Tag Archives: graphic novels

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

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

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adapted by Peter Kuper. Foreword by Maya Jasanoff. New York. W.W. Norton, 2019, $21.95.

It is difficult to bring to mind a classic novel more overinterpreted than Heart of Darkness, and the reason has far less mystery than the novel itself. Joseph Conrad projected himself, his Victorian Britain, upon the African (more specifically, Congo) landscape, and intellectuals but also readers ever since have projected themselves upon his distinct literary creation.

Teachers have been assigning Heart of Darkness for well over a century, reinterpreting Conrad again and again, at least as frequently as literary theories shifted. Anti-colonialism and Negritude offered the sharpest criticism, amounting sometimes to rejection of the idea of writing the novel at all. Neo-colonialism, the reigning reality of our time, has renewed the ambiguity. The jungle and all its flora and fauna are under extreme assault. That the US/CIA chose to have a foremost African champion, Patrice Lumumba, assassinated just three generations ago pointed up the living contradictions  that Conrad glimpsed or perhaps did not glimpse.

Peter Kuper is an artist for contradictions and for graphic novel adaptations. An adopted son of Manhattan, he has depicted the city with as much dread as any painter, filmmaker or musician could manage. His adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle outdoes his adaptations of Kafka, in my view, because the horrors of that urban giant, Chicago, are themselves monumental. Did Kuper suspect he would go from jungle to jungle? We wonder.

At any rate, Kuper makes every effort to be as faithful to the sprit of Conrad as he can. He wants to make an immanent critique of colonialism as seen by the soldiers and statesmen of colonialism. They are coldly calculating in their pursuit of riches and fame, including the extermination of all the dark-skinned humans in sight, by outright murder or working them to death. And yet they are also mentally twisted adventurers, for who else would participate in such an ugly and dangerous mission?

Marlowe, as demonstrated in the novel, can understand horror when he sees it, and as a commercial agent is very much part of the machinery of it. The vanishing of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, the need for the trek into the jungle, is the test of Marlow and arguably, the test of artist Kuper, who has traveled widely, lived for extended periods in Mexico, not to mention being part of a peacenik, anti-imperialist political magazine collective for forty years and still going.

Kuper offers us several remarkable pages of explanation, in his introduction, of how he approached what he calls “the fraught history of cartoon stereotypes.” (p.xx). He explains technique as well as purpose of subverting Conrad’s text while still being faithful to the literary quality—no mean trick.

Whether this is successful, we can best judge as the pages pass and we find ourselves deeper in the jungle, deeper in the horrors of managing the ghastly enterprise. Actually, of course, Marlow is mostly halfway on the outside, a fellow white man, looking in. And becoming more savage than any black man or woman of the jungle.

Kuper manages to explain, with the brevity of a single panel, the deepest desire of the one intellectual, Kurtz, through his protege: that booty would remain but every black skinned human would be exterminated, an insane and impossible task.

Kuper saves his darkest dark for the final pages, Marlow’s return home to London, where he meets but cannot truly confront the belief in Kurtz’s eminence. These last pages drip with blacks and grays, driving home the point.

Paul Buhle is actively producing radical comics.

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Review: The Kardashian Jewel Heist, a Graphic Novel

The Kardashian Jewel Heist, a Graphic Novel

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.

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Review: The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan

The Invisible Empire

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.

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Review: Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

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

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

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

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

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

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

 

 

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Review: THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner

THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner

Many a high school and college student will be amazed at how easy and truly fun it can be to learn about biology in a comics format. And in a significant way. Seriously, all you students out there at whatever level, you can have an enjoyable immersive experience and LEARN, not just cram facts. Behold, THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.

A riot of life!

Let me jump right in and get to an important point. If you are somehow new to comics, well, this may blow your mind. If you are familiar with comics, then this will still blow your mind. Here’s the deal, comics are uniquely capable of explaining all sorts of things. And cartoonists are uniquely compelled to explain things! I should know. I am a cartoonist. What Larry Gonick excels at is really utilizing the impressive tools offered by the comics medium. One of the most magical things about comics is its ability to make the most impact by being as concise as possible. There is truly an art to taking something complex and boiling it down to its essentials. Gonick has figured out how to do that. Anyone who has lugged a biology textbook can appreciate this, if there was a way to make the subject more relatable and accessible, then that would be a most awesome thing. Gonick has done that! And he’s teamed up with Dave Wessner, a Professor of Biology and chair of the Department of Health and Human Values at Davidson College. Between the two of them, they deliver the goods.

