Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews

Review: ENDSWELL and ANIMAL SPIRITS by Peter Morey

ENDSWELL by Peter Morey

ANIMAL SPIRITS by Peter Morey

Endswell. Books #1-#3. Peter Morey. Inky Little Fingers. 2018-2021. Bundle: $14.45

Animal Spirits. Peter Morey. Inky Little Fingers. 2020. $8.67

It was just a matter of time before I returned to the work of Peter Morey, which I had stumbled upon during a visit to Orbital Comics in London back in 2019. Even with a haul of comics to look over, I could quickly appreciate Morey’s distinctive and quirky work. Fast forward to the present, now I have three issues of Endswell compared to just the one a few years back. Reading over the first issue, and proceeding all the way through, I was treated to a fuller picture of this ongoing family saga. The first issue seems that much stronger now as it pulls together a number of dramatic bits all revolving around the misadventures of the granny of the clan, the matriarch in decline, who in recent years has brought in a suspicious character as her lover.

The family photo!

As with any sprawling comedy of manners, the first issue introduces the players and sets the tone. We begin with the main character of this loosely auto-biographical work, Peter Morey, as he relates to a therapist a series of events involving his grandmother. Things are a bit of a mess as it seems gran has reached a critical point where her well-being is a concern, not to mention her continued squandering of the family fortune for the sake of her vanity project. Plans must be made. Chickens are coming home to roost. Or, in this case, horses and dogs as gran runs an eccentric farm and kennel known as, Endswell. And then there’s Jim, the creepy ne’er-do-well she’s been living with. All of this is of concern to her now middle-aged children. And yet the worry has somehow spilled over onto Peter, part of the next generation. It’s not completely clear as to why Peter is so preoccupied by this drama other than it’s part of the neurotic goop that has overcome the whole family. Alright then, all very interesting family drama, as Chekhov would concur.

Morey does a fine job of giving a comedic shape to various family source material. In the end, we’ve got a nicely purring machine that sees us into the next couple of issues: one dedicated to the dogs at Endswell; and one dedicated to grandpa, which finds the clan reminiscing on the day of the grand old man’s funeral. So, all in all, this family comedy provides a neat platform upon which Morey can give the reader a bit of his take on the human condition. Morey’s droll sense of humor permeates his drawing style, which has an uncanny distant and ironic quality to it. The characters and settings, much like the narrative, are pared down to a mysterious enigma. Simple shapes and phrases leave much hidden, revealing only what’s needed and leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.

A poignant moment for Lady Foxhound.

Now, let’s move past Morey’s family saga to something more whimsical. This is more of Peter Morey’s droll humor but this time it’s animals–and not just any animals, these are power animals out to save the world. Animal Spirits is a deliciously over-the-top mash-up tribute to martial arts and violent manga, I would think. Actually, there’s only a few dollops of blood spilled, all things considered but you need to be mindful of the kiddos reading this, right? Morey’s light and lean line is nicely set off by his bold choice of colors. If you enjoy a cheeky adventure and root for animal rights, then this is for you.

You can keep up with Peter Morey right here.

 

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Paul Buhle on Comics: Street Noise: ‘Crash Course’ and ‘Power Born of Dreams’

CRASH COURSE by Woodrow Phoenix

POWER BORN OF DREAMS by Mohammad Sabaaneh

Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car. By Woodrow Phoenix. Street Noise Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2020. 208pp. $16.99.

Power Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine. By Mohammad Sabaaneh. Street Noise Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2021. 118pp, $15.99.

Street Noise Makes Noise (but in a good way)

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This is a review about two outstanding comics. But it is first of all a review of a new comics publisher. A veteran of the book trade, founder and publisher Liz Frances, jumped into the fast-changing world of GNs a few years ago, after a considerable career in the publishing industry. She has explained to interviewers that she wants to create books that count, that have both passion and social value. Certainly so, but I see these two books rather differently. Not that I doubt her explanation for a minute. What I think I perceive is a glimpse at a new generation of comic artists and their art.

