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Review: FUNDAMENTAL CAMARENA by Christopher Sperandio

FUNDAMENTAL CAMARENA

Fundamental Camarena. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 144pp, $21.95

The more one digs into the comics medium, the more it rewards you as an immersive world of the mind. You can lose yourself in it as much as any other art form. Christopher Sperandio has taken quite a deep dive into re-working vintage public domain comics just as you would any other kind of “found art.” Check out some of his work on his Instagram. He is genuinely mesmerized by it and respectful of all the souls, many truly unsung heroes, who created the work in the first place. That said, when Sperandio hit upon a cache of original Mexican comic book pages at a public market, he knew right away that this wasn’t just another canvas upon which to recontextualize. This was something special that needed to be called attention to. Sperandio’s long and distinguished career features work that explores the interconnections between mass and museum culture. Sperandio teaches at Rice University where he specializes in working with the comics medium. He recently put together at Rice an arts lab, the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop (CATS) and this book is part of that.

A typical copy of Micro Suspenso, #305, circa 1968,  4 1/2 x 3 inches.

A mysterious packet of ink drawings sitting in a stall in a public market in Mexico City. At that point, the fate of these drawings, half a century old, was utterly dependent upon who might take notice of them. So, it’s something of a miracle that this set of drawings would catch the interest of the most ideal buyer. This bundle of originals was created by Julio Camarena for the comic book series, Micro Suspenso. There was no cover but the comic book could be dated to circa, 1970. The story, oddly enough, is entitled, “The Last Buyer.” With Sperandio’s purchase, this little batch of comic book art had fallen into academic hands and, as it turned out, Sperandio was to be the last buyer of this work prior to his immortalizing it in this book. To add a touch of intrigue, the originals were stolen and probably destroyed.

Julio Camarena is plucked from obscurity and joins the world of academia.

And so Julio Camarena, an obscure Mexican cartoonist, finds his work the subject of an academic study. Well, that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned, Sperandio has a working method that involves linking popular media to museum culture. And that is precisely what this purchase of drawings set into motion. We come back to the idea of a playground for the mind. When you stop and think about it, comic books (particularly strange and offbeat comic books) and museums, are both prime venues for some deep thinking, the stuff that dreams are made of! Sperandio developed his project step by step, bringing together the people and resources he needed under the CATS arts lab. In time, he had what was needed for an installation as well as a book.

From the pages of a comic book…

…to the gallery walls of a museum.

As a work of comics, “The Last Buyer” is more than just competent; it’s a guilty pleasure in the best sense. Right away, I was intrigued by the characters and their hint of Mod style sense. And who doesn’t like a good horror story about a possessed car? I’m Mexican-American, and I do read Spanish but not without some effort. I mean, the words don’t just jump out at me as they do in a work of comics in English. That sense of words jumping out is magical and it’s not happening when I’ve got a work of comics in Spanish. For the Camarena stash to fully function as a work of comics for a now predominantly English-speaking audience, the darn thing would need to be properly translated within the comic itself with the Spanish text replaced by English. There are notes at the back of the book with an English translation but that’s just not the same. That said, it’s a fun read. It is masterfully worked out, especially considering the tiny format that was common for these “micro-comics,” pocket-sized comics meant to be read on the way to work or in some less than rarefied environment. That said, of course, this set of drawings has totally become a creature of rarefied environments.

Page excerpt from “The Last Buyer.”

So, what’s so special about this stash of original comic book art that has been taken out of its natural habitat, as it were, and placed under a microscope? First, it’s a learning opportunity, right? Sperandio gets to share some of the history of Mexican comics and he even, early on, gets a chance to demonstrate how unfairly maligned the comics medium has been. His quote from 1999 by noted art critic Rosalind Krauss is priceless. When asked at a public lecture at Princeton University for her opinion on the comics medium, Krauss said the form was “unredeemable.” Ouch! Well, that was over twenty years ago and, I dare say, the general sentiment has changed. As for this stash of Mexican comics in particular, Sperandio is making the case that, yes, this little bundle of obscure comics is a historic and artistic artifact. And, while the originals are now gone forever, the originals had been properly digitized and so can now live on in print, as they were always intended to do. Sperandio, “the last buyer,” managed to pass on a little treasure to all sorts of future buyers, those who buy into the comic medium’s hard-won fight for credibility.

