Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews

Review: ‘Paying The Land’ by Joe Sacco 

Paying The Land by Joe Sacco

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Paying The Land by Joe Sacco. New York: Metropolitan Books, 264pp, $29.99.

A decade ago, in a smallish Swiss comics shop, I could identify only two American artists, or (memory doubtful here) perhaps three. Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Joe Sacco’s Palestine. And on a back shelf, evidently dating from years earlier, Gilbert Shelton’s Fat Freddy’s Cat. Robert Crumb had slipped from a high perch, and Shelton, an entertainer always more popular among Young Europeans, was rapidly receding into the past. During the last decade, several of the dozens of US titles translated into French would probably have found their way into this little shop, it if survives. But we can be sure that the first famed Sacco volumes would have stood alongside others of the same artist. He has the pen that seems almost mightier than the swords, planes, bombs, devastated populations and the rest of the war horrors that have made up his journalistic work.

To call Sacco “American” is a bit of a jump. Maltese by origin, we learn in the erudite Disaster Drawn: Virtual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016) by Hillary L. Shute (co-editor of Mega-Maus) that Sacco grew up with family stories of bombings and death during the Second World War, missing relatives and all the rest. War has never, Shute says, not been part of his life. Did Sacco escape the endless warscape by replanting himself in the US northwest? Not hardly. As a visual journalist of war’s horrors, he has placed himself in harm’s way in the Balkans and Gaza, among other places. This time around he finds another war, but it is the war of centuries and the fighting is what the Pentagon has come to call Low Intensity: the War against Canada’a native populations.

“This is going to end the world.”

Paying the Land is a stunning work, both alike and strikingly different from his earlier journeys into suffering and survival. It is substantially an oral history, and as a trip-weary oral historian, I can appreciate the contrasting points of “orality” (memory expressed by an interviewee) and “history” (a different kind of record). Sacco is trying to do both, no easy thing, and at the same time, to present them visually. With himself as part of the book’s story.

He meets a large handful of tale-tellers who are central, but he determinedly makes the trip himself into Canada’s distant North, in a used pickup-truck, over roads that turn into non-roads, ever further to the land of the Dene, the grouping of related tribes. There, the subsistence economy thousands of years old has been replaced, but only with deep contradictions, by the oil economy.

A couple of generations ago, good jobs appeared for men able to open the land up to drilling, mainly by cutting trees. For a while now, they have demanded controls including their own observation of the drilling process, down to the toxic chemicals pumped into the ground. They can watch the despoliation of the landscape, the lakes and streams, and the inevitable decline across the scope of the animal population. But what choice do they have?

“I remember our lives being led by the environment.”

Sacco takes an invaluable step backward in time, through oral histories, to the forced assimilation ongoing since the nineteenth century but intensified after the Second World War. The many cruelties of Catholic education have only begun to be redressed in Canada: virtual seizure of children from villages into towns, violent punishment for speaking aloud in native languages,  widespread sexual abuse, a violence that turned inward, leading to alcoholism, abuse of children by other children and teens, and a loss of anything like self-identity, including the loss of the older skills and their meanings.

What should the deserted family do? Often, it meant abandoning “life in the bush” to find their children, give them a kind of life, often in a grandparents’ setting, while the parents tried to scratch out a living. Here and there a good priest or nun, with education as something better than cultural extermination.

Neither the families nor Sacco is looking to some recaptured utopia. Life in the backwoods was harsh and in some ways, it was easier to live in even the most modest  house equipped with heat, a modern stove, refrigerator and so on. Besides, and this is one of Sacco’s clearest discoveries, there was no going back in any case.

Toward the end of the book, some of the strongest personalities emerge and flower, and most of them are women. They create new cultural institutions to carry on traditions for the next generations, and they help to make life more possible—free of the accursed alcoholism above all—in the present.

Mineral extraction companies are ruthless and the politicians who make their work possible are just as ruthless, even with the added political rhetoric to make things sound better. Against these pressures, tribal leaders try to balance the shifting economy with ecology. Young folks, raised with no language retention, begin to rebuild cultures as much as possible, networking from sub-group to sub-group.

The book closes with a memorable festival of Dene young people and perhaps that is the most hopeful thing imaginable, Not to await some outside force to heal them or to accept that their inferiority, as a culture, means that they need assimilation for healing.

This is quite a message, delivered in stirring Sacco style, with perhaps less of a Sacco-presence or irony than is usual with him. It’s quite a book.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

“There were no buildings like they have now.”

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Review: ‘The Mueller Report Graphic Novel’ by Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. written by Steve Duin. illustrated by Shannon Wheeler, IDW Publishing, 2020. 208pp, $15.99.

