I’m not a huge comics fan boy. Superheros get tiresome after a while–they cry about their superpowers way too much. Growing up I read war comics, specifically: The Unknown Soldier, G.I. Combat, and most of all, Sgt. Rock. I had no idea who Joe Kubert was but his creation (I believe he had stopped writing the comic before I came on the scene) was a mainstay for me for several years. I still have all the copies in their less than mint condition–worthless might be a better word–including the Batman-Sgt. Rock team up. I never did get the Superman one that was advertised, but probably for the best. I can’t say it was anything more than escapist fun, but, still, there was a tiredness to the stories, soldiers grinding on through the war. He had a dark element that made the men more real that their tights wearing counter parts. The hallmark of Sgt. Rock was his monthly struggle to keep his platoon together. It didn’t always happen and they lost men, always shown as a classic burial mound, a rifle stuck muzzle down, and a helmet hanging off to one side. Rare was the comic where people died, and give this was a war comic, perhaps more should have. Yet the Rock was still a blaze of glory, his Thompson machine gun roaring, extra ammo hanging off him, his helmet always at a rebellious angle. He was a hero and heroes, despite their creator’s wishes, make war glamorous. I will say, in one of these comics I first read about friendly fire and at a young age it was disturbing to think you could get shot by one of your own. It was an eye opener, one that still sticks with me even after all these years. I believe I was reading after he had been in charge of the war comics (based on the NY Time‘s dates), but I think his influence was felt in those that I still have. According to the NY Times, during his run as head of war comics at DC between 67 and 76, “at the end of each comic, Mr. Kubert directed the typesetter to add a four-word coda. It read, ‘Make War No More.'” Those are fitting words for the end of every war comic, and if I was going to read war comics, those are really the only words the creator of a boyhood icon should have written.
Frans Masereel was an early proponent of the graphic novel and the sub genre the wordless novel. Most of his famous wordless novels which use the wood cut printing technique date from 1919 to the 20’s, are beautiful documents of its time, at once impressionistic and documentary. Although his work was not overtly political, he was a critic of a society that valued wealth and power above all things and his stories usually reflect some element of that criticism. At all times he has a great fascination with the little details that make up every day life. It is in that juxtaposition of layers of little details that his works build their narrative, or as it often seems, makes his case, since some of these might be better called wordless essays.
The most complete and compelling of the the works listed here is The City: A Vision in Woodcuts. Vision is the correct term, because there isn’t a narrative but a series of impressions of what the city is. In one sense it is the day in the life of a city, with images of workers in factories, weddings, parties, brothels, military parades. But looking closer at the details he places throughout there is a definite hierarchy in the images and it is obvious that despite the trappings of prosperity and modernity the city is a rough place and only a few win. In an image of a rich couple leaving a fancy cafe, off to the corner is a beggar. In another, a man takes advantage of a maid. He progress into even darker scenes of rape, and violent suppression of protests. The sum of all these images is a sense of isolation and loneliness that is often the early 20th century embodiment of the city.
The Sun takes a more light hearted approach to looking at the city. Instead, of a series of unrelated images, Masereel uses a narrative. The story opens with a man at a desk day dreaming and looking at the sun. He falls asleep and from his head emerges a figure who tries to reach the sun. From there on the figure walks through town and country looking for the sun, never quite reaching it. It is a satirical piece because the sun takes many different forms, all of which are chimeras. He looks for it in books, a crucifix, drink, up a woman’s dress, a brothel, at the top of a factory smoke stack, in the coin a rich man throws him from a car. None of it helps and he continues to seek and never quite gets there despite going by boat to the horizon of a setting sun, or in an airplane. As the story ends the figure, now Icarus like, returns to the sleeping man who laughs. While it has the same social criticism as The City, he also shows an element of the surreal and an interest in the origins of art. And what ties the two elements of the story together are the panels where the figure is constantly set upon by the crowd, as if the seeking is something forbidden. In Masereel you always have the sense that upsetting the social order will only bring trouble.
The Idea continues many of the elements in The Sun. In it an author sits at his desk and struck by lightening he creates the figure of a naked woman. He puts her in an envelope and sends her out into the world where she is hated. Men try to clothe her, but she refuses; when she is loved, the men kill her husband; when she meets a young boy, his parents spank him. And in the most amusing, when her image is printed it has to be burned. Eventually, she has to flee and returns to the author, but he has created a new figure, so he places her on a crucifix and hangs her in a painting. The last scene is the author crying as his newest figure is sent into the world. Despite its fantastical nature, it shares with The Sun the idea that ideas are dangerous, in what ever form. The religious overtones of a creator sending out his children only to see them persecuted, adds to wildness of the story and makes for a bitting satire also of religion.
The final work Story Without Words, is probably the least interesting. The story is fairly simple: a man seeks a woman, and when he finally gives herself to him, he abandons her. Within the context of his other works, he does show a concern for women who are used carelessly by men. In many of his drawings there is the figure of a woman whose desires for freedom, self hood, love are repressed, or her physical being is threatened in someway. Given that context the story has more weight, but it is not his best work.
His art work is not as detailed and stylized as a Lynn Ward, but he captures, especially in The City, a richness of detail that make his work come alive. And it is that detail that makes Masereel’s work a fascinating vision of the enter war period.
I have a penchant for reading these things, especially if it was banned in some way or another as Blazing Combat was when it was published in 1966. Of course I wanted to see what would get it banned, but also how war is represented. Can something interesting be said in the comic form that hasn’t been said already. While I read with relish the works of Joe Sacco or Spiegelman’s Mouse, it has been a while since I’ve read a war comic that follows the more traditional format of a war comic: short vignettes about soldiers, usually with heavy interior monologues, noting the hardship but at the same time the purpose as something hideous, but necessary.
