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.



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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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

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


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.

Cover Image
Orson Wells Story
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.


Words Without Borders Featuring International Graphic Novels Out Now

My favorite yearly issue of Words Without Borders is out now featuring International Graphic Novels:

February brings our annual showcase of the international graphic novel. On topics ranging from Korean genocide to an inside view of French bloviation, love and intrigue in Mexico to mistaken identity in Israel, these artists delineate character and plot in their singular styles. In two looks at prostitution, Victoria Lomasko talks to the “girls” in Russia’s fifth-largest city, while Mathias Picard’s elderly woman recalls how she stumbled into the profession. Hadar Reuven’s vulnerable boy makes a devastating choice, while Egypt’s Donia Maher adjusts to a cryptic neighborhood. In two very different biographies, Kun-woong Park documents Heo Yeong-cheol’s years as a dissident in 1940s Korea, and Ángel De la Calle travels to Mexico City on the trail of the enigmatic actress, model, artist, and spy Tina Modotti. Israel’s Dan Allon plays many roles. In Iran, Nicolas Wild smokes opium and speaks of poetry. The pseudonymous government employee Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain reveal the workings of French bureaucracy. We’re also launching a new feature, International Translation Culture, featuring essays on translation reception around the world. This month, Spanish writer and editor Luis Magrinyà considers reviewers and readers. And we present the latest installment of Sakumi Tayama’s “Spirit Summoning.”

The Great War An Illustrated Panorama by Joe Sacco – A Review

greatwar1Joe Sacco
The Great War-July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
An Illustrated Panorama
With an essay by Adam Hochschild
Norton, 2013, 24 foot accordion fold out

Joe Sacco’s The Great Way-July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a 24 foot long drawing of the first day of the battle of the Somme (for fastidious it is really the 12 hours before and the first 18 hours of July 1st) that attempts to capture the essence of the whole battle in one massive image. The scope of the battle ranges from General Haig shown walking, riding and otherwise planing the battle from his headquarters in a chateau well back of the front, to the detailed horror of the men going over the top. Sacco chose the first day of the Somme offensive because it offered a chance to capture the whole of the battle, complete with its almost naivete, even two years in, to the realities of modern war. Despite all the two years of stalemate it wasn’t until these battles that the British first could see the futile horror of the war.

In choosing to the first day of the battle as is topic, Sacco wanted to have a narrative. While this is a wordless book, he would still have a story to tell. The story is of the great effort made for so much waste: 20,000 killed and another 40,000 wounded on the first day out of a force of 120,000. To show the immensity of the battle he has created a very detailed bird’s eye view of the battle. Starting at Haig’s GQ and moving through the staging areas with their men and material, you move past the artillery which has fired for a full week (to little effect), and on into the trenches where the men prepare, which includes receiving their ration of rum. Once over the top Sacco shows the men in all manner of devastation as they slowly march into German machine gun fire. His depictions of human bodies after amongst shell fire are gruesome. Finally, he moves to rear echelons of hospitals and cemeteries. In all this you can see the unfolding of one of the great military disasters of the war. So many dead for so little gained.

Sacco’s work has always been marked by detail, and this work is no different–it was made for it. Sacco has said that he tried to draw each soldier as an individual. When drawing soldiers that is probably a little difficult since soldiers by their nature are fairly uniform, but if you study the drawings close enough you can see the care he gave to each which makes this a very rich work.

As a single piece of graphic art I think this is his best work, just in its sheer size. As a work of journalism or history, in other words narrative, it is not as good as some of his other works, but it is fascinating and a real refreshing stretch of form. As the centenary of the Great War approaches, this will probably be one of the better attempts to capture it.

Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas) by Paco Ignacio Taibo and Eko – A Review

Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas)Pancho villa toma zacatecas 01
Paco Ignacio Taibo and Eko
Sexto Piso illustrado, 2013, pg 305

Paco Ignacio Taibo and Eko’s graphic novel Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas) is a fictional retelling of Villa’s campaign against Zacatecas during the Mexican revolution. The Zacatecas campaign was the middle phase of the war when Villa, Zapata, and Carranza were all allied against Huerta and his federal forces. Zacatecas was the last big northern strong hold for the federal forces and its defeat would pave the way for the eventual invasion of Mexico City.

