From time to time, I like to go back and explore work. The Crippler’s Son, is a short graphic novel quite worthy of a revisit. It is by Max Riffner, published by Fantagraphics, and available as a digital comic at comiXology. What strikes me as interesting about this book is the attention to character development and a strong consistent look throughout. Riffner favors a classic indie style (James Sturm, Daniel Clowes), very clean lines, understated tension. He puts his considerable talents to use here in the service of a story about, James, a young man at a crossroads. James is drifting, a diffident individual trapped in banal settings. He has a life but he’s not flourishing. On the first page, we get a clue as to what preoccupies James: the lackluster career of a pro wrestler known as, The Crippler.
Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews
There is this amazing new graphic novel that tackles, for the first time, the life and work of Rod Serling. It is The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, by Koren Shadmi, published by Humanoids as part of their new imprint, Life Drawn. I have a lot to say about this book, in no small part, due to the fact that I have my own graphic novel that overlaps on some of what’s going on in this book. I’m still in the process of getting my book out but I think it’s actually good to see a book like this out there. This is Koren Shadmi’s Rod Serling and his take on related events. There is definitely room, and interest, for more such books. One perfect example is what appears to be an ever-growing number of graphic novels on Andy Warhol. But I digress a bit.
I am familiar with Koren Shadmi and his work. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2015 for one of my podcast interviews. In fact, I made a reference to The Twilight Zone and discovered that Koren, in Israel, had not grown up with the original Twilight Zone like so many of us did in the States. I don’t know about you but I’ve always had access to it. As a kid growing up in the seventies, TZ was well into syndication and very well accepted as part of the culture, even better than during its original run from 1959 to 1964. Anyway, Koren is a masterful illustrator on a fast professional track. Is it any wonder then that he was able to create this book in such a relatively short amount of time? I’d peg it at sometime during or after his previous book on Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons which came out in 2017. Koren’s book on Rod Serling is fascinating and goes into as much detail as possible, even daring to cast Serling in less than a favorable light.
If you want to see Rod Serling cast in an unfavorable light, look back fifty years ago. It was on November 8, 1969 that a TV movie was broadcast on NBC starring Joan Crawford, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Rod Serling. It was to be the pilot for the ill-fated anthology series, Night Gallery. It was pitched as something like Twilight Zone but turned out to be lackluster. Shadmi spends a good bit of time showing us the Rod Serling after The Twilight Zone and it’s not a pretty picture that he paints. Instead of wrapping up his graphic novel on an upbeat note, Shadmi has no qualms over depicting Serling as falling from grace, a little desperate and seeking approval in all the wrong places. We see Serling doing very un-Serling things: appearing in commercials, hosting a game show, and giving up all creative control all for the sake of being back in the game with Night Gallery. And, the coup de grâce for any Serling fan: Shadmi makes a reference to Serling engaging in an extramarital affair. I can only chalk it up to Shadmi compelled to show the man warts and all. But, if you want to see Serling at his best, well, there is plenty of that, enough to overlook a man’s weaknesses.
A good part of the book going in covers Serling as a brash young man eager to see combat during World War II. And that he does. While considered too short to be a paratrooper, Serling’s persistence wears down his company commander. Serling, cut from the same cloth as Hemingway, pushes himself to his limits, working as hard on his writing as his proving his manhood. Repeatedly, he pursues physical thrills and danger in the boxing ring and on the battlefield. He leaves the army permanently shell-shocked, experiencing nightmares for the rest of his life. It is such a uniquely talented and driven man who finds his way to writing for radio and later for television in New York City during the dawn of the golden age of television. And, on the strength of his landmark work on Playhouse 90, Serling ultimately finds himself on top of the world as one of television’s original show runners for The Twilight Zone. All of this and more, Shadmi faithfully brings to life on the page. It is more than enough to forgive him for daring to show the great man when he was down.
The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television is a 180-page trade paperback in duotone, published by Humanoids.
Once Upon a Time in France is such a gorgeous book. One of the best ways that I can demonstrate to you the beauty and artistry that you will find in this graphic novel is to show you a sample page, in black & white, next to the same page in color. Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée, is published by Dead Reckoning and makes for a most riveting and immersive story like you probably have not read in quite some time. This is the story of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1920s and became one of the richest men in Europe as a scrap-metal magnate. For some, he was a Nazi collaborator villain. For others, he was a French resistance hero. He undoubtedly played both ends against the middle! It makes for a fascinating story. The graphic novel series was an international bestseller with over 1 million copies sold. Thankfully, Dead Reckoning has collected the entire French series in this new English translation omnibus edition.
