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Studies in Comics: Education and Comics

Studies in Comics

Studies in Comics, Vol 11, No 1. Intellect Books. 2021. Bristol, UK. 234pp.

The case for comics having a place beyond the local newsstand or comics shop has grown to the point where it is now no surprise to hear about the latest comics course being taught at a university. We’re now, more than ever, accepting of comics in its many forms and purposes, not the least of which is its role in education. Comics and Education is the theme of the latest issue of the scholarly journal, Studies in Comics. And there is much to cover as the journal lists itself: teaching and learning with published comics; case studies of education comics/comics as education; teaching and learning by creating comics; comics, literacy and emotional development; and public information comics. While such a listing may sound rather dry, there is much life to be found in the comics medium–and that’s the whole point. Comics can breathe a whole new life into a myriad of subjects.

True Comics, 1941

But warming up to comics as an educational tool hasn’t been without its fits and starts as noted in the first article by Christopher Murray and Golnar Nabizadeh. Consider this early entry into educational comics: True Comics, from 1941, launched by The Parents’ Institute, publisher of the influential Parent’s Magazine. As to distance itself from the popular superhero, crime and adventure comics of the day, the cover boldly states: “Truth is stranger and a thousand times for thrilling than fiction!” That is a quote from the introduction by founder and publisher George J. Hecht, responding to a general misunderstanding of comics. For example, Sterling North, the Literary Editor of the Chicago Daily News, had recently attacked the comics industry on the basis that comics was, in his words, a “national disgrace” and a “poisonous mushroom growth.” And when comics did receive support from leading academics, as the authors of this article point out, it could be a mix of condescension and genuine interest:

“While the overall message is that comics are being utilized in many educational contexts, the use of the terms ‘invaded’ and ‘reduced’, and the suggestion that not even Sunday Schools are exempt, puts comics in a negative light. However, Zorbaugh and Gruenberg, along with Paul A. Witty (Professor of Education at Northwestern University), were among a handful of academics and educators exploring the psychological and educational aspects of the comics in the 1940s. In general, they presented the view that comics, far from being harmful, were a powerful way to engage children and especially reluctant readers.”

A selection of educational and information comics produced by Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS)/University of Dundee.

In fact, comics have proven many times over to be a powerful tool to process information. Anyone entering the world of comics, as a reader or as a creative, is setting foot upon an incredibly exciting journey. Another article among the eight full-length features here is one focusing on comics about healthcare and science, featuring Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS), by Damon Herd, Divya Jindal-Snape, Christopher Murray, and Megan Sinclair and it is really at the heart of what this journal is all about. For example, here is an excerpt on a comic about mental health and dealing with hate crimes that involved role-playing in order to unearth some solutions:

“The stories were fictional but they were drawn from their own real-life experiences of hate crime. This fictional aspect gave them space to ‘play the character’, creating a safe space to the discuss difficult subject matter (Jindal-Snape et al. 2011) by inhabiting the world of ‘the image of reality and the reality of the image’ (Boal 1995: 43). This was an educational and emotional experience for the rest of the team. For example, the Advocators insisted that the abusive language that had been directed against them was used in the comic. As they explained, ‘if we don’t show that it is a hate crime, then people reading might not know that it is’. Under the guidance of Advocating Together, the finished comic presented six hard-hitting stories that showcased the stark reality of the hateful (and criminal) experiences they suffer on a regular basis.”

Fibromyalgia and Us

This is a perfect example, of so many, that demonstrates the power of comics and the unexpected results that are possible both at the time of delivery and in the process of creating the work. In the case of a team-oriented event, this is known as a “comics jam” and, as this article explains, it is through this hands-on process that participants get to experience the comics medium as part of a creative team. It is an event that requires no prior art background and you can always partner with an artist as the project develops. The following is an excerpt representative of all the insights and goodwill derived from these team-oriented comics that led to a whole collection of healthcare and science comics, like Fibromyalgia and Us, from the University of Dundee:

Fibromyalgia and Us (2017) was a project initiated by Divya Jindal-Snape (School of Education and Social Work), who has fibromyalgia and wanted to use the comics medium to inform the healthcare professionals and the public about this less-known and often-misunderstood ‘invisible’ condition that is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. The comic opens with an auto- biographical story by Jindal-Snape, with contributions by her family, and artwork by Ashling Larkin. This story highlights the impact of fibromyalgia on the individual as well as their family and friends. Her colleague Lynn Kelly also wrote a story about her own experiences and benefits of gentle exercise, with artwork provided by Letty Wilson; and there were stories by Judith Langlands-Scott, who detailed the trauma of being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia in a story with artwork by Zuzanna Dominiak. Judith’s son, Andrew Keiller, wrote a story that was drawn by Elliot Balson. This was an important addition as the general perception is that only women, or more commonly older women, have fibromyalgia. His story detailed his struggle with fibromyalgia while at school, where teach- ers and classmates were rarely understanding or sympathetic. Damon Herd and Letty Wilson drew stories based on the experiences of a doctor and a physiotherapist. This comic was launched at an event that received significant attention from both local, national and international press, and a digital version of the comic was subsequently downloaded over 13,000 times.”

A Hero’s Journey through Words and Pictures

Another process-oriented article comes from Zak Waipara, and his comics essay about setting up a new comics and animation curriculum at Auckland University of Technology.  Comics and creativity go hand in hand and so why not use comics in order to better understand how to teach about the comics medium! In the above excerpt, Waipara quotes from Christopher Vgoler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “Magic is a good way to describe the synthesis between words and pictures.” Indeed, I believe he’s onto something!

One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale

Comics need not be mistrusted or misunderstood. We’ve come such a long way from the clumsy efforts to slap a portrait of Winston Churchill on the cover of a comic book and lecture to kids that truth is far better than fiction! We are more “sophisticated” general readers: less patient; more prone to criticize; less accepting of authority. The end result should be a good thing: We are better positioned today to question the content we digest. That brings us to the work of cartoonist Nathan Hale and the article about his work by Brianna Anderson. The book in question is generally intended for middle graders and Anderson explores the book’s benefit to this group. Anderson hits upon the author’s use of inserting himself into the work, a fairly common practice in comics, particularly indie comics; and how the author presents information, whether innovative, irreverent, or whatever it might be. Anderson concludes that the author has done a great job of opening up the subject for discussion but does take issue with some choices:

“However, the paratext also reinforces racist and sexist paradigms by displacing black and female voices to the comic’s supplemental endpapers, underwriting the comic’s well-intentioned attempts to educate readers about important voices excluded from white-centric narratives. Thus, while One Dead Spy demonstrates how historical fiction comics can provoke much-needed discussions about the inherent biases and erasures of dominant historical discourses, it also reveals the dangers of relegating opportunities for children to learn about marginalized perspectives in history to the literal margins.”

The difference between how True Comics was judged in 1941 and the way that One Dead Spy is judged in 2021 is as stark as night and day. All in all, that has to be a strong indication of progress being made. A cartoonist like Nathan Hale and an academic like Brianna Anderson can sit down and compare notes. One discussion leads to another. What’s important, as Anderson commends Hale for doing, is to question authority. Anderson claims that Hale is “relegating” already marginalized voices. However, that is a debatable point, just to be fair. The story of Crispus Attucks is certainly worthy of a book all its own. So, for Hale to include a small story about Attucks in a book about American spy Nathan Hale, is reasonable. For a book with a more decided focus on marginalized perspectives, Anderson may want to check out Hale’s book on the Haitian Revolution. That said, this is not to negate but to celebrate Anderson’s analysis. We now live in a time with no simple cookie-cutter answers but, instead, we welcome robust discussion.

Studies in Comics is an essential resource in the ongoing discussion of the comics medium. You will find a treasure trove of useful and insightful content from some of the best minds on the subject of comics as art and as a communication tool. Studies in Comics is published by Intellect Books. Visit them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Review: ‘Chartwell Manor’ by Glenn Head

Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head

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

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor

Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.

Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor

To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.

Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.

He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.

Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.

They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.

RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.

But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book,  contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.

Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,

The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely  semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.

