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Review: PITTSBURGH by Frank Santoro, a New York Review Comic

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.

One card taped to another card and then another.

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.

It’s all about the process.

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.

Every element falls into place and plays off each other.

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.

Comics, elevated to the art form that it is.

Pittsburgh is a 216-page full color hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019, published by New York Review of Books.

 

 

 

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Review: PEPLUM by Blutch, published by New York Review Books

Bringing that page to life.

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.

Give me a reason to create art!

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.

PEPLUM by Blutch

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!

You always need a really good MacGuffin.

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.

MITCHUM by Blutch

Peplum is a 160-page hardcover, published by New York Review Books.

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Review: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, adapted by Peter Kuper 

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, adapted by Peter Kuper

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.

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Review: Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a monumental figure in contemporary art for a number of reasons. To say that Basquiat was at the right place at the right time is a great understatement. In his case, he seems to have been born to conquer the art world despite the drawbacks of starting out with zero connections and zero money. Personally, for me, I had filed away Basquiat in my mind many years ago  and hadn’t looked back. I look back fondly, and return regularly, to a number of artists ranging from Edward Manet to R.B. Kitaj but not Basquiat…not until recently. I happen to have been in New York and got to see a spectacular Basquiat show. It then dawned on me that, the further away one is from New York, the less is known or understood about Basquiat. Like it or not, Basquiat is an obscure household name! Some people love him and some hate him and probably for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t sure if one graphic novel could help shed sufficient light on the subject but I decided to find out by reading Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi, published by Laurence King Publishing. This new English translation by Edward Fortes will be a welcome addition to anyone interested in better understanding one of the most celebrated and enigmatic of artists.

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Paolo Parisi is in many ways an ideal artist to create a graphic novel about Basquiat. Parisi has proven himself to have the right temperament for the job. His previous graphic novels include a book on John Coltrane and one on Billie Holiday. As he puts it, his graphic novels all follow a common thread that includes “jazz, art, painting and process, rhythm, rigor, improvisation, and spontaneity.” Well, you can find all of that with Basquiat, an artist that jumped feet first into his art at an early age and never looked back, as if guided mostly by instinct and sheer will. His was an original and singular vision.

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Within this biography, the reader will come away with a good sense of the trajectory of Basquiat’s art career, from his early forays into street art to his mugging for the camera on cable access to his navigating the highest levels of the New York art world. Parisi does a great service to Basquiat by generously quoting directly from him and from the people who knew him best. Much of this book is made up of quotes, transcriptions from letters, and just the right amount of carefully composed dramatization. The bold use of color in this graphic novel is supposed to evoke the same bold use of color that Basquiat used in his own paintings. Alas, we somehow don’t explore any of Basquiat’s actual paintings! Diego Cortez, the curator of the famous Times Square Show that helped to launch Basquiat is quoted: “Jean had something different. He reminded me of Cy Twombly and Franz Kline. He didn’t even know who Kline and Twombly were, but he had instinct, charm, and energy on his side.” There is plenty of instinct, charm, and energy on display in this book. And you can take it any way you like: for beginners, it’s a wonderful first step; for those familiar with Basquiat, it’s a great New York fable.

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel is a 128-page hardcover, in full color, published by Laurence King Publishing, English translation edition (May 14, 2019).

 

 

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A Call to Put an End to Inhumane Conditions at the Border

Children observe the movements of the US Border Patrol agents from the Mexican side where the border meets the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday, November. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The Nation, a magazine known as America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture, has published a rare open letter cosigned by over 40 prominent authors, who are also immigrants and/or refugees, decrying the abhorrent and inhumane conditions reported in detention centers at the border.

A Call to Put an End to Inhumane Conditions at the Border

An open letter by Ariel Dorfman, Gabriel Byrne, Gary Shteyngart, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Wayétu Moore, Ilya Kaminsky, Reza Aslan, and more.

The signers—which include Gabriel Byrne, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Gary Shteyngart, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Wayétu Moore, Ilya Kaminsky, Ariel Dorfman, Colum McCann, Reza Aslan, and countless more—implore public officials “to take immediate steps to rectify the atrocious conditions for asylum seekers being detained today.” They urge Congress to use its appropriation power to pursue four concrete actions to mitigate the crisis.