Perhaps half of the stories fall into that category: soldiers in combat fighting a surviving because that is what one does. Usually the tension is not about glory in a campaign, but about entering action as a cocky youngster and coming out a humbled survivor, or a veteran doing what he has to do and hoping to survive once more, with the understanding that it is the enemy who cannot survive. While it is possible to inject a note of triumphalism that suggests glory is one’s goal, comics often, because of their lower profile, can question this more than movies (here I’m specifically thinking of films and comics between 1945 and 1980). Blazing Combat, to its credit, avoids that trap and there is seldom a note of triumphalism. Instead, as the editor notes in the interview at the end of the book, it is more about soldiers talking to soldiers, the phenomenon I’ve noticed in survivor accounts where one does not dwell on the horrific, instead it is the shared experience, which the survivors know were horrific, that is the means of understanding. When I read the description of the book as banned for its anti war stance I thought I wouldn’t see anything that suggested dutiful ambivalence. But it is that shared expression that can have its own power. Unfortunately, too, it can come across as triumphal.
What got the book banned, though, are the stories of futility that show nothing in war has any value. One story shows takes place during the Spanish American War and shows two Americans are shown talking about how they can’t wait to see combat, which is juxtaposed with an American killing a Spaniard in hand to hand combat and walking away in horror. In another, the WWI British ace William Bishop is not noteworthy for his skill as a pilot. There were others such as the Red Barron who were as good and are remembered still to this day. What sets him apart is he survived the war. In other words, fame is pointless if you don’t survive. And in the most scandalous for the time, a story follows a Vietnamese villager who tries to save his land from an American patrol. The outcome does not make the Americans look good. It is especially prescient since it was written in 1965.
As a work of comic or social history it is interesting. As something to read and enjoy it is a little tedious. How many times can you read a five page story about a youngster learning the hard way what war is? If you want to see an approach to war in comic form that tried something different, this is your book. However, if you want entertainment (or great insight), not so much. But I think that its name says it all: Blazing Combat. Typically this has a connotation of excitement and adventure, and sometimes that bleeds into the stories, because it is difficult to create a war comic that even in its most nihilistic, is not partly about glory. If humans are capable of saying, Vive la Muerte (Long Live Death) as they did at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it is possible to enjoy the action of Blazing Combat, even if the name is ironic.
I will say the art for a comic is actually quite interesting and shows and good range of styles, though it is still in the comic vein.
Arabic Literature in English is reporting that Magdy al-Shafee’s Graphic Novel Metro which has been baned in Egypt will be coming out in English in 2012. I don’t have too much more information on the book, but I have been waiting for this to get published into English or Spanish so I could give it a read. It has gotten a lot of good criticism. You can read an excerpt at Words Without Borders (link below).
And, further on the good-news front, Magdy al-Shafee’sMetro, which was yanked from stores in April 2008, will receive a new edition. According to al-Shafee,Metro will be republished by Dar Merit (in Arabic) in conjunction with a Lebanese publishing house.
Metro also will also soon have an English version. The graphic novel—the first Egyptian graphic novel for adults—has been translated in full by Humphrey Davies, who earlier translated an excerpt for Words Without Borders. It will be published in early 2012 by Metropolitan Books, which also publishes Joe Sacco.
The ever interesting Words Without Borders has published its annual graphic novel edition. French and Chinese works predominate, but there is one from Israel and Italian.
February brings our annual celebration of the international graphic novel. From bomb shelters in Gaza to prisons in Greece, surviving famine in Ukraine and negotiating high school in Paris, these international artist-writers delineate character and plot with their singular styles. See how Nine Antico, Chihoi, Christophe-Ngalle Edimo and Simon-Pierre Mbumbo, Eom Jeong-He and Ko Im-Hong, Igort, Rutu Modan and Igal Sarna, and David Prudhomme make every picture tell a story. (Chihoi’s tale is a translation within a translation, a graphic version of a story by Xi Xi, also appearing this month.) Elsewhere, in a trio of anti-valentines, Kjell Askildsen’s resentful married couple seethe in silence, Guillermo Martinez’s pick-up artist blunders through a dance hall, and Teresa Solana’s elderly women dispatch an abusive son-in-law.
This month we also launch a new series, Our Man in Madrid, in which Jonathan Blitzer presents new work in Spanish by international writers coming through that literary hub. In the first installment, Venezuelan Juan Carlos Chirinos tracks the operatic last act of a despot.
It Was the War of the Trenches
10pg excerpt from Fantagraphics.
Some books about war want to shock you, throw every image and arbitrary decision at you, and hope somehow that you’ll remember at least just a moment of savageness the next time you think war is interesting or good for something. The literature of World War I produced many books like that whose primary goal was to show the brutality and pointless of it all. From All Quiet on the Western Front’s body parts hanging in trees to A Farewell to Arm’s fatalism, the image of World War I was one of brutality repeated over and over again. During the war photos from the front were suppressed, and even now the images that are readily available from the war are relatively benign. But there have been exceptions over the years, such as 1924’s War Against War by Ernst Friedrich (a graphic excerpt) with its graphic images of death on the battlefield and the disfigured survivors. His book, though, was not a best seller and was eventually suppressed by the Nazis. It is hard to create lasting art with that goal in mind, which is not to say All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arm have other merits (I doubt Friedrich thought he was creating art, he had another goal), but so much detail, so much brutality, does not so much as overwhelm you, but inure you to what is coming. There is only so much you need before you get the point.
I mention all this because It Was the War of the Trenches is not for everyone, which is a shame in some ways, but also because in reading it I couldn’t decide if I was honoring the men, or going for a lark through the trenches. It’s not my war, and almost a 100 years latter why did an artist create a book that is surely in the War Against War mold. For It Was the War of the Trenches is a tough read occasionally: cartoon entrails can still seem disgusting. And the endless stories that end with the absurd death of the protagonist who never really seems that different from the last one and who you didn’t really get to know, leaves you with a sense of repetitive futility. I’ve read enough first hand accounts of World War I and II to know how it manifests itself. It is not a pleasant experience, and nor should it be, the anarchist Friedrich might say. However, he was a survivor of the war, Tardi only the grandson of one. It shouldn’t matter, but the book for all its good qualities, the research and the drawings, makes me wonder why, still this story? The story of a war this big should not be forgotten, or left solely to history books that are more about marching men than the quality of the ground after months of fighting, but the way Tardi approaches it the book feels desperate as if not enough people are listening to something that should have been told earlier.
