Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Here is one family’s unique experience with the Vietnam War byway of the diplomatic corps: Such a Lovely Little War, written and drawn by Marcelino Truong, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. As a cartoonist and writer, I’m attracted to the more idiosyncratic works in comics and this led me to the work of Marcelino Truong.
A family terrorized.
These deeply personal comics resonate the most with me. Add to it the fact that the author is dealing with being bi-racial, and feeling out of place, and that gets my genuine attention. Truong’s mother, Yvette, is French and his father, Khánh, is Vietnamese. It is circa 1961 and the family has left Washington, D.C, the home they’ve known. Khánh, as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, has been called back to Saigon where he will become the personal interpreter to the new president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem . Thus, our narrative unfolds. It’s quite a perspective, one that is up close and encased in a bubble, in step with the cheeky title to this graphic memoir.
One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror.
Truong’s story is triggered by a need to come clean with as many facts as possible. The Vietnam War is many things. One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror. A boy safely tucked within the circles of affairs of state will witness one thing. A boy who is part of a family in the killing fields will witness another thing. Obviously, little Marco and his brother Domi have got a lot to learn if they’re thrilled to see napalm bombs on the wings of a plane upon their family’s arrival in Vietnam. Of course, Marco and his family are in for an education. Truong goes to great lengths to lay out as many pertinent details as possible, the sort of details that can get lost in, well, the fog of war. This is a story of relative safety, even at the most privileged levels, slipping away. It’s up to everyone to know when to jump before reaching that boiling point.
One family’s experience of the Vietnam War.
Truong’s work is another exquisite example of the auteur cartoonist. As I’ve said many times, it is the auteur cartoonist who meets the full definition of a cartoonist: the creator who does it all: the writing, drawing, and even coloring when applicable. These are the three main roles, along with editing and layout, that are often taken up by a creative team. It’s fascinating to study work where you have one creator basically calling all the shots. It can result in a work that weaves together script and art to an uncanny level. It is a tradition favored in indie circles in the States and even more ingrained in Europe. You can even take this auteur profile one step further and say it involves creating work by hand, as opposed to digital, as much as possible. A lot of artist-cartoonists, with Truong being a leading example, prefer to engage with their comics within a painter-cartoonist mindset. You’ll find here in Truong’s art that you can break it down into a series of watercolors, a complex network of watercolors. Truong does an exceptional job of modulating his use of color. This is a delicate balance, a shifting between duo-tone to full color, whatever fits best. It all adds up and enhances the immersive quality of Truong’s exceptional memoir.
Siagon Calling: London 1963-75 by Marcelino Truong
And there is a sequel. If you’re inspired to pursue further, then you will want to read Saigon Calling: London 1963-75. The irony is as front and center on the cover as it could be as you have the main characters strolling down a crosswalk, ala Beatles, with a napalm blast in the background.
Both Such a Lovely War and Saigon Calling are published by Arsenal Pulp Press. And be sure to visit Marcelino Truong at his website right here.
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.
Here is a graphic novel that many of you, especially in the States, will be intrigued by–or it might make you scratch your head: Les bijoux de la Kardashian, (loose translation, Kardashian’s Jewels) published by Glénat. Of course, this is a book focusing on the ordeal that Kim Kardashian went through in Paris back in 2016. This is a French graphic novel that just screams out for an English translation. Given that Glénat and American comics publisher, IDW, work closely together, it would be easy to see this happen. That said, just enjoying the lively artwork alone is well worth it. Would a U.S. audience not be receptive to an English translation version of this?
Talk about how anything can become content for a graphic novel! The Kim Kardashian hotel heist is actually a complicated story and comics, in fact, prove an ideal tool to sort through the details. Written by journalists François Vignolle and Julien Dumond, this graphic novel is decidedly fact-driven. The artwork is by cartoonist Gregory Mardon who does a marvelous job of bringing what amounts to a classic crime story to life. Mardon’s style is very crisp and clean, as if he were drawing wonderfully concise sketchbook drawings. It is a particular look, very French, exemplified by such legendary French cartoonists like Etienne Davodeau, Jacques de Loustal, and Blutch. So, Mardon’s artwork will evoke for the reader a reporter’s notebook come to life.