Open Letter: A Call to Address Inhumane Conditions at the Border

Dozens of immigrant/refugee authors—novelists, narrators, poets, memoirists, Pulitzer Prize winners, Oprah’s Book Club selections, and bestsellers from five continents—urge Congress to address the atrocities happening on America’s southern border.

 

Dear Members of the United States Congress:

 

We, like many of our fellow Americans, are appalled by the inhumane conditions in detention centers for asylum seekers at our southern border. The reports of death, abuse, overcrowding, untreated illness, malnutrition, and lack of basic hygiene are abhorrent, especially since many of those affected are children.

 

We appeal to you as published authors who are also immigrants and/or refugees. Many of us came to the U.S. as children and shudder to think how this country would treat us now. As such, we urge you to take immediate steps to rectify the atrocious conditions for asylum seekers being detained today.

 

The past three years have compelled millions of Americans, and many of our civic institutions, to reaffirm that this country remains the land of immigrants. People across the U.S. stood up to protest the White House’s refugee bans; faith leaders opened their communities to aid asylum seekers; local, municipal and state governments and the judicial branch exercised their powers to uphold and defend immigrant rights. Congress must act as well.

 

Many of you have defended immigrants and refugees with righteous eloquence, invoking our nation’s past and cherished symbols such as the Statue of Liberty. As writers, we appreciate the sublime power of words. But as immigrants, we also remember the brutal reality: when you’re walking in a strange land, herded by strange men who speak in strange tongues, when you’re stripped of basic human needs, when you’re hungry, cold and helpless, words aren’t enough.

 

We urge Congress to use its appropriation power to direct the following actions:

 

(1) Immediately direct all resources necessary to shelter migrants with decency and dignity by providing them access to medical care, nutrition and hygiene;

 

(2) Reverse the massive backlogs in the immigration justice system by allocating resources for judges to hear cases efficiently, with due process, as well as strengthening legal orientation to ensure every person understands every step of their proceedings;

 

(3) Forbid tax dollars from being spent on forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or other unsafe third countries where they face danger;

 

(4) Reestablish safe and legal channels for migrants by tying immigration enforcement spending to the reopening of legal channels for migrants fleeing persecution and reversing the White House’s evisceration of the refugee resettlement program.

 

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans are horrified by the suffering unfolding in the camps. We call on you to leverage that public support to meet our moral obligations by ensuring those held by our own government receive elementary necessities like sanitation supplies and access to medical and legal personnel.

 

We remember well the experience of utter paralysis that’s part of nearly every immigrant’s journey: of standing before the US immigration system, praying to not be found wanting.

 

Today, those enduring unspeakable conditions at our border are praying, just as we once prayed, when it was our turn. They may be praying to a different god, or different gods or different entities, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is that the power to address their prayers lies with you, the United States Congress.

 

Please, do not let them go unheeded.

 

Respectfully yours,

 

