Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Comic classics: Barefoot Gen-Keiji Nakazawa

If you have certain prejudices towards manga like I used to have this book should turn that all around. OK so a lot of manga is kiddie-fare dominated with big eyes and generic cutesy or ultra violent sleekness, and they do have an uncomfortable fixation with prepubescent girls and giant penis tentacles, but scratch under the surface and you'll find some works that manage to pull off subtlety and moments of almost cinematic brilliance. Barefoot Gen the majority of the times isn't one of those manga, but it still works. It is precisely the juxtaposition of Laurel and Hardyesque slapstick violence and general over the top gestures against the absolute senseless horror that is going on that makes this graphic novel so effecting. In fact I can say this is the only graphic novel that has caused quite a profound emotional response from me. The story is the autobiographical tale of the artists survival of the Hiroshima bombing, the events leading up to it, and the events that followed. Like most mangas this book was serialised into a multitude of volumes (I think ten in total) but it is the first volume concerning events leading up to, just after, and during the bombing which I am looking at here. The start of the book is mostly concerned with Keiji's families struggles to have enough food to survive, a struggle which is constantly made worse by their fellow Japanese. The reason for their families ill treatment is that their father is a pacifist and outspoken in his opposition to the war, which means that the family are marked as traitors and used as scapegoats by the local police force and opportunistic neighbours. The families eldest son goes off to join the navy to distance himself from his 'traitor' father but soon realises firsthand the madness and the base hypocrisies of war, and especially of the behaviour of those in roles of higher command. Throughout the book it is Keiji and his younger brothers good will love for their family and charitable nature (even though they themselves are so often without food) that adds a real warmth and humanity to this unique and compelling story. All of this makes the impact of the books ending all the more intense. After the bombing Keiji comments that the victims 'look like monsters' and is this exactly how they look. With skin dripping from their bodies and hollowed out eyes, they do look like something from early EC horror comics, thus cementing home the unbelievability and horror of this real life event. Keiji Nakazawa wrote this book as a strong and outspoken anti-war, and anti-nuclear weapon statement and in 1976 a group of Japanese and non-Japanese people formed Project Gen in order to translate his work around the world and spread its message. This book remains as powerful and relevant today as it was when it was first published.

For a great little article about how to get over your Mangaphobia click here.

Monday, 19 April 2010

In search of Steve Ditko

OK so Jonathan Ross isn't my favourite person in the world but you can't fault him on this documentary he did a while ago about the reclusive mystery man and inventive artist behind Spiderman and most crucially the psychedelic weirdness that was Dr Strange. Politically Dikto leaned far right yet ironically became a hero for the 60's counterculture as this Marvel superhero strip tapped into the LSD induced consciousness of the era without ever having touched drugs himself. This talking heads documentary features some excellent soundbites from the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaimen, and Stan Lee amongst others. Click on the picture below to watch the first part and go on from there....

Friday, 16 April 2010

Blast from the past:: Inside out boy

If you grew up in the 90's and had access to Nickelodeon then chances are you saw this great little claymation short that used to feature between programmes about the adventures of a boy who turned his body inside out by going all the way round the bar on a swing.

If you feel like getting nostalgic you can watch some episodes on youtube.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Blog of the week: Fabulas Panicas, the comics of Alejandro Jodorowsky

Check out the weird psychedelic pop art strangeness of these comics by cult director of midnight movie El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky at the blog Fabulas Panicas. Each page lenght strip is crude, colourful, and unless you can read Spanish you'll have no idea what is going on (although to be honest I even doubt that being bi-lingual will help all that much). He uses a range of styles and techniques including collage, various geometric shapes and patterns, characters that resemble the shapeless blobs in early animated kids tv, and rounding it all off with a lovely pulp cheap printing quality. Overall the effect seems to be Yellow Submarine meets the Manson family, and a recurring character does appear like some sort of hippy cult leader (although he could just as easily be Jodorowsky's interpretation of God). I even liked this blog so much I had to include two photos of it. Click here to go to the blog.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Review: A Child in Palestine, The Cartoons of Naji-al-Ali

