Saturday, 31 December 2011

Find of the week: Professor Balthazar

Christmas time for my family is usually a time for following the links to Amazon I provide and then on Christmas day furrowing their brows in confusion as I open my presents and they wonder what it is exactly they have bought. This year was no different.

'Thanks mum, thanks dad'
'That's is it exactly?'
'Oh it's an animated Croatian children's program from the sixties'
'Oh...of course!'

Professor Balthazar is a glorious technicolour invention from Croatian animator Zlatko Grgic and the famed Zagreb Films animation studio. Visually it resembles the 60's pop art and colour obsession best represented by films like Yellow Submarine and The Point(*1).

It follows the exploits of a friendly neighbourhood inventor who solves all the towns problems using his surreal looking inventing machine. When the local street car driver forms a friendship with a down and out bird, the bird teaches him to fly in return for his kindness, but his new skill inadvertently causes the driver to loose his job, that is until Balthazar invents a potion to turn his street car into a flying street car.

The lovely painted backgrounds, the jolting movement(*2), the short but incredibly upbeat and catchy theme song, the strange way in which birds are drawn (huge cumbersome legs with boots on the end that move a lot more than their actual wings) all make for a perfect package.

In a time when all the beloved children's characters of our youth are being cloned Invasion of theBodysnatchers stylee using CGI its nice to look back to a time when childrens television had soul and inventive joy.
(*1) If you haven't seen this I highly recommend it, a fantastically animated fable about racial tolerance narrated by Ringo Star
(*2) This jolting movement is perhaps a nod to the breakaway from realist animation and adoption of modernist principles in animation that occurred during the 50's for America andBritain but started later in the 60's for Europe. In this type of animation they would deliberately highly the painterly and drawn surface and limit movements (often skipping from one side of the action to the other instantaneously) in order not to attempt to disguise the fact that these were moving drawings on paper. These principles are discussed at great lengths in Amid Amidi'sfantastic book Cartoon Modern.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Blog of the week: Surrealistic etiquette

Elliot Baggot is one half of the editing team (along with fellow cartoonist Mike Medaglia)for the excellent new small press magazine Dot Comics, a glossy well designed publication that explores the links between digital comics and print. The magazine features reprints of a selection of well respected small press webcomics such as Phillipa Rice's My Cardboard Life and David O'Connel's Tozo ,creator interviews, and an insightful article on the future of digits comics from man-in-the-know Paul Gravett.

However Elliot is a talented cartoonist in his own respect and obviously has a flair for design, as the sophisticated yet deliciously simple layout of his blog suggests. His blog caught my eye because it intermingles nicely reflections on his own process of comics and his involvement with the UK small press, amongst reviews and (nicely tying in with my last post) his thoughts on more classical art, fashion, and architecture.

Elliot's writing is articulate and although slightly academic is easy to digest-which is by no means a bad thing, it makes the whole thing a pleasure to read, you can sense his passion and the breath of knowledge for his subject and it tends to rub off on the reader.

Elliot's comic he produced as his entry to the London Print Studio comics internship (sadly now in its last year I believe) is also fantastic, a brilliant example of how malleable comics is as an art form, as here Elliot follows in McCloud's footsteps and combines the academic/cultural/historical with the pictorial, giving a cultural history of the perception of comics.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Review: Asterios Polyp-David Mazzuchelli

A while ago I posted a link to an interesting review of Josh Simmon's haunting wordless graphic novel House which digressed into a brief but enlightening academic discussion of the link between comics and architecture. Although Mazzuchelli was mentioned in this article it was a very fleeting mention, which is surprising given the relevance he holds with the argument. A lot of Mazzuchelli's work thus far (notably Batman Year One and ESPECIALLY his claustrophobic and innovative adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass) have explored space in a unique way. Asterios Polyp, his first original graphic novel is no exception.

But the fact that Asterios, the books protagonist, is an architect, is not the thing that makes this work immediately architectural. In the true style of some of the greats of architecture such as Miles Van Der Rohe in this graphic novel form follows function.

The experimentation with panels, word balloons, and splash pages is daring and bold at times, but NEVER at the expense of the story. In fact I would go as far as to say that I have not seen as perfect pacing in a comic as within the pages of this graphic novel. Where a panel is meant to be a punch, it truly packs a punch. You can feel it as a punctuation mark, as an overwhelming full stop. Everything adds up to the whole. Be it the different type faces, the limited and unusual colour palette (purples, blues, pinks, and yellows) or the overlapping of different drawing styles (from straight laced cartooning to pure abstraction), none of it takes away from the feel of the thing.

Mazzuchelli appropriately channels Saul Stienberg, a boundary skipping artist with a taste for the architectural. He presents people broken down into geometrical shapes, rough sketchy shading, even made entirely out of letters. It is in these moments that the visual does well to represent two people coming together, falling apart, working out differences, or allowing themselves to become vulnerable. In his more sketchy moments which are mostly wordless abstract and full of myth, symbolism, ugly surrealism, he evokes both French artist Blutch and the wordless woodcut novels of Frans Masereel and Lyn Ward (whose work often involved being swallowed up by the big city).

