestablished the culture they knew, both American and Japanese. They organized their own schools to make sure the children did not go without. Okubo was among many of the volunteer teachers.

The book ends with her release from the camp: “My thoughts shifted from the past to the future.” It is an abrupt end, but a fitting one for a work like this, whose power is in looking at the indignities of the internment. Moreover, there is nothing more that she can do in 1946, but bear witness. Certainly, there have been other works on the subject, but in its raw documentary form it is a vital account of the internment disaster.

Bumf Vol 1 by Joe Sacco – A Review

Bumf Vol 1 Cover
Bumf Vol 1 Cover

Bumf Vol 1
Joe Sacco
Fantagraphics Books, 2014, pg 120

It is no secret that Joe Sacco is a particular favorite at By The Fire Light. He has mostly worked within comix journalism, writing a series of books on Bosnia and Palestine, along with smaller pieces on various subjects. He did start his career, however, in the alternative tradition (see Notes from a Defeatist) and Bumf is a return to that world. It is a book he has been writing off an on for some time and is quite a departure from his journalistic efforts.

Bumf is pure satire, biting and dark. I read it when the torture report came out and it was a perfect reflection of the report. A work that is comedic and bleak, picturing a world where the secrets of the government are something to fear. Moreover, Bumf directly tackles some of the practices of the last ten years and finds in them not an aberration, but a continuation of a hundred years of war making, yet another bit of insanity in the name of victory.

The brilliance in Bumf is how Sacco mixes tropes and cliches from the 100 years of war and scandal to create a vision of an America that is darkly funny. Starting with the insanity of the First World War where a general commands his men to run naked across the battlefield to scare the Germans, he mixes in the anachronistic story of a World War II bomber pilot. From these sources Bumf presents a military logic that is anything but logical and leaves soldiers at the mercy of the general’s wild ideas. From there, Sacco adds in the figure of Nixon, an a temporal figure who exists in both in the Vietnam era and in the modern era. He is a devious figure and participates in secret rituals, the same ones that the men who torture do. All these layers of images from history and pop culture, create a satirical view of the United States as anything but free or just. Instead, it is a bureaucratic one where the strange whims of its leaders dictate everything.

The humor is quite dark. In one scene Nixon is given a torture kit and a prisoner to torture. In the next panel his wife is yelling at him to get the dead body out of the bathroom. She doesn’t want it there any more. In the following panels Nixon and his men are shown lugging the body out of the bathroom while his wife is sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. The tortures are also ridiculous. They all wear a black hood, much like the prisoner in the Abu Grave photo, and are naked. For much of the story Sacco follows a couple who walk around naked with their hoods. They are part of a twisted love story that finds them playing out romantic lives while all around them the absurd cruelty continues. They, too, are part of the absurdity, often having sex while Nixon looks on. Into this satire, Sacco also injects a dose of religion. Many of the torturers as they celebrate their bacchanals site passages from the bible, often perverting the quote to fit the needs of the state.

Bumf’s vision spares no one. It is one of the most biting satires I’ve read. What makes it work is Sacco’s humor and willingness to be completely absurd, mixing military tropes from the last 100 years into a surreal cometary that distills the essential madness of these ideas. I was a little doubtful that I would like Bumf. I don’t like alternative comix at times because they can become to self referential and juvenile. Bumf is anything but. It is a true departure from his journalistic work, but a fascinating work nonetheless.

Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces – A Review

Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces
Peter and Maria Hoey
Coin-Op Studio, 2014

Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces is another of my Short Run comic finds. This is might be my favorite of all of the comics I bought there (I still have a few to read). It is some of the more visually adventurous in terms of story telling that I saw at the show.  What caught my eye of course his the art. He has a richly detailed style that pays special detail to textures. The images below don’t quite do justice to the details, which makes for some beautiful illustrative art. Moreover, his ability to change registers between the more comedic and the darker tributes to film noir makes each story stand out.