Alex Abramovich, author, writer, and professor, Columbia University School of the Arts
Mohammed AL Samawi, author and interfaith activist
Reza Aslan, author, commentator, professor, and producer
Ishmael Beah, author and human rights advocate
Livia Blackburne, author
Gabriel Byrne, actor, director, producer, and cultural ambassador
Lan Cao, author and professor, Chapman University
René Colato Laínez, children’s book author and bilingual educator
Ariel Dorfman, author, playwright, essayist, and professor, Duke University
Boris Fishman, author, journalist, and professor, Princeton University
Neil Gaiman, author, screenwriter, director, producer, and activist
Lev Golinkin, author and journalist
Reyna Grande, author and inspirational speaker
Roy Guzmán, poet
Roya Hakakian, author, poet, and journalist
Khaled Hosseini, author, physician and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
Abdi Nor Iftin, author and interpreter
Ilya Kaminsky, poet, critic, translator, and professor, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts
Angie Kim, author and essayist
Imbolo Mbue, author
Colum McCann, author; member, American Academy of Arts; and professor, Hunter College
Yamile Saied Méndez, author
Maaza Mengiste, author and professor, Hunter College and Princeton University
Wayétu Moore, author; memoirist; journalist; founder, One Moore Book; and lecturer, City University of New York’s John Jay College
Paul Muldoon, poet and professor, Princeton University
Azar Nafisi, author, essayist, scholar, and fellow, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Viet Thanh Nguyen, novelist and professor, University of Southern California
Bao Phi, poet, essayist, spoken word artist, and community activist
Garry Pierre-Pierre, photographer; founder and publisher, The Haitian Times; and professor, Brooklyn College
Carolina Rivera Escamilla, author, director, theater actor, and producer
Fariha Róisín , author, editor, poet, podcaster, and writer-at-large/culture editor, The Juggernaut
Nikesh Shukla, author, editor and podcaster
Gary Shteyngart, author
Jim St. Germain, author, social entrepreneur, presidential appointee, and co-founder, Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, Inc.
Chimene Suleyman, poet, writer, editor, and spoken word performer
Monique Truong, author, lyricist/librettist, and essayist
Anya Ulinich, novelist, graphic novelist, and short story writer
Ocean Vuong, poet, author, essayist and professor, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Sholeh Wolpé , poet, writer, literary translator, and inaugural author in residence, UCLA
Rafia Zakaria, author, columnist, book critic, and resident scholar, The City College of New York

Signers have endorsed this Open Letter as individuals and not on behalf of any organization. 

About THE NATION: Founded by abolitionists in 1865, The Nation has chronicled the breadth and depth of political and cultural life, from the debut of the telegraph to the rise of Twitter, serving as a critical, independent, and progressive voice in American journalism.

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Review: ME, MIKKO, and ANNIKKI, by Tiitu Takalo

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

Alright, let’s get serious about comics, and let’s take a look at Me, Mikko, and Annikki, by Tiitu Takalo, published by North Atlantic Books. This is a graphic novel in the best storytelling tradition. The gathering up of stories, whether oral or written, is a process that might miss a precise fact here or there but will shine through with a greater truth. Takalo suggests that she might have very well have missed a more nuanced hisorical fact, given that she’s not a professional historian. Her concern is reassuring and, in this case, she has nothing to worry about. She really does get it right. This is the true story of a community’s fight to secure and maintain their homes that rings true in every way.

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

Takalo is going from the general to the specific. We get to know her country, Finland; her town, Tampere; her section of town, Tammela; and, most importantly, her neighborhood block, Annikki. We get to know her and her partner, Mikko. We get to know about their lives and dreams, And, ultimately, a story emerges of the saving of Annikki, a blockyard that had been in danger for far too long of being demolished altogether.

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

The reader can’t help but empathize with Tiitu and her fight to create and maintain a community. This is everyone’s fight. Most of us on this planet but face the basic need of affordable housing. Tiitu, in her youth, stumbles upon what could be the answer for her in the long term. A block of homes are available to the right buyers, those with a certain determination and persistence. Tiitu understands that she must be willing to not only rebuild her home from scratch but also be ready to fight the local bureaucracy and keep the forces of gentrification at bay. Tiitu Takalo charms and informs with her words and pictures: part history, part memoir, and part quirky observation. Takalo offers up a most inviting narrative that just goes to show that, no matter where one lives, whether in Seattle or in Finland, we are more alike than we are different. We all need shelter. We all have an instinct to fight for our lives. And it is all too often the least fortunate going up against the powers that be. Takalo brings all of that home for the reader.

This book was quite a sought after gem when it was originally published in Finland in 2014. Now, for the first time, you can read it in English. The original Finnish text is beautifully translated and edited by Associate Professor Michael Demson and Professor Helena Halmari, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Finnish Studies.

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

Me, Mikko, and Annikki is a 264-page trade paperback, in full color, and available as of August 6, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, visit North Atlantic Books.