Ultimately, It Was the War of the Trenches is what the title says. A book about the trenches of World War I, as illustrated by a cartoonist. I use cartoonist intentionally, and perhaps this is the strange feeling I get when reading the book, because at times the skulls and corpses that appear every few pages, seem straight out of the pages of late 50s EC comics and it is a little hard to take it seriously, which is a shame. That aside, if you need to be reminded of the futility of war, in general, and the specific futility of World War I, in particular, it is worth the read.
Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (Library of America, Nos. 210 & 211)
Vol I: God’s Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage
Library of America
I have written about Lynd Ward several times (Vertigo review, Wordless Books review) and will be doing again when I read volume II, and every time I read his works I am impressed by his graphic style. For me it is such a wonderful example of art deco and illustrative technique. I don’t get tired of thumbing through the pages. His stories, too, can be interesting even if they can push the city versus pastoral theme a little too much. Library of America has just released a two volume set the collects his six woodcut novels in a two beautiful editions which should insure they find a wider audience.
God’s Man, the first novel in the collection, is a faustian story of a painter who accepts a magical paint brush. The brush has helped the great painters of history from the Egyptians to the moderns. The painter takes it and begins to the live the life of a famous artist, only to find it is an empty life and he flees, as many of his characters do, to the country side where he finds peace, a wife, and happiness only to be summoned by the owner of the brush. It is a typical faustian story, and as with all versions of faust, it isn’t the selling of the soul that matters so much, but what the writer does with implications of the sale. For Ward, it is a mixed result. The art is certainly powerful, but the story seems a little simplistic. As he latter said in an essay at the back of the book, it was a kind of a coming of age novel for him and he realized he over emphasized the role of art. Moreover, for an artist the work seems to suggest art is the work of the devil. I don’t know if he meant it, but having the famous artists use the same brush gives the impression that art is horrible, even though he latter shows the artist happily painting in the country side. As a fable it lacks some of nuance of other faust stories, but the art work makes up for any deficiencies in story telling, and his scenes of the isolation in the great cities captures the feeling so well.
Madman’s Drum is a more ambitious work but also a somewhat confusing one. It tells a multigenerational story about a rich family as it dissipates through the generations in tragedies and injustices. All of these injustices stem from the sins of the father who was a slave trader. Over the years as members gain their dreams only to find them destroyed. At the same time there is an argument between a modern, scientific way of looking at the world and a more primitive and free way of seeing the world. The main character is shown throughout dedicating himself to books and science while all around him tragedy strikes. In one scene he throws away a crucifix only to have his mother trip on it and fall to her death. The primitive side is represented by the drum that the slaver brought back from Africa. It is always in the background ready for the family to use and as he suggests, save themselves. You can see Ward developing further the theme he first developed in God’s Man: the over reliance on the scientific and materialistic that leads to a soulless existence. Only returning away from it can one be free. Whether or not is a simplistic story, the notion that somehow African primitives had some secret to life turns African culture into a little more than a freak show. It is a book from a different era so his presentation of the idea while insensitive, doesn’t sink the book since it is such a small part. However, it is indicative of his like of oppositional stories.
Wild Pilgrimage is his first story to really take on the Depression. God’s Man was published the week of the 1929 crash, and Madman’s Drum 1930, before the full effects of the Great Depression could be felt. But Wild Pilgrimage was published in 1932 during the darkest moments of the depression, and you can see his attention to current events with scenes of strike breakers, communist organization, lynchings and homeless camps. Wild Pilgrimage is similar in that it sees the country side as a refuge, but unlike the other two books, it is not a paradise. It too has moments of darkness. The story follows a man as he leaves the city where factories are closing and labor is under attack. He passes through the country side and his senses are awakened by the country side. He finds work with a farmer and his wife, but when he hits on the wife he runs. He then comes upon a solitary man farming in the woods and he stays with him. Eventually though he commits himself to the injustices in the city and leaves the farm. I won’t say what happens, but it shows how the Great Depression had influenced his work that the end of the story takes place in the city. Wild Pilgrimage is also different in that it is a much more sexual story. Using dream sequences printed in a reddish tint you can see not only the terror that is industrial life, but his sexual desires as he looks at the farmer’s wife. Ward also explores a homo erotic element when the man stays with the solitary farmer, using suggestive imagery to depict the relationship. The figures are also eroticized, a mix of Tom of Finland and Ward’s Art Deco. The story isn’t as rich as Vertigo, but it is his most complex story to that point in his career and shows his development as a story teller. Although ultimately his character must become engaged in the events of the time, it is the emotional life he experiences before he returns to the city that makes the work the best of the volume. Avoiding the committed nature of many works from the era helps the book be more than a legacy of the depression.
In volume I you can see Ward’s steady maturity as a story teller, which served him well in Vertigo. However, one should not think these works cannot stand by themselves as beautiful illustrations and a legacy of the art of the 1930s.
Library of America is releasing a two volume set of Lynd Ward’s wood cuts. I’m looking forward to them as they are some fascinating early to mid 20th century art. I’ve read Vertigo which is called his best work and it has left me wanting more. The NPR review was unimpressive, but it will give you a sense of his work, both its excellence and its flaws. You can see some of the drawings here.
As Spiegelman notes in his introduction (“Reading Pictures: A Few Thousand Words on Six Books Without Any”), Ward’s work doesn’t involve the familiar visual syntax we have come to associate with comics, with their motion lines and word balloons. Neither is he interested in guiding our eye across a succession of images arranged on a page, nor of controlling, by virtue of the placement and size of those images, the pace at which we read them. Instead, Ward’s one-image-per-page narrative places strict demands on his storytelling: Each image must stand alone and declare its message simply and unmistakably even as it builds on the images that preceded it.
The LOA edition’s layout — one woodcut per right-hand page, surrounded by generous margins — may be the one that Ward preferred, and it certainly allows readers to appreciate the unfussy force of his lines, figures and composition more easily than ever. But it does drive up the page count: Book One, including the Faustian fable Gods’ Man, the multigenerational gothic yarnMadman’s Drum and the imagistic folk tale Wild Pilgrimage, weighs in at over 830 pages. The nearly 700 pages of Book Two include Prelude to a Million Years, which explores the art vs. society theme Ward so adored, Song Without Words, a grimly terrifying and hallucinatory anti-war screed, and Vertigo, an ambitious and sprawling tale of class struggle told from multiple perspectives.