Paul Buhle

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Review: ‘A Fire Story: Updated and Expanded Edition’

A Fire Story by Brian Fies

A Fire Story (Updated and Expanded Edition). Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 186pp, $18.99

As a creative, I’m one of these hybrids, a writer-artist. Many of my longtime followers already know that, right? Sometimes, I will receive a wonderful nugget of wisdom that can make life easier when working with issues of combining words and pictures. One outstanding example was from a conversation I had with cartoonist Brian Fies. He told me that he sort of learned the hard way that often the road to completing a graphic novel can be simplified considerably. He said that he found that the creation of elaborate drawings was not helping him. Often, the best route is to cut out the artfully rendered art and go with simple drawings. That interview was in March of 2019 in connection with the release of his book, A Fire Story. It is a fascinating book. You can read my review of it here and you can read my interview with Brian here. This is the story of the horrific 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Back then, Brian promptly created a quick on-the-spot work of comics reportage that went on to become a webcomic, and then an Emmy Award-winning work of animation–and ultimately, a graphic novel. Now, with two years of perspective, we have the definitive edition of that book.

Some perspective sure can help.

Much can change, and much can drag on, after two years passing. But some perspective sure can help all the same. Life moves on. Life goes on. That is the sort of spirit evoked in this expanded edition that adds a nice coda: a look two years after the events in the original graphic novel.

Upon reflection, more details fall into place.

It’s interesting to see what Brian chose to include to round things out. It’s a neatly balanced addition of items: a new profile; a few more observations; and, yes, even a few deftly placed artistic touches. All in all, this is the definitive edition to a book that will stand the test of time as an excellent example of crisp and concise visual storytelling. Over the years, Comics Grinder has become an undisputed repository for an assortment of issues related to comics. We do venture off to other subjects but I’m glad I’ve stuck around and have been able to make my contribution to documenting the progress of the comics medium. And I believe there is so much more to be said and to be explored, specifically the power of comics to communicate, to process information, and to inform.

Just the right details complete the story.

Enough time has passed since the original release of A Fire Story that it has allowed Brian Fies time for wounds to heal and memories to be processed. Of course, certain things can trigger a person and it can feel like it all just happened moments ago. But the reality is that progress has been made. Enough progress to make it easier to contemplate the centuries old Japanese tradition of kintsugi: the art of celebrating something broken by applying gold to rejoin it so as to call attention to all the broken pieces that have somehow found a way to become whole again.

If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.

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Review: GREENIE JOSEPHENIE by Christopher Sperandio

Greenie Josephenie by Christopher Sperandio

Greenie Josephenie. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 94pp, $21.95

Comics, just like any other media, are often recontextualized and there’s no stopping it, maybe especially for misbegotten comics, in the public domain, that have fallen into a vortex of utter obscurity. There are a lot of these misfits and misfires just gathering dust. But one’s man trash can be another man’s treasure, as the ole saying goes. And so it is in this case. Artist Christopher Sperandio saw an opportunity to create new and fun narratives from old washed-up comics trash–and the trashier, the better! Who knew what art might someday be created from such mediocre and exploitative work like women-in-prison comics! Inserting new text into old comics is not exactly new. You see it all the time on social media. But Sperandio is in it for an extended and robust thematic exploration. His latest book is out this month and it follows the adventures of a renegade activist-superhero, Greenie Josephinie, a continuation of the Pinko Joe saga. It also invites the reader to follow along upon a most offbeat path dotted with landmines of subversive humor.

Recontextualizing like mad!

It’s the droll humor of Christopher Sperandio that seems to guide readers as they navigate through the murky world of the realpolitik. Sorry, sonny, this ain’t no place for children or cry babies! Morality has gone out the window and corporate profits are king! It’s a clever concept of injecting new and funny text into tired old comics and I give Sperandio a lot of credit for seeing it through. I think a process like this can be taken for granted after the reader becomes familiar with it. I think what keeps it interesting is all the neatly inserted provocation. You are almost dared to keep reading. You don’t read this like a typical comic book but more as you would view a series of work in a gallery. This is not a comic book. This is culture jamming. You see that the joke is only part of the work. The act itself, the successful reworking of the “found art,” taking it from its original genre and transforming it into protest art is the aim. If the jokes are really all that funny, that is beside the point–and yet, the humor remains part of the glue that holds it all together. Funny how art can get so complicated!

The droll humor of Christopher Sperandio

In a world where capitalism has run amok, what else can one do but turn to superhero types who are true blue real patriots? Yeah, and so a hyper-convoluted story ensues. It is far more cerebral while, at the same time, far more silly than many genre comics out there. Although, mainstream comics publishers today can often prove to be quite artful and do a good job of keeping at bay any easy satirizing of their product.

You can just run with it.

Sperandio goes to the trouble of attempting to show respect for the creators of the public domain comics he has used as found art fodder by including their names. That’s a totally reasonable and honorable gesture. Real human beings did create the artwork in these shaggy dog comics of yesteryear. But I wonder how many of these creators who are still around are losing any sleep over the fate of these particular creations. Honestly, this is C-level journeyman work, just work-for-hire grunt work, not any better nor worse than typical clip art. Honest work to be sure but no one is trying to win any prestigious award from it.

A learning opportunity.

Found pop art, and the noble work of recontextualizing it, brings to mind the Pop Art masters, specifically Roy Lichtenstein, who carved out a very significant place for himself with his use of comic book motifs. What Lichtenstein did was hardly new and dates as far back as the first artist who chose to incorporate other art into his own. One prominent figure, and my favorite, perhaps the first to really succeed with it was Edouard Manet. A more recent example is Shepard Fairey. Both Lichtenstein and Fairey have wrongheadedly been slammed by critics for appropriating the work of others. Manet not so much, or not at all, since Manet is no longer as commonly known; most people don’t care, nor would it make any sense for them to care. The bottom line is that reworking art into another work of art is sound and legitimate. It all comes down to what the results are and knowing how to avoid the trap of “garbage in; garbage out,” which is certainly not the case with Sperandio.

The little handy handbook to making comics.

I applaud Sperandio’s efforts and sincerely would love to chat art with him over a coffee or beer. Christopher Sperandio is doing essential work out on the front lines of higher education. Be sure to check out Comics Making, also published by Argle Bargle, a little book that covers quite a lot including a short history of comics and notes on production. Also in the book, Sperandio provides a guided tour to all the fascinating activity related to his CATS program at Rice University. I wish that had been around when I was working on my own college paper comic strip. The fact is that “comics making” is essentially a solitary process–but the right level of support can prove to be invaluable. Sperandio is a very interesting artist who has pushed himself throughout his career resulting in such creative achievements as Cargo Space, his artist residency project on a bus that he started in 2012. Other notable recent projects include working with fellow Rice professor Brian Huberman to see through the completion of a documentary on cartoonist Jaxon, which premiered at the 2020 Angoulême comics festival.

It’s all in how you handle your found art!

So, Speranio’s process is one worth perpetuating: mining for gold, or diamonds, for as long as it makes sense to do so. Depending upon the right chemistry between “found image” and wry joke, all sorts of magic is possible. Sometimes the results may fall flat. But, ah, sometimes you end up with a real gem. It’s all in how you handle your found art!

Find GREENIE JOSEPHENIE and other fine books at Argle Bargle Books!

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Review: THE TANKIES by Garth Ennis

Corporal Stiles, a rough and rowdy fella who is nobody’s fool.

The Tankies. writer: Garth Ennis. artist: Carlos Ezquerra. Dead Reckoning. 2021. 248pp. $24.95

All good writing provides a hook, a way into a story. War stories might seem challenging for unfamiliar readers since they might seem remote–but not if you have characters as alive as the action. Garth Ennis knows this well and it has resulted in numerous thrilling and engaging war stories. In the case of The Tankies, Ennis opens with a panorama of activity evoking the intensity and chaos during the Normandy invasion. After a good amount of blood spill, a leading figure emerges: Corporal Stiles. He’s a rough and rowdy fella who is nobody’s fool. Of course, some folks need convincing, like gunner Robinson who has Stiles pegged for a Geordie from New Castle. And what’s a “Geordie” supposed to be? Robinson is from the East End of London, a Cockney. And, as far as he’s concerned, Stiles is a lowly Geordie from the Tyneside area of North East England. Ah, the petty conflict amid the vast hell of conflict! And there you’ve got the bits and pieces that add up to a good hook!

Enter Corporal Stiles!