Neither of these books is particularly close to traditional comics styles, the kind that my older sisters lovingly employed, when I was six, to teach me how to read. I remember more or less precisely that moment in my life. Looking back from a distance of about seventy years, I can easily grasp the big change. Comics are now certain to be “read” in very different ways, sometimes on devices that do not look or act like printed books, although the books on review here are printed. The real change, however, reflects how artists themselves learn and come to see themselves. As Parsons comics teacher and comic artist Ben Katchor reflected in an interview book, a few years ago, the internal logic of the young artist is no longer the world of the drawing board nor any other fixed spot.

Crash Course author/artist Woodrow Phoenix, a British citizen, whose parents emigrated from Guyana, where the CIA overthrew a leftwing government in 1960 and perhaps arranged for the assassination of the rebellious Walter Rodney in 1980, is a very radical person in his own way. He delivers a powerful message to the heads of readers, certainly to mine, in pounding page after page.

Page from CRASH COURSE

How does he do it? Because he explores in words and expressionist-like drawings the things we know, but do not want to think very much about our cars and our driving. Despite being a key form of death and injury around the world, not even to speak of vast environmental damage, driving has dug itself into our brains. Even if we spend maximum time (as I do) either biking or walking, for most of us, the car is always there. It gets us to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment, or to “get out of the city” for a while to visit friends and relatives. Not to mention moving distances for major changes in our lives and work. All these could certainly be done without cars. Given contemporary arrangements, only with real difficulty.

But there’s far, far more to it, and at the psychological core, cars have been ingeniously devised and stylized to make up for the insecurities and shortcomings of our individual lives. “Individual” is key here, as he explains, because each driver lives within a second skin, competing with others in the same circumstances for safety, speed, and psychological reinforcement. Merely reciting the names of models recalls the vicarious excitement, exoticism, and terribly real speed, made all the more attractive because the depictions in every media never show anyone in the real, constant traffic jam. In every hour of an average commute, twenty minutes is spent locked in very boring lines, rousing the desire to get ahead of every competing car and to cut corners by going ten or twenty miles per hour over the law or passing in the breakdown line.

All this, as Phoenix makes so vivid, is dramatized by the sheer eeriness of a vast but empty parking lot. And just as vividly by the violent use of cars to run down political demonstrators, acts now apparently made non-punishable. Cars have created non-spaces across the world, at the same time that they have become weapons, in many ways the weapons of daily use.

From POWER BORN OF DREAMS

Power Born of Dreams begins in prison, an Israeli prison, and that is the most fundamental fact of this book. The second most fundamental is the artist’s technique: linocuts, recalling a past era when leftwing artists of the 1920s struggled to make a living outside of the magazine world. As the artist says, “I was unable to carve my name onto the walls of my prison cell.” So, he chooses a kind of carving, to carve the stories of imprisoned Palestinians, on paper.

The lines are spare, the background black. Interrogation goes with confinement, and each reinforce the other. Israeli companies have made themselves world-famous with “crowd control” techniques, tried out mainly in the West Bank against Palestinians protesting the loss of their homes and their land. The artist’s road out of mental confinement is his art. He can see a tree outside and become a tree, for a moment. Then come back to his own reality behind bars.

He is, in real life, a citizen without a country. No Palestinian who lived in East Jerusalem can be allowed Israeli citizenship, not even marriage with an Israeli can make that happen. Leaving East Jerusalem can easily preclude returning, ever. And even remaining in your home means awaiting the dreaded moment when you will be driven out by a would-be Israeli settler insisting that not even a long family history in this spot, this house, entitles you to remain there.

A large part of the narrative is the deeply personal, deeply disturbing story of the artist himself. During the Second Intifada, he set himself on the task of drawing portraits of the dead, drawing the victim in the mortuary, then giving the portrait to the family the next day, at the funeral. A young boy, the brother of one of the victims, asks, “Can you make my portrait?” The artist says no, he only draws the dead, and this boy surely has a long life ahead of him, but learns days later that the boy, too, has become a martyr, trying to avenge his killing of his brother.

“They tore down the tree and destroyed the nest?” is his dialogue among two birds. “Imagine living without a home.” This leads, as it must, to an apparently tragic conclusion: the settlers slice up an imagined Palestinian homeland, in the geographical territory agreed to at Camp David, into slices smaller and smaller, divided from each other so that travel and work, not to mention emergency medical care, become almost impossible.