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Interview: Ulli Lust and ‘How I Tried to Be a Good Person’

Cartoonist auteur Ulli Lust

Ulli Lust is an artist who has created some of the most engaging work in comics. Her long form works include Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (2009), and her latest, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, both published in the US by Fantagraphics Books. These titles are wonderful testaments to the power of auto-bio graphic memoir. You can read my review of  the latest title in the previous post. In this interview, I chat with Ulli Lust about her work and about being an artist. The transcript follows and you can also see the video by clicking the link below.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Do you find that creating comics is becoming easier for you?

ULLI LUST: It’s absolutely easier. After the first one hundred pages, you get into the flow of the book.

What do you think people in the United States might not understand about the great love for comics in France?

Maybe it’s not well known that the French comics readership is the second largest comics market in the world, after the Japanese. And the third largest is American. France is not a very large country and yet it is producing so many comics, I believe it is 5,000 per year, with all those readers, I  don’t think that’s common knowledge. The French love comics.

Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

Please share about your writing process. For example, when you are working out a narrative, do you recite it in your head and then share it with friends, tell them the story and see what they think?

It actually is a very good technique to tell your story to other people because you get to know what points are interesting and which are not. The problem with my comics is that the stories are too complex to tell in a short from to a friend. I need all these pages to bring out a story’s details which sometimes are not very logical in itself. If I do tell a story to a friend, I mainly keep to the fun parts. I don’t talk about all the details that seem illogical. For example, with Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, I would talk at parties about the stories involving the Mafia but I could never really communicate the real impact of the whole trip because these stories aren’t simply funny.

Would you share about your drawing and comics production process. For example, how do you color your work?

The colors I do only on the computer. I care about the linework. It needs to be strong and fixed. The color is only a second layer. I want it to just be flat. The color doesn’t need to have character. So, the computer coloring is perfect.

It’s an aesthetic choice. You don’t want to mess with shading and other effects. You want the color to serve a secondary function.

I like the old-fashioned printing of the early 20th century. The lithographs were very flat. The colors were very separated. The linework is very important but the shading effects are not important. I don’t think that is necessary for comics, at least not for the comics that I create. I really like the more raw drawings.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person

What can you tell us about the love triangle between the characters Ulli, Georg and Kim? What can you tell us about this problematic relationship?

I told this story about a problematic relationship because the problematic stories are always more interesting. I’m in a very happy 20-year relationship with this man (points over to her partner, the artist Kai Peiffer) and we don’t have any problematic stories to tell! I told the story of the triangle with Georg and Kim because I find it important to say that you don’t have to stick to a monogamous partnership. That has its own set of problems. Actually, I was surprised at how well that triangle relationship worked for a time and I wanted to show that. That it didn’t end well in the end is a pity. Maybe it makes for a richer story and brings in other social aspects. It was important to talk about domestic violence. I didn’t experience that a second time, only that one time.

Could you give us a taste of what it’s like leading a class in comics since you teach at the University of Hanover. What are the typical expectations of students?

I teach drawing, comics and storytelling. My students are mainly graphic designers, not illustrators. I do a lot of exercises to train their senses, curiosity and attitude as creators. I think the mindset is important as an artist. Whatever you do, a comic, a painting or a website, it all requires a certain mindset.

How might you compare the process of making comics with other forms of art? For example, with painting and comics, the process begins very loose and bit by bit you are refining.

I envy painters because they can create with their raw emotions and they don’t have to think so much. There are so many details to juggle with comics. I think it’s easier to do a big painting than it is to do a work in comics.

Do you have any observations on the art and comics scene? You always need to maintain a certain cool appearance as an artist even though that has nothing to do with how good an artist you are.

I feel at home in the art scene. I don’t feel at home in a more restricted environment. So, I don’t need to play it cool.

Who are some cartoonists right now that really wow you?

I like a lot of the American women who are creating comics and storytelling: Lauren Weinstein, Leela Corman, Keiler Roberts and Liana Finck. If I were to put together an anthology, I would include them as well as other cartoonists. I discover them through the internet. And they’re really great.

Any final thoughts? Anything else you might like to add?

For sure, there are plenty of things. Going back to teaching, I would tell students that want to go into comics that it isn’t instant success. It involves so much work. My students need to create a comic during the course but I don’t push them to continue on with it after the course is done. It has to be their own decision. They really have to want it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.

