May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Journalism” by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan Books)
Sacco is known for his in depth work in Palestine and Bosnia, but this collection of shorter works allows readers to get a wider view of the grim world that Sacco has chosen to document.
In the Caucasus, Sacco spends time with Chechen women trying to survive the refugee camps which Russia is eager to force out in order to declare the problem solved. Sacco’s narrative darts between the reality of life in these camps and the nightmare of the experiences that brought the women there, adding up to a harrowing, depressing and angering piece.
In his Iraq pieces, Sacco documents the trials of American soldiers and their harsh lot in wartime, as well as that of torture survivors attempting to sue Donald Rumsfeld for the horrific treatment.
Sacco goes to his native country, Malta, to investigate the influx of African refugees that has created a nightmare of crowding and animosity between the desperate people trying to escape horror and death, and the small country that cannot handle what has descended upon them.
In India, Sacco visits lower caste villages that are beyond bleak. So poor and beaten down are these people that they have given up caring about any human rights they deserve. They survive by raiding rat holes filled with foraged grain. It is a shocking existence perpetuated by the corruption of the higher castes in charge.
As with any of Sacco’s work, the stories he tells will make you cringe and cry, and he does this with clarity as he explains the history and context on a larger scale that leads to the horrors you witness.
It’s reality as too many Americans are unaware of it, but so much of the rest of the world cannot escape. Sacco, in the tradition of the greatest journalists, is on the side of the little guy, and is determined to present the individual stories with dignity and compassion.
His success is greater than many print journalists, and his form of graphic storytelling adds layers that they could never capture. If there is one graphic novelist who should be mandatory reading in American high schools, it is Joe Sacco, an important voice beyond his chosen medium.
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Adrian Tomine is best known for two bodies of work — his magazine illustration career, which includes regular work for The New Yorker, and his cartooning one, which began with a series of acclaimed, self-published mini comics.
Unlike many cartoonists who make it in larger field of art, Tomine never really transitioned from one into the other, but maintained both concurrently.
“They were more like parallel careers developing,” Tomine said, “doing a lot of low-end amateur illustration work around the same time I was doing low-end amateur comics work.
“More and more it became useful for me to think of them as two separate jobs and two separate pursuits, in addition to the distinction between sequential and single image.”
The different styles that define the work were accompanied by opposite methods of creating them.
In comics, Tomine has complete autonomy and is left to do whatever he wants.
“Illustration work, by definition, is a collaboration between myself and at least one other person, but often something of a committee, not only in terms of how I create the work physically, but mentally, in terms of how I approach it and what my priorities are become pretty different,” he said.
Tomine says that drawing for The New Yorker is one of the few illustration jobs he actively pursued, and it’s been a point of pride for him for the last 15 years.
“If you have a dream of being a magazine illustrator, that’s definitely one of the top places that you want to get work at eventually,” said Tomine.
That side of his career has finally begun to appear in his own publications. Last year’s “New York Drawings” was his first real art monograph, compiling all his work for The New Yorker, as well as other work related to New York City and his move there from the West Coast. It was also the first book of his that he didn’t design.
“I don’t think this book would exist if I had been a life-long New Yorker,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the kind of book that I would have put together. I certainly wouldn’t have used that title if I had grown up in New York.”
Tomine grew up in mostly in California, and his comics, which have a significant autobiographical segment to them, mostly take place there, except his most recent “Scenes From An Impending Marriage,” which glossed over the bi-coastal aspect of his life for simplicity.
Autobiography has always been a major part of his cartooning from the very beginning.
“Initially, it started out when I’d sit down to draw a comic, it was heavily autobiographical,” said Tomine. “At that point in my life, it was very hard for me to just invent a fictional story. I didn’t have a lot of life experience to draw on when I was 14, at least not that I could process as an artist yet.”
“So to me, that was what kick started me as a person who wrote and drew comics, which is that I discovered you could take the most mundane experience from that day and translate it into comics form and it might be interesting. Not necessarily, but it could be interesting.”