Paco Ignacio Taibo, the script writer, uses Colonel Montejo as his entry point into the story. It is he who narrates the events of the march to the city, the siege, and the eventual victory against the federal forces arrayed amongst the hills of Zacatecas. Montejo is a brave leader, wise, and intemperate. As stories go, there isn’t much to say. Villas forces take the city. The only real issue at hand is the brutality of the war. It is a brutality that has no room for missteps and plays heavily on personality. Montejo’s eventual fate only serves to show how brutal the war was, even amongst supposed allies.

The real focus of the book is the art. The jacket describes the  drawings as work inspired by German expressionism, the graphic socialism of the New Masses, the Mexican populism of the Taller de la Grafica popular, and the drawings of the calaveras. All of it is true. The two strongest influences seem that of the work of Franz Masereel and those of Mexican folk art most often associated with the work of Posada. Printed against black paper the drawings come to you as negative images that reveal everything as a shadow. Drawn with rough and strong lines the elements of the drawings seem to emerge out of a fantastical dark, where movement and being are quick and elemental. It is a style that emphasizes movement, and the momentum of war. It also turns each image into an iconic moment that is less about the precision of a picture and its complexity, but its bold presentation of an image. The iconic nature makes the book much more interesting and its story telling is as much in line with the works of Lynd Ward and Masereel.

My only criticism of the book, as is often the case with graphic novels, the actual story seemed a little light. For all the work that goes into such a book, there is always a feeling of let down when it comes to the briefness of what I’m reading, as if it can’t quite hold up to the drawings. Sometimes words are not enough.

What ever the case, it is a beautiful book that must be read.

Pancho villa toma zacatecas 04

Building Stories by Chris Ware – A Review

tumblr_m4doenYhNZ1r4t46jo3_1280Building Stories
Chris Ware
Pantheon Books, 2012, pg 200

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is not only a genre bending work, but a form bending work that seeks to create a graphic novel that is more than just panels and words, but an expression of the full potential of the form. While the graphic novel, at least since Maus, has been respected for its content potential, in other words, the ability to tells stories that heretofore had been the domain of text only forms, often what I see released are 60 pages of panels that relate a rather straight forward short story. Sure, the drawing styles are all different, but fundamentally it seems as nothing has changed since the early days of Superman. Naturally, there are exceptions, such as a favorite of this blog, Joe Sacco, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with panels and text. But the form has existed for close to a century now and it’s time for a little more experiments with form. All of this is to say, Building Stories is something new that takes Ware’s already know penchant for genre mixing in his Acme Comics Library works and creates his most interesting and form breading work.

Contained in a box and composed of multiple different pieces, all in different sizes an formats, from books to newspaper size folded sections to a board game like tablet. It may be that the format is a legacy of the publishing history of these pieces, many of which have appeared in various forms over the last 10 years.  Nevertheless, the different formats play with the history of the comic form, from newspaper section to comic book to graphic novel. It is a tactile game that makes reading each section different from the previous. More over, there is no order to read the pieces. They can be read in any order and the story of the four lives contained within continually rewrite themselves as you begin each new section and have to rethink a previous piece. What makes Ware’s work even more interesting is that he uses the graphic elements to their fullest. He is well known for using popular forms as newspapers and advertizements within his work, and he continues that is these pieces. But he also plays with the form, often rearranging the way a series of panels should be read on the page, allowing the placement of his images, not the narrative to dictate the art. It also makes for a more engaged reading, because the reader can not just slip from panel to panel, but must stop and take stock of the page as a whole to navigate. Where Ware is often at his best are in the moments where there are no words and he just has a series of panels that express in a subtle way, the emotional state of his characters. Given that much of his work is precise and geometric, often eschewing great detail, his skill at showing the internal desperation of a character, often in just subtly repeating a frame, is impressive.

Building Stories follows the lives of the residents of a turn of the century apartment building as they lead lives of quiet desperation. Ware’s most evocative writing comes in the untitled hard bound book, which provides an alternating view into the lives of four people who live in the building: the old woman who owns the building; a couple who always fights; and a one legged woman who works in a florist shop and spends most of her time apart. Their stories intertwine the loneliness that can come even though one lives right next door to someone else. The desperation is every present through out the work as a whole, and is a reflection of failed dreams and lives that have settled into a rut. For the florist, the character Ware will develop throughout the work, her life has never lived up to expectations and she is constantly aware of it, equipped with all the tools an art school education can give to analyze the world, and yet never come to any realization of where one should go.