Me acuerdo Beirut (I Remember Beirut)
I Remember Beirut (Me acuerdo, Beirut) is a short graphic novel that forms a kind of addendum to Zeina Abirached’s excellent The Swallow’s Game. Where Swallows told a complete story and interspersed the stories of the war, creating a large work that feels complete, large, as if she had captured at least one moment of experience. I Remember Beirut, on the other hand, is brief, a longing for something that no longer exists, or if it does it is out of reach of the author. Compared side by side, the smaller volume feels some how lacking. Perhaps that isn’t fair, but it is hard not to.
I Remember Beirut has new stories, but the characters are familiar if you have read Swallows. Included, are the narrator and her family, the brave taxi cab driver, and Victor the French speaking gentleman. She writes with the same humor, contrasting the dreams of a young girl with those of the war. It isn’t a particularly dark book and has many moments where she remembers how to make a paper boat, what Florence Griffith-Joyner’s finger nails were like, or the fruitless attempts to calm her curly hair. At the same time there are childhood memories that make war seem like a game. For example, her brother collects scraps of artillery shells, she takes a Zodiac ride to the ship evacuating the family from Beirut, the make an impromptu swimming trip where even asking directions uncovers refugees. She also returns to the daily hardships that fill The Swallows Game. It is the man in the horse drawn cart who delivers kerosene because they have no electricity, the explanation of how they stored water and took showers that makes the book intriguing. War is brutal, but how is it that people survive and continue on? That is the interesting question. In one scene towards the end, the narrator shows herself as an adult terrified by a thunderstorm in Paris; the war has a long reach. The best moment of the book comes, though, when the war ends and the family goes for a walk through what had once been no man’s land. There is nothing there, just rubble, but the parents narrate the journey of what had been, pointing out the stores that no longer exist, the street car tracks with out street cars, where the best bakery had been. And when the father is depressed after wards she notes that her brother is so happy, because he had found even more shell casings. Not only has the war divided the past from the present, but it has separated the generations. Beirut has changed and all one can do is remember it.
I Remember, Beirut is a good book, a kind of desert after Swallows. But what I’m also curious about is what is next? Now that her coming of age stories are over, can she go onto something else? It seems that so many graphic novels are based on the coming of age story. Fine, we all have one, but after that? Her skill as an artist is certainly impressive. I’m curious, though, if she has the skills as a story teller to continue on. I Remember Beirut has the slight feel that she used the last of her material. But she’s young, so there is a lot of time to find out.
I have a rule about what I read in Spanish: no translations. It makes little sense to me to read something translated into Spanish if you can read it in English, especially if it was written in English in the first place. But I have one exception to the rule, too. If the book is not available in English then I will use Spanish as another means to read it. Lamentably, I had to invoke the second rule to read Zeina Abirached’s El juego de las golondrias (The Swallows Game). It is a shame that the English speaking world has to content itself with a few page at Words Without Borders, because The Swallows Game deserves an English edition.
The Swallows Game takes place on one day in 1984 as the war rages all around. The narrator, a girl of 8 at the time, but now an adult, is waiting for her parents to return from a visit to her grandparents. They have made the perilous journey that takes them just a few blocks away, but whose route is filled with snipers, barricades, barbed wire and sandbags. It is a dangerous visit and the girl, her brother and the an old servant who has been with the family for years are waiting nervously for them to return. When they are delayed, the tension mounts as the the family tries to call, which is nearly impossible, and neighbors come by to offer advice and suggestions. During the waiting Abirached adds back story to each of the characters, and explains the difficulties of living in a war zone. The interplay between the waiting and the characters make the story, at once funny and dark.
Abirached’s Beirut is not only a city amidst a war, but the passing of a way of life. The physical manifestations of the world they knew, of course, are the first to go. As the shelling and snipers slowly chip away at the buildings the family moves one by one from each of the rooms in their apartment until they inhabit the one inner room that offers the most protection. Naturally, their possessions also ebb away, until they are left a few keep sakes or precious heirlooms. She also describes the people who belong to a different time, such as Ernest, a dapper man who used to teach french. Always dressed impeccably, he looks like a gentleman from decades earlier. He is a charmer and when she describes him, it is not only the characters like him who have disappeared, but a Beirut that was more cosmopolitan and international. It is also the end of Francaphone Beirut and a man who can recite passages from Cyrano De Bergerac is probably a thing of the past.
Abirached avoids anything graphic or gory about the war. Instead, she focuses on the emptiness of it, accentuating the empty streets and deprivations. At its most stark she will draw empty streets in clear and repetitive detail, avoiding words, and letting the impersonality of peopleless streets say it all. Once in the apartments where the story takes place she describes the privations the residents have to go through, from saving bottles for water and gasoline, to enduring shelling, to at its most extreme having one’s father murdered by a militia at a check point. The brutality and hardship is ever present. And even though The Swallows Game is a child’s story, she never lets the war fade too far into the background.
Artistically, the book has some moments of visual brilliance. The opening sequence of empty streets with barricades, brick walls, and empty oil drums all marked with bullet holes is impressive visual story telling. Abirached likes to use subtle repetition to reinforce a moment or an idea. In addition to the the empty street scenes, she will draw a series of repetitive panels illustrating a conversation. At first it looks like they are the same, but she has made small changes to the eyes or the mouths of the characters. It takes a close read to see the changes, but in those subtle movements you can see the tension, boredom, and youthful energy of the characters come through. Through out the book, she has moments where the visual is as important to the story telling as the text. This isn’t always true in graphic novels and in The Swallows Game it is a welcome addition.
