Category: graphic novels

published drawn narratives by other folks

The Who, Rembrandt, and Takemitsu Zamurai

Last Friday I saw The Who in concert. It was surreal, but also incredibly moving. Roger Daltrey’s voice is going, but Pete Townsend can still rock. The bulk of the concert was the entirety of Quadrophenia. I think the band both wanted to make an argument for the power of the concept album, a concept now lost in the era of downloading individual songs, and give a swan song of their historical place as a band. The whole thing began with the overture of Quadrophenia with video footage playing in the background. The footage showed England in the years after the Second World War up through the rise of the Mods and the beginning of The Who itself. As my wife said, they historically contextualized themselves. And it brought tears to my eyes. The whole concert was worth those first five minutes.

Then the next day we went to the De Young and saw the Dutch paintings and etchings. The big draw was Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring, but to be honest the painting doesn’t do much for me. But what the exhibition did have that I was very excited to see were the etchings of Rembrandt. It was incredible to see his work in context. For one, I had no idea how small the things were. A lot of them couldn’t have been more than three inches wide. They’re tiny things. Also, seeing his work next to the work of his contemporaries really highlighted Rembrandt’s mastery of tone and also the looseness of his line. Many of the other etchings had that old tight line work. It is amazing in terms of craft, but it looks stiff and machine-like. In contrast, Rembrandt’s line is sketchy and full of life. It was very inspiring. Also, it was funny to see how Rembrant was almost perverse in his desire to not idealize his subjects. His nude women have cellulite and his depictions of Jesus attempt to make him ethnically accurate. Maybe “perverse” is unkind. Maybe “honest” is a better word for what he was striving for. I bought the book of the exhibition and maybe I’ll post some images later.

And I just finished reading Takemitsu Zamurai on my iPad through Manga Storm. The art is by Taiyo Matsumoto who did Black and White, GoGo Monster, and No. 5. Takemitsu Zamurai is a historical samurai story, but told at a very languid pace with some quirky and fun characters. The story has the problem that a lot of manga have of being longer than it needs to be, but there are some great moments in the tale and Matsumoto’s art is amazing. He uses a spare line work than echoes his older style and also reflects the woodblock print lines that existed at the time of the story. He also uses a very vibrant ink wash. Sometimes he won’t ink the outline of certain shapes, clothes for instance, and instead will just depict them with the wash. Here are some images I found on the web.

And this one…

was obviously influenced by Steinlen’s turn-of-the-century comic…

Fantagraphics to publish Nijigahara Holograph

Announcement here. I read this book as a scanlation a few years ago. It’s a bleak book, fitting deeply into that brand of nihilism that only Japanese comics seem to plumb. Yet it’s also very complicated narratively. Reading it reminded me of reading The Sound and the Fury, not in terms of content but in what you have to do as a reader to piece the narrative together.

Here’s my review of the scanlation.

Baby’s in Black by Arne Bellstorf

I really like Bellstorf’s art.

And maybe that’s all I should say.

You see, while this isn’t a bad book at all, it’s pretty boring.

It tells about the young Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer in Berlin in the 1960s. She goes out to a club to see a band and falls for the bassist. The bassist is Stuart Sutcliffe. The band is the Beatles.

There really isn’t much to the book besides that set up. Astrid is very successful as a photographer and everyone thinks her work is great. The Beatles are playing in a rough part of town, but everyone thinks they are great and they gradually play in better places. Stuart’s first passion is painting and he manages to get into a college in Berlin because everyone can see his work is great. Stuart stays in Berlin and leaves the band, but John Lennon supports Stuart’s decision and thinks it’s for the best. Astrid and Stuart are in love and have no problems. Even the guy who had a crush on Astrid admits that Stuart is great and so bears him no hard feelings. And that’s basically the book for one hundred and seventy pages.

No conflict.

No doubt.

No passions.

No characterization.

Basically, it seems like the selling point of the book is that it has to do with the Beatles. But even any interesting dirt on or conflicts within the band are not explored. There are two references to drug use, but they boil down to “I did too much last night” and that’s it. And everyone seems to get along. The only interesting tidbit we get is that Paul McCartney gets tired of German food.

All this being said, I like how Bellstorf handles the ending. Stuart dies (as we find out later) and the scenes showing Astrid’s hearing the news are done wordlessly. It’s a very respectful decision on Bellstorf’s part and is quietly moving. And yet the book ends suddenly without it ever being said Stuart has died. You have to read the afterward to know that he had a brain hemorrhage. So while the end is tactful it also is a little weak.

If there was an interesting tale to tell here, Bellstorf couldn’t deliver it.

Still, I really like the art.

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

I read this book back in April and hastily wrote a review by hand. I didn’t want to post anything too soon, because I wanted the book to sink in and make sure my feelings about it were constant. But life got in the way and I didn’t see much mention of this book to remind me of my own review. Just recently, Rob Clough posted a review on The Comics Journal website. While I basically agree with Clough, I want to post my own review to add to the accolades. You see, Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a really good book. Yes, the story of Helen Keller is a dramatic one on its own and there are many possible versions of the story to look at for inspiration. Yet what Lambert has created is not simply a Classics Illustrated retelling or a static version of The Miracle Worker, but a book that lives and breathes as a graphic novel, using the medium to its full advantage.

The story of Helen Keller is a famous one, and told in many forms. Lambert had the challenge of making the story new again yet readable to an all-ages audience. Upon flipping through the book, the first thing one notices is how Lambert has chosen to depict Helen’s world. Forms only appear in rough outline, with color denoting the separation of self and other. Over the course of the book, sign language starts appearing in the darkness, gradually to be replaced by words. The visual device both accents Helen’s isolation– she is literally in blackness– and makes it clear how she comes to understand language. The images and words in Helen’s world get more complicated as her understanding grows.

Lambert uses the static medium shot in vogue among people like Jason and Chris Ware. It is also of course also a style used by the early newspaper strips, such as King’s Gasoline Alley. Here the technique serves to let the drama unfold naturally without any potentially bathetic use of close-ups or fancy framing. Still, at times I felt too separate from the action. For instance, I didn’t understand at first that Annie was spelling words out on Helen’s hand. Since the hands were so small I didn’t realize the significance at first. Yet in general, the restrained compositions of the book make the actions of the characters come to life by heightening the small changes in their faces and posture.

Yet this book has more going for it than its formal decisions. One thing I’ve always felt that comics tend to lack is depth of characterization. For all the talk about “literary” comics, I think the majority of comics don’t get to the complexity of characterization that literature does. Yet Lambert’s book is not guilty of this fault. Overall, this book is a close character study of Annie Sullivan. We come to understand why she is uniquely able to get through to Helen, both through depictions of her experiences and expressions of her temperament. And Lambert doesn’t put Annie on a pedestal or candy-coat things. Annie is hot-headed and quick to vindictiveness. And by the end, I began to feel that she was too possessive of Helen. Not only does she keep people away from Helen, but it becomes clear that Helen’s sense of reality is mediated by Annie. Helen’s knowledge that the warmth that she feels is actually the sunlight through the trees or the fact that a story is fact or fantasy is dependent solely on Annie Sullivan. And in the end, we see the possibility that this is too claustrophobic a reality. Yet again, what Annie does is just an amplified version of what all parents do. On top of that, who else and how else could Helen be reached? And so, I was left thinking that it couldn’t have been any other way.

Such musings point to the complexity of Lambert’s book. Lambert doesn’t shy away from complexity and he notices (or creates) many subtle details. And, thankfully, he doesn’t judge. For instance, on page 52 we see Mrs. Keller’s day and how being a housewife in that era was a full-time job. After nine panels depicting her work, her husband and brother return home (from doing what?) and her brother asks with unthinking privilege, “Dinner ready?” We understand Lambert’s point if we choose to, but he doesn’t belabor it. Nothing more is said and Mrs. Keller goes off to make dinner as a woman of her time would. This scene is not simply a feminist political statement; it helps to underscore Annie Sullivan’s reality. If she cannot have the job teaching Helen then what autonomy she has will be gone. Again, no character says this, but we understand it due to Lambert’s staging.

Such incredible restraint and trust of the reader are the hallmarks of a cartoonist in complete control of his craft. That and the deep understanding– and at times frustration– we come to feel for Annie make this a truly remarkable book.