This collection of war stories features Stiles, who assumes the rank of sergeant throughout the rest of the book. And, of course, it’s the Tankies (nickname for the Royal Tank Regiment) that remain constant too. In the course of this series, Stiles leads his men from the battle for Normandy to the Nazi heartland; from the end of World War II to the killing fields of Korea. Did you ever read Sgt. Rock comics? Sgt. Rock was a DC Comics staple, created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. I think there’s a bit of that vibe here. Of course, Ennis is well steeped in all sorts of military comics from across the pond, namely, Battle Picture Weekly and War Picture Library. This has led to many fine war comics stories from Ennis with The Tankies as a prime example.

THE TANKIES!

These stories will also appeal to you if you enjoy learning about world history. Ah, yes, through the marvel that is comics, you will quickly pick up numerous nuggets of insight all thanks to the tireless research done by Ennis. It is through the comics medium that you can absorb facts by the fistful. The Tankies provides the reader will a gripping narrative while all the time giving the reader a remarkable sense of time and place. The Brits, or “Tommy,” as the Germans mockingly called them, were at a major disadvantage with relatively inferior tanks compared to the sleek and virtually impenetrable Nazi counterparts. Within these pages, the reader will come to fully appreciate what an act of courage it was to climb into a relatively subpar Sherman or Churchill tank to do battle with such Nazi dragons as the Panther and the Tiger. It will send shivers down the spine. And it will have the reader rooting for Stiles and his men.

Boys will be boys.

A good war story, just like a good Western, is dependent upon a sense of authenticity and flesh and blood characters you can believe in. Without a doubt, Ennis delivers on both counts. Couple this stirring narrative with the exquisite art by Carlos Ezquerra (1947–2018) and you have an all-out winning combination of amazing storytelling. War comics, in general, are beloved by fans not only for their grit but just as equally for their humanity. Ezquerra literally puts a face to the action. If you are new to the genre or a seasoned aficionado, you find there is much to love in this collection. You will gain a better sense for World War II and the Korean War as well as the old adage that “war is hell.” So, take the journey with Stiles and his honorable men.

War comics at their best.

Be sure to visit Dead Reckoning, publisher of The Tankies as well as other Garth Ennis titles: The Stringbags and The Night Witches. All three of these titles add up to an outstanding showcase of war comics by Garth Ennis. As any comics and pop culture fan already knows, Garth Ennis is known for such titles as Preacher and The Boys. Well, it will delight fans of these titles to dig deeper, if they haven’t gotten the chance already, and learn the sort of history that you probably were not exposed to in high school and maybe not even in college. As for The Night Witches, this is an in-depth exploration of World War II from the Russian perspective and the view from the female Russian aviator at that! Also featuring bi-planes is the gripping story of The Stingbags. You will find out how antique planes do battle in a new generation’s war. This is war comics at its best.

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Review: THE STRINGER by Ted Rall and Pablo Callejo

War journalism ain’t what it used to be.

The Stringer. written by Ted Rall. art by Pablo Callejo. NBM Plublishing. 2021. 152 pp, $24.99

Ted Rall has certainly done his homework, and then some, with his latest graphic novel, The Stringer, published by NBM: the story of a gritty hard-working newsman who turns to the dark side. Many general observers recognize the name of Ted Rall and recall him for his audacious muckraking political cartoons. What you may not be familiar with is Rall’s own experience in the field as an  independent war correspondent. Check out these titles, also published by NBM: To Afghanistan and Back, from 2003, and Silk Road to Ruin, from 2014. Rall has twice won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So, when someone with the stature of Rall writes a satirical graphic novel, it’s going to be a page-turner.

D-Day: remembering honest war reporting on the front lines.

This is not the first time that Rall has teamed up with Pablo Callejo doing the artwork. Check out the bohemian memoir, The Year of Loving Dangerously, from 2009. Between Rall’s rollicking narrative and Pablo Callejo’s spare and measured style, the reader gets an immersive and truly engaging story. Rall is an idealist at heart with a passionate drive to seek the truth. This graphic novel, at its core, has an overwhelming nihilistic force at play. Rall navigates the narrative through a variety of high and low points. Like Walter White, in Breaking Bad, this is a character study about an essentially good man, in the family business of revering the Truth, only to find himself later in life striking a devil’s bargain that becomes more complicated as he must continue to feed the beast.

At the twilight of when we could still believe.