Be sure to take a look at the video interview by going to the link below:

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is a 368-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books.

Be sure to visit Ulli Lust right here.

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Filed under Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Memoir, graphic novels, Interviews

Review: ‘How I Tried to Be a Good Person’ by Ulli Lust

How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust

Autobiographical work is one of the most intriguing subjects and it is no wonder that it attracts creators of all art forms. Of course, auto-bio is a natural focal point for cartoonists and one of the best at this is cartoonist auteur Ulli Lust. Her new graphic novel, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, published by Fantagraphics Books, is what one could call an unflinching look at “the dark side of gender politics” or what used to be called, plain and simple, “abusive relationships.” It’s quite a challenge to take a chunk of one’s life and turn it into something else. Not too long ago, I viewed the Off-Broadway production of Accidentally Brave, a retelling by actor and playwright Maddie Corman of her discovery of her husband’s possession of child pornography, his subsequent arrest, and its aftermath. Can such an experience add up to something to put on stage? Well, sure, it’s called a confessional monologue and those rise and fall according to the limits of the genre. In a similar fashion, that’s what going on within the pages of auto-bio comics. And a lot is going well with this auto-bio graphic novel set in 1980s Vienna.

Georg and Kim size each other up.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is 368 pages and in the tradition of more expansive graphic novels like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which is 592 pages or Eddie Campbell’s Alec and Bacchus collection, which is a total of 1750 pages. Also, keep in mind, this new book is a continuation of Lust’s 460-page punk travelogue, Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life. Why so many pages when a graphic novel is usually 100 to 200 pages long? Well, many reasons. Essentially, it is a way to truly get lost in the material. While the comics medium is inextricably linked to the art of brevity, it is just as closely linked to flights of fancy and stream of consciousness  writing. With that in mind, it is understandable how comics can rise to the level of the literary arts. Comics has the capacity to be as long or as short as the narrative demands. Comics is as much a literary art form as a visual art form. Lust’s previous graphic memoir has gone on to earn a Revelation Award at the 2011 Angouleme Festival as well as a 2013 LA Times Book Prize. Ulli Lust’s contributions to the comics medium are writ large with both of her graphic memoirs.

A happy time with Georg.

The core of the narrative to Lust’s new book is the abusive relationship that Ulli enters into with Kim, a refugee from Nigeria. Throughout the relationship, there are signs that Kim is not emotionally equipped to handle the polyamorous arrangement that Ulli has in mind. During the course of this book, the reader joins Ulli on what steadily becomes a perilous journey. Ulli Lust writes and draws her way toward making sense of events while leaving plenty of room for readers to reach their own conclusions. In some ways, the book brings to mind some of the most notable emotionally-wrought films focusing on sex, like Last Tango in Paris, from 1972, which has held up remarkably well. Lust offers up to the reader numerous pages of unbridled sexual pleasure between her and Kim. Undoubtedly, Kim and Ulli are good together in bed. At one point, Ulli even states that she wishes she could just have the good parts of her affair with Kim.

A complicated relationship.

The love triangle that Ulli finds herself in begins with a May/December relationship she started up with Georg, an older man who offered a lively bohemian spirit and intelligent albeit world-weary conversation. It is Georg who, in hindsight, wrongheadedly suggests that Ulli take another lover if that should help keep their relationship fresh. Ulli is 22 and Georg is 40. Ulli takes Georg up on his offer and, in no time, she becomes involved with Kim, a young man she meets at a club. Georg and Ulli are white. Kim is black. Race does not seem to be an issue at first but it’s not long before Kim repeatedly voices his unease with the racial dynamics at play as he sees them. He is convinced that he is only a racial treat for Ulli despite her denials. At many points along the way, Ulli has to make one choice after another, many of which only drag her further into the toxic relationship she has entered into with Kim. This is quite a compelling work that encourages the reader to perhaps have even more courage than the main character seems to have at times. It is definitely an absorbing work that will spark a great deal of discussion and lifts that discussion through the power of the comics medium’s unique synthesis of word and image.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is a 368-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books.