Obviously, the black white drawings are going to draw comparisons to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. While there are certainly similarities, Abirached’s style is different and her art is more interesting and has a stronger visual style. Both are also coming of age stories set against a back drop of political troubles, and they both use humor to tell what could otherwise be dark books. Abirached’s book is not an autobiography since she was born in 1981 and it takes place in 1984, but it does have the feel of so many graphic novels that are autobiographies. While autobiographies can err on the light side, it is a mistake to confuse the reading time (always short with graphic novels) and to mistake a child’s perspective for lack of depth. The power in the story is the contrasting of the children against the war itself. Despite the deprivations going on, the children had a childhood, and it’s the dissipation of the world around them as they grow into the new one that is being formed that makes The Swallows Game interesting. Hopefully, someone will find it interesting enough to translate.
The Seattle Times’ book blog has a good article about Fantagraphics new series of reprints of the Rosebud archives, which contains many early American works that helped define the genre. The drawings are beautiful and have an attention to detail that seemed to disappear during the golden age of comics. There is a reason I don’t go to the Fantagraphics shop too often, which is just down the road from me. I’d end up buying too many books. But a trip to their site is worth while.
Now Marschall’s company, Rosebud Archives, and Fantagraphics have formed a joint publishing enterprise that will draw from Marschall’s immense collection, reclaiming the work of the great 20th-century magazine and newspaper artists for the 21st-century public.
The Fantagraphics website is already a portal to Rosebud’s collection of prints, posters, framed art, books, and stationery. Later this year Fantagraphics will issue the first book in a new imprint, Marschall Books — forthcoming volumes include a compendium of cartoon advertising, a book devoted to Johnny Gruelle’s lost masterpiece Mr. Twee Deedle, a book on Krazy Kat and a volume devoted to Sherlock Holmes illustrations and art.
Michigan resident Marschall and his partner, preservation expert Jon Barli, have complete runs of newspapers and magazines to draw from (some rescued from the trash bin). An entire run of Vanity Fair magazine from 1913 to 1936; Harper’s Weeklies from the Civil War years; New York Herald Sunday Color comics 1894-1911; a mostly complete collection of Puck Magazine from 1877 to 1918.
Publishing perspectives has an article called Undiscovered Art: Comics and Graphic Novels Emerge in the Middle East. It is interesting overview of graphic novels in the middle east, few of which make it into English.
While comics have long been popular among children in the Arab world (two of the biggest series are the venerable “Mickey Mouse” and the Egyptian-based “Aladdin” comics), there is a new spark of interest in adult comics in the region. “In the last two years, there’s been a kind of synchronicity in Egypt, Lebanon, and Emirates for graphic novels,” says artist and writer Magdy El Shafee. In March, for example, the young Emirati author, Qais Sedki, won the prestigious Shaykh Zayed Book Award for his graphic novel Siwar al-Dhahab (Gold Ring), the first Arabic-language manga comic.
Samandal Inspires Others
Also participating in the Cairo workshop was one of the leaders of Lebanon’s growing field of comics authors, Fadi Baki (who goes by the moniker “the fdz”.) He is one of the publishers of the Beirut-based Samandal, which bills itself as “a multilingual comics magazine” with the aim of “produc[ing] a comic book revolution that will herald a new era of peace and understanding between cultures in the Middle East and the rest of the world.” On a more practical level, Baki and his co-editors see Samandal as “a showcase for comics we find interesting…We hope that this gallery will coalesce into a distinctive identity with serialized stories and returning artists and thus become a conduit between them and a wider public thirsty for comics that speak their realities.”
Baki cheekily describes himself as a product of “a childhood rife with comics, telly, and Nutella,” and like his co-editors, he is a graduate of the American University of Beirut. Samandal publishes comics in Arabic, French and English in each issue: with sections switching between left-to-right and right-to-left scripts, they hit upon the innovation of what they call a “flippy page” — a page instructing the reader to flip the magazine upside-down to continue reading the next section.
Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories by Gabrielle Bell
Drawn & Quarterly, 148 pg
Gabrielle Bell’s Cecil and Jordan in New York is an inventive and funny collection of short comics that is able to take youthful angst and not dwell on its difficulties, but expand the experience into stories that read like fables. The 11 unconnected stories collected in this volume follow high school misfits in small towns, and new inhabitants in the big city as they struggle to make ends met. While the ground has been covered many times in graphic novels, and sometimes seems a requirement that every graphic novelist write about their struggles, Bell shows promise as a fabulist. At her best she creates stories that surprise you with a the unexpected.
The eponymous Cecil and Jordan in New York is a good example of her ability to express angst through fable-like stories. The story starts off common enough: two friends move to NY and find that the city is a harsh place and the friends they were relying to help them don’t have the time. Cecil is Jordan’s girlfriend and has nothing to do: she is the girlfriend, as she says in one panel. It is a lonely experience as her boyfriend pursues his film making career. As she is wandering the streets during winter she decides to become a chair. Once the transformation is complete she lives a new life as a chair when people are around, and as herself when the chair’s owner is not home. The transformation to chair is both an escape from the hardness of reality, but also a longing to be wanted. In the last panel she says, I’ve never felt so useful. The ideal life isn’t to be ensconced in an apartment, but to have a purpose and be with people who need you. It is here that Bell captures loneliness so well, yet leaves the reader laughing (there are more difficulties in being a chair than you would think of).
In My Affliction a young woman is captured by a giant and in escaping falls from a great height. Hurtling towards her death she suddenly stops mid air and it turns out she can now float. This is the first of many strange episodes as she begins various relationships with men that all turn out to be wrong for her. The men range from a truck driver with a myna bird that swears at ever turn; a giant that keeps her in a cage; a rich man who’s more interested in making his boat perfect. Each, though, is only someone she has to bond with because her affliction, the same one that lets her float, makes her give herself to others. Using the episodic structure of a fable she has fun with relationships, ultimately creating a story that condenses the story of five relationships into a brief comic, and finds a triumph in surviving them.
Several of the stories take place in a small town where the narrator lives with her parents in small cabin that without electricity. These stories are a good laugh at the expense of hippies who tried to live off the grid and found out it was hard, not only physically, but socially. The focus, of course, is on the young protagonist who hates the lifestyle and who obviously wants a different life. Yet as with most of the stories the desire to escape is subtle and Bell creates a character whose way of coping is to not rebellion, but just to survive. As in Hit Me, the way to escape is to no longer be the strange, smelly kid, even if that means turning your back on friends. Like many of her stories, Hit Me ends in a realization that relationships so often dissolve this way and leave one regretful.
