Tag Archives: British Comics

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

The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy

The Many Not the Few

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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

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

Sean Michael Wilson: Left Comics Sui Generis

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

The Minamata Story. Art by Akiko Shimojima.

The first remarkable thing, from a comic art point of view, is that Wilson is  clearly as much at home with Manga styles as with mainstream visual narratives.  The Minimata story is fairly minimalist when it comes to dialogue, at least until the grim lessons must be drawn. The Foreword by environmental journalist Brian Small reminds us that the telling began long ago, in one of the early sagas of environmental contamination. A Japanese factory in the postwar years released large doses of mercury into a river near a fishing village, with ever more devastating effects. Documentary photographer Eugene Smith “iconized” the suffering of one family, and famed essayist/art critic John Berger devoted his talents to describing the photos.

Here, as we read the story, a Japanese boy grows up to college age, and looking for a topic,  learns that the story has been a sort of local secret. Although strange symptoms appeared in the poplation,  the fishermen could not or would not acknowledge the full effects of the discharge. The factory had brought a new vitality to the impoverished area. Our protagonist, with the help of his grandmother, learns that as death spread from the ocean to the people, panic ensued. Decades later, it remained difficult for survivors to prove their illnesses had come form the most obvious source, and the companies used the legal system to  pay little or no compensation. Toward the end, the story turns didactic, inevitably. Those who protested or supported the protests during the late 1950s and remain in the field, despite aging, are heroic for the campaigners to follow.

The Many Not The Few. Art by Robert Brown.

The Many Not The Few is the finest graphic novel history of a nation’s working class ever published, or at least I have not seen any better. It was the first book ever introduced at a session of the British Parliament, and carries the stamp of the wider work of the national union federation, a partner, so to speak, with Labour’s day schools, theater and song workshops in various parts of the UK. It begins with a quotation from my very favorite character (along with the mythical Robin Hood) in English history: John Ball, the street preacher with the message that becomes the Radical Reformation idea across Europe, centuries later. “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal.”  I could only complain, mildly, that I do not find here the famous bit of contemporary folk wisdom that became a favorite iconography of the socialist movement, thanks to an illustration by Williams Morris’s friend Walter Crane: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” That is; there were no capitalists or royals in Paradise. Never mind. The thought is felt throughout these pages.

Robert Brown, a veteran commercial illustrator with his own comics series (Killjoy, from 2011 onward) is more than equal to the task of moving from century to century, milieux to mileux. His adaptation has an old working class socialist sense to it  and includes a character important to the narrative who is a multi-racial granddaughter of Indian descent, who looks maybe 12 or 13. The fellow has been researching for years, on his own, and she is ready to hear what he has to say. She asks good, intelligent questions. Thus Wat Tyler of the 1381 Rebellion bearing the leader’s name and the message of John Ball, leads a seemingly successful rebellion against the Crown. Tyler was murdered through  conspiracy and massive suppression swiftly followed. History moves on. By page 30, we see famed historian E.P. Thompson and Karl Marx himself (no stranger to the British libraries) explaining the next step in oppression and fight back. “Enclosure,” the theft of the heretofore common lands to support and royalty and the expansive States brings misery beyond measure and deep resentments. Now we are in the sixteenth century with armed uprisings more intermittent but no less intense, leading to the famed Levellers and the Diggers of the English Civil War actually overthrowing the monarchy without themselves gaining power.

By the time we get to Pilgrim’s Progress, the granddaughter is the one who can do some of the teaching. More centuries pass and we arrive at something they both can chew on: William Blake, whose illustrations for the literary classic might be described as a proto-anarchist graphic novel. The old man is in his own with the rise of the Chartists, following the Tolpuddle arrests of peaceful marchers, a rare victory when 80,000 signatures proved too much for the authorities.  Asking only the simplest of democratic reforms, Chartists gathered three million signatures in vain. and then marched, in vast numbers. The ruling classes were put on the defensive through peaceful action, a major step.

Contradictions are not avoided in these pages. Craft workers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries too often shunned cooperation with the unskilled, through the rise and fall of unions and the often fractured organizations of the Left. Wilson plays to his own strong Scottish collective memory for a moment with the glories of the Clydeside shipbuilders of Glasgow and their 60,000 militants of 1919. Their struggle and the consolidation of the miners’ unions during the First World War set the background for the General Strike of 1926. No doubt, these events, however effectively suppressed in their own time, made possible the victory of Labour in 1946 and the creation of a modern welfare state, later diminished but never destroyed.

