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Review: PEPLUM by Blutch, published by New York Review Books

Bringing that page to life.

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.

MITCHUM by Blutch

Peplum is a 160-page hardcover, published by New York Review Books.

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Guest Review: ‘Alay-Oop’ by William Gropper

Alay-Oop by William Gropper

A Forgotten Comics Master: William Gropper

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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.

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