Gabrielle Bell’s collection is a funny and shows some inventive story telling ideas. Hopefully, her coming work will continue to evolve from this good start.
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou
Bloomsbury USA, 352 pg
Perhaps before reading Logicomix one should ask oneself do you believe that logic and rationality exist among human beings, and if it does not could you perfect it and, thus, bring humankind into some sort of new way thinking? If you answer no, you know more than Bertrand Russell did when he mistook logical certainty for truth, a truth that if extended from the mathematical to the social, one could escape the superstitions and hate that have dominated human kind. Unfortunately, Russell only learned late in life that one could not use logic to change the world and often the result was failure if not disaster. For Doxiadis and Papadimitriou, though, this not a tragedy, but the story of hubris and the human spirit that not only shows the growth of one man away from pure logic but to an understanding that even the Greeks in their prescient tragedies had: logic itself cannot lead to wisdom, but only serves it. While these are noble ideas, the execution of the story with its intertwining of Russell’s story, that of the Orestia and those of the authors, only makes for a simplistic debate (perhaps a Platoesque symposium is a better word) that confuses fascination with insight.
Logicomix opens with Bertrand Russell giving a speech in the United States during the early part of World War II before the US had entered it. A known pacifist, the unruly crowd of America Firsters expect him to say the US should keep out of the war. Instead, he gives a long history of his search for the logical basis of arithmetic and what that has meant for him, his family, and his colleges who all seemed to suffer from madnesses of sort or the other. On his search he meets all the great luminaries of mathematics and philosophy of the early 20th century, such as Kurt Godel, John Von Newman, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. If you are interested in a overview of their ideas, especially analytical philosophy and the Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, the book explains the ideas well. It was an especially interesting introduction, though brief, to the Tractus which had once interested me with its semantic elements. The real strength of the book is in these sections, although they are broken up a bit by the older Russell commenting on the story, which weakens it slightly.
Interspersed with Russell’s talk are scenes of the artists at work on the book, discussing what the ideas are and what their importance was. Amongst these is a debate between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou about the focus of the story: the human story or the mathematics. The debate, though, is somewhat pedantic and is akin to watching two friends debate tax policy at dinner. Lacking all passion, it comes off as unimaginative writing. You can almost hear the artists saying, see guys this is important because we are talking about it, and if we think it is important, it must be. But sadly, it isn’t, and reading their summaries on the Oresties reads like a second year English paper. The problem with the book is just too much earnestness and an inability to weave their obviously heart-felt ideas into a compelling narrative. While Russell’s life had a motivating force behind it, it was never really obvious why I should care about their search. I had Bertrand, what did I need them for? The inward look, the need to write about the writer, is a symptom of the self absorption that graphic novels often suffer from. The graphic novel may always feel like a third person form because the first person accounts usually create a visual representation of the narrator, but so many of them are filled with the inward look. The inward look can be liberating, and it can be blinding and Logicomix suffers from the latter.
Perhaps if Doxiadis and Papadimitriou had stuck to the life of Russell and his times the book could be called Logicomix: the Cartoon History of Analytical Philosophy. Instead, they chose to search for truth, an epic search at that, and just as it eluded Russell, it has eluded them. What they have found is that if you set out to find the truth you often only find platitudes. It is too bad, because the subject is interesting.
Graphic novelist Adrian Tomine interviewed Manga legend Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the PEN World Voices festival. Tatsumi wrote some of the first serious Manga, in other words, Manga that isn’t about superheros and samurais, but real people and events. Several of his books are available in English and I reviewed Good-bye a couple years ago.
Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts
Dover, 320 pg
Lyn Ward’s Vertigo is a beautiful work of wood block artistry and wordless story telling, and is hailed by many as his master work not only because of its sheer size (over 200 wood block) but its ambition. Set during the Great Depression it tells the interlocking stories of three characters simply named the Girl, the Boy, and an Elderly Gentleman, each one feeling the affects of the turbulent and uncertain times. Although it may seem rooted in its time, the art work is compelling and expressive, capturing movement, isolation and the vastness of the urban world.
The book begins with the story of the Girl. She is an aspiring violinist with a boy friend who she hopes to marry. Lynd builds the early part of her story as a march towards progress where her boyfriend grabs the brass ring on the carousel. Yet two panels later a storm opens up on the people at the amusement park, signaling the coming Depression. From then on everything in her life turns dark: her boyfriend goes away to work and doesn’t write back; her father is laid off and in desperation attempts to shoot himself, but only manages to blind him; and she is left jobless. It is a bleak world and the light and hopeful drawings that showed the girl’s face full of energy and promise, now recedes to the shadows where the hopelessness intrudes. Lynd uses his drawings to show the changes in her fortunes through his ability to control negative space, the black sections of the drawings. He doesn’t just fill the drawing with light, but highlights the features of his characters to show these changes in mood.
In the second story Ward presents an Elderly Gentleman. He is a lonely and frail man, emphasized early on with a drawing of him standing naked in front of a mirror, the folds of his skin hanging loosely. As a physical being he is almost powerless, and as the story continues it is obvious he is dying. Yet despite the physical weakness, he is a powerful man, one who runs a large corporation and will stop at nothing to make it profitable, whether that is breaking up unions, cutting wages, or paying thugs to attach workers who won’t go along with him. In his desire for profits he lays off the Girl’s father, thus, setting off the spiral of misery in their lives. The Elderly Gentleman, though, is a proud contributor to society, paying for memorials to World War I, buying art, giving to the poor on Thanksgiving. Yet all of this for not and he lives a pitiful life. Ward emphasizes the solitariness with the faces of the character who surround the man. Each one is stark, angular, almost statue like, and always hovering over him as if they are waiting for his death. There is no emotion here, just mechanics of living.