The pulmonary arteries.

Gonick has tapped into the art of being economical with text as well as with artwork. And it’s all for the sake of clarity. We don’t want any clutter, especially when learning about as heavy a subject as biology. But, oddly enough, Gonick finds a way to keep things consistently light, or light-hearted. There are little jokes to keep the pace moving along. And, there are just so many wonderful moments of sheer energy and involvement that it can’t help but rub off on the reader. It’s as if Gonick has timed it just right to give you a little joke here, plus a light illustration there, then a fun detailed illustration, and so on.

The cell membrane.

We all learn in different ways and it’s usually not as straightforward as you might think. It’s not just a case of some people learning best by doing and other people learning best by reading and so on. It’s a mix of a lot things and it involves whatever will engage the student. It’s pretty hard to resist the comics medium, especially when you have such a master as Larry Gonick leading the way. He takes numerous bits of information and manages to give the reader the sort of hooks they will need to not only remember but to thoroughly process such things as how a plant creates glucose from carbon dioxide and water. This can be pretty dry material for any student to slough through so having such an engaging book as this becomes a most valuable resource.

Glucose!

THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY is a 313-page trade paperback, full illustrated, available as of July 30, 2019. Be sure to visit HarperCollins for more details on this book as well as others like THE CARTOON GUIDE TO ALGEBRA and THE CARTOON GUIDE TO CALCULUS.

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Interview: Anya Ulinich and The Nation’s Open Letter Regarding the US/Mexico Border Detention Centers

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

Yesterday, The Nation magazine released an open letter to the US Congress speaking out against inhumane conditions at the US/Mexico border. You can read that post right here. I decided to put on my reporter’s hat and address this news story promptly. I was looking over the list of the over 40 prominent authors who cosigned and I noticed the one graphic novelist on the list, Anya Ulinich. Of course, my eyes rested on each and every participant given such an impressive list. But I concluded that I was unable to resist getting a few words from Anya Ulinich. As I said to her beforehand, I wasn’t expecting too many words, just whatever might come to her mind. When I asked her what it meant to her to be an immigrant, she said it simply meant that she went from living in one place to living in another place. And, yes, it should be as simple as that.

Ulinich went on to say that, “as a parent of two children, I know that every day that a child is put through fear and discomfort is traumatic. I can’t understand a person who would think that these conditions are acceptable for whatever bureaucratic reason.” As for hopes for the future, Ulinich hopes that The Nation’s Open Letter reaches Congress and that Donald Trump is not re-elected in 2020.

To hear the interview, just click the audio link below:

Related links: The Nation Open Letter. Anya Ulinich.

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

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

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

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

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

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

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

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

Me, Mikko, and Annikki

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

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Comics Shop Focus: Brian’s Comics in Petaluma, California

Brian’s Comics in Petaluma

From time to time, Comics Grinder features a notable comics shop. If you find yourself in Petaluma, California, be sure to visit Brian’s Comics. This is what an ideal comics shop should be: organized, clean & tidy, nicely stocked with friendly and knowledgable staff. From the moment you walk in, you know that the owner, Brian himself, will do his level best to match you up with the comics you’re looking for.

Brian’s Comics in Petaluma

While I browsed through the store, I was instantly impressed with how Brian interacted with his customers, putting them at ease and attentive on every point. This is definitely a warm and inviting store. Brian’s Comics has been around now for six years and it looks like this shop has a very bright future.

Brian’s Comics in Petaluma

After a while, I asked Brian my number one question. I asked him what was currently on his radar. To be fair, he mentioned a number of items. I will stick with the one that got my attention the most. Currently, among what he’s been tracking, Brian highly recommend’s Event Leviathan, the six-issue mystery thriller from DC Comics,  written by the legendary Brian Michael Bendis with artwork by Alex Maleev.

Brian’s Comics in Petaluma

Brian’s Comics is an excellent shop. Visit them in Petaluma and on the web right here.

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

Cartoonist auteur Ulli Lust

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

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

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

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

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

Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Tried to Be a Good Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are some cartoonists right now that really wow you?

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

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

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

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

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

Be sure to visit Ulli Lust right here.

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

How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust

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

Georg and Kim size each other up.

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

A happy time with Georg.

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

A complicated relationship.

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Comics, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews