The Arab of the Future by Raid Sattouf – A Reivew

Arab-of-the-Future-by-Riad-Sattouf-on-BookDragon-550x800The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
Raid Sattouf
Sam Taylor, trans
Metropolitan Books 2015, 153 pg.

Raid Sattouf’s spent the years between 1978 and 1984 living primary in Libya and Syria, with small stints in France. The son of a French mother and a Syrian father who was a teacher, he lived in a quickly changing landscape of languages, cultures, and political systems. Told through the eyes of a young child with little analysis from Sattouf the author, Arab of the Future is both surprising and occasionally disturbing as the family navigates the end of the era of pan-Arabism.

It is both a fascinating and some times disturbing book. On the one hand you have his experiences in two police states. Libya is the most extreme. Sattouf’s father has accepted a position to teach, which grants the family a certain level of status. Nevertheless, there are the usual lines for food and the inevitable shortages. And housing is a problem. On their first day they go out for a walk and return to their to find their apartment newly occupied, because no one was in it and that meant it was abandoned. While Syria has ready food availability, the presence of Assad is every where and when his mother buys foreign magazines, they are completely cut up by the sensors.

What is harder to take, but one of the cores of the book, is his father.  Sattouf’s father is a proud man. He believes in the future of Arab countries, gives up what could have been a comfortable life in France to teach in Libya and Syria. He dreams of having a Mercedes and is a little irritated when he can’t have one. At the same time he is seemingly brutish. He makes merciless fun of a bus driver who is afraid of snakes. He often makes comments about Jews. Within the context of Syria in the 1980’s the father may not be that strange. However, Sattouf’s mother is there. What did she think? It is the story of the boy, but his father is so dominating, it is hard to get a read on her. It makes his father’s behavior that much more pronounced. And placed alongside the poverty and dysfunction of the Syrian state, it is an unsettling story.

That aside Sattouf’s familiy’s mishaps are an interesting read that hopefully the second volume will fill out more.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

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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.

In The Sounds and Seas by Marnie Galloway – A Review

In The Sounds and Seas
Marnie Galloway
One Peace Books, 2016

Marnie Galloway’s In The Sounds and Seas is a beautifully drawn and imaginative wordless fable. The art of the wordless book is the purest expression of the  graphic novel, depending solely on the writer’s ability represent a story with images. There are few practitioners of the art, such as Lynd Ward, Franz Masreel, and Otto Gluck. Galloway’s book is a welcome addition to the form and creates richly detailed work that is part quest, part myth. What stands out, of course, and its what caught my eye when I bought the book at the Short Run festival, is her hyper  detailed drawings. The two shown below are indicative of her style, with its attention to detail. She excels at the interplay of black and white, creating subtle shadings of light and dark. Her fine hatching and clean lines bring motion and light and a liveliness to drawings. Even in the more traditional narrative panels that bring a more traditional comic feel to the book, her work is finally detailed. The voyaging section in the Storm chapter is one of the best examples her skill.

The narrative follows three women as they make a long maritime journey. Its a journey, which the epigraph from Homer suggests, that will not find a resolution, but is more a voyage of discovery. The discovery is both geographic and environmental as the women are both moving across the seas, but are also part of the sea. Images of boat ribs becoming whale bones, or even in the image below with the whale caring a human inside, make clear the relationship between the characters and their environment is part of the story. Its a fantastic relationship, one where its possible to swim in currents of rabbits and birds. The use of the fantastic is extends to the women’s relationship to the boat. One of them grows long hair which she ties to the ship, becoming an extension of the boat, an apt metaphor for the relationship between voyager and vessel.

Ultimately, Galloway leaves the narrative open ended. Both the impetus for the search and the its resolution allow the reader explore multiple ideas, both realistic and metaphysical. It invites rereading and looking at the narrative in different terms, examining the rich detail for new clues to its construction. Between the detailed drawings that invite reexploration and a narrative that shifts with that same exploration, its a great wordless novel.

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

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

happystoriescoverfrontback

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.