I just completed some traveling in Europe and so I’m still processing all of that. Of course, World War II looms large, bursting at the seams of history, as you make your way through such places as Paris and London. It can be no other way. The past pulls you in and makes itself present. The past is always present. It seeps its way into the culture and the daily lives of the natives. History is more respected and acknowledged in Europe than it is in the United States. And that’s not so much a criticism as a simple observation. There is a special connection to the past in Europe that encourages readers and thinkers in all strata of society. It is a culture that celebrates books and has a unique love for comics and graphic novels. That’s certainly not to say that thoughtful expansive works in comics are not appreciated in the U.S. but it is to say that an even keener appreciation by large numbers of readers will be found in Europe, without a doubt. That said, I highly recommend to my American friends that they check out a book such as Once Upon a Time in France in order to get a better sense of the appeal of serious works in comics outside of the United States.
This omnibus edition collects six books of comics. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer the typical European format of a hardcover book of comics spanning less than 1oo pages. So, this collection is a total of 360 pages, comprising six books of about 60 pages each. And that is a perfect setup. Tell a riveting and expansive tale within the covers of six manageable books! The European culture accepts that format and treats a series of books such as this in the way that Americans treat following a television series. Of course, you see similar efforts in the U.S. with much of it taken up by the big two superhero publishers followed by various other publishers and rounded out by an assortment of micro, indie and self-publishing cartoonists. Speaking of history, we’re right in the thick of a significant time in comics history as the comics medium continues to redefine itself and position itself within the book market in general. And, again, I say that everyone would do well to seek out this wartime thriller as a brilliant example of what is possible within comics!
You will be utterly pleased by reading this impressive omnibus edition. It satisfies on many levels: as a brilliant example of the comics medium; as a wonderful taste of European culture; and as a rollicking good thriller! In fact, I can easily see this book adapted into an amazing series at such venues as Hulu, Amazon or Netflix.
Once Upon a Time in France is a 360-page trade paperback, published by Dead Reckoning.
If you enjoy experimental art, then do check out the new graphic novel by Frank Santoro. This is a work that will transport you to an immersive mindscape where Mr. Santoro tracks memories and explores family history. It is a refreshing approach to the comics medium that plays with elements like text and panels, shifts them, redirects them, and presents them in unexpected ways within a finely-tuned structure. Pittsburgh, a New York Review Comic published by New York Review of Books, brings together a lifetime of storytelling. This is one of the notable titles debuting at this year’s Small Press Expo this weekend, September 14-15, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Frank Santoro is a well-respected and celebrated independent cartoonist and trailblazer. If you are looking for a new way of looking at the comics medium, then consider taking his comics course. Frank Santoro’s work has been exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and the Fumetto comics festival in Switzerland. He is the author of Storeyville and Pompeii. He has collaborated with Ben Jones, Dash Shaw, Frank Kozik, and others. Santoro lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which brings us to his latest work. In Pittsburgh, the reader is introduced to life in the Rust Belt, that region of the country known as the manufacturing hub, the area famously known as the demographic which Hillary Clinton neglected to win over enough votes. It’s a tough working class landscape. Santoro shares that region with you: his growing up, his family, and especially the doomed relationship between his father and mother.
How do you best convey your observations and feelings about your family? In a documentary? In a novel? In an art installation? The possibilities are endless. What Frank Santoro has done is find a different path that combines aspects of various disciplines within one. This is a comic but not a comic that you are typically familiar with. This could be called a graphic novel or memoir but it also manages to be something more. At times, I felt as if some of the actions, dialogue, characters and settings in this book were shifting from one medium to the next. Very easily, I could imagine the whole book being turned into an art installation. Santoro’s method basically breaks down barriers and pares down to essentials. He likes to play with geometry and create backbones for his pages. The goal is for each element on the page to play off each other, each opposing page, and the entire work. He wants the process to show through so, if he makes a mistake, he’ll sort of leave it in and lightly cover it up so that you can still see it. In a sense, each page becomes animated with unexpected movement.
The quotidian of life, the everyday moments that can blur into each other, that is what Santoro aims to capture and evoke. This is one of the things that the comics medium does best! It is akin to a tour de force cinema vertie experience with the camera being replaced by a sketchbook. Santoro is hardly alone in attempting this but what he does is distinctive. And he makes it look easy and, in a weird sense that actually takes years of experience to appreciate, it is. Whatever the case, it can’t look forced. It comes natural to Santoro as he edits, rearranges, and composes. He make various choices which include various ways of telling the story most efficiently while allowing things to breathe. He wants ambiguity but he also demands clarity. He keeps to a basic palette that, in the end, brings out all the color he could ever want. In the end, he presents something new and compelling. In this case, it is his coming to terms with having grown up in a dysfunctional family that ultimately breaks apart. Like any good documentarian and artist, Santoro picks up the pieces, examines them, and with heart and soul makes something out of them.