The Hôtel de Pourtalès, where Kim Kardashian West was robbed. Celebrities seeking privacy often stay there. From Vanity Fair.
It is quite an undertaking to bring this whole story together. You have two dramatically different worlds colliding: all the aspects of the crime, including the criminals and the police; and all the aspects of the glitzy lifestyle of a true American reality TV icon. The story is based upon police records and investigations into the high-profile crime that took place in an apartment in Paris’ upmarket 8th arrondissement on Oct 3, 2016. François Vignolle, one of the French journalists who co-authored the graphic novel, states: “We explored the routes the thieves and Kardashian took, we went to the places where they were, spoke to sources and took photos of the spots so that the story would be as real as possible.” And it was as if all other news took second place at the time of the media circus. “We no longer were talking about the terrorist attacks in France or Donald Trump in the United States. Everyone wanted to know about the Kim Kardashian theft.” So, all in all, a full portrait of the event and its aftermath.
An unlikely high-profile criminal.
Ultimately, a fabulous story emerges involving a most unlikely band of thieves. The time is right to take a closer look, with the initial story processed in our minds, a story that gratefully did not turn more violent than it might have. And that’s not to diminish at all the very real trauma of being robbed at gunpoint. Only after the passage of time, in hindsight, do we get a full story. The thieves were all past the age of 50, some even past 70. They had no idea who Kim Kardashian was. They initially were just after a ring but managed to stumble upon a collection of jewels worth some $10 million. And their getaway was on bicycles which they had a very hard time with. The whole thing, with respectful hindsight, brings to mind some Pink Panther caper. So, it is no surprise to find a bit of humor. There is no malice here, no ridicule. But you do get a lot of scenes of the queen of reality TV posting on social media.
Kim Kardashian back in her element.
That all brings us back to whether or not it makes sense to have an English version to this graphic novel devoted to the Kim Kardashian jewel heist caper. Is it just too much for audiences outside of France to comprehend? Time will tell. The thieves go on trial in 2020 and there’s talk of a sequel graphic novel. Perhaps the biggest barrier is not language to this story. Perhaps something culturally would get lost in translation. And that’s a shame.
Les bijoux de la Kardashian, (loose translation, Kardashian’s Jewels) is published by Glénat.
Karen Green, curator of comics at Columbia, provides a most effective forward to the new graphic novel, The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan. Green begins with a quote from the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. In an interview from the early 1970s, Zhou Enlai was asked for his thoughts on the French Revolution. His response: “Too early to tell.” That anecdote will stick with readers as they navigate through a book with an eerie relevance. The Invisible Empire is written by Micky Neilson and Todd Warger, illustrated by Marc Bostel, and published by Insight Comics.
History is a settling down of seemingly disparate, raw and random events. Patterns emerge. Connections and conclusions are made over time. Sometimes, the facts are so undeniable as to smack you across the face. And then the passage of time covers them up, one layer of distraction and denial upon another. And so it is with what happened across the United States in the 1920s with a reinvented Ku Klux Klan. In the big scheme of things, you may have blinked and not noticed but that Robert E. Lee statue at the forefront of the Charlottesville tragedy in 2017 was a statue erected in 1924, at the height of the white supremacy hysteria. The story in this graphic novel focuses on events from the 1920s Ku Klux Klan in the north, specifically Indiana. A culture of hatred and violence had taken hold until a particular event broke the fever. It wasn’t until a local corrupt official was indicted with murder that citizens woke up and took back their state from the KKK and subsequently knocked it off its pedestal across the country.
Scheming with Stephenson.
That local corrupt official was D.C. Stephenson. It’s remarkable that there is no specific mention anywhere in this graphic novel of Stephenson’s title in Indiana government. But, in fact, he had no specific title beyond, perhaps, wheeler-dealer. In today’s parlance, he’d be thought of as a political operative in the same vein as Karl Rove or Steve Bannon, once known as “Trump’s brain.” Stephenson was similarly well connected, on intimate terms with Pres. Harding and Pres. Coolidge. In this graphic novel, the reader connects the dots, following Stephenson on his way to becoming a KKK Grand Wizard, and finding he was far from alone in his embrace of white supremacy.