How easily we seem to forget or let ourselves become distracted. If you are still not sure about Donald Trump, then consider this fresh new look at a book all of us need to better understand. Take a look at The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. I speak as a reasonable person in search of the truth. I have read many passages from the actual 448-page Mueller Report along with a very insightful pamphlet-sized digest e-book from the Lawfare Institute, Reflections on the Mueller Report. My conclusion well over a year ago was that there is plenty to work with to compel Trump’s removal from office–but then the screws were tightened, as in Barr’s own meddling, and nothing ever happened. What if there was a truly compelling movie that people could watch? Well, how about one better: here is a concise and incredibly clear presentation putting to use the power of comics, visual storytelling at its best! Alright, I have an advance copy. Let’s dig in and have a look.

All the President’s Men.

The simplest way to tell a story is to keep it simple. This is a story that explores criminal acts as well as ways of obstructing the investigation of said acts. It’s a story crying out for a narrator! Duin and Wheeler give the floor over to Bob Mueller and, quoting from his report, manage to pump some fresh blood into the telling. Mueller, as narrator of this book, goes right to work. One of Trump’s favorite tactics is to call anything that calls him out a hoax or a witch hunt. The Mueller Report was all just a witch hunt, according to Trump. However, as Mueller clearly states, real indictments were handed down. Leading the pack: Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort. All of them were found to have lied to Mueller’s investigators about their connections to Russia. While compelling evidence has either been destroyed or made unavailable that would most clearly demonstrate collusion, the facts remain that a lot of key players were willing to lie about their own involvement.

William Barr redacted Mueller Report.

I suppose the saddest thing would be if the general casual reader cannot invest two hours to read this graphic novel. Is it just a fantasy to think that enough readers for this book could emerge and it could turn the election in favor of Biden? One can dream! The fact is that Duin and Wheeler do their best to keep partisan politics at bay and stick to the facts in the report. Maybe they know better than most that this is a labor of love that simply had to be completed. Like any JFK conspiracy scholar understands, whether anyone reads their book right away or not, at least the book is out in the world. Readers will emerge, one way or another. History may not change from this book. But the book will have done something to shed some light on our recent history.

Shouldn’t we be concerned more than ever?

Just follow the money.

One thing that really sticks with me about the whole 2016 Russian collusion saga is that infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. You know, the one where key Trump players meet to discuss obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian operatives. Even Duin and Wheeler get caught up in the Russian adoption red herring thrown in whenever this meeting comes up! This is my Trump Tower test and Duin and Wheeler, following the report, chose not to emphasize a key fact. Mueller simply didn’t bother with this little fact or it just never registered. Anyway, the reason that Russian adoptions always come up is because that was the excuse used for holding that meeting. But, not only that, this was code from the Russians. The reason for using the subject of Russian adoptions was to signal that Russia would maintain a ban on Americans adopting Russian babies for as long as Russian human rights violations were sanctioned through the Magnitsky Act. In other words, this cover story was a way to bring home the point that the removal of the Magnitsky Act was high on Putin’s wish list. In my book, if I were to do one, this is a very interesting little fact and a telling clue.

Sow discord and ramp it up! It worked in 2016. And it looks like it’s working in 2020.

All in all, I’d love to follow the progress of this book in real time as it makes its way to readers. The drawing style here is a steady functional look and that’s really all that is required in this case. In fact, the sometimes gritty and cobbled-together look of the art adds to a sense of urgency. It fuels the idea that there is crazed hope to get the book out in time for it to possibly influence this presidential election. It’s a great fast pace that will draw the reader in, now and twenty years from now. In fact, the more I go over it, the more I’m fascinated by it.

The long tortuous process of “covering your ass.”

I can’t help but get that creepy feeling that we are living through this again but we just can’t seem to see it. Yes, believe it or not, the calls are coming from inside the house! Yeah, that sort of feeling. Trump is here and he is well on his way to sticking around. Ideally, a book like this should sway enough voters away from Trump. No doubt, that thought has crossed the minds of everyone involved with this book. Yeah, what if every potential American voter was up to speed on the contents to this report? In a lot of ways, I believe that the American public has already gotten the gist of it. Liars lie and Trump & Co. do lie, and not particularly well. But that was never the point, was it? As Roy Cohn and Putin, and all the other baddies figured out long ago, the only thing that matters is to lie, lie, lie. Keep lying. Hit them hard. Hit them harder. A graphic novel can do many things but it probably won’t remove Trump from office. That said, I’d love to be proven otherwise. Looking forward, Trump and Russia is far from over with and this graphic novel will be ready whenever someone needs it. And, who knows, once all the MAGA hats have been lost and forgotten, maybe we’ll be in the mood for The Mueller Report, The Musical.

So many dots to connect.

On March 24, 2019, the White House released a four-page press release presenting its summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 Presidential election. On April 18, 2019, the actual redacted report was finally provided to the public.The difference between these conclusions have led to much debate, and while clearly Mueller’s findings are pivotal to our understanding of modern political history, national security, and American democracy, most Americans have still not read the entire 448-page report to be fully informed on the topic. It seems like right about now would be a good time to make up for lost time. Well, it will definitely remain a must-read well past this election. You can read the actual report for free right here. And you can order The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, available as of September 15, 2020, right here.