Tomine was influenced by other autobiographical writers and cartoonists who worked the field before him, like Harvey Pekar and Chester Brown. As he grew older and began working more professionally, he began to consider how much of his private life he really wanted to make public, and also whether the raw details really served his storytelling in the way he wanted it to.
“I started to become more interested in having an end result that was as good as I was capable of at that point,” Tomine said, “whether that meant drawing heavily on real experience or inventing a lot of stuff or combining the two. I felt a little more in control of what I was doing at that point and less reliant on everyday experience.”
One of the reasons for Tomine’s success in the form was that, unlike his heroes who came before him, Tomine appeared less an eccentric outsider and more an everyman who young readers could identify with.
“A lot of the best autobiographical work is so compelling and fascinating, and in some ways hindered by more grotesque elements, or a stronger focus on sexuality,” he said, “or sometimes just unintentionally the creator’s personality is such that it’s somewhat self-selecting in its readership. Those very qualities that I think have kept some of those people from being on Oprah’s Book Club are generally the qualities that really fascinate me.”
“It certainly wasn’t by design. I didn’t say I’m going to disguise my eccentric personality and create a fake everyman persona in the hopes of getting my comics in the New Yorker. I’m just not as interesting a guy as some of those other artists.”
Tomine attempted to enter into cartooning through art school training, but quickly found the climate that was not encouraging of that form of creativity.
“I was met with great consternation and hostility in the fine art program at Berkeley,” Tomine said. “At worst, my stuff was made fun of, and at best, there were a few charitable teachers who maybe thought I was trying to do a sort of Roy Lichtenstein commentary on junk culture or something like that. They were very disappointed when I just was like, ‘I’m into comic books and I want to be a cartoonist.’ It was hard for them to process. I just didn’t enjoy my first semester as an art major at all.”
Tomine switched to being an English major, which served him well, not suspecting that he was there at the end of an era.
“I didn’t know it and no one knew it at the time, but North American culture was right on this cusp of saying, ‘We are warming up to the idea of comics and illustration work as being a little more legitimate,’” he said. “We were just behind that turning point.”
Tomine spent his time cartooning after going to school, creating his own mini comics and slowly building to the career he has enjoyed for over a decade.
He says his rise from self-made comics to art books and museum appearances is the art world version of a home recording musician having a hit or an amateur videographer becoming a hot filmmaker that has already become accepted in those mediums.
“I think it’s not as outrageous as it once was” Tomine said, “but certainly if I can be objective enough and look back on my career, it is strange to me that when I sit down at my desk every day, I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing I was doing when I was 14 years old.”
“I use a lot of the same equipment that I used, and not in some beautiful professional studio that I go to like my office. I’m still just working in my bedroom. So to me, it is funny that I’m working in the same way that I have most my life — it’s just some of the work ends up being seen by a lot more people.”
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This heart-breaking book of multi-media emotion — prose, poetry, illustration, photography, comics and a scrapbook element — stands as graphic novelist Nilsen’s powerful and touching tribute to his late fiancee, Cheryl Weaver, who died in 2005 of Hodgkin’s Disease.
Compiling his emotions into a journal that documents journeys they made together, the pieces are the ephemera of their lives and, in that way, the displaced emotions that they tossed out into the world making their love and companionship known.
Nilsen bookends the story with the actual postal art he and Cheryl sent to each other, and then allows the reader to get to know their dynamic — that is, the creature made of the both of them — through a lengthy letter about a disastrous camping trip that he sent to his sister, as well as photos and some parts of a cartoon journal that he made.
After Cheryl’s diagnosis, Nilsen presents more journal entries, that include painful portraits he did of his fiancee at hospital bedside, as well as a frank drawing of her body laid out, inching toward death, with all the wires and tubes connected, a diagram of the things that were keeping her alive, and a portrait of how fragile she had become.