A moment of clarity.
The trigger for change is Madge Oberholtzer, the young white woman that Stephenson raped and murdered, an event that would subsequently inspire a backlash against the KKK. The most compelling scenes in this book are devoted to simply providing some room for Madge to go about her life. Left alone to make up her own mind, she befriends a young black man, despite her segregated upbringing. Amid all the machinations depicted between Stephenson and his cronies, it is refreshing to see what a life not cut short might have been like for Madge Oberholtzer. And while it sometimes seems impossible to imagine a world free of hate, it is these upbeat moments of peace that can free the mind and encourage hope. Indeed, this book ends with an appropriate mix of defiant hope and resolve.
The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan is a 112-page hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019. For more details and how to purchase, visit Insight Comics right here.
Masters of Comics: Inside the Studios of the World’s Premier Graphic Storytellers is a unique behind-the-scenes look at the studios and work habits of some of the all-time great comic book artists, published by Insight Comics, with interviews by Joel Meadows. It is a pleasure to get a chance to chat with Joel Meadows, a fellow comics journalist. Mr. Meadows jumped into comics journalism in 1992 with his own Tripwire Magazine. In this interview, we’re going to unpack what that all means. There have been so many others who have joined the ranks of comics journalists, including myself, so there’s plenty to unpack!
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Joel, thank you for joining me for this conversation. We’re going to chat about Masters of Comics and the world of comics journalism. You begin in 1992 as a young guy who is compelled to create Tripwire, a magazine of genre culture, and that has evolved into an exciting new website presence and the publication of significant books on pop culture. I believe you really hit upon something with the original Studio Space and now the current Masters of Comics. As a jumping off point, share with us some of the thinking that led you to pursue a collection of in depth process interviews.
It started with the magazine, you mentioned Tripwire. We used to run a feature, Studio Space, where we interviewed artists and illustrators in order to get a closer look, get behind their work: the way they work and how they approach their work. We began with Tim Bradstreet, Phil Hale, and John Bolton. I found it fascinating and I thought it might be fun to pursue this further as a book. We put together a line up of artists for Image in 2008 and that was an impressive book. I was very proud of that book. That came out 11 years ago. We had the late great Joe Kubert. We had Sergio Toppi. We had Steve Dillon. We had Howard Chaykin. I can’t recall everyone. It was a pretty amazing list. I was very proud that we had managed to gather all these great artists together and get into each of their headspace and look at how they actually created work and how each studio was different from the next.
Tripwire magazine, circa 1990s
I love the fact that you have books out in the world. For me, my first loyalty is with print. We both go back to a pre-internet perspective. It used to be that to have something in print was the be all, end all. You feel secure with print. You can feel a bit uncertain about the internet: things can be completely wiped away. The whole website might blow up but you can always have a print edition somewhere. Do you feel like that sometimes?
A little bit. We switched to the web back in 2015 and it has its pros and cons. If you make a mistake you can always go back and fix it. But there’s something about the physicality of a book or a magazine. There’s the tactile nature of it. Say, if you meet someone and they ask you what you do, you can direct them to a website but, in some ways, it’s even nicer to be able to show them the book that you’ve published or the magazine that you edit. There’s something about having something physical that is hard to beat.
Exactly, that’s what I want to stress to everyone. Of course, you can go to a tutorial on Youtube but it’s so great to be able to pick up a book and pore over the pages and make discoveries. I think of someone like John Paul Leon, an amazing artist who will be new to a lot of readers. There’s one title that he worked on, The Winter Men, that really sticks with me. You’ve got such a wonderful range of talent, everyone from Frank Quitely to Bill Sienkiewicz to J.H. Williams III, and everyone has their own way of working. There’s so much to consider, of course, over creating the work physically or digitally or a combination of the two.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. I interviewed Mike Kaluta for the book and he works physically with pen and ink. J.P. has more of a mix. Walt Simonson works physically but he does fix lines digitally. I think it was Laurence Campbell, who does work physically, who said that, with digital, he misses the idea of being able to have a happy accident. You might make a mistake but it’s a good mistake. It brings the work to life a little bit more. In some ways, it comes down to digital coming across as too precise. The idea that you can go in and fix a mistake in Photoshop can leave some artists feeling that something is missing. Obviously, other artists love digital. Sean Phillips he draws his line art digitally but he also paints physically. He went back to painting for some of his covers and some of his work for Criminal. He likes to jump between the two. It really depends upon the artist. Some like the tactile experience of physically painting. Others like the convenience of digital. So, it comes down to a case by case basis.
Sean Phillips doing digital work.
Yes, I think it does come down to a case by case basis since you can’t totally peg it as generational. You have so many young artists who enjoy doing work physically. I even wonder sometimes if using markers is really the best approach to coloring your work. But, hey, if an artist can make it work with markers, then why not.
Michael William Kaluta doing physical work.
I want to ask you about your own process. Maybe you can take us behind the scenes of how you got the book put together. Did you personally interview each artist in their studio or were some interviews over the phone?
It was a mix. I got to visit some of the artists personally: Mike Kaluta, Walt Simonson, Posy Simmonds, Laurence Campbell, and Sean Phillips. The rest were e-mail or telephone interviews and, for those, they supplied the photographs. I would have loved to have interviewed in person Eduardo Risso but he’s way over in Argentina. The same with Rafael Albuquerque. He’s in Brazil. I did the photography for the artists that I met with in person.
It’s a seamless presentation, how all the profiles were put together into such a compelling whole.
Insight did a great job with the design. It looks beautiful. They did a great job with the typography and the way all the images fit, the comics art and the photography. It holds together really well as a cohesive package.
There are 21 profiles here. Maybe you can tell us something more about the decision-making process in choosing artists. It is a stellar line-up of artists. Rafael Albuquerque. Tim Sale. Yumo Shimizu. The list goes.
We wanted to have a cross section of artists coming from different disciplines. For instance, Walt Simonson is very much a pen and ink guy. John Paul Leon is more of a marker artist. Dave Johnson is a cover artist, one of the best. If we picked 20 or so artists that were all in the same style, then it would have gotten repetitive. So, we wanted to have something that was varied in terms of approach and actual work.
Share with us about the world of comics journalism. It was a whole other world when you began in 1992. The field was wide open. Back then, there were only a few outlets, like The Comics Journal. Today, it’s a relatively crowded field, especially when you add in all the various tiers of involvement.
It has changed. The Comics Journal had its moments. I used to enjoy Amazing Heroes, going back to the late ’80s. The biggest one was Speakeasy. It had a column by Grant Morrison. It was a very irreverent magazine. That was a big influence on us at Tripwire. Back in the ’90s, you also had Wizard, which really wasn’t for me. And, yeah, I never connected with The Comics Journal. Today, there are a number of good websites. There’s a digital magazine based in the UK that is doing a lot of good work called, PanexPanel, run by Hass Otsmane-Elhaou. And Forces of Geek, with Stefan Blitz, does excellent work too. A lot of sites are just running press releases. At Tripwire, we try to dig deeper. We interview the creators and the key players. We try to look at the bigger picture. It’s a challenge.
Amazing Heroes (1981-1992), published by Fantagraphics
The thing with press releases is that it’s a balancing act. You don’t want to rely on them. You have to really pick and choose. Some are quite informative and newsworthy. What is the criteria for you when it comes to content on Tripwire?
We try for variety and we try to cover people that other websites don’t. For example, we’ve recently run two interviews with Scott Dunbier from IDW. His artist collections and special projects are a great celebration of comics history. So, we try to pick people like him. We’ve interviewed Chuck Palahniuk a couple of times. We’ve interviewed Philip Pullman. We try to go beyond the boundaries of many comics websites. I want to dig a bit deeper like we did with our interview with J. M. DeMatteis. We try not to cover everything. And we try to contextualize our interviews and explain the significance of our interview subjects.
I do my best to go in depth with my interviews. And I’m always on the look out to go beyond the boundaries of a typical pop culture website. I will naturally gravitate to some novel, which may or may not have anything to do with comics. I might bring in an essay, or whatever. It just happens organically and it helps to keep things fresh and bring in a cross section of readers.
Yes, we do that too on occasion.
Speakeasy, “the organ of the comics world,” March, 1990
I wonder what your take is on alternative comics. My partner, Jennifer, and I are both cartoonists. We come from that indie alt-comics scene. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Page 45 quote.
Yes, I am.
It’s a brilliant observation by Stephen Holland, owner of the UK comics shop Page 45, about how “alternative comics are the real mainstream.”
There’s a lot of great material. I read indie comics. I’ve read the likes of Joe Matt and Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine back in the ’90s. I tried to keep up with their careers. There’s incredibly talented people. You have someone like Ed Brubaker who started life as an indie cartoonist and moved into the mainstream. He’s one of these guys who can straddle the two. I believe the Page 45 quote gets it right. You can give someone who doesn’t normally read comics a book like Berlin, by Jason Lutes, and they can appreciate it. But they will have a much harder time with a Batman or Teen Titan graphic novel which relies on more in depth comics knowledge.
MASTERS OF COMICS
I just need to ask you about what’s been on your pop culture radar. For instance, what was your take on how Game of Thrones on HBO resolved itself?
You have to feel sorry for the creators of the show since you can’t satisfy everyone. I remember when the Sopranos ended. I really liked how it ended but there were a lot of people who weren’t happy. A big show like that, which has been around for years, it’s almost impossible to satisfy all of your audience. I think the ending to Game of Thrones was okay. To be honest, I’m not sure how else HBO could have ended it.
There are some shows that we in the States have to wait for from across the pond. But then there’s also the reverse. For example, the new Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. Are you looking forward to that one?
I am curious. I enjoyed Get Out a lot. I think Jordan Peele is quite talented. I’m curious as to whether or not they’ve managed to keep that original flavor.
I’ve gotten a chance to view the whole season and I think it’s coming together. I think it’s going to be of those shows that will probably remain a bit uneven but can have exceptional episodes so you root for it.
There’s quite a bit of TV. I’m trying to catch up with Jessica Jones. I’m a bit ambivalent about the Marvel shows on Netflix. I enjoyed a lot of Daredevil and Luke Cage. I think the big problem is that a lot of these shows run too long. They would be much better off with shorter runs of six episodes per season. Another one, Punisher, I just couldn’t finish that.
How would you like to end our talk? Anything else you’d like to add about Tripwire or Masters of Comics?
We continue to evolve the Tripwire website. We’re hoping to organize a talk that ties in Masters of Comics at the Society of Illustrators in October during New York Comic Con. It would include Walt Simonson and Shawn Martinbrough. It would be very nice to have an event tie-in for the book. We’re also looking forward to some collections of interviews from Tripwire. This is something we’re working with another publisher on. The plan is to have the first book available in time for next year’s Comic Con in San Diego. So, that’s exciting. We’ll be returning to print after a bit of a break.
That would be so exciting to have a talk at Society of Illustrators. I hope that works out.
Well, thank you. We’re hoping to pin that down.
Thanks so much, Joel.
Thank you, Henry.
You can listen to a portion of the podcast interview by just clicking the link below:
Masters of Comics: Inside the Studios of the World’s Premier Graphic Storytellers is a 184-page full color trade paperback, with 21 profiles, with art samples and studio photographs, published by Insight Comics.
Keep up with Joel Meadows and Tripwire magazine by going right here.
Among board games, I was always intrigued with the idea of Clue but never played it. I did see the 1985 John Landis movie version and remember being entertained. Clue, which was first released in 1949, always struck me as strange and erudite, compared to the far more popular Monopoly, first released in 1935. Now, cartoonist auteur Dash Shaw has created a 3-part Clue comic book series. All in all, I think Clue: Candlestick, published by IDW and available on comiXology, falls neatly into place with other works by Dash Shaw. It doesn’t matter if Shaw is a fan of the game. What matters is that Clue is an opportunity to do something interesting with comics.