Also included are two booklets about a bee and the alternate universe he lives in. The bee is a hard worker and the stories follow his attempts to be a good provider for his family. The bee stories provide some comic relief, but only slightly. There, too, is the same sense of longing to find ones way, Ware has just recast from the point of view of a bee. They are fun stories that make what could be a very self absorbed collection about humans, into something a little broader that can describe the real sense of loneliness of the characters, but also poke fun at the way humans create the  conditions that make them so unhappy.

If I have any complaint, its that only in the hard bound book do we get a complete picture of the residents of the building. After the florist leaves the building and begins her life outside of it, the other characters disappear. While it may have been impossible to work characters together that really had no relationship other than proximity, it would have been an interesting task. I suspect it’s because Ware wrote the sections independent of the Building Stories concept. That said, the life of the florist as she becomes a mother and moves to Oak Park, Chicago confronts middle class anxieties in Ware’s visually arresting style, and is still as interesting as the life in the building.

New February 2013 Words Without Borders – The Graphic Novel

The February 2013 Words Without Borders is out now, featuring the graphic novel. This is always one of my favorite editions of the magazine. There are two stories from Spanish, A Shining Path of Blood: Massacres and a Monologue by Jesús Cossio and The Art of Flying by Antonio Altarriba. The rest of the issue, of course, also looks interesting especially the Oubapo works from the Oulipo group.

February brings our annual showcase of the international graphic novel. On topics ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the Shining Path, organized labor in France and broken homes in South Africa, these artists delineate character and plot in their singular styles. See how Antonio Altarriba and Kim, Jesús Cossio, Étienne Davodeau, Karlien de Villiers, Akino Kondoh, Migo Rollz, and Li-Chen Yin make every picture tell a story.  And in a special feature, graphic artist and translator Matt Madden introduces the Oubapo, the graphic arm of the Oulipo, with wildly inventive work by François Ayroles, Patrice Killoffer, and Etienne Lécroart.

In the latest installment of our World Through the Eyes of Writers column, the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko introduces Belarus’s Uladzimir Niakliaeu.

Journalism by Joe Sacco – A Review

Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books 2012, pg 192

Joe Sacco’s work has long been a fascination of mine. The comics medium has a lot of potential, but even the most serious work is unable to distance itself enough from its roots in either style or in content. Sacco’s work, on the other hand, opens up different directions for comics, not so much in style as he is still in a realist vein, but in subject. It is the content that shapes the power of his style rather than the reverse (here I’m thinking of a Charles Burns whose style is amazing, but the story isn’t as much). In his journalist works published to date (I’m not going to count Notes of a Defeatist which is very alt-comic) he has focused on telling long stories that dig into an issue, telling as best he can, different sides of the issue. Even works like the Fixer seem to come out of his larger work on Bosnia, Safe Area Grozny.  Journalism, on the other hand, is a collection of pieces written for various publications over the last decade or so, ranging from embedding with the Army in Iraq to a long report on migrants in Crete to an investigation on the lives of Dalits in India.  The publications range from Time magazine, which includes some of his only colored work, to a French magazine devoted to comic journalism. The wide ranging publication history leads to less consistent work, as Sacco points out in several of the introductions that follow each story. Still there are some gems in the collection, especially his report from Crete, India, Chechnya, and the story of embedding in Iraq. The first three are also the longest pieces in the book and, therefore, offer the fullest look at a particular subject, akin to a full length magazine feature. It is in the longer stories his trade mark style of interviews presented as a mix of close ups, dramatized scenes as the interviewee narrates the story, and Sacco as character asking the questions, although in these pieces he doesn’t seem to characterize himself so comically. Some of the stories seem old news, but they are still powerful. In the Chechnya story there is a hopelessness both with the situation of the refugees and the aid agencies that just cannot cope with. The story of the Dalits of India is as equally hopeless and one can not help but wonder if there is ever a way to lift the Dalits out of poverty. While the previous two stories seem the farthest away, the refuges from Crete (he is originally from Crete) offers a story that should both be familiar to Americans and Europeans, detailing the problems with unwanted migrants. Crete has received numerous migrants from Africa who want to go on to Europe. It is a small country that has been unavailable to adequately cope with them. Unsurprisingly, there are problems and nativist groups who want to chase them out. Sacco gives a well rounded treatment of the story and both the “what right do you have to come here” and the “what right do you have to keep me out” view points are given in depth treatment, which is all one can ask of a journalist.