The main quibble I have is with the ending. I think it may have required a firmer authorial hand. Lambert depicts the events of the plagiarism trial against Helen and allows a certain amount of vagueness about what actually happened, at least in terms of how much Annie Sullivan may have coached Helen to cover up the truth. This works and it creates a sense of doubt in the reader about Annie’s methods and we can see it creates doubt for Helen about her own sense of reality and herself. Yet the important thing is the relationship between Helen and Annie. With the trial we see a whole new side of that relationship; a strain is put upon the trust that the relationship is founded on. In other words, what is Helen thinking? How does she feel about Annie now? And this is left unanswered. The book ends here. It’s as if a door is opened in a house and a new room is revealed, but we are quickly told that we cannot enter and must in fact go home. And so I feel that the main relationship in the book, the one between Annie and Helen, is left in limbo. And so the book ends more with uncertainty than resolution. On the other hand, maybe I’m accusing Lambert for lacking the very thing I lauded him for earlier: lack of drama.

Besides this minor reservation about the choice of ending, I find this to be an incredibly strong book. In fact, it’s a book I’m going to add to the short list of graphic novels I will suggest to people who don’t read comics. It is such a solid work with such unassailable strengths that it will appeal to almost any reader. This is a book more people should be talking about. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

reading comics on the iPad

I purchased an iPad a few months ago, ostensibly for work. I did in fact use it a lot for work, replacing my overheads with pdfs, augmenting my lectures with Keynote presentations, and having my grading spreadsheets available to students at all times. But I also have played a few games. And read.

I was worried about what it would be like to read on the iPad. I read on my computer a lot, but I don’t like to do it for too long. Well, the screen of the iPad is very easy to read from due to the light and the retina display. Yet, it’s still not easy to read in bright sunlight and the touch screen gets smudged easily. Still, you can increase font and image sizes, so that’s a plus.

And in fact, I’ve been very impressed with the whole experience. One thing, which isn’t about comics, is that I can order books from Google books through my local bookstore. One thing I was worried about with all this ebook technology was its effect on small independent bookstores. But I can read books on my iPad and still support my independently-owned bookstore. I think that’s pretty cool.

But what about comics? Let me get the negatives out of the way first: there isn’t much out there, at least not for me. Neither Fantagraphics nor Drawn and Quarterly has books available digitally. Top Shelf and Adhouse Books have books available through Comixology, but neither publisher has their full catalogue offered. Even Viz and Dark Horse, who both have their own apps (though the Comixology app is the best), don’t offer their full list of titles. I was really hoping to start buying Berserk from Dark Horse on my iPad since the volumes were falling off my bookshelf, but it wasn’t offered. Likewise with some Viz books I wanted. So this is the biggest drawback that I see. I am hoping that with time more and more books will be offered digitally.

So what about the reading experience with the comics I did read? Let me use Night Animals by Brecht Evens as an example. I was nervous about buying this book because I love Evens’s art and I was worried it would look cramped and pixelated on the iPad. Well, I have read comics with poor resolution on the iPad, but either the people converting books at Top Shelf are doing a great job or the Comixology people hold the publishers to high standards, but Night Animals looked sharp on my iPad. The watercolors looked like watercolors, with depth and subtlety. And the zoom feature meant I could get as close to Evens’s densely rendered scenes as I wished. And the Comixology app let me jump around; I could start and go to any page in the book I wished– a feature not every app has. So I was really impressed.

The other thing I want to mention is scanlation. I feel a bit guilty about reading scanlated works, but I’ve discovered a lot of great stuff this way. I don’t read books that I can buy in English and sometimes I even buy the books in Japanese to support the artists (and appease my own guilt). Incredibly, there is an amazing scanlation app for the iPad: Manga Storm. With this app you can search for scanlated works and download them into your library. You can also make it so the app will alert you when some title you are following has a new chapter available. So instead of going to various scanlation sites, you can just go to this app. Most of my comics reading is through Manga Storm.

The other cool thing I want to mention refers to the image at the top. That’s an image from the final version of “Defrost” and it’s being viewed on my iPad through iBooks. No, the story is not available for download, but I made a pdf to send to the printer, and using iTunes I can send pdfs to iBooks as part of my library. The upshot of this is that not only can I read “Defrost” on my iPad, I also have the Holiday Funeral and Kit Kaleidoscope books available. I haven’t figured out what to do with this yet, but I just think it’s neat to have my own books there. Theoretically, you could download all the old Litmus Test books and send them to your own iPad.