Things could change, at least theoretically. But a humane outcome could not alter the power of Mohammad Sabaaneh’s artistic descriptions, their capacity, we hope, to open hearts of readers everywhere.

Paul Buhle

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Review: CHICKALOONIES: Book 01 – First Frost

CHICKALOONIES: Book 01 – First Frost

Chickaloonies: Book 01 – First Frost. by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver. 80 Percent Studios. Seattle. 2021. 100pp. $25.00

Keeping cultures alive.

Welcome to Chickaloonies, the new Alaskan adventures by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, published by 80 Percent Studios. These are comics with roots going back to tribal stories handed down to the kids by the village elder. This all-ages tribal adventure follows two Alaskan Native kids as they set out on a quest to become world-famous storytellers. But not so fast. First, there are a lot of misadventures along the way. After all, these guys are gathering up material and so they’re living it as it makes it way into tales to tell.

Sasquatch E. Moji

Our main characters are an unlikely but lovable pair. Sasquatch E. Moji, age 13, is big and quiet, communicating only through symbols. Mister Yelly, age 12, is small and outspoken, often leaping into action before looking at the consequences. Between the two, they’re not exactly formidable but they make up for it with great spirit. And, when all else fails, they can always turn to their grandmother for advice. But that changes soon enough once these two are off on their long-term quest: to learn about other cultures; and to help spread the world about their own culture. Along the way, the boys will confront all sorts of monsters and villains but that just goes with the territory. Also, along the way, the reader will learn about Ahtna/Athabascan symbols, language and culture.

Mr. Yelly

Drawn is a highly energetic style, any reader will be delighted and engaged right from the start. This first graphic novel in a series collects some really fun tall tales. These stories have their roots in the stories that Dimi Machera grew up with, first from his grandmother and then retold by his mother, who presented live events based on tribal stories to local schools and other gatherings. All along, during that first creative phase, Dimi was creating comics based on what he heard. And that would ultimately lead to this book, the first of an exciting series that shares the rich, Ahtna/Athabascan culture.

The power of storytelling!

Our story begins with the Chickaloon village trapped in perpetual darkness with everyone wondering if they will ever get some sunshine. That’s where our friends step in. Sasquatch E. Moji and Mister Yelly are going to give it all they’ve got to let the sunshine in–and it looks like they’ve got more than a good chance of doing that and a whole lot more. Chickaloonies is just the kind of storytelling we need today as we rise out of darkness and toward hope and understanding. The good-natured, and often zany, antics here will keep readers of any age entertained and inspired.

Be sure to keep up with Chickaloonies and 80 Percent Studios. You can also check on Instagram: @80percentstudios  @dimimacheras  @bizarrocasey

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Paul Buhle on Comics: ‘The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy’ and ‘The Many Not the Few’

The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy

The Many Not the Few

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy. Written by Sean Michael Wilson and drawn by Akiko Shimojima. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2121. 205pp, $14.95.

The Many Not the Few. Written by Sean Michsel Wilson and drawn by Robert Brown. Oxford and Lancashire: Workable Press, 2019. 200pp, $18.95.

Sean Michael Wilson: Left Comics Sui Generis

A marvelously talented Scottish script writer, Sean Michael Wilson, is notable in the fast-emerging world of the nonfiction graphic novel, with a handful of awards and some twenty graphic novels to his credit. Like the most talented of left-wing film screenwriters from Hollywood to London to Tokyo and far beyond—suffering blacklisting and severe persecution in the Cold War era and not getting many good jobs right up to the present day—Wilson knows how to prepare his work for the next step in production. The writer works behind the scenes, so to speak, and  becomes in a sense invisible, all the more so because the artist “adapts” any script, by necessity, to the demands of art and audience.

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One More Look: ‘Chartwell Manor’ and ‘Chicago’ by Glenn Head

Chartwell Manor: Father and daughter moment.