In the final story of the Boy, Ward draws the story of a young man who is out of work during the height of the depression, traveling across the country looking for work. The boy goes from hopeful fiance to a man desperate enough to contemplate a mugging. Ward takes the opportunity with the Bo to leave the city, and here is art has a bit of the Thomas Heart Benton quality, with a liquid sense of movement. The Boy, although proud, is ultimately reduced to giving his blood to the Elderly Gentleman so he can take the Girl back the the amusement park. The last seen of the book is the two of them on the descent of a roller coaster, her face buried in his chest, his eyes wide with fear. The final image is a clear indication that the future is still uncertain and at best things may only get worse. While the book is without hope, it reflects its moment, 1937, when the Depression had already lasted for seven years.
Vertigo is a masterpiece of wood cut art, a true stylistic achievement. The story that within the book is also quite strong and his use of image to tell a dialog free story is impressive. He is able to capture a wide range of emotion and feeling in the story. His take on the depression is squarely amongst the disposed, and is similar in theme to other works from the time by writers such as Steinbeck, Odets, Di Donato, and to some degree Dos Pasos. In some ways the book seems more interesting, in part because the emotions of the characters are physical, not mental states. One doesn’t have to read old metaphors, one can see the faces of the characters. Moreover, the images reflect the photos of the time, something that is frozen in time. The politics and motivations of the characters, though, can seem awkward at best in so of the works I mentioned, especially Di Donato who had characters as mono dimensional as Snidely Whiplash.
My only quibble with the book and Ward is I wish the images were larger. Some are no more than two inches square. He packs a wealth of detail in them, but I wanted more. (The book does come with a good introduction by David Beronä). Otherwise, Ward’s Vertigo is a Graphic Novel any fan of the genre should read. It is also a book anyone interested in American in the 30’s should read.
Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel
Joe Sacco, 432 pages, Metropolitan Books
Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza is his most ambitious work to date, both in page size and in the depth of his reporting. It is not only a book about current events as all of them are, but a detailed examination of events in Gaza in the mid 50’s. The search for witnesses of the events in Khan Younis and Raffa not only make the book more involved, opening questions of memory and truth, but also creates a contrasting history that is frustrating in its continuation of a conflict that has existed over 60 years.
The book is covers two different areas, the events in Khanunis and Raffa and what led up to them, and the events in Gaza during the early 2000’s before Hamas took over Gaza. Sacco spends most of his time investigating the history in part because he wants to look at some lesser known events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Sacco it is not only the events themselves that are interesting, but the process of creating the story, the way memory is shaped by the survivors, current events, and those taking down the stories. Sacco makes it clear that the memories of the survivors and witnesses to these events vary in reliably. Often Sacco would find people who mixed events, or, worse for Sacco, wanted only to push a political agenda. When Sacco finds a fidayeen veteran he shows repeated scenes of the man talking about events he thinks are important, avoiding what Sacco is after, but Sacco continues on, sure the man has the story he is looking for. Eventually he get what he is looking for, but throughout the book is the interplay of the journalist and the story. As the he goes deeper and deeper into researching the story it appears he becomes intoxicated by the act of searching for the story, knowing what will actually be relevant. In doing so, he controls the narrative, yet his depiction of the process is a refreshing reflection on the act of journalism. Sacco has always been aware in his works how journalists become adventure seekers and how that distorts part of the story. His Christmas with Karadzic in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 is probably his clearest expression of the phenomenon.
From all the interviews and archival research (20 pages of the book are reprints of archival documents) Sacco tells the little known story of mass killings of Palestinian refugees in Khan Younis and Raffa by the Israeli Army. While exact numbers are not clear, all together a few hundred may have died in these incidents. In Khan Younis the survivors tell of a systematic rounding up of men between 15 and 60 and their mass execution and the forced quick burial. Since most of what happened in Khan Younis was witnessed by just a few survivors, Sacco only has a couple testimonies of Palestinian men who escaped the shooting. There are plenty of post incident witnesses, the women and children who helped in the burials, along with UN reports that say something happened, and Israeli reports that say the soldiers were panicked and shot in self defense. Sacco’s rendering of the survivor’s testimony is vivid and it is clear that he thinks that the Palestinian story is what happened.
The events in Raffa, on the other hand, were less brutal and so there are many more survivors. In Raffa, the Israeli army rounded up all the men and sent them through a gantlet where they had to jump over barbed wire while being clubbed by soldiers. Sacco notes that the memories of the survivors don’t always agree, but from each of repeated images he finds he structures a narrative that he thinks is most likely what happened. As with Khan Younis, the Israeli’s come off as brutal and arbitrary, more interested in killing and terrorizing than finding fidayeen in amongst the refugees. The story of Raffa is the most compellingly researched and has the best interplay between memory and journalism.
But what preceded the incidents? Sacco explains some of the history that had occurred since the 1948 war when Palestinian refugees spilled into Gaza. He notes that the border was easy to cross and little by little a series of tit-for-tat killings and attacks by refugees, Israeli’s and Egyptian sponsored terrorist squads called the fidayeen, led to a state of violence where the refugees in Gaza became victims of power plays between Egypt and Israel. The cross border attacks had gone on for several years and both sides had hardened their positions substantially. Sacco includes a quote from Moshe Dayan who noted that Israel had to be strong, but in doing so the Palestinians, too, would harden and continue to fight. It is amongst these incidents the larger incidents in Khan Younis and Raffa occurred.
For Sacco, it is relatively obvious that the Israelis committed the abuses described in the books even though they deny they did. He notes that even right wing historian Benny Morris agrees that there were killings in the two refugee camps. However, given the state of tensions between the two sides it seems impossible for something even resembling agreement to be reached on what happened.
The notion of agreement and the problematic search for the past, continually surfaces amongst the modern day inhabitants who are only interested in the present and continually tell Sacco why do you bother with the past, it doesn’t help the present. Recovering the past doesn’t feed one, but given the endless tit-for-tat that can consume one’s perspective, a look back at the historical can help. Sacco’s nuanced reflection on one little part of the past is an excellent look at some of the events that had served to lock the conflict in its current stalemate. Unfortunately, his book will probably be taken by many as belonging to one side.