Leaving off with a graphic story about her memorial and then a short afterword that fills in the gaps, Nilsen offers his explanation for the work. Partly it is to memorialize the woman he loved so much, but also — and this is the part that cuts furthest — because he realized that losing her was not remarkable, but ordinary, and that there were so many others who had gone through such an ordinary, dreadful, crippling experience.
It’s a beautiful book in which all the pieces add up a a form of poetry, as well as a giving work by Nilsen, opening up his privacy in so elegant a way, a mournful pat on the back to all the people in his shoes who he will never meet, but will take heart in the fact that they are not spiritually alone.
February 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The work of Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens arrived on English-speaking shores impressively with “The Wrong Place,” and in “The Making Of” he furthers his observations regarding the effects of a single ego on a community by turning to a satire of the art world as his vehicle.
Peterson is a known artist who does some teaching, some partying, and is invited to take part in the Beerpoele Biennial, which he believes will be a prestigious move forward. Unfortunately for Peterson, the organizer helms a motley crew of art dorks, and together they feel like your worst nightmare from a small town comics convention. Peterson’s tactic is to seize the moment and create a group project that puts him at the center of conception and attention, as he has to navigate the personalities of his goofy crew of fabricators and deal with his mocking girlfriend long distance.
Interpersonal relationships and emotions among the crew and the piece of art to be realized both take on the role of Peterson’s clumsy artwork in progress, and the entire venture comes to a head with a congenial heartache, both publicly and behind the scenes. Evens is certainly making a statement about the art world and its cult of personality, but he’s also making one about color. With his typical bright interpretations attached to each member of the cast, Evens makes plain that each has a vibrancy, an aura of their own, and, like a rainbow, when mixed together create a multi-hued variety of human emotion and experience in the form of one drama.
February 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The concept of pets as replacement children is well worn, even as surrogate mates, but what about stand-in paramours? Author Yves Pelletier and artist Pascal Girard investigate this whimsical possibly with a relationship slice of life in Quebec.
The story centers on live-in couple Fanny and Fabien, who seem to have reached the ceiling in their relationship thanks to different feelings about children — one wants them, onedoesn’t. A chance encounter with a charming tom cat at her friend’s apartment ignites the sparks, and when the friend has to leave town for a year and needs a cat sitter, the affair is in full swing, right in Fabien’s sight.
What unfolds is a low-key relationship comedy of jealousy, real and imagined, and the harrowing realities of making ultimatums in love. Is Fanny embracing a better partnership with her feline friend, or is she setting herself up for more heartache? The answers lead to more gray areas in human nature, as well as a charming graphic novel that takes no sides in the male-female tug of war in relationships, just amusement.
February 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” is a pretty grim account of not just the corporate victory over America, but the historical context of why such a victory is not unusual or unexpected. In documenting lives within the so-called “sacrifice zones” — that is, areas that have been destroyed in the name of profit, leaving a ravaged and dazed populace that cannot save itself — Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco provide a passionate exposé of the price of our corporation- dominated country. As they travel through the dark and forgotten corners of American life, they uncover corruption everywhere.
What makes the book different from most is the collaboration between reporter and cartoon journalist, who tag team in their portrayals of these bleak areas. Hedges is a passionate writer who can pound out a sentence to move you to tears and then provide the research to back up the emotion you’re feeling. Sacco is the premiere non-fiction cartoonist in the world, and here, his immense talents are utilized to personalize the larger situation, taking personal stories of interviewees and bringing them to vivid life. It’s a powerful combination that drives its point home until you feel ashamed.
The book opens with a jarring portrait of Native American life as it currently exists, the result of a free fall of cultural destruction at the hands of moneyed interests and government. The process is simple: Steal from the victim, obstruct opportunities for the victim, offer no support for the victim and then blame the victim when shattered lives lead to desperate behavior. From there, you can stick them in jail and say it’s their own fault.