This will not end well for Donald Trump.

In The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, Eisner Award-winning New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and veteran Oregonian journalist Steve Duin reach for truth against a torrent of political spin to lay bare the findings of Mueller’s investigative team. Wheeler and Duin capture history in ink, providing a clear, concise, and entertaining way for readers to truly understand the conclusions that Mueller recorded during his exhaustive investigation.

Encouraging readers to ignore the interpretations of political parties and cable news pundits, this comprehensive graphic novel brings to life a range of key scenes, beginning with Trump’s campaign and continuing over three years of his administration. The staggering laundry list of Trump’s inner circle’s controversial contacts, statements, and perhaps even coordination — enough to overwhelm any student of the U.S. Constitution — provides a roadmap to understanding events of the past four years.

With a bite familiar to fans of his long career in political cartooning, Shannon Wheeler reflects on the subject: “I look forward to the day when I no longer have such rich material to work from.”

For more information on IDW’s library of political cartoons, visit IDWpublishing.com, and be sure to follow IDW on social media for the latest information on The Mueller Report: Graphic Novel.

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Filed under Comics, Donald Trump, Graphic Novel Reviews, politics

Review: TITAN by François Vigneault

TITAN by François Vigneault

Titan. by François Vigneault. Oni Press, Portland, OR, 2020. 202pp, $19.99.

François Vigneault is one of the most original and fun cartoonists out there today. If you have not checked out his Titan comics, this is the perfect time since Oni Press presents a new collection of the series coming out November 10, 2020. Consider this an advance review. I will follow up with another Titan-related post closer to the release date. It is often said that the best science fiction has a timeless quality as well as comments with precision on its own time. Titan certainly is relevant to our tumultuous times full of protest. Meet João da Silva and Phoebe Mackintosh: one is a member of the ruling elite; the other is a member of the exploited working class. It is the not-too-distant future, about a hundred years from now. The old mining colony of Homestead, on a moon of Titan, is steadily working its way to obsolescence. In order to try to salvage the situation, MGR First Class da Silva arrives on the scene from HQ, planet Terra. His liaison officer is one of the best workers, Phoebe. What could go wrong? For starters, João and Phoebe immediately sense some hot chemistry between them. Meanwhile, the entire order of things is coming apart at the seams.

Page from TITAN

Vigneault has a very vivid and direct drawing style. Whether he draws with a pen and paper or directly on a digital tablet, he has nailed quite a fluid and expressive line. This is a wonderfully cartoony style with an immediate impact that attracts the reader to the characters and action. Vigneault has a way of evoking emotion that holds its own with any other drawing style with its authenticity. I don’t feel a false note anywhere. Any reader will get hooked into what becomes of João and Phoebe and, by extension, the rest of Homestead, even the whole freaking solar system! In the grand science fiction tradition, the fate of worlds depends upon these two–but also with a touch of irony to boot. This isn’t your father’s sci-fi, after all.

I’ll tell you one thing. Vigneault manages to pull off one of the trickiest of metaphors. In lesser hands, I think this would have felt like a heavy-handed gambit. The ruling class from Terra appear tiny in comparison to the Titan workers, genetically modified for maximum efficiency. When João and Phoebe become lovers, the symbolism is totally brought home, and the stark contrast is pretty powerful, even beautiful. João and Phoebe, as different as they are, fit together. João is small and nimble. Phoebe is large and strong. João can’t help but bring up his concern over whether he is big enough for her to which Phoebe reassures him that “size doesn’t matter.” Over the course of their story, the reader comes to appreciate how right they are for each other.

Panel excerpt: Phoebe reassures João.

Comics and graphic novels share much in common. If a comic strip, for example, is done right, it will entice the reader to go through it more than one quick scan. A reader may not even be fully aware of it but it is likely that the comic strip is digested a number of times, as in a loop. The reader seeks the stimulation and goes for repeated rewards. And then it’s time to move on to something else. But, at that moment, a comics loop experience is enjoyed. And so it can, and does, happen with graphic novels. There are certain passages that must be re-visited. Pages to go back to, pages to compare. Some academics theorize that comics are read in an entirely different way when displayed on a gallery wall and perhaps that even hurts the comics experience. Well, I don’t buy it. I say all this because Vigneault has managed to find that sweet spot in making comics where his creation entices the reader to linger, to re-visit, and to revel in the work. Not all comics do that and perhaps some comics creators don’t even factor that in. But Vigneault does.

I really good novel, or movie, or graphic novel, invites repeated consumption. It is built-in. That is going on here with Titan, a story of two star-crossed lovers caught up in events bigger than themselves. If the characters are compelling, the events in question can recede into the background and come up to the forefront as needed. Not all novels are created equal, of course! The point here is that Vigneault, in the driver’s seat as a auteur cartoonist (both writer and artist), fully understands how to drive a story forward. He is someone who would be fun to chat with over an interview. We would discuss process, storytelling in general, as well as social commentary and science fiction. In the end, what we would talk about would be the art of making comics. It’s not easy and, like the most complex of art forms, it seems to require a bit of magic. You will definitely find something magical about this graphic novel with its pacing, symbols, and daring.