A Child in Palestine is toilet reading for the politically conscience. Not to trivialise the book or it's subject, but its shape and size and well pieced together chapters make it ideal toilet reading. Naji-al-Ali was a Palestinian political cartoonist who was shot in the head outside the London offices of the Kuwait newspaper he was working for in 1987 (after he was expelled for good from Lebanon). Born in the Galilee village of al-Shajara irn either 1936 0r 1937 and was expelled from the country (along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians) in the 1948 war that created the state of Israel. His family eventually settled down in a refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Being no stranger to the refugee experience it comes as no surprise that he was most famous for drawing the figure of the Palestinian refugee child . This figure came to represent a silent but defiant witness of the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people by the Jews (as well as the hypocrisy and vested interests of the Palestinian government). In the passionate, well-informed, and fascinating text between the images, al-Ali's work is placed in a broader cultural, historical, social context that gives you a rich lesson in Palestinian politics and resistance, but also shows how al-Ali himself was an important part of the fabric of Palestine. Hanthala the refugee became a symbol for the Palestinian people that would sprang up everywhere (often in graffiti) and al-Ali is often spoken about with the same reverence Alsatians reserve for their best poets. In the book we are given excellent reasoning behind Hanthala who is never allowed to grow old because to do so would normalize the plight of the refugees, and who is made to look ugly, like the child no one would want, which helped the Palestinians who felt poor and unwanted, identify with him all the more.

The drawings themselves are simple and bold, but make use of a scratchy and unrestrained cross-hatching technique that you don't often see in the likes of Western editorial cartooning. There is a real sense of place in al-Ali's work and he isn't afraid to make his cartoons morbid and bleak as opposed to always chasing the punchline, although when a punchline is present it is often put in place to show the absurdity of the situation. As this is editorial cartooning, al-Ali deals unchanging stereotypes, his Arab leaders look like fat shapeless blogs while his Jew's come across as maniacal gnomes. Although his constant portrayal of the heroic, the tragic, Palestinian common man could perhaps be construed as being a bit reductive at times. To show humour in the face of unequal odds is a great strength but it is clear from this book al-Ali did not want to take the plight of the Palestinians lying down and as the book progresses Hanthala becomes a more active figure, raising his fist defiantly, throwing stones, sounding bugles, and raising flags.
However as al-Ali was never closely tied with any of the political factions in Palestine (although there were rumours as to where his sympathies laid) he could perhaps have been accused of substituting action for mere words and pictures. Although in a country where mere words and pictures can lead to imprisonment, expulsion and death al-Ali is a brave torch for the silenced minority.

(I am aware of my slight bias towards the subject of this book due mainly to the facts gathered by Joe Saccos Palestine, and perhaps I shouldn't jump the gun in my judgements of the Palestine/Israel conflict because the facts I have gathered so far are of course ever so slightly objective and I don't know enough about the situation to make a valid assessment of it, however that doesn't change the fact that this book is an important piece of history and worthy of holding up against the current situation)

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Find of the week: Bruce Bickford

Just came across some absolutely mind blowing 70's-80's claymation by underground animator Bruce Bickford. Most famous for working with Frank Zappa Bickford's animation is wildly imaginative and technically brilliant. It seems to have a hint of early 80's MTV about it to me and some of the scenes in his work remind me of the slightly darker segments of obscure children's claymation The Adventures of Mark Twain. The great thing about Bickford's animation is that the way it's shot gives the impression of all the weird beasts and human figures and surreal landscapes come from one lump of ever expanding clay. The rate at which these scenes and figures grow and shrink and the way the camera moves around the landscape is nothing short of stunning.
I've just ordered his 28 minute film Prometheus' Garden off Amazon and await it eagerly, although you can also get a feature length documentary on his work called Monster Road.

For the trailer to Prometheus's Garden click on the picture below.

Friday, 2 April 2010

10 childrens comics that adults can enjoy

With brilliant characters often seen to outwit their adult counterparts, as well as possessing very mature neuroses that we will all recognise, the children's comic is often ripe with satire and political ideas, and should not be overlooked:

The Moomins

The Japanese produced animated series was a nice mix of cutesy idealism and freakishly terrifying segments which were genuinely unsettling to me as a child (Moomin turning into a hairless monkey, and the eiree pulsating white creatures spring to mind). The original syndicated newspaper strip however as well as being charming and dare I say it 'quaint' can easily be enjoyed as an adult for its satiric elements. Through the adventures of the Moomin family Tove Jansson was able to poke fun at upper middle class pretensions, the world of modern art, and much more besides.