Where all this gets most interesting is in tracking down the one and only Julio Camarena, the cartoonist behind these mysterious comics. Camarena is given his due. He is not presented as some exotic but as the creative professional he was, part of a tradition, part of history. This is the moment when, if you were binge-watching on Netflix, the payoff is finally delivered. Sperandio has gotten to comment on Camarena. A contemporary cartoonist has provided his observations. And a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature has held court– and even quoted a scholarly report that concludes Mexico and Japan are the world’s only true comic book cultures. All very interesting but now Camarena speaks about Camarena! And, like any long-awaited moment, it’s a little poignant and also a little anticlimactic. Camarena loved his work, has no regrets, and has little patience with looking back. He was interviewed a couple of years ago by Mexican cartoonist Augusto Mora. It’s a wonderful exchange between the two creatives. Camarena sounds to be very savvy about the comics market. He simply doesn’t take himself too seriously or put his work upon a pedestal. He makes a comment towards the end that he regrets that Mexican publishers began to dabble in cheesecake pin-up comics in an attempt to boost sales. That went against their core family audience and so it was no surprise to Camarena when that phase of comics tanked. Ironically, the only photos of Camarena have him showing some of his pin-up work. It’s actually rendered quite well, in a classic tradition but, apparently, he didn’t have his heart in it. No, his heart was in the work he was a part of for most of his life, stories that enthralled readers across a wide spectrum. It was a magical time, a time for all kinds of stories whether historic, romantic, adventurous, or even supernatural.

Cartoonist Julio Camarena

So, did Sperandio’s examination of the Camarena stash of drawings stretch and pull it well past anyone’s intended purpose? Okay, sure, but it was all worth it! Indeed, this book is a ticket to play in the playground of the mind. Seriously, this is a most welcome addition to comics scholarship in general–and Mexican comics in particular. We can already find a number of books that gravitate to pretty familiar subjects like Los Bros Hernandez. Sperandio goes further and provides us with some much needed insight into the roots of Mexican comics and culture. This quirky book is a wonderful exploration of many things, not the least of which is the playground of the mind.

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Filed under Argle Bargle Books, Book Reviews, Comics, Mexican comics

Top 10 Manga You Likely Haven’t Heard About

Photo credit: Jeena Paradies

Catching up on obscure manga has never been easier. Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of manga titles available online through platforms like Kodansha and izneo. And if you’re having a hard time picking which ones are worth checking out, here are 10 of the best manga you’ve likely never even heard about.

  1. Platinum End

Using powers granted by his guardian angel, young student Mirai Kakehashi enacts revenge on his foster parents who were responsible for his real parents’ deaths. Mirai soon finds out that he is among the 13 candidates to replace God, who’s retiring in 999 days, and that the other 12 are coming to kill him. A gratuitous action-packed fantasy by the writer-artist tandem behind Death Note.

  1. Otoyomegatari

Also known as A Bride’s Story, Otoyomegatari is a gorgeous portrayal of the 19th century customs, cultures, and brides of a tribal town along the Silk Road near the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. A poignant romance based on real customs and traditions from the 1800s, Otoyomegatari has won several international awards.

  1. Violence Jack

Whether it’s the original 1973 manga by Go Nagai that has spawned its own anime or Yu Kunutani’s tributary Violence Jack 20XX which launched early in 2021, this title features a shapeshifting anti-hero who gets his name for his signature 40cm jackknife. It’s one of the first mangas about a weird saviour dealing out justice in the post apocalypse.

  1. Jagaaaaaan

While riding the train, bored city cop Shintarou Jagasaki encounters a monster which he instantly kills when his right hand inexplicably transforms into an energy gun. Shintarou sets out on a journey to kill the fractured monsters – former humans transformed by the same force that gave him his new powers. Every kill results in a frog, which he collects in order to be granted a single wish.

  1. Akagi

Written and illustrated by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, one of the most prominent creators in manga history, Akagi is the 36-volume tale of a Mahjong poker prodigy who gives the Yakuza a run for their money. This manga has also been adopted into arguably the most intense Mahjong poker anime of all time. While a lot of manga tackle Mahjong drama, Akagi is hands-down the best one.

  1. Poker King

Alongside his two brothers, Hiroshi Nikaido inherits 100 million yen, and whoever makes the best use of the money gets the rest of the family business. Hiroshi takes the money and proceeds to have the best time at some of the most famous poker rooms in Las Vegas, where the stakes are high, the players are serious, and 100 million yen can only get you so far. It’s one of the few mangas that explores the wild side of sin city.

  1. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service

The five graduates of a Buddhist college – each with their own special skill or supernatural power over the dead – form a business that helps people find out and enact the last wishes of their recently deceased loved ones. In this must-read dark comedy, every chapter is named after a Japanese pop song and every story is an entertaining exploration of mortality.

  1. Buddha

This manga is a unique take on the life of Gautama Buddha by writer-artist Osamu Tezuka, the brains behind Astroboy. Winner of several Eisner awards, Buddha is a fresh and in-depth account of the Enlightened One’s well-known spiritual journey.