You can tell from these examples that Shaw is having fun interpreting the game as an artist. That said, he also seems to get into the spirit of the game too. He turns Clue into part of his world and the reader, in turn, gets immersed in this hybrid of art and popular board game.
Dash Shaw does a wonderful job with playing with storytelling elements while also keeping the Clue narrative in play. It’s a fun balancing act; and similar, on some levels, to how pop artists related to consumer culture. It helps the creative process if artists remain as open as possible with their subjects. Of course, it depends upon the project, but there is much to gain by remaining flexible. And, as for Clue, who doesn’t like a good mystery?
The third and final installment of Clue: Candlestick is available as of July 17th. You can find it at IDW and comiXology.
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.
The cartoonist Typex presents a comics biography of the artist Andy Warhol that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If you thought you knew Andy Warhol, then read Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. This is quite an ambitious and fascinating biography, a work of art in and of itself. Typex delivers such a detail-rich account in this 562-page book and leaves you wanting more! He does this by keeping to a crisp and finely-tuned and organized narrative. We go from one period of time to the next, evoking the quotidian while distilling the essential. In the process, the reader is treated to a behind-the-scenes look at Andy Warhol’s personal and professional life.
Andy Warhol meets Edie Sedgwick
An inquisitive cartoonist like Typex is not one to be easily satisfied with a standard comics biography, especially for such a towering figure in art and pop culture as Mr. Andy Warhol. Love him or hate him, Warhol has left a significant mark on the culture and, if not for never fully recovering from a murder attempt and a botched up gallbladder operation, he would have remained active that much longer. He would have found a way. That is what this book is all about: finding your way even when you might seem, like Andy Warhol, to be the most unlikely person to do so.
Typex is most interested in subverting any Warhol hagiography and bringing Warhol down to a human scale. Perhaps influenced by the books he chose for reference material, Typex often tamps down Warhol’s reputation in favor of depictions of him munching on Hershey chocolate bars and lusting over young men. No doubt, Warhol was a highly idiosyncratic individual but he was nobody’s fool and a workhorse. Scant mention is given in Typex’s book to Warhol’s contributions to art history. Typex acknowledges Warhol’s commentary of consumer culture but rather reluctantly. Very little is said about Warhol’s landmark use of serial imagery or his revolutionary use of silkscreens. Warhol made art history, after all. That is a major accomplishment and it sort of gets a bit lost in this otherwise marvelous book. You can say this book is not where you go for art history lessons, per se. This is a book decidedly about a scene or a set of scenes. Then again, it’s what’s happening in those scenes where you find the most interesting art.
Adding to the level of interest Typex has for his subject is how he’s presents his work. He has full page and two-page spreads to evoke the energy and mayhem of various moments. And, for much of the book, he keeps to a nicely packed grid format, nine panels per page. He goes that extra mile by anyone’s standards with including a program guide of notable players from each time period. In fact, Typex is just as concerned with the characters surrounding Warhol than simply Warhol himself. That could account for the somewhat slim analysis of Warhol’s actual career and work. You have to find a way to balance it all out and properly address Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground, Valerie Solanas, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the countless followers all in search of their own fifteen minutes of fame. It is Valerie Solana who ultimately stands out among the pack with her unhinged grasp for fame and attempt on Warhol’s life. And it is Basquiat who breathes new life into Warhol just as the two of them are nearing the end.
Warhol was driven and he also had a lot of help from his evolving network of colleagues, mentors, and a myriad of aspiring artists, dreamers, and party people. The Andy Warhol phenomenon did not happen overnight nor did it exist without various setbacks. Andy Warhol was neither god nor monster. It all comes back to the fact he was driven. He had the skill, the intellect, and the resources to actually make art history and, despite any naysayers, that’s exactly what he did. Typex explores this ambition as he sees fit while also demystifying the man and his times. Overall, this is quite a fascinating read to be added to other notable books on one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. In the end, I believe Andy Warhol would have approved of this book.