Editor’s Note: If you happen to be in Seattle, go see Ulli Lust at the Hot Off the Press Book Fair on July 13th  or at Goethe Pop Up Seattle on July 15h.

And, if you’re in Portland, go see Ulli Lust at Floating World Comics on July 17th.

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Review: THE JUNGLE, adapted and illustrated by Kristina Gehrmann

THE JUNGLE, adapted and illustrated by Kristina Gehrmann

You may recall The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, from high school or college and it having to do with exposing the corruption in the meatpacking industry. Well, it exposed that and much more and remains quite relevant. The Jungle finds a whole new life, and a new way to reach audiences, with the new graphic novel adaptation by Kristina Gehrmann, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

This is the story of Jurgis and his fiancée Ona and the Rudkus and Lukozaite families, ten in all. They are bright-eyed Lithuanian imigrants looking forward to a new start in the United States, beginning with their arrival at Ellis Island in 1899. The story only progresses for a few years but much transpires as everyone is in for one rude awakening after another. America may be known as a melting pot and immigrants may have been acknowledged as having helped to make America great. But at what cost to the naive, vulnerable and poor? That question is at the heart of the novel.

A relationship at the breaking point.

The original 1906 novel’s exposé of the dangerous practices in slaughterhouses led to actual reform. However, other issues the novel addresses, such as fair housing, immigration, worker’s rights and sexual assault, would not be so readily addressed at the start of the 20th century. Due to Gehrmann’s compelling adaptation and artwork, the old becomes fresh, open for rediscovery and new discussion. Gehrmann combines a cartoony style with realistic touches, along with a Manga-like energy that keeps the narrative moving at a contemporary pace. The reader immediately relates with Jurgis and Ona, a struggling young couple trying to prosper but often just barely surviving. It gradually becomes a relationship at the breaking point. In the Sinclair novel, that was drama to keep a book with a socialist message moving along but, in the graphic novel, it is given an added dimension that will appeal to today’s reader.

The original novel by Upton Sinclair remains a powerful rebuke of those in power who would prey upon the weak. Kristina Gehrmann’s graphic novel adaptation provides an essential gateway to the revered classic and is a remarkable work in its own right. Disillusioned with the novel’s impact, Upton Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.” This graphic novel helps to bring out to new readers the greater socialist themes found in Upton Sinclair’s original novel. This is a high accessible work that retains the power of the original novel while inviting a contemporary eye.

The Jungle, the new adaptation by Kristina Gehrmann, is a 384-page trade paperback, fully illustrated duotone graphic novel, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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Guest Review: ‘Alay-Oop’ by William Gropper

Alay-Oop by William Gropper

A Forgotten Comics Master: William Gropper

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Alay-Oop by William Gropper, introduction by James Sturm, published by New York Review Books, 209 pages, $24.95.

A growing interest in the origins of comic art—a subject that could direct the reader toward cave paintings but more logically offers twentieth century precursors—has prompted the return of long-forgotten names like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, and just as naturally, reprints of their work. These notables and others peaking before the Second World War favored wood-cuts over drawing on paper, and also favored an art form now  known familiarly as the “wordless novel.” It’s a fascinating memory corner, full of  biting social criticism, but so different from the famed agitational cartoons, or for that matter, mural art of the New Deal period, that any common ground is little understood. Reader, meet William Gropper.

We can say many useful things about Gropper the artist, but for our purposes, there is every reason to start with Alay-Oop. It is a simple tale of a trapeze artist so muscular that she may not be beautiful in any classic sense, but she is admirably limber, a skilled and daring performer.  She is wooed by an older and rich, plump opera singer, with throngs of fans of his own.  He takes her out (with her own acrobat-partner in tow), romances her and persuades her to marry. A few pages of her dreaming, heavily erotic in symbolism, shows us that she is willing, and her swain promises her the skies. Her rather handsome fellow acrobat is, then, left out in the cold. Soon, she has beloved children but a troubled marriage. She finds her way, she reaches her way through her acrobatic skills, to her own version of a happy ending. This is a memorable Strong Woman Story, and may (as the introduction suggests) reflect the strength of Gropper’s own real life mother character, when his father, an autodidact intellectual, let the family down.