This graphic novel gets its title from what has been known in journalism as “stringers,” the cub reporters sent out into the field to gather up facts and quotes that they phone back to reporters in the newsroom to turn into final stories. The reader follows young Mark Scribner as a boy reporter dutifully being a stringer. As the narrative unfolds, Scribner must face the fact he’s been sort of spinning his wheels, not much more than a glorified stringer for decades. What he does next lifts us off into a full-bodied story: full of intrigue, like the murky zone between Ukraine and Moldova; and finely-etched drama, focusing on Scribner’s personal journey.

“More people follow Twitter than read The New York Times and every other newspaper combined.”

Ted Rall has always had a zealous approach, compelled to speak truth to power. The story of newsman Mark Scribner is a metaphor for what has happened to media in the last forty some years. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to all of us: distracted, disrupted, disconnected. Print media has been on the decline for generations, much longer than we may care to admit. The internet and social media gobble up our time; slice and dice our information. The role of the professional gumshoe reporter has been virtually squeezed out of existence. So, when we now demand those voices “speaking truth to power,” we often simply resort to gorging on opinions we feel most comfortable with, often originating from corporations more than happy to keep us stoned on infotainment.

All bets are off.

Alright then, someone like Mark Scribner can’t afford to be the good guy anymore. Scribner is a highly-trained media animal. If he can no longer play by the rules, then he knows of ways to manipulate and exploit news and world events–and become wealthy and famous in the bargain. It all adds up to a delicious read. This is a story fueled by zeal and tempered by two seasoned storytellers. Ted Rall’s writing and Pablo Callejo’s art brilliantly provide the reader with a brash and authentic political thriller. Highly recommended. Seek this out.

For more details, visit NBM right here.

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Review: TEDDY by Laurence Luckinbill and Eryck Tait

TEDDY

Teddy. written by Laurence Luckinbill.  illustrated by Eryck Tait. Dead Reckoning. 176 pp. 2021. $24.95

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is ranked among the top U.S. presidents. Reasons for this include decisiveness, activism, and leadership. For even a casual observer, many people will easily recognize the hearty Teddy cheerful command: “Bully!” For me, as a precocious kid interested in history and politics, I instantly gravitated to the Roosevelts, and the two iconic presidents, FDR and TR. Only a handful presidents become so ingrained in the public mind to be known by their initials! FDR, even today, cannot be ignored, given his fundamental influence in steering the country through the Great Depression; introducing such landmark programs as Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission; and, of course, being a world leader in determining the outcome of World War II. FDR aimed to follow his cousin TR’s lead. Theodore Roosevelt did not preside over a war or an economic collapse but, nonetheless, TR was a most consequential president. TR’s presidency (1901-1909) was about grand progressive accomplishments like creating the Food and Drug Administration and the National Forest and Park Service. With that said, with Presidents Day upon us, it is a pleasure to share with you this recent graphic biography of Teddy Roosevelt.

Page excerpt from Teddy

This graphic novel originates from the author’s one-man stage show, Teddy Tonight. Laurence Luckinbill is a stage actor and writer known for his one-man shows of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Clarence Darrow and Lyndon Johnson. Luckinbill’s script for this book adapts his stage show in words while Eryck Tait further condenses with his artwork. By anyone’s standards, this is a remarkable book, and while this is quite suitable for high school students, it can certainly be enjoyed by fans of history, theater and graphic novels in general. From the examples on view here, you can see that Eryck Tait has done an admirable job of following Luckinbill’s script. It’s a highly economical and functional style, clear and crisp. You don’t need any additional flourishes for a book like this. You are better served to stay concise and practical.

Page excerpt from Teddy

Given that this is coming from a one-man show, we have TR addressing a theater. He is now a former president there to review his life and times and comment on the news of the day. It is July of 1918, Woodrow Wilson is in the White House, and World War I is still raging. TR has received word that his son Quentin’s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. Ask any playwright or dedicated theater-goer and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done on the stage. It is as limitless as one’s imagination. Ask any cartoonist or comics fan and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done in a graphic novel. So, given that this book is a byproduct of the theater and of comics, you say can you’re getting the best of both worlds. Comics, by its very nature, is a creature of concise language, so you get a steady roll out of time and place, which is most fitting for a book focusing on history. And you also get the nicely composed scenes needed to tell a personal story as this is as much biography as history.