Typex is a Dutch illustrator and graphic novelist. A graduate of the Amsterdam College for the Arts, his work appears in many nationwide newspapers and magazines. He has illustrated numerous children’s books and has published some of his own. His graphic novel biography, Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, is published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. He lives in Amsterdam.
French Comics Association
You can see Typex this weekend if you’re in the D.C. area and this event happens to fit into what you’re doing. Typex will be there as part of the invited guests touring with the French Comics Association. The FCA will be taking part in this weekend’s American Library Association Conference. Okay, if that makes sense, then congratulations, you are a true Typex fan and well above average in every way.
Wonderful things often take place in the world of alt-comics. I’m talking about when a bigger publisher lends a hand to help a smaller publisher. A case in point is the graphic novel, Jeremiah, which joins AdHouse Books in promoting and distributing and One Percent Press in publishing this remarkable work. There are quite a few gems out there among indie comics and Cathy G. Johnson proves that wonders never cease. Johnson’s work has a beauty that looks effortless and pure. In the span of 160 pages, she mesmerizes the reader with her gentle yet powerful watercolor comics.
“You are not a child.”
This is the story of Jeremiah, a young man who seems to be a blank slate with no past or future, just a country boy out in the middle of nowhere. Jeremiah may seem pretty simple and, in a lot of ways, he is. But he also has his own set of complex desires. Johnson masterfully rolls out a narrative pared down to its essentials while brimming with ambiguity and mystery. Just what is the relationship between Catie and Jeremiah? Perhaps a handyman can help sort through an accumulation of despair and confusion.
A boy’s desire may consume him.
Johnson conveys emotion in her artwork in a very direct and economical way. She can evoke years of longing and melancholy with just the right amount of lines and wash. Poor Jeremiah. He’s still just a boy and his mounting desire may consume him if he doesn’t free himself. Johnson practices the subtle art of restraint in telling his story; and, in the end, it all comes out when Johnson is ready to release the floodgate.
Lost among the corn fields.
For more details, be sure to visit Cathy G. Johnson right here.
Lawns, by Alex Nall, published by Kilgore Books, is a small graphic novel that, to my reading, is essentially a parable about the consequences of turning someone into a scapegoat. No one likes Roger. Neighbors condemn him for his unkempt lawn and for his unleashed dog. It seems like a manageable problem but definitely not in this small town. Roger is the town’s Boo Radley. Nall has put together a narrative that follows the election of the town’s mayor. Chuck is running undisputed. However, Carl, a disgruntled and unsavory sort, has mounted a write-in campaign for himself. Oddly enough, Carl makes a few good points but he’s pathetically unqualified. Poor Roger falls somewhere in the middle as a convenient distraction. Overall, I think the story would have been better off had Roger, already having inspired the town’s ire, had been the sole issue in the town’s election. That said, this is an ambitious undertaking and Nall deserves credit.
Page excerpt from LAWNS
A hallmark of many a work of alt-comics is that it is all done by hand and basically retains an organic vibe. Nall is certainly aware of that and appears to revel in it. My only quibble is that the drawing, at times, falls short on clarity and consistency. I’m not saying the rendering needs to be worked over in some elaborate way. If you take a look at Charles Forsman’s Hobo Mom, this is quite a compelling short graphic novel, only 62 pages, done in a relatively simple style. Nall seems to want to vary how he depicts the main character, Roger, but the way he goes about it has the potential to lose the reader. And, towards the end, there are some scenes that are a bit rushed. This is not to say that Nall should ever consider losing his expressive line. I do prefer a more sketchy line than one that is way too polished. Sometimes, you just go where you need to go as a cartoonist and let your expressive line evolve as you evolve. I am certainly curious to see what Mr. Nall does next since he’s clearly hungry for a challenge and he’s a capable cartoonist.
Lawns is a 108-page trade paperback, b&w, published by Kilgore Books.