Chartwell Manor. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2021. 236pp, $29.99

Chicago: A Comix Memoir. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2015. 168pp, $16.97

Glenn Head is part of that select group of auteur cartoonists who has steadily been building up a body of work, with its surrealist bent and underground comix influence,  that reaches the level of art. Much of his work, as creator and/or editor, has appeared in various comix anthologies: Bad News, Snake Eyes, Hotwire, and  R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. And so it makes sense that Head has steadily been climbing the Mt. Everest of comix, the grand ole graphic novel.

Chicago: Searching and learning.

Most aspiring cartoonists will never follow through on creating their very own full-length, full-bodied (sorry, no stick figures) autobiographical graphic novel, the pinnacle of auteur cartoonist ambition. However, where there is a will, there is a way. Glenn Head has done this particular feat twice. The most diligent of cartoonists would do well to follow closely what Head’s been up to with his last two books, observe how they oddly mirror each other, one a variation on the other. What I’m talking about is Head’s 2015 graphic novel, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, which was regarded as Head’s coming-of-age magnum opus. Well, he’s followed that up with his latest work, Chartwell Manor, which is another coming-of-age magnum opus: same protagonist and life struggles but, nearly twice as long, more refined, and pivoting off a different focal point.

Chicago: Father and daughter moment.

As I leaf through this graphic novel, I am struck by all the intricate line work, all the meticulous detail, and all the frenetic energy. There’s a marvelous dance with death (and life!) going on, almost spinning out of control, and yet very well balanced. The artist is in the lead. Death will have to wait its turn. If we try to compare both books, Chartwell Manor is perhaps more focused and detailed, not to take anything away from Chicago. While the Glen character in the first book is going through a series of dark episodes, including an interlude with a troubled woman, it is the second book that confronts what is the root cause of Glen’s instability and struggle. The significance of this root cause is underscored by the fact it is not mentioned at all in the first book. The harrowing events of being molested at a boarding school, by the headmaster no less, are not afforded even one panel in the first book. But, by astonishing contrast, the boarding school IS the second book, covering most pages.

Glen with a gun. You keep feeding the underground comix beast.

Sordid content, twisted and unabashed, all that very messy human stuff, is only hinted at in most mainstream graphic novels. Whatever the case, great work will emerge, sometimes from a big traditional publisher. But, aside from self-published work, the really gritty stuff comes from the smaller niche publishers. Among that set, Fantagraphics is a leader in the United States. In fact, it has cultivated a particular vibe that, along with a high standard of excellence, places it in a unique position. Much angst going back to underground comix of the sixties finds a home there. This particular point of view, this grungy campy swagger, has had plenty of time to ferment into a brand. Those who are part of it find themselves deeply enmeshed in a scene: part way of life; part putting on an act. But what is an act and what is real? That’s part of the mystique. What matters in the end is the end result, a work that aspires to something bigger, a work of art.

Demons to be exorcised.

Dancing with death can tire you out so it’s good to pace yourself. The reader will see the satisfaction that comes from someone working on their craft. On one level, it’s the very act of working on a big project, whatever the content, that sustains an ambitious cartoonist. This is a graphic novel focusing on Head  experiencing abuse at Chartwell Manor, a boarding school, and the years of living with that, a lifetime of living with that. This book provides a latter day underground cartoonist like Head another chance to push his style further, to level up his connection to the past, compared to all the  great soul-baring cartoonists who have come before: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and so on. It’s feeding, what I call, a “persistence of style.” Like he does in Chicago, Head can evoke an extended passage about him as a young and troubled youth, walking around naked in his family home with a loaded gun, aiming it at his head and pulling the trigger, and the act of creating that into comix is not necessarily a cathartic act, as much as it’s an artistic act. That’s not to belittle at all what happened to Head at Chartwell Manor. There are definitely demons to be exorcised. That’s just to point out that Head would be a lesser artist if his main aim was to have his graphic novel simply be a therapeutic act. It’s a complicated and thoroughly fascinating journey to explore the past while navigating your way to creating art.

Chartwell Manor: A rare moment of quiet joy.