Page excerpt from Teddy

Teddy Roosevelt, creator of the  modern American presidency and the bully pulpit, is a source of endless fascination. No one book will tell the whole story and that only seems right for such a larger-than-life character as TR. Theodore Roosevelt himself wrote nearly 50 books, from lengthy accounts on The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882; to four volumes on The Winning of the West, published in 1896; to his final book, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children, published in 1919. So, how about a “picture book,” as he might have called it, about his life and times, based on a stage production, published in 2021? Well, Teddy would probably find that very agreeable and give it a hearty, “Bully!”

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Review: FUTURE STATE: THE NEXT BATMAN #1 by John Ridley

Batman to thugs: “Get a life!”

Future State: The Next Batman #1. DC Comics. Written by John Ridley. Art by Nick Derington. Colors by Tamra Bunvillain. January 6, 2021. $7.99

Batman, at his best, is always good as a sign of the times, right? Here is a Batman from the not-too-distant future and pointedly familiar to the immediate present. Gotham, like other big cities, has fallen under, as this comic book states, “a cloud of tyranny and disinformation.” Okay, unpack that for a little while and let me know what you get. There are so many camps people can fall into these days but, no matter the lens seen through, it seems we can all at least agree we are living through some troubled times. Note the fateful date of publication of this comic book: January 6, 2021. Coincidences can be very spooky.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

This comic book has a perfect premise: in the future, it’s legal to shoot to kill anyone wearing a mask. Are we heading towards that level of insanity? This story begs the question, Aren’t we pretty much already there? Once we have the plot in place, hey, this highly provocative Batman story has legs and can basically comment on today’s headlines, albeit in an artful indirect sort of way, thinly-veiled as it is. You don’t need to worry too much about the actual story about the mysterious Magistrate now being in charge after the “A-Day” incident. What we’re mostly after here is a mood and feeling, a certain texture. And this comic definitely has that going on.

Cities riddled with chaos from “hype soldiers.”

The Future State series won’t be around for too long so seek it out now while it’s hot. It’s an opportunity to mix things up and avoid whatever restrictions need to be respected within DC Universe canon and whatnot. There are two more stories, separate from the main story, included in this comic book and, despite the air of creative freedom, these two seem loaded down a bit from keeping track of various superhero identities and protocols. They seem just fine but may put off the more casual reader.

Wear a mask and be somebody!

All in all, it’s clear that writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) knows exactly what he’s doing and is having a good time with this alternate Batman feature. It’s a chance for Batman to punch out one of the urban offenders and yell out for him to get a life. It’s a chance to do a little calling out in general and state that our politics has gotten toxic and has resulted in toxic protest and honest rank and file police are all too often caught in the middle of it all. Is that too controversial to say out loud in public on social media? Maybe just enough–or a lot–but certainly reasonable too for a lot of folks. Ridley isn’t out to just push buttons as much as to do some intelligent, and balanced, shouting out from the rooftops in hopes that Batman has any good ideas. And that should work since he usually does.

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Review: GUNNING FOR HITS

GUNNING FOR HITS

Gunning For Hits. writer Jeff Rougvie. artist Moritat. color/lettering Casey Silver. Image Comics. Portland. 2019. Collected trade, $16.99.

David Bowie has been the subject of a number of comics over the years but nothing quite like this. The character of Brain Slade is the thinly-veiled stand-in for Bowie in this unusual mashup/satire of the music industry and crime fiction.  The creative team behind this book is as compelling as this quirky thriller. Writer/music producer Jeff Rougvie is brash and larger-than-life. Artist Moritat seems to strike a similar pose. And Casey Silver, in charge of lettering and coloring, rounds out the bad boy trio. Just the right guys for the job. As I learned from Silver, during an interview, Moritat fits the bill as the mysterious dark figure, the guy at the bar creating intricate drawings of fire-breathing dragons on a cocktail napkin. As for Rougvie, this guy actually lived the whole rock star lifestyle and has survived to turn it into comics. It was Rougvie who created a significant Bowie CD box set. In fact, it was Rougvie who invented the whole CD box set format to begin with. So, this book’s authentic vibe is well-earned.

The tangled web of power and fame.