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Review: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics’ by Tom Scioli

Jack Kirby, via Tom Scioli, tells his own story.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics. by Tom Scioli. Ten Speed Press, 2020. 202pp, $28.99.

A book that is doing very well these days and just got back on my radar is an in depth look at the life and times of Jack Kirby, the creator or co-creator of such icons as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther. Now, all sorts of things pop in and out on my radar but this one compels me to share. Tom Scioli feels like a doppelganger at the moment: we are both auteur cartoonists determined to get to the bottom of the story. Scioli hitched his wagon to one star and I did to another. In Scioli’s case, it is Jack Kirby. In my case, I have a book that I’m shopping around with George Clayton Johnson as your guide to a wider world. In Scioli’s case, Jack Kirby is the focus and, from there, we see a wider world too. Also, I must stress that Scioli is a one-person operation, a true auteur. That’s the same way that I roll. It’s not easy but it is most rewarding and, in fact, provides the reader with the ultimate comics artistic expression coming from one creator.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Recently, I’ve been taking a very close look at Jack Kirby and how he figures in the study of comics as a true art form. We are very enlightened about comics, as a general audience, but the dust perhaps has yet to settle on all these questions of what constitutes art. For the record, I will state again that there is no question that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. Comics is a big deal and will only continue to grow in estimation and appreciation. As for Mr. Kirby, well, of course, he was an artist of the first rank in many ways and he dazzled all of us with what he was able to accomplish. What is so fascinating about Tom Scioli’s book is that here you have a true comics artist providing his own careful and idiosyncratic look at another comics artist. This is an outstanding example of an extended study of comics created in the comics medium. We have precious little of these sort of works, comics about comics. In fact, we have far more comics about painters, novelists, and various other historical figures. Ah, but that will change. We still have plenty of time, right? No rush. We can relax and appreciate Tom Scioli’s very home-grown approach, which all adds up to visual storytelling at a deep and intimate level. Scioli has a very offbeat style as unique to him as his own handwriting or his casual chatting. So, in a sense, Scioli has pared it all down to just a regular guy holding court and riffing on one of his favorite subjects. Yes, that’s perhaps the best way to look at this book. Maybe it’s not an official biography or the last word on Jack Kirby but it is definitely an unusual and personal take on him.

Page excerpt

Take any figure, well-known or not, and there’s a very high probability of creating a compelling story in the right hands. That is precisely what is happening here. Tom Scioli has the passionate interest in his subject and that energy propels the reader. It’s not like anyone, outside of friends and family, knew anything about the actual life lived by Jack Kirby. And some things will always be left to speculation. Here is where the power and magic of comics comes into play. The comics creator is compelled to make you, the reader, care and so the process begins from the very first page, the very first panel. On page one, we see a family history unfold back in the old country of Galicia. Kirby’s parents meet in New York City at an Austrian social and, by the next page, little Jack Kirby is born, August 28, 1917. It is a life of limited resources on the Lower East Side but it is a life full of love. By the very next page, little Jack awaits the birth of his baby brother while poring over the pages of Krazy Kat comics! And, by page four, it is clear that the only color in little Jack’s life comes from the Sunday funnies. Jack is set for a life of adversity with comics already proving to be a gateway to something more.

Yes, Jack Kirby worked alongside Bob Kane for a time.

Fast forward and, indeed, a life emerges filled with challenge and adventure. And, of course, it is Jack’s particular life story that will bring the reader up close to how things worked at Marvel Comics, specifically the working process known as “The Marvel Method,” with the legendary big-name editor, Stan Lee–and all the complications and frustrations that wrought. But before any of that happens, a lot of rain must fall, a lot of struggle and uncertainly coupled with steadfast determination. Before Jack Kirby became part of the Marvel bullpen, he had to pay his dues in a far more modest role as part of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comic strip staff. This is a staff that included, among others, the now much despised Bob Kane, infamous for stealing credit for Batman from co-creator Bob Finger! Just one of the gems of info to be found here.  As the saying goes, a creative person needs to be their one biggest fan. That is what Jack Kirby was for himself, his biggest fan. It was that level-headed persistence that would get him to the promised land of the Fourth World and a legion of his own fans.

Page excerpt

One of the great things about a book like this is how it ends up becoming a treasure trove of information. It just happens naturally as all the dots are connected. This is what resonates the most with readers, especially those invested in art process and pop culture. Even a casual reader will get caught up in the events and get hooked into learning more about the lad who literally picked up a copy of Wonder Stories just before it was swept into a gutter and saw his fate within the pages of the first pulp magazine he’d ever read. As I’m in a position to articulate these matters regarding comics, pop culture and art, I’m thrilled to do so here and on any panel at any comics convention. This very unique look at Jack Kirby is very exciting stuff. No doubt, when you find one book like this, well, it leaves you wanting more. That is what leads me to know that my book will find a home. I’m so happy to see that Tom’s book found a fine home and has been welcomed by scores of readers!