There are key moments in the book, during and after Head’s time at Chartwell Manor where he talks to his parents and tries to let them know about the horror. In an early scene, while Head is still a student there, it seems like the parents are right on the verge of knowing but don’t want to know. It’s one of those instances when you wonder if something was said between the panels. Other moments, depicted from years later, also leave the reader wondering what the parents are aware of and what they are in denial about. It’s an ambiguous thread running throughout–and done to great effect.

Where there is a will,…

All those dirty little secrets that seem to have no way of getting out! And then they do. Ways are found to vent out frustration. It’s no exaggeration to say that underground comix have a lot to do with venting out frustration! The whole autobio comics genre has weathered various cycles of backlash, unfairly labeled as heavy-handed and a way for cartoonists to use it as therapy to work out personal problems. But, at the end of the day, most readers are fine to take the risk that some work will fall short while some will rise to the highest level. Honestly, any artist worth their salt, is going to tackle some form of autobiography. And, hey, all comics of this sort, in one form or another, is a story reflecting back to its creator.

…there is a way.

It’s important to note that each book has its lighter moments. In Chartwell Manor, those moments are mostly concerned with the process of creating comics. Chicago has a more experimental vibe, even whimsical at times, as when Head stumbles upon a visit to Chicago by Muhammad Ali and nearly gets his block knocked off. The point is that Head is in a wonderful place. Like any artist at this stage of their career, Head has a treasure trove to work from, plenty to return to for future books. With Chicago and Chartwell Manor, readers can see for themselves two distinct ways of presenting similar facts and the promise of what lies ahead.

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Review: ‘All the Places in Between’

All the Places in Between

All the Places in Between. John Cei Douglas. Liminal 11. 2021. 120pp. $14.95

John Cei Douglas has a nice light whimsical style that serves him well with themes of mental health and relationships that he explores in picture books, comics and editorial pieces. In his latest book, All the Places in Between, he brings together all he knows to create quite a wondrous work. An “auteur cartoonist” is your best definition of this unique hybrid of artist-writer. And it is best to let that creative run wild and pursue their vision. While I was in London, my first stop was the House of Illustration where I gazed upon the works of such visionaries as Posy Simmonds. Her work follows a more traditional comic strip format but nonetheless is uniquely her own. Douglas has all the great vision and skill at his disposal and I absolutely look forward to seeing more of his work.

Douglas published a first collection of stories in conjunction with Great Beast Comics and completed his MA in Illustration from the prestigious University of the Arts London in 2013. This long form work of comics is wordless and the narrative is open to interpretation. It is not so much a story, per se, as a visual essay on the struggles one can face in processing reality and expressing one’s own reality. You are more following a feeling, a dream, than a storyline. Notice the simple set of lines separating the “panels,” as opposed to framing each moment within its own individual square as you usually find in mainstream comic books. It’s a relatively minor consideration but it could be a sticking point with some publishers who feel obligated to keeping to a set pattern. All it does is hem in the artist.

Douglas has a very light and graceful style that is endearing and inviting. Essentially, this narrative of sorts involves two girls. We never learn their names or much of anything about their background. They might be living in two separate worlds–or they might live right next door to each other. The blonde character appears to be pulled into the world of the brunette character. And this new place, seems to be, or feels like it is, set in some post-Apocalypse dystopian nightmare.

The characters find each other, become splendid companions, then they lose each other and ultimately find their own unique paths. It’s a weird and offbeat journey filled with a lyrical and haunting quality. In the end, it’s more about the journey, finding your way, and keeping your feet steadily upon the ground meeting challenges along the way.

Douglas’s work will intrigue and lift the reader’s spirits. His spare and clean line work is deceptively simple. As I have pointed out, Douglas forgoes the traditional panels you often find in comics in favor of basic dividing lines. Douglas strives to pare down. In general, comics is about paring down. It is a sensibility that you find among the best work in the comics medium whether indie/art house or more traditional comics. And in Douglas’s case, overall, it is this simplicity that affords his work with a more zen-like vibe that transports the reader. If you enjoy those quirky cartoonists, like Quentin Blake or Jean-Jacques Sempé,  who always manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat when you least expect it, then you’ll certainly enjoy the work of John Cei Douglas.