This is pretty much the standard thread of history anywhere Hedges and Sacco investigate, whether it’s in Camden, N.J.— a wasteland built on a corrupt political machine defined by graft and run by state Democrats and recently, frighteningly embraced by the popular Chris Christie — or West Virginia, where historically, coal mining companies were able to routinely rape the land after they stole it from the people who lived on it and continue a campaign of terror against anyone who opposes them, even as they create a nightmarish ant colony of sunken graves beneath the ground. (Not to mention the thousands of new corpses each year from the industry’s pollution).
The book also covers the absolutely depressing and shameful virtual slave labor endured by migrant workers in Florida— with a complete history that makes it a sadly inevitable situation — and the Occupy encampment in Zucotti Park.
As Hedges delves into the Occupy movement, he frames it as the final assault by money and business upon American citizens, where it’s no longer the minorities and the aliens who are used and destroyed, but anyone else that can be, including supporters of the very institutions doing the raping. The premise is that by not correcting the wrongs of minorities and the poor, we, the middle class, have failed to fortify our own battlements and are probably doomed. It’s a dreary vision of America. It’s also a clear one. As Hedges points out, though, historically, the oppressed eventually explode — and often effectively.
The larger swathes of Hedges are brought down to earth by Sacco’s monologue vignettes providing the stories of individuals who he and Hedges come into contact with. Whether he’s following the tragic story of a Mexican family seeking the American Dream, a New Jersey resident trying to negotiate the way dirty politics ravage an ordinary life or an ex-coal miner fighting black lung disease and the trauma of watching his West Virginia world fall apart, Sacco manages to frame the political as the personal and show how the larger movement of governments and corporations can ravage the lives of any of us.
January 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
One of the unexpected side delights of the recent return to protest culture in our country was the lauding of the hacker underground and its role in the dissent. At the forefront of this attention is Anonymous, the hacker collective which takes direct action against all the best supervillains, from middle eastern dictatorships to online bullies to the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s a particularly shady subculture – and I mean that in the best possible terms – that is as much a mystery because of its actual comings and goings as it is for the kind of work that unites it. A huge number of people barely understand some of the basic actions to be done on a computer, so the intricacies of hacking are like quantum physics.
Like the Mafia and Hollywood, the inside world of hackers has a mystique that fascinates people, and with the explosion of hacker culture in the popular imagination comes a number of works revealing that world to those of us who want to enter it without the technical know-how.
One surprisingly successful entry in that genre is the graphic novel “Wizzywig,” a fictionalized account of the life of a notorious hacker that stands as a conglomerate of the biographies of several different real life hackers, brought together for one harrowing tale of tech adventure.
Known by his hacker name Boingthump, Kevin Phenicle is a genius of sorts, just in an era that didn’t necessarily recognize his sort. Starting off with phone hacks as a kid and moving onto computer as more becomes available, Phenicle morphs into a friendly con man and daredevil, whose undoing comes from letting the adrenaline get the best of him and taking his thrills to a physical level, allowing others to identify him physically.
Piskor follows Phenicle through his early years phone-jacking and well through his underground years as a feared and pursued hacker on the run from the law, and then as a prisoner of the state, uncharged and lumped in with violent criminals. With this structure, Piskor traces not only the mystique of computers, but the wrong-headed approach we’ve had nationally to not only computer crime, but the application of some of the talented weirdos who infect the form. These guys are wizards, rock stars and hot shot pilots combined in one, but mainstream culture has seldom known quite what to do with them.
Current efforts against hackers are mirrored in Piskor’s story, and his unraveling of a process unknown to so many of us that actually does affect our lives in the form of digital rights is perfect for the graphic novel form – clear, informative, exciting and demystifying to the degree that hackers seem less alien afterwards.