Pittsburgh is a 216-page full color hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019, published by New York Review of Books.
A genius is not always fortunate to be appreciated in his own time. That was the fate of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You would think that he’d get some love in such a sophisticated place as Paris but, back in 1778, he needed to hustle in order to get recognition. And Mozart was not one who easily hustled. He repeatedly had to fight for the right to be acknowledged as an artist on his own terms. Frantz Duchazeau brings that struggle to life in his new graphic novel, Mozart in Paris, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
Mozart is Mozart, who can deny that? Maybe Salieri? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen 1984’s Amadeus. But even Salieri, the rival and villain in that movie, had the good sense to know he was dealing with a genius composer. In this graphic novel, we get a wonderful look at the reality of indifference and shortsightedness. French tastemakers, threatened or indifferent to Mozart’s original and innovative music, would try to keep him out of the limelight. Mozart’s own father was relentless in dismissing Mozart’s efforts but, to his credit, he was dealing with a highly precocious individual who did not calm more conservative nerves.
Mozart didn’t think it was really up to him to convince anyone of his skill and talent. That kind of attitude doesn’t come without a price. Frantz Duchazeau does a wonderful job of showing the reader just what price Mozart had to pay for his own brand of naive arrogance. What if he had only held back and allowed someone to receive a false compliment? What if he had held back and not insulted a rival?
Duchazeau has quite an engaging way with the page. Of all the comics I’ve been reading lately, he is definitely among those I see with a magical touch. As if evoking the grace and uncanny elegance of Mozart’s music, Duchazeau balances an engaging mix of variety upon the page with nicely modulated recurring elements, like the way he constructs his panels with one center panel speaking to the bigger picture. In the two examples on display in this review, you have Mozart in the center of one page seeking consensus on his genius. On another page, he is at the center again, but this time he must restrain himself for the sake of his beloved pupil.
Sometimes you must fold your wings in order to someday spread them. That is, unless you’re Mozart. But, on the other hand, this is also the story of a young man in the big city. Mozart was only 22 years-old during this early visit to Paris. And Mozart was driven and had no time to waste. Duchazeau guides the reader through Mozart’s bumpy ride as he stumbles and gets that much closer to his destiny.
An aspiring writer does well to heed that famous Tolstoy quote about families: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Cartoonists, many of them and I include myself among these wonderfully wretched souls, gravitate more often than not to stories about outsiders, people dealing with deep issues. It leads to glorious work like The Nao of Brown, originally published in 2012 by SelfMadeHero/Abrams. A new edition, from SelfMadeHero and Abrams, just came out and it’s a good time to revisit what has become a classic tale of a young woman finding her way.
Nao Brown, at 28, is still teetering along on the precipice that takes one from childhood to adulthood. Nao comes to understand that one can remain dangling on that cliff forever. This is the year that Nao makes it to the other side. The Nao of Brown is in the same spirit as Ghost World, the Daniel Clowes tour de force graphic novel that seemed, with its major motion picture version, to bring geek culture out of the closet back in 2001. The Nao of Brown is also, just like Ghost World, a crisp combination of exquisite art and writing. Where Clowes is more hard-edged and sarcastic, Dillon is more dreamy and bathed in soft watercolor washes. Our main character, Nao, is struggling to find her place in the world with one foot in her Japanese ancestry and the other foot in her Anglo-British ancestry. And she sees the world in the black and white extremes of an obsessive-compulsive. Her dark thoughts terrify her. Pop culture, hip and ironic, is an island that she can escape to.
Will one more mix tape be able to save Nao? She works in a pop culture boutique run by Steve, a hapless nerd if ever there was one who has a crush on Nao. She cringes at the thought of the pack of teenage boys who frequent the shop only to worship her. She knows she’s too old for them. She intellectually knows her youth is relative. But she still thinks like a little girl. For most of the book, she works out her feelings for a man she’s developed a relationship with recently. Her initial interest in Gregory was triggered by the fact he resembles a pop culture toy she adores.
Here is one family’s unique experience with the Vietnam War byway of the diplomatic corps: Such a Lovely Little War, written and drawn by Marcelino Truong, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. As a cartoonist and writer, I’m attracted to the more idiosyncratic works in comics and this led me to the work of Marcelino Truong.