Jack Kirby by Tom Scioli

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Review: ‘Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio’ by Derf Backderf

Panel excerpt: Allison and Bonnie amid a backdrop of emerging unrest.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. by Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2020. 288pp, $24.99.

The connection between journalism and comics runs very deep. You could say the first cut is the deepest of all. Comics and journalism in America goes back to its very roots. So, it is no surprise that many of the comics I am drawn to and that I feature here have that connection. In fact, more have it than don’t; some more than others. That said, it makes a lot of sense why some cartoonists have one foot in art and the other in writing, specifically nonfiction, more the literary journalism type. This brings us to Derf Backderf who is an excellent example of the cartoonist auteur compelled to explain and report. In his latest graphic novel, Backderf takes his formidable visual storytelling skills and presents, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

It’s a little silly to call yourself a graphic novelist unless you’ve really established a track record of creating graphic novels. Usually, it’s just fine to call yourself a cartoonist. That said, Derf Backderf could, if he chose to, claim such a title. Beginning with his comic strip, The City, a favorite in numerous alt-weeklies, Backderf was building the skills required to take on a longform work in comics. Then things started to evolve when Backderf created a 24-page minic-comic about his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became the infamous serial killer. That project developed into the 2012 award-winning graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. This led to another graphic novel about sanitation workers, 2015’s Trashed. And now, after more than a quarter century of creating comics, perhaps Backderf could call himself a graphic novelist, if he chose such a title! What is clear is that Kent State is a masterful work: a sprawling narrative with great clarity and sense of purpose.

KENT STATE by Derf Backderf

Backderf, like an auteur movie director, focuses in on one specific character and action after another, then rolls back to provide perspective, and so on. The reader gets to know a set of main characters who can speak to events from various vantage points. Some are in the thick of it. Some have their facts wrong. Some are simply caught in the middle. Backderf gives the narrative a journalist’s objective framework with the goal of setting the record straight: events are presented in chronological order, backed up by dates and documented facts, all leading up to May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The book spans five days: April 30 to May 4, 1970.

Every great cartoonist has a certain predominant approach and sensibility. What is clear about Derf Backderf is that he’s very empathetic. When you want someone to bring a subject to life and make sense of it, call on a cartoonist like Backderf. We are living in very chaotic and complex times now and so were we at the height of the Vietnam War. Backderf begins his graphic novel with a quick look back at himself at the time of the Kent State shootings: a 10-year-old boy aware of the world in a “kid’s clueless way.” But it’s where you were at such an age that will stick with you for the rest of your life. So, just as once working as a sanitation worker or somehow briefly being friends with a future serial killer can compel a creative mind, Backderf confronts the big story brewing when he was a boy waking up to the world-at-large. In fact, the Backderf family was living only a few miles away from Kent State which adds another layer. It all adds up to a personal quest to understand and get the facts right.

Page excerpt: Protests, 1970.

It’s quite impressive how Backderf intertwines his research within this book. The reader is never taken out of the narrative and all the moments specific to each character. When you wonder about the future of transmedia storytelling, if you even do, I highly recommend a book like this that lets you know all is well with simply processing information one page at a time. For instance, there’s a sequence following the misadventures of Terry, the most inept of student protest infiltrators. At one point, a segue is made to get a deeper look at the historical record. Here, Backderf provides a lot of eye-opening information like the fact that the CIA’s Operation CHAOS is still not fully declassified. This was during the Cold War and the Nixon administration’s full tilt war on student protestors. These factoids then give way back to more intimate circumstances like the relationship between two students, Sandy and Jeff. While Sandy cooks dinner, Jeff confides in her his being scared of even leaving the house for fear of being spied on or stopped by soldiers. Maybe listening to the new Paul McCartney album can relieve the tension for a little while.

Panel excerpt: Sandy and Jeff try to find a little peace.

You see the world a certain way. And a auteur cartoonist writes and draws the world in a certain way. Backderf’s people are imbued with a fierce earnestness that leaves them looking determined but also quite vulnerable. Even the most formidable villain in Backderf’s world is susceptible to the most utterly heartbreaking self-doubt. These are mostly melancholy people who aspire to some possible happiness. And that’s a profoundly good place to start any story. In this case, this is a story of young men who are trapped by the military industrial complex eager to draft them off to war. Protesting the war comes as natural as breathing. Each one of these young men protesting, along with their female compatriots, wishes to breathe. An older and conservative generation mostly doesn’t understand and it can be easy for some to demonize the protestors. In order to steadily keep track of events, Backderf’s empathetic voice makes a big difference. It is this empathy that will guide the reader and provide an accurate and insightful look at what happened at Kent State fifty years ago. Has it been that long? Well, it can feel like it was only yesterday and, in a way, it was.

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GOOD TROUBLE. John Lewis (1940-2020)

MARCH

Michelle Goldberg, in the NYT podcast, The Argument, said something that put the first five months of this year into stark perspective. She said that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive urban unrest).” What next? Protest will continue. We all can look to John Lewis on how to cause some “good trouble.”

The death of John Lewis reverberates and can’t help but provide guidance. Here is John Lewis in his own words: “I learned from Rosa Parks and from Martin Luther King Jr. I found a way to get in the way. To cause good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

Here is a review I did back on August 28, 2013  of the first installment of MARCH, the graphic novel that John Lewis created with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell:

Review: MARCH: BOOK ONE by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March-Top-Shelf-Productions-2013

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is today, August 28, 2013. It is one of the most inspiring moments in American history and all of history. It will only grow in stature and significance as time continues its own march. The United States of America was desperately lagging behind in full self-awareness as a nation when it received an opportunity for collective clarity. It was a beautiful, gentle, and energetic plea for understanding. There were marches before and after this distinguished one. Progress would still take time. His words would still be dismissed by some. But, on that day, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a nation. He gave a speech. He spoke of a dream.

MLK-March-on-Washington-28-August-1963

We continue to remember that moment, and that movement, in new ways. One shining example is “March,” the new graphic novel, published by Top Shelf Productions, written by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and drawn by Nate Powell. “March: Book One,” the first part of a trilogy, has already gained critical and popular acclaim. It has made it to the number one spot on The New York Times bestsellers list for Graphic Books. The creation of this book is inspiring in itself. Congressman John Lewis is a perfect guide. He was an active participant in the civil rights movement right from the start. He is the last surviving dignitary who gave a speech during the March on Washington. And he’s a wealth of knowledge and goodwill. The “March” trilogy gives us a front row seat to the civil rights movement in America through the eyes of Mr. Lewis. The story is framed all in one day, January 20, 2009, the day of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It’s an ambitious project that reads quite smoothly, just as if Mr. Lewis was there to tell you the story in person.

March-Book-One-2013

The script seems to embrace a cinematic pace. The main character is recalling his life all in a short span of time with each recollection triggering an extended flashback. It is left to Nate Powell’s storytelling ability as a cartoonist to bring out aspects that gel with the comics medium. You see this in the various ways that Powell plays with text and composition like when he has a favorite passage from the Bible run across a silhouette of young John Lewis: “Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” And, of course, the distinctive drawing style of Nate Powell takes over. We easily become immersed in the intelligent and caring ways of this boy who is compelled to preach to the chickens on the family farm. In due time, the young man’s compassion becomes refined and focuses on the social gospel, the idea that church principles can guide social justice.

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published by F.O.R. in 1955

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published by F.O.R. in 1956

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March-Book-One-Lewis-Aydin-Powell-2013

It is a dangerous world that young Lewis must navigate. There is constant humiliation and intimidation. You could easily be killed, just like 14-year-old Emmett Till. But a violent reaction would not be the answer. The key was passive resistance and keeping faith. There were various techniques to learn in order to outwit one’s attackers with the prevailing goal being to draw out your enemy’s humanity. We find an actual comic book pamphlet of the time laying out the Montgomery Method that worked so well for Dr. King and his followers. It is a satisfying comics reference within a comic. It was an inspiration for the young John Lewis. And it’s a compelling link to the past to this contemporary look back.

It will be great to see the whole trilogy. It’s so important for new generations to have something contemporary in order to help them hook into history. The civil rights movement is really relatively recent history depending on how you look at it! This book and “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” make a big difference. The United States of America has a lot of wounds that are still healing and we still have a lot to learn and relearn. It’s this book and that movie that provide essential hooks for young people, give them proper context, help them appreciate when they hear on the news that our voting rights as a people are, even today, being compromised. You can’t put enough value on a book like “March” and more power to Top Shelf Productions for publishing it.

“March: Book One” is a beautiful book. It is a new way to honor and understand what has come before us and be inspired for what lies ahead. It is a 128-page trade paperback and is available for $14.95 (US) print and $9.95 (US) digital. Visit our friends at Top Shelf Productions here.

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Review: ‘The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski’ by Noah Van Sciver 

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.

Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.

Fante dreams big.

I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.

Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with s perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.

A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.

Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing.  More importantly, he  has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.

While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.

Unlucky in love.

Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers. In the end, we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.

Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.

Long live bohemians, great and small.

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Review: BLOOD AND DRUGS by Lance Ward

It’s basically come down to blood and drugs.

Blood and Drugs, by Lance Ward. Published by Birdcage Bottom Books, New York, 2019, 168 pages. $15.00

Memoir and closely related alter egos are at the core of indie comics. A fine example of the auto-bio genre is Blood and Drugs by Lance Ward. It’s about people on the fringes of society and it’s gritty–but it’s also about triumph over adversity. So much to unpack, as they say on all the talking head shows. We never used to unpack anything but a suitcase. It’s one of those handful of clever buzzwords that irritates more than helps. Anyway, Lance Ward keeps it real with an authentic down-to-earth tone. There’s an energy here that crackles and evokes all the desperation, wild mood swings, and force of will that plays out on the mean streets.