For the past year and a half Vertigo has been publishing an updated edition of DC Comic’s Unknown Soldier that takes place in Uganda during 2002 -2004 when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was terrorizing the country. The Unknown Soldier is a man whose face is always in bandages, the characters in the story never know who he is (in the original the reader didn’t know, either), and though he does not have super powers but he does have some sort of extraordinary strength. In Vertigo’s series he is an American born doctor, the child of Ugandan immigrants, who is overcome by a spirit, a presence or perhaps just guilt and scars his face in a moment of madness and then picks up a gun, something as a doctor he was opposed to, and begins to kill those who attack civilians. Eventually, he will kill child soldiers who are part of the LRA. As one might guess, the series is graphic and violent and doesn’t shy away from details, perhaps occasionally overdoing the blood, which is probably to be expected from comics. As the story progresses, the Unknown Soldier becomes involved with an ex-CIA agent who lives in Uganda and is playing all sides; he meets a movie start and humanitarian; befriends a young ex-child soldier; and takes up residence in a Acholi village that lives in fear of the LRA. The Unknown Soldier’s adventures is quite a collection of ideas and tries to pack in as much as it can in 20 brief pages. The most valuable part of the collection is the depiction of the war, the refugees, and the war crimes that have afflicted that part of Africa. While just a litany of atrocities lends itself to a numbness, the series does explore without exploitation (although it is wrapped in an adventure comic) the complexities of the war, the child slavery and the political instability that have thousands as refugees. Except for the LRA which is rightly depicted as pure evil, all the other actors, be it the government, the UN, or the west are depicted as a mix of competing interests, both good and bad, that typically leave the locals vulnerable. Moreover, over the life of the series the picture of the LRA becomes more and more perverse and it is almost hard to believe something so perverse could exist.
Where the series seems to error is, first, in the mystical voice that seems to talk to the Unknown Soldier and give him the ability to be a soldier. It would be nice for a comic not to be tied down to the comic formula which seems to always need something supernatural to explain reality. While it is a convention of the genre, it makes it seem as if all one needs to defeat an army single handedly is a little bit of magic or training, which is pure fantasy. Second, adding the ex-CIA agent to the mix distracts from the story and injects and element of a spy thriller. The ex-CIA agent is used as a historical agent, a way to go back through history and examine how the Uganda had fallen into disarray, some of it the fault of the west. In that sense the agent makes sense, but as an element of action and suspense it takes the suffering and turns it into a back drop for adventure.
The series overall is interesting and the writer, Joshua Dysart, has done quite a bit of research, traveling to Uganda several times. Yet contrasted to an author such as Joe Sacco who refrains from fictional narrative, the Unknown Soldier uses too many of the conventions of the genre which adds layers of interpretation to events that are already complicated. This is not to say only a Ugandan can tell the story and to his credit Dysart brought in a Nigerian artist to guest draw two issues, but the layers of action adventure tend to obfuscate. Sometimes fiction isn’t necessary, but at least the story is out there. I do plan to continue to keep reading it if I can remember to buy them.
Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels
David Beronä, Abrams 255 pg.
Wordless Books is a collection of excerpts from graphic novels that were drawn in the first half of the 20th century. Despite the range of styles and themes they all have one thing in common: they do not use dialog or narration to tell a story. Instead, the artists structured their stories as a progression of images, each hinting at the next and forming a narrative thread. It is a difficult task to do and one of the drawback of the book is that Beronä has to explain how the excerpts fit together so that the reader can see how the artists structured the narrative. Nevertheless, Wordless Books contains some fascinating work from the early 20th century.
Since much of the work was produced during the turbulent periods of World War I, the depression and World War II, anti-war and anti-capitalist themes link the artists. For the American artists such as Lynd Ward, fit amongst other socially committed artists like Stienbeck or Odets. Each, though, focuses on the struggles of the individual against larger forces, whether it be state power, especially the army, large corporations, or church.
Of the artists covered in the book, the most interesting were the Belgian Frans Masereel, the American Lynd Ward, and the Italian-American Giacomo Patri. All three worked with bock printing using wood and black ink. Masereel’s work is blocky and less stylized than the other two and seems to draw more inspiration from late 19th century graphic arts. His saw the modern world as brutal, dark and unforgiving to the less powerful:
Masereel’s depiction of the Western industrial world is so complete that his friend, writer Stefan Zweig, wrote, “Should everything perish, all the books, the photographs and the documents, and we were left only with the woodcuts Masereel has created, through them alone we could reconstruct our contemporary world.”
Lynd Ward’s work, while following thematically Masreel’s work, is centered in a mix of industrial arts, almost a futurist vision, an American as seen in the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, possibly cinema like Fritz Lang, and one can even see some of the ideas of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orrozco. Using intricately carved wood blocks, he presents an America in the midst of turbulent economic times, filled with strikes, gaunt men in gaunt and defeated men, but also includes in a mid-century ethic that praised the industrial worker energetic, almost neo-Gothic images of men working amongst the dehumanizing machinery. His work is the perfect graphic aesthetic of the era, one that mixes criticism of capitalism with a celebration of industry and the worker who keeps it running.
Giacomo Patri’s work follows in the tradition of Lynd Ward, but begins to add text into scenes so that the reader has more ways of putting the story together. Again his drawings are a mix of the industrial and the energetic, but he focuses more on the individual in everyday life, not abstract beings caught in a modern drama. Moreover, his work is less ornate and leaves the characters as the center piece, not the energy or emotion of Ward.
The drawings in Wordless Books still have a power that resonates, perhaps at times it is a distant power caught in a history now quite distant, but the images of humans against machines is still salient. Perhaps one must substitute Masereel’s draftsmen in the City for workers in cubical, but it is still the idea, although a contemporary artist might paint it in Starbucks green. While Wordless Books lacks the complete stories these authors tried to tell, it is a great introduction and should make anyone interested want to search for more of these works.
The blog Arabic Literature (in English) tipped me off to the Beirut based Samandal magazine of “Picture Stories from here and there.” While they don’t require the art to be from Lebanon or in Arabic or French, most of the writers and artists from the first four issues are from that region of the world. You can down load the first four issues of the magazine in pdf format. I looked through some of the issues and there was a wide range of stories and artistic styles that make the magazine a good read. Supposedly you can get issue from Forbidden Planet Comics in NY City, although it is not listed on their website.