I still love the feel of paper and I like the physical weight of books, but the technology of ebooks like the iPad is getting good. And the wonderful thing is that you can carry a whole library around with you in one little package.

Now if only there were more stuff I liked available…

2011-2012 school year over

I submitted my grades this morning. The quarter and the school year are officially over. This is the first year I’ve ever taught a graphic novel, Fun Home. I’m going to teach it again next year, because the students did pretty well with it in spite of its many challenges. A few weeks ago, I saw a student from the previous quarter and he told me that he usually hates to read, but that he loved Fun Home. Teaching it is obviously putting the potential of graphic narrative on more people’s radar. But I also feel that by reading it students are introduced to The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, Camus, and Greek myth. The main worry I have about teaching the book is that students not very savvy about gender and sexual orientation assume that the fact that Bechdel wants to wear boys’ clothes is a sure sign that she is a lesbian. I do address that, as does Bechdel in the book, but not everyone is so quick to give up their gendered stereotypes. And this quarter when I showed the class a video of Bechdel, the students mumbled about how butch she looked, similar to how the class two quarters ago was shocked by her appearance. By the way, the picture above is a list of themes in Fun Home that the class generated and a corresponding list of page numbers that show scenes that demonstrate each theme. I used this photo to help me come up with prompts for the in-class essay on the final.

Now I need to read Are You My Mother?

some quickie positive reviews

I’m tired of seeing that negative review at the top of the blog. So here are some quick, positive reviews. Two films and one graphic novel.

House. If you’ve never seen a weird Japanese commercial, then look some up on YouTube. Once you’ve done that, imagine that same kind of style– the sudden earnestness, the cheesy music– applied to a haunted house story. Then you might have some idea of what Nobuhiko Obayashi’s  House is like. As it turns out, Obayashi actually did direct commercials in Japan after doing art house flicks. The melding of that sensibility with horror makes for a discordant yet fresh movie. House is like no other film you’ve ever seen or ever will see. Anyone attempting to make a movie like it would most likely produce self-parodying camp. This movie is sui generis. The bizarreness of the filming is only enhanced by Obayashi’s need to do every in-camera special effect that he can think of. The result is a movie that you don’t know whether to laugh at or be frightened of, and in the end you find yourself having both reactions. At the same time. But beneath the oddness, there are some other forces at work, without which the film would simply be an oddity. One is the post war theme running through it. It’s not heavy-handed (thankfully), but the aunt who lives in the house lost her fiance in the war and is still awaiting his return. She has lived all these years with the pain of war. The seven young women who enter the house are innocent. The have grown up after the war and are oblivious to its pain. And so the house’s treatment of them comes across as a kind of jealousy or perhaps a desire to show the girls a suffering that they have never known. Tied with this is the theme of young women coming of age. The seven girls are balanced between still being children and being self-directed adults. And the terrors of the house itself are the terrors of a child’s imagination. In fact, this is literally true. Apparently, Obayashi approached his ten-year-old daughter and asked her what scared her. She recounted the heavy futons, the scary clock, and the well of her grandfather’s house. These frights appear in the film. And I think this birth in a young girl’s mind gives them some of their power and connects to the previous theme I mentioned. Basically, I ended up really liking this movie even though I was really doubtful I would in the beginning. Once I gave over to its style, I found myself being charmed by it, as well as disturbed.