Down and out.

Making a deliberate choice to be an artist, and follow the process and all the steps it takes to actually succeed, is an act of courage. It’s one thing to have some beers and draw a few doodles among friends. It’s quite another thing to give an art form the serious respect required to make anything that can be acknowledged as a significant contribution. Everyone is an artist, sure. That is definitely an accomplishment in itself for anyone to admit to have an innate ability to be creative. But then comes all the steps involved in refining and specifying your vision. It’s all about following steps. So, it makes sense of many levels that Ward has structured his graphic novel around the theme of steps. Ward’s main character is Buster, a cartoonist on the skids struggling with addiction. We follow the narrative in sections that follow the famous 12-step Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr.

Triumph over adversity.

Buster is nothing if not persistent. Well, he has his ups and downs but he retains a sense of purpose. No matter what, whether his drawing hand gets mangled or he gets pummeled down to a bloody stump, he still knows that he will ultimately find a way out. While there is plenty of violence and despair to be found in Buster’s story, there is still undeniable insight to be gleaned, even humor. No doubt, Lance Ward speaks from his own experience. In fact, his own drawing hand was seriously damaged. But he didn’t let that stop him. He powered through with a bold and energetic style. He found a way out.

Blood and Drugs is published by Birdcage Bottom Books.

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Review: MITCHUM by Blutch

MITCHUM by Blutch

Mitchum. by Blutch. English translation by Matt Madden. Published by New York Review Comics, New York, 2020, 232 pages. $24.95.

I adhere to the strict view that the truest, most robust, and most legitimate forms of comics are created by the cartoonist auteur. You can’t just shrug and say, “Comics are comics!” Nope, that is way too broad and just plain nonsense. If we’re talking about comics as a true art form, then there is only one answer. And, keep in mind, comics are not just art but words too. So, the auteur is a very special creator, the artist-writer. I’ll even go one better and declare that the best living cartoonist auteur is Blutch. Yes, it’s that simple when you take into account such a versatile style and broad range of subject matter. Now, consider one of his best graphic novels, Mitchum, which has recently been re-issued by New York Review Comics with a new English translation by Matt Madden. I applaud New York Review Comics, part of the vision of New York Review Books, for bringing Blutch another step closer to a wider audience. Imagine a dazzling light, a smooth caress, a melodious song, a deliciously bitter coffee, or a wondrously smokey scent. All of this is Blutch!

A cartoonist as artist and an artist as cartoonist or magician.

Blutch is the sort of artist that I relate to the best. He is an artist as well as a magician–or even a wizard. Perhaps you must be working at the same craft, aspiring to that same level, to truly appreciate what I’m saying but I think, in fact, I know that I can explain it. It’s sort of one of those cases of it takes one to know one. I can engage in similar loose drawing and disjointed narrative and know what I know and, in that way, I share my insight. Christian Hincker, otherwise known as Blutch, has enjoyed an ongoing career as a cartoonist since graduating with a degree in illustration from the Decorative Arts College in his hometown of Strasbourg, France. It’s been a bit of a charmed life. At 53, Blutch could be looked upon as the grand old lion of comics. However, as some seasoned cartoonists, like Daniel Clowes, point out, serious cartoonists are only coming into their own after age 40. Whatever the case, Blutch seems to be in that heroic tradition of the wild bohemian artist, following some deep sensual instinct. Often, you see his characters either naked and about to erupt or well into some sexual act. On the cover of Mitchum, we kick off with a provocative image: a dog licks the slick and smooth bare foot of a beautiful young woman while a naked man lounges with a paper bag over his head. It’s totally a loaded image however you care to look at it. Pure Blutch.

Beautiful, raw and unbridled Blutch!

The sexiest part of the human body is the brain, of course. The brain controls our emotions, whatever they might be. Any good artist appreciates that and Blutch understands this better than most. So, it’s not just sex that he’s after but all sorts of goodies, naughty, sensual, primal and nearly unspeakable. If that sounds good to you, then you’re really gonna love Blutch. Dreams. Rants. Jazz. Not necessarily in that order. And a good healthy does of Robert Mitchum just for the hell of it! Out of a dream! But it’s not a rattled mess. Just think of it as that sketchbook come to life that I mentioned in a previous review. This is like the best jazz, highly structured while highly improvised, or at least appearing that way. The trick, if there is a trick, is that Blutch loves to draw and he does a hell of a lot of it. Back at the start of this new century of ours, when the indie comics boom was in full gear, it was Blutch who so many young cartoonists were emulating, even if they didn’t know it because they were so enthralled with emulating Craig Thompson, who was Blutch’s biggest fan. Thompson tried to tap deep into Blutch’s relentless passion but he was only going to be able to take what he needed. Fair is fair among artists. Thompson has a tidy version of Blutch’s style so, in that sense, he spun off his own style. As for Blutch, he keeps being Blutch because that’s the best way to be and he’s in it for the long haul, even if he may say he’s ready to hang it all up. In the end, Blutch maintains his position as an artist: unorthodox, unruly and mischievous.