These deeply personal comics resonate the most with me. Add to it the fact that the author is dealing with being bi-racial, and feeling out of place, and that gets my genuine attention. Truong’s mother, Yvette, is French and his father, Khánh, is Vietnamese. It is circa 1961 and the family has left Washington, D.C, the home they’ve known. Khánh, as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, has been called back to Saigon where he will become the personal interpreter to the new president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem . Thus, our narrative unfolds. It’s quite a perspective, one that is up close and encased in a bubble, in step with the cheeky title to this graphic memoir.
Truong’s story is triggered by a need to come clean with as many facts as possible. The Vietnam War is many things. One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror. A boy safely tucked within the circles of affairs of state will witness one thing. A boy who is part of a family in the killing fields will witness another thing. Obviously, little Marco and his brother Domi have got a lot to learn if they’re thrilled to see napalm bombs on the wings of a plane upon their family’s arrival in Vietnam. Of course, Marco and his family are in for an education. Truong goes to great lengths to lay out as many pertinent details as possible, the sort of details that can get lost in, well, the fog of war. This is a story of relative safety, even at the most privileged levels, slipping away. It’s up to everyone to know when to jump before reaching that boiling point.
Truong’s work is another exquisite example of the auteur cartoonist. As I’ve said many times, it is the auteur cartoonist who meets the full definition of a cartoonist: the creator who does it all: the writing, drawing, and even coloring when applicable. These are the three main roles, along with editing and layout, that are often taken up by a creative team. It’s fascinating to study work where you have one creator basically calling all the shots. It can result in a work that weaves together script and art to an uncanny level. It is a tradition favored in indie circles in the States and even more ingrained in Europe. You can even take this auteur profile one step further and say it involves creating work by hand, as opposed to digital, as much as possible. A lot of artist-cartoonists, with Truong being a leading example, prefer to engage with their comics within a painter-cartoonist mindset. You’ll find here in Truong’s art that you can break it down into a series of watercolors, a complex network of watercolors. Truong does an exceptional job of modulating his use of color. This is a delicate balance, a shifting between duo-tone to full color, whatever fits best. It all adds up and enhances the immersive quality of Truong’s exceptional memoir.
And there is a sequel. If you’re inspired to pursue further, then you will want to read Saigon Calling: London 1963-75. The irony is as front and center on the cover as it could be as you have the main characters strolling down a crosswalk, ala Beatles, with a napalm blast in the background.
No one does the dance with death, and life, on the page as well as French cartoonist Blutch. He has influenced a generation of cartoonists, including such big names as Paul Pope and Craig Thompson. You can see it in how they create in ink, how they attack the page. But neither Pope nor Thompson can really match the master. The way Blutch brings his pages to life is more mysterious, even dangerous, truly like a tightrope walker without a net. It’s not only ink, for Blutch. It’s one’s own life’s blood. Blutch is well known in France in sort of similar fashion to, say, Robert Crumb is known in the United States. By that, I mean that Blutch has a reputation for artful and provocative work. When the reissue of Peplum first came out a while ago, I was deep in the process of a lot of things, including a big move and so I do a revisit of this book now, Blutch’s first book translated into English. It began as a serialized comic in the magazine, A Suivre, and established Blutch as a serious artist back in 1996, at the age of 28. And it is the book that New York Review Books chose as part of their entry into publishing reprints of classic work in graphic novels.
This is really the sort of work in comics that appeals to me the most: work created by someone who is masterfully pushing the limits of the art form. Peplum is ambitious in scope and highly inventive and original in execution. Having become bored with conventional comics tropes, Blutch needed to pursue comics more as would a painter, filmmaker or novelist. He chose the ancient Roman fable, The Satyricon, as his jumping off point. As this is a satire of Nero’s court, Blutch essentially wished to associate himself with satire on a grand scale. He marries that refined ambition with a low brow reference. Peplum refers to the peplum film genre, the sword-and-sandal Italian B-movie epics of the ’50s and ’60s. With all that in place, Blutch can work as a painter, having created the wash upon which he can structure his canvas.
A good deal of this comic is wordless, so much the better to study Blutch’s work. Often, what you find is a hungry artist feasting upon creating work. He’s set himself up a glorious excuse to paint, as many a painter will tell you. Blutch proves with this early work that he is fully capable of evoking the mystery and energy found in the best work of comics or any other art form. Our story is set shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the focus ends up on the sole survivor of an expedition en route back to Rome. He is a slave who takes on the identity of a nobleman, Publius Cimber. During their ill-fated journey, Cimber’s group had discovered a beautiful regal-like woman encased in a block of ice. What this supernatural entity might mean or be is beyond anyone’s wildest guess. Cimber only knows he must return to Rome with her–and he might be in love with her. Ah, this is a story only Blutch could tell!
