Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Comic Classics: Its Better With Your Shoes Off-Ann Cleveland

Anne Cleveland was a cartoonist working from the 1930's to the 1960's. She first started out drawing cartoons about college life (as she was at this time enrolled in Vassar College in New York), ESPECIALLY life for female students. She stayed on with the college art department after graduation where she met fellow graduate and future collaborator Jean Anderson. Although there are rumours that her work may have appeared in The New Yorker (her style suited the magazine perfectly at the time) the magazine itself has no records of this. Mainly she published a lot of cartoons about college life, as well as illustrations for The Ladies Home Journal and humorous home life type books (mainly in collaboration with other writers).
Her most famous book however, is one that I can now proudly say I own. Based on her own experiences living in Japan, It's better with your shoes off is a humorous look at the culture clash between East and West through the eyes of Mr and Mrs West (along with their two children). The title itself is a humorous nod to that most Japanese of rituals Rather than pandering to stereotypes, Cleveland spends as much time making fun of the Americans attempt to assimilate into Japanese life as she does making fun of the peculiarities of Japanese ritual and tradition. Her line work is beautiful, smooth, and almost resembles calligraphy in the way it flows. Most of the cartoons spare the details and instead work out a subtle humour for your pleasure, but when Cleveland gives us an expansive drawing the little details are everywhere. A personal favourite image of mine from the book is this double page spread of the traditional viewing of the cherry blossoms.

A lot of the images work in sequence, but not all are confined to the rigid conformity of the standard comics panel. The wordless images adds extra punch to the eventual punchline and the traditional gag cartoon format of caption over speech bubble adds to the sophisticated feel of the thing.
There are also some great dual images contrasting our perceived view of the East with the actual reality (the tourist brochure of the hot spring, and Mr Wests first geisha party).
Of course there is an element of nostalgia to the visual style of this book and also an extent to which the representations in the book have aged slightly. While not exactly showing a Japan of of the Edo period this books prompts the question: how much has the national character of Japan changed? Do they still hold on to their traditions so loyally? One of the few hints of a new Japan in this book is an image entitled 'cultural exchange' which shows the new face of the Japan, the youth. This was a post-war book put together at the beginnings of Japan's race to provide electronics and entertainment equipment to boost their economy, the race which has very much been won now. I wonder what a modern cartoonist would find on a similar cartoon journey of Japan? Certain aspects of this book are essentially timeless though, such as the guide to Japanese food for the uninitiated that she provides, and the 'shake or bow?' conundrum.
Despite the connotations in the title of this collection Cleveland does not lead us to believe that Eastern culture is better than Western culture or vice versa. She shows each to have their own unique pros and cons. Such a balanced view in a time when Japanmania was not yet in full swing (there's nothing more annoying than Gwen Staffani's 'Harajuku Girls'), makes this, along with the fantastic cartoons, an essential thing to own.