The other striking element of the book is the different approaches to story telling, both in terms of his construction of narrative and the visual representation of it. The first story, Au Privave (the tittle is from a Charlie Parker song) is four pages of an almost wordless story. At the top of the page floating through the panels are word bubbles that are not to related to a specific character but are akin to a chorus in the life of the Jazz musicians who populate the lower sections of the page. The images underscore a kind of loneliness that the conversation fragments point to. The story is a subtle play on the disappointing life of a Jazz musician. In the The Trials of Orson Welles he gives a graphic biography of Orson Welles, using images from his greatest films. It’s a striking portrait of the enigmatic film maker and Peter Hoey told me when I bought it that he had done extensive research to create the images. It is his longest piece in the book and the blend of film excerpts, biographic elements and the imagery makes it a stunning story. And in keeping with his different approaches to story telling, at the bottom of the Welles piece pseudo news real that describes his back lot problems with the studio. The windy parade was another of his stories that plays with comic story telling conventions. In this one, the page is part of one overall story even though the page is divided into 12 separate panel. On each of the six pages, the story within each panel evolves so that you don’t read the story panel to panel, but page to page referring to each panel in relation to the previous page. However, since the overall page is that of a parade the individual stories are not locked into a panel, but can move throughout the page. All this playfulness and inventiveness makes Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces an amazing graphic novel.

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Cover Image
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Orson Wells Story
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Jazz Piece

 

Black Sheep #3 by Fred Noland – A Review

Black Sheep #3 by Fred Noland is another comic I picked up at Short Run comix festival. I actually bought the comic from him, which was pretty typical for the the festival. In addition to his few comics he does illustrations and covers for SF Weekly, amongst others. I picked his books because I liked the art and because he said it was the best one. (He also noted that it had strippers at the end.)

This edition follows Ivan an aspiring writer and a silkscreen printer through two stages of his life, one, when he’s in his early twenties and one in this thirties. In each there he is a frustrated and easy to anger guy who surrounds himself with friends who, let’s be honest, bring this out his self pitting side. The first section is the funnier of the two, since Ivan’s friend is a mid 90’s wigger, and has the memorable line, “You know I think I liked you better as a Grunge Rocker than a wigger.” The humor that comes from a clues white guy claiming he knows African American culture is painfully funny. In the second section, the book turns a little darker as we see Ivan hasn’t advanced too far in life and spends his time with yet another friend that stresses him out. In general, spending time with American losers can bore me, especially if they spend significant time with strippers, but Ivan was interesting enough and his aspirations, no matter how blunted by his lifestyle gave him something redeeming.

Along with this book, Noland was giving out a little compendium of mugshots. The faces are comical as well as are his comments below the face. The bets one: “What’s behind this smug look? Homeboy pissed his pants while getting frisked in an attempt to destroy drug evidence. Obviously didn’t work out but he gets an “E” for effort.”

 

Ablatio Penis by Will Dinski – A Review

I picked up Ablatio Penis by Will Dinski at the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival this November. Ablatio Penis is a graphic novel published by 2D Cloud about the meteoric rise and fall of a political star. When I began reading and it was obvious what the politics of the characters were, I had the feeling that the book would head into well worn territory of conservatives with reprobate ideas getting their just deserts. If you don’t like conservatives that might be a comforting read, but it seldom makes for interesting art. I was pleasantly surprised that Dinski was able to create a story where the politician, as slick and manipulative that he is, has some decency and that decency is used against him in a way that shows he wasn’t as manipulative as it first seemed. The answer to whether he deserved what he got, is, I suppose, dependent on your politics and your sense of justice. Either way the ending was refreshing and leaves several open questions for the reader to argue.

What drew me to the book as I was thumbing through the pages in front of the woman from the publisher, was the art. First the cover of book is dazzling geometry of patriotism and catches your eye. Second, and most importantly, his approach to  drawing the panels felt fresh, light and economical. While he is capable of rich illustrations, he also draws mainly small little unbordered panels that contain just one face and a piece of text to the side, as if it was the demarcation between images. It opens up the narrative to quick cuts between scenes and disconnects the exact way time flows. It also allows for a more fluid story telling, where the text and the drawings are not constrained by the typical genre patterns, but contribute to the overall look.

All in all, this was a good find.

 


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.