  1. Chainsaw Man

Human-devil Hybrid Denji merges with his Chainsaw Devil dog Pochita to kill the Yakuza members who betray him. He’s then recruited by the state’s Public Safety Division as a devil hunter, eventually pitting Denji against the legendary Gun Devil. Dark humor and creative violence abound in this insane new shonen manga.

  1. Blood on the Tracks

Slow-burning thriller Blood on the Tracks has been hailed as one of the greatest psychological horrors manga of all time. Filled with unique stories tackling the mundane lives of ordinary people, Blood on the Tracks effortlessly achieves what so many horror titles aspire to but never pull off. It’s an absolute must-read for the most jaded horror fans.

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Filed under Anime, Comics, Lists, Manga

Review: CHICKALOONIES: Book 01 – First Frost

CHICKALOONIES: Book 01 – First Frost

Chickaloonies: Book 01 – First Frost. by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver. 80 Percent Studios. Seattle. 2021. 100pp. $25.00

Keeping cultures alive.

Welcome to Chickaloonies, the new Alaskan adventures by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, published by 80 Percent Studios. These are comics with roots going back to tribal stories handed down to the kids by the village elder. This all-ages tribal adventure follows two Alaskan Native kids as they set out on a quest to become world-famous storytellers. But not so fast. First, there are a lot of misadventures along the way. After all, these guys are gathering up material and so they’re living it as it makes it way into tales to tell.

Sasquatch E. Moji

Our main characters are an unlikely but lovable pair. Sasquatch E. Moji, age 13, is big and quiet, communicating only through symbols. Mister Yelly, age 12, is small and outspoken, often leaping into action before looking at the consequences. Between the two, they’re not exactly formidable but they make up for it with great spirit. And, when all else fails, they can always turn to their grandmother for advice. But that changes soon enough once these two are off on their long-term quest: to learn about other cultures; and to help spread the world about their own culture. Along the way, the boys will confront all sorts of monsters and villains but that just goes with the territory. Also, along the way, the reader will learn about Ahtna/Athabascan symbols, language and culture.

Mr. Yelly

Drawn is a highly energetic style, any reader will be delighted and engaged right from the start. This first graphic novel in a series collects some really fun tall tales. These stories have their roots in the stories that Dimi Machera grew up with, first from his grandmother and then retold by his mother, who presented live events based on tribal stories to local schools and other gatherings. All along, during that first creative phase, Dimi was creating comics based on what he heard. And that would ultimately lead to this book, the first of an exciting series that shares the rich, Ahtna/Athabascan culture.

The power of storytelling!

Our story begins with the Chickaloon village trapped in perpetual darkness with everyone wondering if they will ever get some sunshine. That’s where our friends step in. Sasquatch E. Moji and Mister Yelly are going to give it all they’ve got to let the sunshine in–and it looks like they’ve got more than a good chance of doing that and a whole lot more. Chickaloonies is just the kind of storytelling we need today as we rise out of darkness and toward hope and understanding. The good-natured, and often zany, antics here will keep readers of any age entertained and inspired.

Be sure to keep up with Chickaloonies and 80 Percent Studios. You can also check on Instagram: @80percentstudios  @dimimacheras  @bizarrocasey

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2021 Eisner Awards: The Nominees and the Winners

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN (DC Graphic Novels for Young Adults, paper, $16.99)

The big news for the 2021 Eisner Awards at Comic-Con in San Diego is that cartoonist Gene Luen Yang was the big winner of the evening, taking home three Eisner Awards, including two for Superman Smashes the Klan (Best Publication for Kids, and Best Adaptation from Another Medium) and one for Dragon Hoops (Best Publication for Teens). That’s the big takeaway and quite a worthy one at that. Also, just as important is the news of Junji Ito‘s Remina (translated by Jocelyne Allen) manga winning this year’s Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia award. Junji Ito also won the Best Writer/Artist award for his Remina and Venus In The Blind Spot manga.

Panel excerpt from DRAGON HOOPS

While we inevitably focus on the winners–let’s also pay attention to the nominees. And then there are all the others who did not make it that far. I’ll tell you right now that these award lists are not the final word, but a great guide nonetheless. In a perfect world, for instance, Welcome to the New World, a graphic novel by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan, would have been nominated for the 2020 book published by Henry Holt. It was nominated for an Eisner as a webcomic in 2018, so that’s a good thing. Among this year’s winners, I do think the Eisners got it spot on for Best Reality-Based book going to Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, by Derf Backderf. And it was great to give a shoutout to Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams byway of an award for Best Penciller/Inker to Michael Allred.

Anyway, I think it helps to make you dig around a little to see who won…you’ll see what I mean….