A comic entitled, MITCHUM, only obliquely having to do with Robert Mitchum.

Anyhow, you can’t really fully copy the way someone of any caliber creates art just as you can’t fully copy the way someone else chooses to spend their day. It goes that deep! No one reviews comics the way I do, nor should they try. You might hurt yourself. Nor does anyone draw exactly like I do, and that has to do with my drawing long enough to develop a style. Not all artists are patient enough to develop their own style or anything coming close to it. By that, I mean many artists are more than content to follow a particular trend, school of thought, house style. That brings me back to all the disciples of Blutch. I won’t hesitate to say that there’s a ton to learn from Blutch and, if one is patient, one can avoid looking too closely at the sun and power through to an individual vision. In other words, I advise that any aspiring cartoonist would do well to study the hell out of Blutch but keep some energy for yourself and be willing to look away at some point and craft your own personal way of drawing.

I suppose if there are some more secrets to success to dispense with, I’d throw in the need to pace yourself. Rome was not built in a day, right? Well, this graphic novel sure wasn’t. It’s actually a collection of single issues of Mitchum comics. A very arthouse thing this all is since Robert Mitchum doesn’t even appear in the first couple of issues. And, when he does appear, well, many people won’t even know unless you’re of a certain age or a big fan of film. With that said, Blutch is a huge fan of many things, including cinema, pop culture and high culture. Alright then. Now, how about a few words on the English translation by notable cartoonist Matt Madden. Mr. Madden is notable for many reasons, as a man of good taste and the author of one of my favorite books related to comics theory, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Madden also happens to know French very well and lived in France for a good long while with his wife, fellow cartoonist Jessica Abel. By far, Madden has just the right sophisticated palate to capture the essence of Blutch’s words. Both Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have made some amazing contributions to the comics medium and, at the end of the day, that’s priceless. When you consider the work of Blutch, you can understand how art can be, when it’s all said and done, the most lasting gift.

A dazzling work by an uninhibited artist.

Mitchum is available through New York Review Comics.

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Review: DRAGMAN by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2020. 336 pages, $28.00.

Especially today, as we continue to make huge strides, while still sometimes stumbling one step forward with one step back, it is healthy for everyone to acknowledge gender fluidity as being as natural as breathing. I’ll share this. When I was very young, I fondly recall dressing in drag a handful of times. This was back in the ’80s during my art school days. It was fun, thrilling, and even liberating. My girlfriend at the time thought I looked cuter in lipstick and pumps than she did. Anyway, life moved on and the occasion for indulging in drag became less available but one never knows. I’ve always fancied interviewing Simon Hanselmann with both of us all dolled up. We all need to loosen up, open up, and acknowledge nothing is ever really totally cut and dry. Even a conservative darling like Rudy Giuliani had a good time in drag, and this was as recently as 2000. So, with that in mind, it’s a joy and a privilege to introduce to you a new graphic novel inspired by cartoonist Steven Appleby’s own personal journey, Dragman, a story about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes.

Dragman on the case!

Now, Steven Appleby is a beloved British cartoonist, right up there with other greats like Posy Simmonds and Quentin Blake. I had quite a nice time, by the way, viewing the work of Simmonds and Blake last year at the House of Illustration in London. I’m an artist-cartoonist myself so that visit, for me, is equal to visiting Big Ben for someone else. I’d love to view Appleby originals sometime too, perhaps on a future visit. I’m not going to scrutinize the work in quite the same way as I would standing before a Rembrandt but it’s not too different either. I’m still gazing and pondering the energy. It’s that distinctive line, with its skittering quality, that is so appealing. In the case of Appleby, a cartoonist auteur, we can marvel over how the words seem to dance right along with the images. If Appleby collaborated with a writer, to be sure, we’d see a similar play too. That said, the auteur has a distinct advantage of owning the whole vision. So, for Appley, for all of us, this graphic novel provides a full-blown vision. The reader gets to enjoy a madcap adventure, all the time savoring the journey for its own sake!

Clark Kent, meet August Crimp.

As Appleby makes clear, this is not an autobiographical work, although it can’t be denied there are some similarities to Appleby and his comics alter ego, August Crimp. Both went on a particular journey in search of themselves, in pursuit of coming to terms with an attraction to dressing up as the opposite sex. What’s clear is that August Crimp, and Steven Appleby, both triumph. It’s a celebration of life. A celebration of boys dressing as girls and girls dressing as boys and anything else in between. We’re all superheroes if we just relax and let ourselves be ourselves. Dragman is a heart-felt exploration of identity while also a riveting crime mystery to boot. What more could you want from a graphic novel?

Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.

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