Is the lady in ice that Cimber covets nothing more than a MacGuffin, an elaborate plot device? Sure, the reader senses that this is probably the case early on but no matter. It’s the journey that counts for everything. Poor Cimber is well over his head. He isn’t even really Cimber! He has pledged his heart over to the enigmatic frozen maiden but, aside from that, he’s a bit of a loose cannon and a tortured Hamlet. Cimber is a bit of all of us, climbing and grasping for something, not always sure of what he wants. Cimber makes for a perfectly fine present day hero even if his life and struggles take place in ancient Rome. What we find in Peplum are the first significant signs of what was ahead for Blutch as an artist. That same wry energy is found in other work such as the celebrated Mitchum, also from around 1996, and So Long, Silver Screen, from 2011. In Mitchum, among the players is none other than Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum who is there to stand on a young woman’s hair during a pivotal scene. Yet another perfectly surreal Blutch moment! And speaking of Mitchum, New York Review Books will be releasing an English translation of this most dazzling book, set to be released April 7, 2020. It will have an English translation by none other than cartoonist and comics scholar Matt Madden. Below, I present to you the cover to the original French version, published by Cornélius.
Peplum is a 160-page hardcover, published by New York Review Books.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adapted by Peter Kuper. Foreword by Maya Jasanoff. New York. W.W. Norton, 2019, $21.95.
It is difficult to bring to mind a classic novel more overinterpreted than Heart of Darkness, and the reason has far less mystery than the novel itself. Joseph Conrad projected himself, his Victorian Britain, upon the African (more specifically, Congo) landscape, and intellectuals but also readers ever since have projected themselves upon his distinct literary creation.
Teachers have been assigning Heart of Darkness for well over a century, reinterpreting Conrad again and again, at least as frequently as literary theories shifted. Anti-colonialism and Negritude offered the sharpest criticism, amounting sometimes to rejection of the idea of writing the novel at all. Neo-colonialism, the reigning reality of our time, has renewed the ambiguity. The jungle and all its flora and fauna are under extreme assault. That the US/CIA chose to have a foremost African champion, Patrice Lumumba, assassinated just three generations ago pointed up the living contradictions that Conrad glimpsed or perhaps did not glimpse.
Peter Kuper is an artist for contradictions and for graphic novel adaptations. An adopted son of Manhattan, he has depicted the city with as much dread as any painter, filmmaker or musician could manage. His adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle outdoes his adaptations of Kafka, in my view, because the horrors of that urban giant, Chicago, are themselves monumental. Did Kuper suspect he would go from jungle to jungle? We wonder.
At any rate, Kuper makes every effort to be as faithful to the sprit of Conrad as he can. He wants to make an immanent critique of colonialism as seen by the soldiers and statesmen of colonialism. They are coldly calculating in their pursuit of riches and fame, including the extermination of all the dark-skinned humans in sight, by outright murder or working them to death. And yet they are also mentally twisted adventurers, for who else would participate in such an ugly and dangerous mission?
Marlowe, as demonstrated in the novel, can understand horror when he sees it, and as a commercial agent is very much part of the machinery of it. The vanishing of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, the need for the trek into the jungle, is the test of Marlow and arguably, the test of artist Kuper, who has traveled widely, lived for extended periods in Mexico, not to mention being part of a peacenik, anti-imperialist political magazine collective for forty years and still going.
Kuper offers us several remarkable pages of explanation, in his introduction, of how he approached what he calls “the fraught history of cartoon stereotypes.” (p.xx). He explains technique as well as purpose of subverting Conrad’s text while still being faithful to the literary quality—no mean trick.
Whether this is successful, we can best judge as the pages pass and we find ourselves deeper in the jungle, deeper in the horrors of managing the ghastly enterprise. Actually, of course, Marlow is mostly halfway on the outside, a fellow white man, looking in. And becoming more savage than any black man or woman of the jungle.
Kuper manages to explain, with the brevity of a single panel, the deepest desire of the one intellectual, Kurtz, through his protege: that booty would remain but every black skinned human would be exterminated, an insane and impossible task.
Kuper saves his darkest dark for the final pages, Marlow’s return home to London, where he meets but cannot truly confront the belief in Kurtz’s eminence. These last pages drip with blacks and grays, driving home the point.
Paul Buhle is actively producing radical comics.