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French Graphic Novelist Ugo Makes Animation Debut, ARCO

Ugo’s ARCO

I love this still from the upcoming animated feature, Arco. I have to hand it to the French as this looks like something very weird and wonderful–and will live up to its promise. All the little details, so delicate and precise, speak to the dedication of a true graphic novelist, which Ugo surely is as he has a fine and consistent track record of actually creating numerous graphic novels. You really can’t call yourself a graphic novelist without actually being one! So, here is a bona fide bande dessinee artist!

Here is the news on Arco which appeared in Variety last month:

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Filed under animation, Bande Dessinée, Comics News, French Comics

Interview with Underground Comix Artist Sharon Rudahl

From Famous Cartoonists button series, 1974

Sharon Rudahl was at the forefront of underground comix as a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, the first on-going comic drawn exclusively by women, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, she has created a range of fascinating underground comix including Crystal Night, which was reprinted in full in Dan Nadel’s Art In Time collection. Rudahl has created two graphic novels, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman and A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American. Read my review here. It is a pleasure to get a chance to share this conversation with you.

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson

I began our talk by mentioning that Sharon marched with Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager. I said that it appears that she has always been an activist. To that Sharon said that she’s found herself speaking out as often as possible. In fact, Sharon began her career as a cartoonist with anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She’s been active ever since and has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions in dozens of countries over the last 50 years. Always a fighter, she proved to be just the right person to take on a graphic biography of another social justice warrior, Emma Goldman.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Interviews, Paul Buhle, Rutgers University Press, Sharon Rudahl

William F. Nolan Dead at 93; New ‘Logan’s Run’ Remains a Mystery

From Henry Chamberlain’s graphic novel, George’s Run

William F. Nolan was one of the grand old men from the golden age of science fiction and horror spanning pulp fiction, television and the movies. Starting out as an illustrator in Kansas City, Nolan ultimately made his way to Hollywood and became part of a group of writers within the orbit of Ray Bradbury, and subsequently Charles Beaumont, all trying to break into television. As part of the inner circle of writers, casually known as, “The Group,” little by little, Nolan gained some ground.

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Filed under George Clayton Johnson, Logan's Run, Obituaries, pop culture, William F. Nolan

Review: ‘Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics’

Summer movies!

There are times when an illustration is most apt. Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, by John Malahy and Turner Classic Movies, published by Running Press, inspired me to highlight some of my own favorites from this fun and informative book! Among a number of factoid-filled books, this one really stands out for some very specific reasons. This is not just a listing of popular titles. You will actually learn a lot here–about fan favorites and less familiar classics. I’m very impressed with the genuine attention to detail as the author invites the reader to try out some lost gems, like 1928’s Lonesome about a couple of star-crossed lovers who have a dream date at Coney Island and then, by the hard luck of fate, get lost from each and frantically try to reconnect.

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Glenn Head on Chartwell Manor and Being a Voice for Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head

EDITOR’S NOTE: The New York Post headline says it all, Sex Abuse Rituals at NJ Boarding School Exposed — in Cartoons by Survivor. The newspaper does an admirable job of describing the nuances of graphic novels and Glenn Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor. And The New York Post has no qualms about laying it out as it is: “Don’t let that whimsical cover art throw you: Head’s unflinching book recounts his two years at the now-defunct Mendham, NJ, boarding school run by headmaster “Sir” Terence Michael Lynch — a serial sexual abuser who manipulated young boys into “cuddling sessions” after fondling and beating their nude bodies.” The New York Post also provides an outstanding public service by underscoring the fact that survivors of Chartwell Manor still have time to file a suit against the Chartwell administration of aiding and abetting Lynch, and others, in the abuse of children. Time is running out for Chartwell Manor victims to join those who’ve already filed claims against surviving Chartwell administrators accused of letting Lynch — and other accused faculty — cultivate a culture of abuse. The deadline to file is November 30, 2021. Contact Jeff Anderson & Advocates law firm today.

I’ve been writing about comics and creating comics for many years now–and loving it. In the very near future, I hope to have some news about a book of my own. For now, I want to keep my nose to the grindstone and this is one very special reason to do so. This is an interview with master cartoonist Glenn Head. For those of you familiar with comix, especially those chock full of underground comix DNA as I just talked about in my last post, then this will be a welcome treat. Maybe you’ve gotten a chance to check out Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor, about the abuse that Head experienced at the boarding school, but just as important, the aftermath. Well, this interview helps to put things into further context from the standpoint of Glenn’s previous graphic novel, Chicago, as well as his career as a whole.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Fantagraphics, Glenn Head, Interviews

One More Look: AVENUE D and SNAKE EYES

Snake Eyes #3 cover

Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.

Glenn Head’s Snowman in Snake Eyes

In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Essays, Glenn Head