Miss Peach-Mel Lazarus

A lesser known gem of teacher pupil comics by Mel Lazarus about a class of over inquisitive and boisterous who run rings around the adults they encounter.

Pogo-Walt Kelly

Long before the G8 summit Walt Kelly's Pogo made us aware of the environmental crisis with the classic line 'we have met the enemy and he is us'. Walt Kelly managed to make a 'funny animals' comic strip about swamp land critters into a witty and lyrical social and political satire that like George Herrimen's Krazy Kat developed a language all of its own which was inspired by Kelly's American-Irish upbringing (he has often been compared to James Joyce when it comes to his use of language). Kelly himself was considered a progressive independent in terms of his politics and was said to be against the extreme Left, the extreme right, and the extreme Middle. He was also considered enough of a threat that the FBI kept his phone tapped and at one point the U.S Government was in contact with a journalist who claimed that the eccentric jargon Kelly invented for his Pogo strips was actually a secret Russian code (this was of course during the era of the McCarthy communist witch hunts). Not bad for a mere 'funny animals' cartoonist!

Calvin and Hobbes-Bill Watterson

The classic newspaper strip by American Bill Waterson featured the over imaginative high jinx's of a young boy called Calvin and his stuffed toy tiger Hobbes who he sees as a living breathing life sized tiger. Inspired by the likes of Pogo, Krazy Kat, and Peanuts, the strip lends it's six year old protagonist a highly advanced vocabulary, mixed with a child's natural curiosity. Like The Moomins Calvin and Hobbes also pokes fun at the art world, through Calvin's unusual melted snowmen sculptures, pictures of dinosaurs in rocket ships, and pavement art ('suburban postmodernism'). Although being careful never to reference real people or events Watterson lampooned public decadence and apathy, commercialism, the pandering nature of the mass media, the flaws of public opinion polls, education, environmentalism, and much more besides. Witty and with a playful and colourful drawing style the eventual demise of Calvin and Hobbes left a gaping hole in the newspaper strip which would only later come to be filled by Richard Thompson's Cul De Sac.

Cul De Sac-Richard Thompson

This modern day newspaper strip is obviously good enough to warrant a praiseworthy introduction by the creator of Calvin and Hobbes Bill Waterson and follows on by putting sometimes adult voices into the mouths of inquisitive children who are as bemused at their parents odd behaviour as they are at theirs. At times wonderfully colourful with a superb use of watercolours and scratchy and erratic line work Cul De Sac is one of those wonderful rarities, a comic that will make you laugh out loud.

Peanuts-Charles Schulz

Charlie Brown is probably the most depressed figure in children's comics ever and perhaps sewed the seeds for neurotic confessional indie comic artists everywhere even more so than Justin Green and Robert Crumb. Charlie Brown was the ultimate anti-hero, his life a regular Kafkaesque roll call of disappointments. He couldn't fly a kite, kick a ball, or win a game of baseball but we loved him all the same. Of course this Kafka reference could be construed as being a little bit pretentious, but I wouldn't be the first to make it, just look at this satirical strip from R Sikoryak:

As for the strip itself Charles Schulz could read the little idiosyncrasies of children fantastically as well as giving them an almost pure intelligence and inquisitiveness. He mixed social and political satire brilliantly launching attacks on the Vietnam war, the psychiatrist gags and the interaction between Lucy and Shroader, and seemed to ignore gender equalities completely, the singular black character fitting in amongst them without question, and females playing on the baseball team. Not to mention that some of the animated films were pretty great too.

Krazy Kat-George Herrimen

The premise behind this classic 1910's strip is quite simple. Mouse despises cat, cat loves mouse. Mouse throws brick at cats head, cat sees it as a sign of mouses love. In the meantime the local police officer, a dog, tries to prevent mouse from throwing brick because dog loves cat. Repeat with variations. Of course the fact that the cat's gender was never clearly specified gave this strip an almost radical and ambiguous streak (especially considering the time it was created). Herrimen himself lived with a certain amount of ambiguity in his lifetime, being born to two light skinned ('mulatto') parents he often passed himself off as white, or of Greek descent, and he was even recorded as being Caucasian on his death certificate.
Krazy Kat is one of those few comic artists who have been embraced by the world of fine art who see the seeds of surrealism in his work and the similarities between some of his ever changing backgrounds and the work of someone like Miro are quite striking (it was also said that Picasso was a fan).