The coal miners’ defeat by the Thatcher government, the crushing conservatiism consolidated by the neoliberalism of Tony Blair’s Labour government, brings our story close to the present. Chapters earlier, granddaughter Arushi asks about the failures of the Left and “Granda” answers squarely: these are part of the old and long process toward liberation. Unions seem now, to many young people distant from them, no longer the building block of a better society. But as she says, “We should run our own lives, workplaces, communities. Have some real democracy.” It’s a good parting note before the pair head off for some fish and chips.

Paul Buhle

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Review: ‘All the Places in Between’

All the Places in Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: GLISTER by Andi Watson

GLISTER by Andi Watson

I’ve kept up with Andi Watson‘s work in comics over the years and maybe you have too. It’s upbeat, quirky, and decidedly dry wit. Kate Beaton comes to mind. A number of British sitcoms come to mind too. Anthony Trollope. Yeah, he comes to mind as well. But let’s get back to Andi Watson. Dark Horse Comics has collected in a deluxe edition Watson’s GLISTER series. This book revolves around Glister Butterworth who stumbles upon quite a number of strange things.

Page from Andi Watson’s GLISTER

One of the strangest things is the family estate of Chilblain Hall. Glister and her dad live there, which is all well and fine. But they also have the occasional ghost. And the estate itself is a living entity. Glister is always trying to maintain an upbeat mood. She even encourages the family home. “But,” as Watson writes in one scene, “the doubt had already seeped into the hall’s timbers like cold in an old man’s bones on a winter’s night.” Here is where Glister must really lay on the charm and persuade the old mansion that being rustic is cool!

As a cartoonist, I greatly admire Watson’s direct line. I would not call it “deceptively simple” as is too often said of clean work. It has more to do with a clear purpose. And it’s very important to have a sense of clarity as you have a main character traipsing through a variety of rather arcane terrain. And I wouldn’t necessarily call this book aimed at only girls. Boys can, and need, to be sensitive. They don’t have to say they’re channeling their feminine side if they’re not ready to. Anyway, most boys know that all rough and tumble can get boring. At the end of the day, we are talking here about a certain sensibility. If you like droll humor, you’ll like this book. Come to think of it, doesn’t Harry Potter have a good dose of dry wit?

GLISTER collects four stories which include the arrival of a teapot haunted by a demanding ghost, a crop of new relatives blooming on the family tree, a stubborn house that walks off its land in a huff, and a trip to Faerieland to find Glister’s missing mother. Whimsical, indeed! A contrarian friend of mine egged me on the other day as to why it is that kids read so many comics. It can’t be good for them, right? With GLISTER fresh on my mind, I pointed out that kids get to enjoy a complex plot, playful use of language, and exercise their imagination. The grounding that will stand them in good stead when they go on to read the biting social satire of Anthony Trollope!

GLISTER is a 304-page trade with color tints. This whimsical collection will appeal to all ages, especially ages 8 to 12. It is available as of July 5. For more details, visit Dark Horse Comics right here.

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Review: SCOTLAND YARDIE by Bobby Joseph and Joseph Samuels

SCOTLAND YARDIE by Bobby Joseph and Joseph Samuels

SCOTLAND YARDIE by Bobby Joseph and Joseph Samuels

As we here in the States, along with the rest of the world, continue to deal with the orange menace, it’s good to gain strength from our friends across the pond. One thing that the creators of the graphic novel, SCOTLAND YARDIE, want you to know is that things are bad all over. Bobby Joseph and Joseph Samuels provide some dark humor for these hard times. This is a provocative work, set in south London, with a smart and gritty vibe.

Darkness fell...

Darkness fell…

No doubt, Bobby Joseph (script) and Joseph Samuels (art) make no bones about their dismay with the current (and ongoing) state of affairs. With such clownish characters in the media, and in government (gasp), stoking the fires of hatred, racism, and xenophobia with such intensity as we have not seen before in recent memory, any form of satire can be cathartic. In this case, we have a plot involving the Brixton Metropolitan Police in need of some diversity. Enter Scotland Yardie, a ganja smoking, no-nonsense “bad bwoy” cop who breaks all the rules to enforce his own harsh sense of justice. This is, by turns, a very silly comic (think Monty Python, for starters) and, ultimately, an eye-opening and worthwhile read.