It is no spoiler here to say that the book involves a lot of guns and a lot of shooting. The premise is that music producer Martin Mills is leading a double life that gets in the way when he’s put in charge of seeing his favorite rock legend, Brian Slade (the fictional stand-in for David Bowie), make a comeback. Set in the 1980s New York City music scene, the gritty world of show business meets the crime underworld when Mills must confront his checkered past. Caught in the crosshairs is Brian Slade. As push comes to shove, it seems that a dead Slade might be more valuable to all concerned than a live Slade. The drama involved is something Bowie would have approved of. This is a wonderful fly-on-the-wall look at the tangled web of power and fame. The music industry and the crime world have plenty of that. If you’re looking for something completely different, then a crime thriller starring David Bowie should satisfy you. Well, it’s not exactly David Bowie, but close enough.

Power chords and power plays.

So, tough guy narrative meets tough guy artwork. Moritat delivers with gestural and pared-down work that evokes urgency and overall chaotic/neurotic energy. This is a fun and rollicking book full of power chords and power plays.

Be sure to visit the GUNNING FOR HITS site right here.

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Review: ‘GENTLEMIND: Episode 1’ from Europe Comics

Gentlemind: Episode 1

Gentlemind: Episode 1. written by Juan Díaz Canales and Teresa Valero; art and color by Antonio Lapone. Published by Dargaud (France) Presented by Europe Comics. 2020, 88pp. Digital.

When Print Was King!

Think of Gentlemind as a comics version of Mad Men, set in the 1940s. The hub of activity is New York City, center of media and entertainment. And the specific activity is one woman’s goal of transforming a middling men’s girlie magazine into a platform for social commentary, literary and artistic excellence. Listen to the guys talk in their bullpen at the offices of Gentlemind, circa 1940, and they could be men talking today:

“I’ve seen you doing stand-up in the clubs in the Village, Bert. You have a gift. We want you to write a few jokes for each issue.”

“Written jokes aren’t funny. Either you tell them, or you draw them.”

“Hey, Mosky, how bout drawing something other than women?”

“I can’t draw anything else.”

Another time and place from which we can learn so much.

New York is a funny city, in a lot of ways still championing a dry and sly wit perfected over generations by the trendsetting creatives of the moment. This is a story about what is was like back in the day, in a golden era, when writers and artists of all stripes pushed boundaries while also navigating a world dominated by an elite patriarchal class. Enter Navit, a woman with a self-confidence in all things, intellectual, sexual, and emotional. This is Navit’s journey as she goes from a love affair with a struggling artist to the mistress of a playboy billionaire to the leader of a brash new magazine in the heyday of magazines. Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, Navit finds herself in charge of an old girlie magazine which she is determined to turn into something worthwhile. Navit begins by having real women express themselves about what they think of men, a refreshing and quite revolutionary idea in 1940.

An old girlie magazine is confronted with opinions from real women.

Written by Juan Díaz Canales (Blacksad) and Teresa Valero, this is an utterly charming, as well as challenging story that will leave the reader wanting more. There’s a whole subplot involving the disparity between rich and poor and the virtue of ethics that really powers the narrative, bringing up many issues. And that’s all a good thing since this is only the first installment. While our heroes, and the setting itself, are thoroughly American, the sense of style and elegance embrace a European sensibility. And that vibe, in turn, is influenced by such American film noir classics as 1945’s Mildred Pierce, about a woman’s struggle to the top. You can also throw into the mix the influence of Seth, a Canadian cartoonist who has perfected his own take on comics noir.  The artwork by Antonio Lapone taps into this quirky vision. His characters have an ethereal cartoony quality about them. They are ghosts from another era while also very much alive on the page. This is a wonderful treat for the reader to experience another time and place. A time well before much of what we take for granted. A time when print was king. A time when “men were men; and women were women” but everyone seemed to be very much in the dark as to what the other most desired. It wasn’t always sex. In fact, it was often a higher calling of some kind: a simple desire to be entertained and enlightened by a story. If all this sounds like too much to ask from a graphic novel, then I’m here to tell you it is one of the things that a graphic novel does best: explore the meaning of life. This one does it better than many out there.

Those “Mad Men” from 1940a New York City.

There are numerous exciting titles to explore at Europe Comics, your hub for all sorts of wonderful European comics (translated in English, of course) in a convenient digital format. Visit Europe Comics right here.

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