Little Nemo In Slumberland-Windsor McCay

Created by Windsor McCay (arguably the creator of the first animated film) the artwork for this one of the pioneering strips of early comic strips makes fantastic use of Art Deco landscapes, optical illusions, immense feats of warped perspective, lashings of colour, and an inativive spreading of images across several panels, as well as some spectacular larger panels.
The only criticism I would have of this classic strip, is that being so early, the use of narrative text at the bottom of the panel below the speech balloons would often confuse the reading order and break up the strips continuity.


Similar in appearance to another famous cartoon little girl called Nancy, Argentinian cartoonist Quino's creation Malfada is a young girl with strong political opinions and a desire for world peace and a love of humanity. This is a strip is considered by its creator to be socio-political with strong family values thus explaining the stronger presence of adult characters in it as opposed to Peanuts which featured none (except for the omnipresent yet invisible teacher).

The Kin-der-Kids-Lyonel Feininger

Another pioneer in comics early history and a deliberate step away from the violence of other kids strips like Happy Hooligan etc. Serialised in The Chicago Sunday Tribune between the years 1906 and 1907 The Kin-der-kids is a beautifully coloured, painted, detailed, whimsical strip similar in vein to Little Nemo in which a group of children travel the world in an antique bath tub and use their various 'skills' (bookishness, huge appetite, strenght etc) to help them out in their adventures. Visually stunning and sparing and effective in its use of dialogue, some of the adult characters possessing strange almost malnourished faces.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Review: Funny Girls, Cartooning for equality

Funny girls is a great little companion book to an exhibition of the same name curated by Diane Atkinson. Published by Penguin this set me back a mere 1p (minus post and packaging) and I can safely say it was worth it. The book is a short yet sweet (and by no means complete) history of the women's movement and the struggle for equality told with great wit and simplicity through the medium of cartoons. It encompasses some classic moments and members of British cartooning from Punch magazine and beyond such as Giles, Ronald Searle, and Osbert Lancaster. There are anti-suffragette cartoons playing on irrational fears and stereotypes (such as the breakdown of the family unit and the 'ugly feminist') and of course there is the iconic moment Emiline Pankhurst slapped a police officer. It's the sympathetic cartoons by the more switched on members of the male cartooning establishment that stand out for me. Some of these cartoonists even go as far as to use a female pseudonym such as Vicky or take on the maiden name of the cartoonists mother . These cartoons usually do a great job of making the men in question, and the male institutions, look pompous, absurd, obsolete, and ripe with double standards, therefore removing part of the power they have over women, at least momentarily.
Of course cartooning isn't the final solution and the question of whether it can change peoples minds is tackled by each artist in the book which is a nice way of making things flow. However when the female cartoonists started to get hold of the pen they did so with bite and they did so with style. Although some of them took to mimicking the great gag cartoonists of The New Yorker (albeit with much better, more modern, more relevant punchlines) some of these artists display a sparing use of line that adds to the humour and the impact of the story. Despite criticism that cartoons are stereotypes and are not an imaginative art form I feel that when the 'less is more' approach is properly utilised, we are left to fill in the gaps of the picture and form an appropriate emotional and critical response. One such artist in this book who manages this pretty well is Jacky Fleming who sums up the mood of an entire picture with limited lines. These gappy, sparse, and 'erratic' lines are similar in some ways to the Roberta Gregory's infamous Bitchy Bitch comics which has a constant trace of anger throughout. It's easy to see that these artists have a lot to be angry about but they don't let themselves be entirely defined by this anger and tend to use humour as a weapon too. This book has thankfully filled in a slight gap in my knowledge to do with UK female comic artists as before this the only one I really knew well was the brilliant Posy Simmonds (who of course is well represented in this book). It also is a great resource book giving you names of artists of considerable influence to go explore. As someone who likes to devour his social history through cartoons and as a feminist this book is an absolute essential addition to my collection. Covers everything from The Great Double Standard to the juggling of home life and work life. A great find!

(click on pictures to enlarge and read captions)