Be sure to visit Liminal 11 for more stimulating content. Liminal 11, a 🔥 LIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS 🔥, is a mind, body, spirit publisher making tarot decks, illustrated books, and comics 🖤✨ Follow on Instagram and sign up for the Liminal 11 newsletter to stay connected.

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Review: ‘Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel’ by Christopher Sperandio

Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel

Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel. Christopher Sperandio. Argle Bargle Books. 2020. 96pp. $21.99

Artist Christopher Sperandio is onto something. As he related to us in a recent interview, it dawned on him what he could do with public domain comics and it just killed him that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. As reviewed here at Comics Grinder, the latest book in this series is Greenie Josephinie. We are going to go back just a bit and focus on the title that kicked it all off last year, Pinko Joe.

Enter a man in a bright pink suit.

Due to the pandemic, I think this series, like so many titles, is still getting on reader’s radars. But this is not a problem in the long run. There’s an eerie timeless quality to this multi-layered work that defies easy categorization. The source material is from the past (shifted and unmoored) in the service of subverting various issues from the present and let loose upon an uncertain and distant future. We see testament to the beauty of this process  from the very opening page, filled with disparate images (featuring a guy in a bright pink suit that David Bowie would have been pleased to wear) from some long forgotten past, images that are being propelled into a loopy present and future. Enter a man in a bright pink suit, nicknamed, “Pinko Joe,” by the merciless right-wing media.

“Capitalism is always evaluated against dreams! Utopia is a dream! It doesn’t exist!”

My theory is that every comics genre gives off a certain vibe, even if the excerpt you are viewing is totally out of context and you can barely figure out what is going on. That is part of the beauty behind what Sperandio is up to since his source material runs the gamut of genres: crime, romance, science fiction and horror. Then you lay on top of that the subversive adventures of Pinko Joe, a down-on-his-luck wage slave/activist from another planet! It becomes a battle royale between the socialists led by Pinko Joe and the uber-capitalist gangsters in an alternate reality where Eisenhower is at the helm of a third term and the rise of the very military-industrial complex he warned about–and which he can dismantle with a little help from his friends!

The wild and droll world of Pinko Joe!

The narrative to this graphic novel is broken up into episodic chunks just as you find in a comic book. While this is definitely a very different kind of graphic novel, and will definitely appeal to a certain discerning reader, the droll political humor is really funny and has broad appeal. Think of the audience for The Daily Show or for Real Time with Bill Maher. Let’s break down a random full page. Based upon the list of sources at the back of the book, this is probably originally a page from a comic book, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, published by Ace Magazines, October 1950. On the page, a dapper young man appears to defend a wealthy family from thugs. In the Sperandio treatment, it is Pinko Joe who is defending a father and daughter business from capitalist gangsters. The dialogue is fun and irreverent. Panel 2 makes a nice stand-alone as Pinko Joe knocks out one of the “fascists.”

“Knuckles for you, fascist!”

There’s a pure vision to what Sperandio is doing and I’m sure it will guide him onwards. Many an artist has come before with a tribute or a revisiting of past art. This tribute and revisiting by Sperandio, a manipulation of comics, and a comic all its own, is something Andy Warhol would have applauded. Maybe Warhol would never have ventured in such a direction himself or maybe he might have hired Sperandio to join him. My guess is that Sperandio would say thanks, but no thanks.

Find PINKO JOE and  GREENIE JOSEPHENIE, along with other fine books, at Argle Bargle Books!

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Review: ‘Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson’

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. Art and text by Sharon Rudahl. Edited by Paul Buhle & Lawrence Ware. Rutgers University Press. 2020. 142pp. $19.95

There once was a time when it would have been as common to find a framed print of Paul Robeson (1898- 1976) as it would have been to find one of Bob Dylan. Paul Robeson became ingrained in the public mind from his landmark performances in such classics as 1933’s The Emperor Jones, and 1936’s Showboat. Robeson went on to become a popular champion of progressive ideals stemming from his scholarship and activism. With the same spirit as a powerful painter or incisive novelist, an industrious cartoonist like Sharon Rudahl (Wimmen’s Comix, A Dangerous Woman) can transport, enlighten and entertain. So is the case with Rudahl’s graphic novel adaptation of the life and times of Paul Robeson.

Onward to England.

Sharon Rudahl’s comics narrative provides the kind of compelling content that goes a long way to helping the reader process this multi-layered narrative. Images and concise passages of text are highlighted in subtle and direct ways by Rudahl, all the better to be suitable for lingering upon by the reader. It is a long and compelling journey for Paul Robeson, already a promising star during his time as a student at Rutgers University. Robeson was a major figure in the rise of anti-colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, and a tireless campaigner for internationalism, peace, and human rights. Later in life, he embraced the civil rights and anti-war movements with the hope that new generations would attain his ideals of a peaceful and abundant world. This graphic novel is published in conjunction with Rutgers University’s centennial commemoration of Robeson’s 1919 graduation from the university.⁠

Ancestors denied justice.

The story of Paul Robeson begins by looking back a few generations. This graphic novel begins in North Carolina in 1828. We steadily progress to 1901 and the struggles of Rev. William Robeson, at odds with Princeton University for daring to “rise above his station” and for actually speaking out about lynchings. He is chastised for “stirring up trouble between the races” and fired from his post at Witherspoon Presbyterian. The reverend’s firing was finally triggered by his repeated requests for Princeton to admit his son, Bill. It’s interesting to note how Rudahl cuts into the space to cleanly highlight various pieces of text. The Princeton committee members tower over Rev. Robeson and he is trapped by a series of hateful statements. But the tide would indeed change.

The Emperor Jones leads to iconic status.

What really strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how organic it is and how her free-flowing approach totally supports the narrative. I have a number of theories about comics and one essential one is that auteur cartoonists need to have the freedom to pursue their vision. Some cartoonists have a signature style and others have their own particular approach. Both style and approach are very closely aligned. For instance, an artist like Milton Caniff has a very distinctive look. Maybe it’s a marriage of style and approach. It’s a balancing act. In general, an artist-cartoonist in pursuit of art does not want a signature style to rule over them. It’s better to have a robust set of options in your tool kit and so you follow your own particular approach–and that’s what I see coming from Rudahl, a pure artist doing her own thing.

Show Boat meets Black Power

You see what I’m saying with each and every example here. It’s like any given page could be turned into a painting. The potential to do that is there. So, with a cartoonist too caught up in just delivering a signature style, you can run into issues of it getting too repetitive and descending into, more or less, eye candy. But with an artist like Rudahl, you have someone who is genuinely invested in telling a story. It’s this kind of artist who will get into a zone, create a vision, that will resonate with the reader.

Paul Robeson, the activist.

The story of Paul Robeson is one of struggle and perseverance. Robeson was an exceptionally gifted, talented, and driven individual. And, despite that, he had to struggle to prove himself. Even after he had gained undisputed recognition and notoriety, he still had to overcome obstacles thrown his way. First, he overcame racial barriers. Later on, with a platform to voice his views, he could find himself at odds with the U.S. government. And, finally, with the passage of time, he had to overcome any distrust from a younger generation that might have seen him as somehow out of touch with current trends. It is fitting to have a visionary like Rudahl tell Robeson’s story. It is all the more fitting to have Robeson’s alma mater, Rutgers University, publish such a work. Also, it is worthwhile to mention that it is a university press that will most likely be most receptive to more artistic material like this than other publishers. That said, Sharon Rudahl, and editors Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, have all worked together to create a unique tribute to an All-American hero, Paul Robeson.

Singing at the Peace Arch, in Blaine, Washington, bordering the U.S. and Canada.

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson is published by Rutgers University Press.

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Review: ‘The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History’

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History. writer: David F. Walker. artist: Marcus Kwame Anderson. Ten Speed Press. 2021. 192pp. $19.99

There’s the myth and then there’s the reality. The fact is that the core of what became known as the Black Panther Party began in 1966 in Oakland, California, under the leadership of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. But there are a number of other facts that add up to give you the full picture. That is what this graphic novel does so well. Step by step, the reader gets a historical context and an in depth exploration into the lives of very real people.

June 5, 1966: Civil rights activist James Meredith is shot by a sniper during his March Against fear campaign.

The truth is that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, despite any human shortcomings, became consequential and transcendent. It did not happen overnight. And you learned as you went. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Black Panthers had purpose, real purpose that meant going out and helping the Black community. It had a manifesto and it had a newspaper. And it had guns. It was another time, of course. Back then, Seale and Newton decided to test the existing gun laws in California which allowed the open carrying of firearms. It won’t be lost on any readers that open carry laws still exist in some states with Texas having some of the most lenient gun laws in the United States.

September 27, 1966: 16-year-old Matthew “Peanut” Johnson shot in back and killed by police setting off the Hunters Point Uprising.

One scene in this book that provides a window into the making of the Black Panther Party is when a group of members led by Seale decided to voice their concerns at the state capitol in Sacramento. The goal was to act as representatives of their organization, complete with their militaristic attire and guns, and protest a proposed bill that would outlaw carrying loaded firearms in public, a direct response designed to disarm the Black Panther Party. The protest did not go as planned. Seale and his group, meaning to sit in the public assembly chamber, ended up opening a door that placed them on the main floor. They were immediately disarmed and escorted out. But they had the full attention of the press and so Seale’s protest was not in vain.

The compelling script by David F. Walker and the equally engaging art by Marcus Kwame Anderson bring history to life for the reader through a steadily paced narrative, informative profiles, and numerous examples of the interconnections between then and now. Progress is slow. In some cases, it is surreal as in lynching being outlawed only last year, in 2020. Hills keep being climbed and issues keep being confronted, like equity and police brutality. But you can’t chart the future without understanding the past.

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Review: ‘Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching’

Elegy for Mary Turner

Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso Books. 2021. 80pp. $17.46

“In this particular historical moment when young Black people are engaged in a renewed struggle against state violence, Mary Turner’s story resonates. She insists that we #SayHerName too.”

The phrase, “Seeing is believing,” is apt when thinking about the killing of George Floyd. It echoes lynching in America, done in plain sight, the perpetrators confident there would be little to no consequences. But these heinous acts were seen nonetheless, witnessed and documented. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an artist and teacher, has created a visual testament to one of the most horrific of lynchings: on May 20, 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, 8 months pregnant, was brutally murdered, set on fire, her live baby pulled out and stomped to death. The mob then shot at Mary Turner’s corpse hundreds of time. Mary Turner was lynched because she dared to object to the lynching of her husband, Hayes, the day before.

A work like this achieves not only the goal of informing but also of haunting the reader. These images, not meant to shock but to testify, will stay with you. The full-color art and collage work names those who were killed, identifies the killers, and evokes the landscape in which the NAACP investigated the crimes when the state would not. In the big scheme, these lynchings occurred only yesterday. A book like this one brings home that fact.

Page excerpt from Elegy for Mary Turner

Williams chronicles all the events related to a series of lynchings which included Mary Turner. It all began as a quarrel between Hampton Smith, a plantation owner, and Sidney Johnson, a modern-day slave working indefinitely for Smith who had an ongoing scheme of paying off jail fines in return for indentured servitude. The quarrel became heated. Smith beat Johnson. Subsequently, Johnson returned and ended up shooting Smith and his wife. He killed Smith. And he nearly killed his wife. She was pregnant at the time. This incident triggered a lynching spree, between May 17 to 24, 1918, of any Blacks in the surrounding Brooks and Lowndes counties. This resulted in a mob killing 10 men, one woman, Mary Turner, and her baby.

C. Tyrone Forehand (great-grandnephew of Hayes and Mary Turner) provides a postscript. There you will find vivid chilling details like this:

“Rufus Morrison was only ten years old when he was hiding in a cornfield along Ryalls Road in the town of Barney and witnessed Mary Turner’s execution. The memory of a frightened and bewildered woman was forever etched in his mind as he saw the mob tie a rope to her ankles and hoist her upside down from a tree. They taunted and jeered a terrified Mary as they began to roast her alive. One of the members of the mob took a swig of moonshine from a jug and spat it on her as another dared him to slit open her abdomen where her unborn child was oblivious to the fate which was about to befall it.”

The fact is that “seeing is believing” but it’s reading the facts that will give you an deeper picture.

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