Ristorante Paradiso, by Natsume Ono. I bought Ono’s not simple some time ago, because I liked the art. It was so different than any other manga’s style. It was more like stuff I’d seen from alt comics artists in the U.S. Yet I didn’t like not simple. The story felt forced. It read like an earnest young person wrote it. But I just read Ristorante Paradiso and I enjoyed it. It’s not a great book, but I found it charming. Others, such as Johanna Draper Carlson, didn’t like it, finding it sappy and limp. I can understand that reaction, but for whatever reason the book worked for me. Basically, it’s about a young woman finding her estranged mother whose new husband owns a restaurant in Italy. The restaurant is staffed entirely by attractive older men and the young woman finds herself becoming enamored of one, despite her desire not to. Some readers couldn’t see the cuteness in the men, but I could. And I also understood the lack of drama in the book. All the characters are too damaged or reserved to push any tension to a breaking point. So many growing conflicts in the book peter out or get avoided. Again, for some this is a letdown, but for me it fit the characters. And I saw the restaurant as a kind of heaven where all wounds were healed. Yes, this is a bit sappy, but maybe that’s what I needed, because it worked for me.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. I just got done watching this and I think I need to see it again. Many times. I’ve loved the Brothers Quay work for a very long time. Since high school, I think. This is a live action movie for the most part, the story of which is very reminiscent of Angela Carter’s The Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman with its mad, yet sinister inventor and animated tableaux. Describing this movie is perhaps the wrong thing to do, but it unfolds a bit like a dream. While the story makes sense in a way, the appeal of the movie is not to your logical sense, but to your aesthetic ones. When I say I want to see this movie many times again, I do. That’s not only to piece together more of the plot and themes, but also to enjoy its sumptuous visuals. Like all Brothers Quay films, it’s best to watch The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes late at night when you are not fully awake, but too conscious to be asleep. Like the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, this film explores what film can do. I really think this is a must see film for anyone who loves film.

buying Annie Sullivan…

I just read Joseph Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. It’s a really good book and I’m working on a little review of it. But before I get to the book itself, I want to describe how I bought it. I first heard about the book on Joseph Lambert’s blog. At first I though about looking it up on Amazon, but decided to try my local bookstore’s website instead. It turned out that the bookstore had two copies. So I went by and bought one. To me this is the ideal purchasing experience. I didn’t have to deal with any marketing hype and I got to support my local independent bookstore. I love this particular bookstore so having another excuse to go and hang out in it was nice. Yet I think this story also points to both the advantages of the internet and the inroads graphic novels have made into bookstores. The internet is not always the most effective marketing tool, but for those– like me– who know what they’re looking for, it makes finding things so much easier. And the fact that my local bookstore has graphic novels, and not shelved in the sci fi section, is a huge leap forward for comics. As a corollary, I haven’t set foot in a comic book store in years.

teaching Fun Home: group 2 early reactions

So we just finished reading chapter 2 of Fun Home in my class. I had the class split up into groups and their assignment was to come up with a point about the text that they wanted to make and then find at least two pieces of evidence as support for that point. I gave them some sample points, such as looking at how Bechdel and her father were similar or how literature was used as way to understand life. But something happened that I didn’t expect. Three groups had the same point and that point was that Bruce Bechdel was gay. I was taken aback. First, it seemed more factual than arguable, but I had to remind myself that by the second chapter there are still only hints to his sexuality. And Bechdel herself even admits by the end of the book that she can’t be sure what her father’s sexuality was (230). But the real reason I was surprised was that I was amazed that his sexual orientation was such an interesting thing that three groups made it their focus. Again, it’s never said directly in the first few chapters, so maybe that mystery attracted the students. But I was worried their interest boiled down to “Oh my god! He’s gay!”

Also, while discussing Bruce Bechdel’s interest in obelisks (29), I mentioned that they could be seen as phallic symbols. When I said this three young women burst out with giggles.

We’ll see how the rest of the book goes, but I’m a little worried about the maturity level of this group. I usually teach at night and in those classes the students tend to be older. I’m teaching a day class now and I think I have a lot more recent high school grads.To look on the bright side, maybe this book will open their eyes to the world a bit more. It may mean that they won’t be able to get very deep with the text, but broadening their view of the world is not such a bad effect.

Actually, on that same theme, I think I got them past the “oh my god! he’s gay!” reaction. We had discussed after chapter one how Bruce is obsessed with artifice, how it is more important to him than his family. Or, more accurately, his family is part of his artifice. Luckily this came up again and it was written on the board when we were discussing Bruce’s homosexuality. Also on the board was another group’s point that Bechdel and her father both don’t show emotion. So I ended our discussion by positing the idea that all these points connect. Perhaps his homosexuality and his fear of being discovered force him to repress his emotions and drive him to put up a facade. The class went very quiet when I said this, which I hope was a sign that they were really considering it. If so, instead of seeing Bruce as just a gay man, the students can hopefully see Bruce as a suffering man. This way, he isn’t an other, but another human being.