January 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Quebecois cartoonist Michel Rabagliati has quietly been staking out a strong corner of the graphic story-telling community for himself by relying on simple technique as a way of conveying much deeper truths. With the flashier, and more stylistic, graphical approach not being utilized for quick emotional power like so many of his contemporaries, Rabagliati has had to rely on aspects of storytelling that aren’t often equated with alternative graphic novels these days — reliability and familiarity that lets a reader grow with the character in an unpretentious way.
Rabagliati’s Paul books have followed the title character as he became a grown-up, meeting the right woman, having children, and all with the backdrop of Quebec culture and the landscape of the province, which stands as an exotic parallel world for those of us who grew up on American highways, but so normal for the characters, surely an extra dimension of interest for readers.
In “Song of Roland,” Paul’s father-in-law takes center stage as the family comes to terms with the demise of a man who, within the context of their lives, is a bit of a natural force, as well as a monument to a Quebec that is fading away. The year is 1999 and Paul is transitioning into the digital age with his illustration career, but Roland’s illness and heightened needs drive home that change comes in both directions.
As the situation progresses, Paul finds that helping his wife through is only part of his job — trying to connect with his father-in-law through the process is important as well. It’s in this dynamic that Rabagliati illustrates the generational movements — one further from childhood, the other closer to an end — that defines any family relationships, and it’s a very touching detail of Paul’s father coming to the rescue of supporting Roland emotionally near the end, all as part of Rabagliati’s presentation of death — including the ceremonies that follow — as not a final chapter, but a part of a long continuum almost mundane in comparison to other stops on that line. It’s that reality — death as quiet, normal — that helps us get through it. Ritual grounds the moment, as it does the reader’s experience in this wonderful series of graphic novels.
December 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This beautiful little cartoon meditation on mortality, regret and rebirth follows through the lives of several people in the wake of a strange scientific event — some boys in the woods discover the carcass of a dead dinosaur. Thing is, the dinosaur had been living and only died just prior to the finding.
The news reports on television come into the lives of several citizens, affecting some with wonder and excitement, while others ignore it and focus on their own problems. Among the participants in the tapestry are Jeanie, a teenage girl being bullied for her goth wardrobe and pulling away from her parents, and Murray and FLo, an elderly couple coping with mortality and the imminent end that’s staring them in the face.
If Kelly’s art seems to herald in some kind of underground humor strip, the humanity and depth of the writing quickly steer you in the opposite direction, and the art style unexpectedly manages to come together with the words in a powerful way, lending a surrealism that only intensifies the situation.
This is a great way to enter the world of digital comics at a price that can’t be beat.
Purchase online at www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/what-am-i-going-to-do-without-you/805.
December 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The multi-faceted Lilli Carre — author, illustrator, animator — presents stories that are as gentle as they are cryptic, in which the darkness of her themes meld perfectly with the sweetness of her style.
In “Heads Or Tails,” Carre’s short work is collected and celebrated, revealing a creator of power, easily on the level with lauded types like Chris Ware, just more accessible thanks to the innate humanity of her presentation.
Among the best are: “Wishy Washy,” about a flower show judge who, following an accident, loses all sense of the “je ne sais quoi” that tunes him into the subtleties of life; “The Thing About Madeleine,” previously presented in the 2011 volume of Houghton Mifflin’s “Best American Comics” anthology, has Carre at her most Twilight Zone-ish, as the down and out title character finds a more successful doppelganger slowly taking over her personal space and reveling in an identity that she has squandered; and “The Carnival” and “Too Hot To Sleep” both portray unexpected encounters between two lost souls who seem distanced from their own lives, but aren’t sure the alternative being presented is as transcendent as they’d hoped.
In the most challenging story, “Rainbow Moment,” Carre takes one conversation narrative and uses it to delve into further stories within stories until it comes time to snap back to the beginning.
The book is rounded out by a number of one-pagers with poetic and surreal that covers everything from the beauty of not having a head to man-on-plant love to a collector of human hands, each with Carre’s typical spare, matter-of-fact narration, but with a haiku quality that demands even more attention of the reader than any of the longer works.