Is that Brexit heartthrob Boris Johnson?

Is that Brexit heartthrob Boris Johnson?

This comic’s writer, Bobby Joseph, is considered to be the voice of urban UK comic books. He is credited as the creator of the cult comic classics Skank Magazine and Black Eye. He has written satirical pieces for Vice.com, Loaded Magazine, The Voice newspaper, BBC1’s Lenny in Pieces and Radio 4. He is credited on the BBC website as instrumental in featuring some of the “first comics by black creators featuring black characters.”

Some light emerges...

Some light emerges…

This comic’s artist, Joseph Samuels, is credited as one of the most popular comic artists to grace the pages of Skank Magazine and Black Eye. He is the co-creator of the popular Afro Kid comic strip on Vice.com.

SCOTLAND YARDIE is a 100-page, full color, graphic novel, published by Knockabout. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Knockabout right here.

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Review: DAYS by Simon Moreton

Days-Simon-Moreton-comics

Simon Moreton, works in the tradition of John Porcellino, who originated the intimate, spare, and direct style of memoir comics. It is John P. who continues to fascinate and inspire readers with his ongoing “King-Cat Comics and Stories” mini-comics. It is undeniable that he founded these deceptively simple auto-bio comics, that be began self-publishing in 1989. Where does this place relative newcomer Moreton, working in such close proximity to Porcellino? Sincerity counts for a lot and Moreton comes across as quite sincere. Moreton is a Research Fellow at the University of the West of England (UWE), working on the REACT Hub. As he states, he is “interested in the everyday politics of creative practice, activism and representations of mental illness in sequential art.”

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Review: iHero #1

iHero-OR-Comics

“iHero” is a comic book that mixes satire and whimsical use of superhero tropes to provide some good laughs in its debut issue. I think what I like most about this work is that it’s not afraid to just goof around. There is plenty of silly humor run amok. There is more going on too but it’s the offbeat humor that I’m favoring the most.

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The Power of Comics: A Review of VINCENT by Barbara Stok

Vincent-Barbara-Stok

VINCENT is an inviting look at Vincent Van Gogh, the epitome of the tortured artist. In this new graphic novel by Dutch illustrator Barbara Stok, we have a new look at this icon. Published by SelfMadeHero, as part of their exciting new Art Masters series, we find in these 144 pages another way to appreciate Van Gogh’s life and art and even get some clarity regarding the myth surrounding Van Gogh. The most infamous moment during his life is, of course, the cutting off of part of his ear. Popular belief has it as his strange way of proving his love for a local woman. However, we find here that is not the case.

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Review: THE JAMES BOND OMNIBUS, published by Titan Books

Titan-Books-James-Bond-Omnibus-comic-strips

James Bond came very close to only remaining a character in a series of novels by Ian Fleming. It was once hard to imagine James Bond in comics let alone as leading a magnificent movie franchise and recognized as a pop culture icon. Nice how things have a way of working out.

James-Bond-Omnibus-Titan-Books

You will find the Bond lifestyle in full gear in this comic strip, which began in 1958, Volume Five, the most recent, collects work by writer Jim Lawrence and artist Yaroslav Horak, which ran from 1966 to 1984. Published by Titan Books, this is a series of deluxe edition books. It is full of action, exotic locales, intrigue, villains, and sexy women.

The artwork and the dialogue are what you’d expect from an action comic strip. The Bond character is a hunk of a guy. He’s not necessarily reflecting the Bond on the big screen. Whoever the Bond is on the big screen is a tough act to follow. But that’s where the comic strip can claim some cred. It used to be the only Bond there was outside the novels.

Titan Books has collected the whole run of the James Bond comic strip into collectible volumes. Volume Five is 272 pages, priced at $19.95 US, and includes nine adventures: Till Death Do Us Part, The Torch-Time Affair, Hot-Shot, Nightbird, Ape of Diamonds, When The Wizard Awakes, Sea Dragon, Death Wing, and The Xanadu Connection.

Visit Titan Books for more details here.

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