The question after reading the journalistic pieces is does comics journalism work? Or more to the point can it be taken seriously? I think they definitely work, although not in the sense of a daily newspaper. What he is writing is long form journalism, which is what he is best at. (There is one opinion piece from the NY Times and it isn’t that great, which he admits). Writing takes time and drawing the detailed kind of narrative he does even longer. His body of work, as this book attests, shows a solid journalist whose commitment to a story is strong. Still, I can’t see his work in major media (whatever of that there is left) yet. Not for his faults, but because, as I have long thought, few authors have managed to blend narrative demands with artistic in a way that doesn’t leave the reader wondering if the art work was really necessary or a better writer should have been added to the project. Sacco avoids both problems. It is too bad the only comics journalism magazine that I know of is in French.

You can read  his story about the war crimes tribunal which appeared in Details (which caused no end of problems for him when interviewing the subjects)at the publisher’s site.


God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls by Jaime Hernandez – A Review

God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls
Jaime Hernandez
Fantagraphic Books

I’ve never liked superhero comic books much. Even before I was a teenager I found them a little boring. Really, what happens in a superhero comic book? The hero spends his time moaning about their powers, or at least wondering if they’ll be strong enough to defeat the villain. The hero and villain run around chasing each other for the 30 pages or so, often the hero faces a set back, but then they overcome. While character development is a fine thing, comic books often suffer from the repeated analysis of their own heroic virtues. Yes, the very early comics were all plot, but at some time that switched and it was just tedious talking without even the littles bit of story telling. It’s harsh, and there are certainly quality examples of the superhero, such as the oft noted Watchmen. I’d rather read a Tin-Tin any day.

I mention all that because I finally read one of the Hernandez brother’s books. They have a great reputation among those who like graphic novels and it has long been over due for me to read one of their books. I know they write non superhero things, but I happened to pick up a superhero story. It has redeeming elements that take it beyond a superhero story. In the world of the Ti-Girls, only women are superheros and they have been fighting the good fight for many years. So many that the Ti-Girls are in retirement and are forced to come out of retirement when the most powerful woman in the universe goes into shock after loosing her baby and becomes a danger to Earth. While he has some nice touches playing with the stock elements of superheros the book, again, comes down to that same flaw. The heroes run around beating on each other. One side seems to get the upper hand, then the other, and in between they discus their powers and those of the mourning woman, and add in a little plot. Except for Hernandez’s reinvention of how superpowers are handed out, there isn’t too much difference between this and a Marvel or a DC comic. And I get it. Super powers are difficult to use, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be the center of every story. Super powers as a metaphor for identity  has been done, especially if you are writing for adults, which Hernandez  certainly is with his illusions to other superheros. The graphic novel has removed the constraints on comics, it is too bad that homages have to fall into the same traps.

Alfonso Zapico Wins the Premio Nacional de Cómic for His Book on Joyce

Alfonso Zapico has won the Premio Nacional de Cómic forhis book on Joyce. It is a book that is about the significance of Joyce and his contemporaries in the avant guard. It is based on exhaustive investigations. You can read an excerpt in Spanish here (pdf).

Dublinés no es una biografía al uso y va más allá, asegura su editor Fernando Tarancón: “Zapico traslada allí lo que significó Joyce en su época y para la vanguardia. Él hizo una exhaustiva labor de investigación”. Además de Dublinés, Zapico ha publicado La ruta Joyce, un cuaderno de viaje por los lugares que recorrió Joyce. Se trata de un dibujante que bebe de la escuela francesa y en la obra ganadora utiliza un trazo más realista.

Según el crítico Álvaro Pons, Zapico se inmiscuyó en el mundo del cómic sin haber pisado un fanzine antes, “sin haber hecho nunca antes una historieta comercial, se lanzó a contar una historia con viñetas, a pelo y sin más armas que papel, lápiz y muchas, muchas ganas e ilusión. Una fórmula habitual en los que comienzan, pero que no suele estar acompañada del ansiado éxito”, escribió en marzo de 2011 en este periódico.

Metro: A Story of Cairo by Magdy El Shafee – A Review of a Censored Graphic Novel from Egypt

Metro: A Story of Cairo
Magdy El Shafee
Metropolitan Books, 2012, pg 95

Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo is the much anticipated publication in English of the Egyptian author’s banned work. When published in 2008 it was banned for “offending public morals” and remains banned despite the change in government. The offending public morals is one of those classic phrases of despotic regimes and rarely do the artists condemned with those words actually offend anything but the regime’s sense of invincibility. Given the profound changes that have swept over Egypt in the last year and a half, Metro, which was written and baned several years before those events, has taken on not only the voice of protest it has always had, but also a document of the problems that led to the Arab Spring.

The story itself is rather simple: two young software developers Shehab and Mustafa who get shafted on a business deal by a corrupt businessman. They are broke and a friend of theirs, an old man, tells him he is going blind. The two men decide to steal the money using their electronic know-how. It fails but on the way out of the building they come upon a government official demanding a payoff from the head of the bank. In one of those great lines that catches the flavor of the whole book the banker says,

Collateral, your excellency? What collateral? You honor us by taking our loan…

Running parallel to the story is a murder that the boys witness and try to solve . The murder brings them into the ins and out of corruption. The police are untrustworthy, the press is week, and no one seems to care. At one point the one of the boys says,

People are numb. Nothing has any effect on them. They put up with so much, they just say. “Well, that’s how things are in this country of ours.”

And to illustrate that the last third of the novel breaks out into a violent protest march that is  broken up by government thugs pretending to be protesters. It is a prescient part of the book, foretelling the types of protests that were to happen a few years later.

Shafee’s Egypt is burdened down by corrupt politicians, unreliable  police, businessmen who’ll cheat you every chance they get knowing there is no recourse to complain if they are connected, and an economic system that is so dependent on payoffs that it is virtually impossible to start a new business. When the young men try to sell their software they are completely blocked by inaccessibility to funds and corruption. Their only hope is to steal, or to immigrate. To show this complete collapse of possibilities their friend, an old merchant, has given up and has taken to begging. But his begging is just as corrupt and what he says has nothing to do with his economic circumstances. It is impossible to trust anyone when the only way to succeed is to cheat, to steal and to lie. It is a truth that not only fills almost every encounter in the book, but one that Shehab will find even destroys his closest illusions.

Metro is written as a noir with  Shehab narrating in much the same way. He opens the book saying, “We’ve spent our whole lives in this cage, but two weeks ago, when the bars began to close in, things became clearer. Our eyes were opened and we made a decision.” Shehab is a modern outsider, both a hacker and a ninja-like figure who welds a staff like Bruce Lee, one of his heroes. Since computing can be mysterious hacking makes for the perfect type of priestly warrior, one whose special skills allow him to combat the abuses of society. He is a mix of Batman, Philip Marlow, and a Shaolin monk. It can be a stultifying image, one that takes away from the brutal realities he is describing. What saves the book is that almost no one gets what they want. As with all noir the power isn’t necessarily in the reality, but the but the power to show all the corrupt elements of a society at once, even if that creates mythic heroes that lead to their own escapist fantasies.

The art work of Metro is much like that of the cover photo. Occasionally, a guest artist will do a page or two in a completely different style. Many frames are rough and still have the original pencil tracings. It all leads to an impression of a hurried and unfinished place. He also shifts his style to accentuate the comedic as when he draws the beggar in his comic moments. The most polished moments are during the protests when the wide sweep of violence are shown in sweeping gestures, more abstract and more brutal. They were the most effective sequences in the book.

Overall its a fascinating book that still has its roots in the comic, but whose power comes from criticisms. It will be interesting to see if without the urgency of the times, the story will still stand up and not turn into a noir that does not have the power to evoke a society on the edge.

You can read an interview with Shafee at Arab Lit in English.