A May-December romance. Will it last?

Now, back to the Gropper famous in his own milieu. Communists and Popular Front sympathizers,  together numbering into the high hundreds of thousands from the mid-depression to the beginning of the Cold War, would recognize Gropper’s work in a minute. His famed and ferocious “Bank Night” drawing, with the fat capitalist landlord reaching into the slums for grotesque profits, alone memorably identifies both the artist’s skills and his temperament. Personal testimony: Recovering from a day at a pre-induction  Army physical in 1966, I was driven by famed Yale University peacenik Staughton Lynd out to stay the night with a Jewish chicken farmer. There, on the kitchen wall, was a famed Gropper print, with ugly Senators, most likely Dixiecrats, at a US Congress hearing, yawning with unembarrassed tedium at the social crisis of the Depression. That was the first Gropper that I ever saw.

Alay-Oop  evidently comes from a different place if definitely not a different artist.  Gropper himself had actually attended a radical art school, with giants like Masses magazine artists like Stuart Davis and Dada /Surrealist avant-gardist Man Ray. Instructor Robert Henri personally escorted young Gropper to the 1913 Armory Show that introduced modernism to the backward US intelligentsia. The young man had the talent and connections to make it as an illustrator in a grand era for newspaper illustrators—but was bounced from a commercial staff job as too radical.

You could say that he found a place for himself, an eager audience intense if not commercially helpful, at the Liberator and New Masses, two beautiful magazines that attached themselves to “the New Russia” without quite being overwhelmed by politics. By the early years of the Depression, Gropper’s work was overwhelmingly agitational, with the Daily Worker its largest outlet. Alay-Oop may be the first suggestion that his heart belonged elsewhere, at least in part.

What inspired him to comic art? Belgian Frans Masereel was so famous in Europe that leading novelists wrote introductions to his classic woodcut works. Back in the US, Lynd Ward’s  mordant God’s Man sold wildly, far beyond the art crowd that seemed the intended audience. Hugely popular funny pages artist Milt Gross published what some regard as the actual earliest comics novel, He Done Her Wrong (1930), a satire on the  soap opera-like American adventure novel.  Alay-Oop appeared in that same year, but can only be described as a genre of its own. If it has successors, they come generations later.

James Sturm, who wrote the Introduction to the volume under review but co-founded the Center for  Cartoon Studies in Vermont, suggests we are not likely to find out. In his style, Gropper was not austere like Masereel or Ward, nor satirical like Gross. He was aiming for something else, and that may be a reason why the book got lost so quickly and easily. Gropper himself moved toward a very different and unique high point of his artistic career: the opportunities opened by the New Deal. Muralist for the Works Progress Administration, popular book illustrator, artist of a folk-lore map of the USA (with little figures representing various traditions), Gropper the erstwhile revolutionary was “discovering America” in his own terms, and good at it. He had also become, for the moment, also a considerable painter, mostly of the social themes around him, and remembered from his impoverished youth.

Much of the remainder of Gropper’s life seems to have devoted rather less to leftwing causes, and rather more to painting, but also to making a living as an architectural artist, where he achieved a certain distinction. After the Second World War, with its  artistic high points of sympathy for the Russians and anti-fascism generally,  his opportunities but perhaps his political eagerness as well, were seriously restrained. His grandson is quoted in  the introduction as saying that grandpa was not all that political—which is about what an old man would tell a kid in the 1950s. All this  nevertheless suggests that  Alay-Oop reaches out toward something elusive,  but that is hardly a criticism of any artistic creation.

The book is certainly successful in itself,  with a line of drawing, as Sturm suggests, so fresh and fluid that  it looks like “the ink is still wet” (p.10). We also hear from his grandson that Gropper, drawn to vaudeville and the circus, admired performers as more honest and more fully human than politicians. Perhaps we need no further guide. Anyone can search through Google Images and admire the breadth of Gropper’s work. It would be good to have an anthology that gives us a sense of them.

Paul Buhle, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left,  has produced a dozen comics.

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