Scratch under the surface of this work and you have a relatively simple story, a simple relationship trope. But simple layers are added to the story such as musings on Asterio's lost twin, his constant referral to the academic world, and the introduction of jealousy into the relationship.
The Yin and Yang of Asterois and his wife/ex-wife Hanna is a chaotic balance of forms, the differences that somehow hold them together best represented by their opposing obsessions within architecture and sculpture. His is a reliance on straight lines and cold-hearted logic and analysis (although he does deceive himself at times) and hers is more about the freedom of form feelings and intuition.
Asterois uses his academic dissection of the arts as an attempt to explain human behaviour, mainly his own, through diagrams and references. It is this arrogance that quickly becomes short-sightedness.
Of course this does sadly represent the standard binary biased view of gender(*1) but Mazzuchelli does not represent Hanna as irrational and lacking control because of this, ultimately it is Asterios who has the most to lose from his behaviour.
The comparison to Yin and Yang is an appropriate one to sum up my feelings on this graphic novel. It takes a truly great comic book artist to make a graphic novel that works equally well on the written level as well as the visual level. Every element of the story is in perfect balance, the words become pictures, the pictures become words, everything is naturally interwoven. The storytelling consists of a simple thread with multiple complex threads running off of it, the style perfectly suits the characters(*2), the mood, and the pace. Another image that runs throughout the book is that of the clock or watch, often Swiss and efficient. So would it be safe to call Asterio's Polyp the Ikea of graphic novels? Well yes, but then I'd say it's a bit easier to put together than your average flat pack desk.

(*1) For a much more articulate examination of these ideas, including how the visual in Aesterio's Polyp reinforces certain stereotypes, you can't go far wrong reading this. Personally I think Mazzuchelli uses these visual binaries to express the limitations of acting according to apparently ingrained gender behaviour.
(*2) Asterios's sharp angular head versus Hanna's curvy doe-eyed bean head.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Comic classics: Blood

Kent William's and JM DeMatteis's Blood is a visual classic even if the plot is never quite fully involved or realised. The characters drift around on a sparse almost invisible plain weaving together fantastical and mythical elements that don't quite match. The plot outline if you ignore all the meandering diversions, is fairly basic, but the structure is slightly jerky in places and feels like it has deliberate gaps, which could add to the overall mystical and ethereal quality of the story.

Visually Williams belongs to the 'painterly' school of comic artists who take a fine art approach and spin it violently on its head: Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, Ashley Wood, Ben Templesmith, and Melinda Gebbie with her magnum opus Lost Girls all spring to mind. The majority of these artists acknowledge a debt to whole range of classic artists (Sienkiewicz evokes Klimt in Stray Toasters and Williams quotes Egon Schiele (both literally and through his brush strokes) in Blood). But they also owe a great deal to master illustrator Barren Storey whose illustrated journal experiments are great insight into the huge potential for the fine arts and comics collision (as well as the extensive use of collage and the endless borrowing/stealing from a whole range of other source materials be they high brow or low brow, you can read more on Storey here).
Blood also has a striking similarity to the look of a comic from the Vertigo line (the indie offshoot of DC) even down to the limited palette of colours (flesh tones, reds, earthy yellows browns and greens) and the lettering bears a striking resemblance to the lettering used in Stray Toasters(*1)

Williams is less about the collage effects and photoshop trickery of McKean, and the schizophrenic switches in style that Sienkiewicz employs so I guess out of all the artist he would be considered the closest to a 'classicist' with his use of ink and wash and controlled but by no means restrictive watercolours, his exploration of the two main characters bodies is at times like a life drawing class/anatomy lesson. There are however moments when his art is more scratchy and free to match the internal violence of the story, splashes of paint, thinner sketchier lines etc.

It's the frequent nudity of the two main character's that help to take this vampire story out of the cliched realm. There is an Adam and Eve, beginning of the world feel to it all, and although they appear much more evolved there is something slightly prehistoric, caveman like about it all (this is probably down to the sparse landscapes and indeed the caves).

Blood is a hybrid of multicultural myth and superstition: witch doctors, Indian gurus, fantastic lands with simplistic descriptive names, an element of Greek myth, a cloud of awe around the female maternal body, a primitive brooding force, a journey, all topped up with the strange floating figure in a space suit that is a typical Sienkiewicz style device(*2). The way in which he draws the imposing force of the other vampires seems like it could have been a big influence on the way Ben Templesmith came to draw his vampires in 30 Days Of Night (particularly in the way he draws their mouths/teeth).

Stray Toasters is very dark and darkly comic at that, whereas Blood (although not without its dark undertones) tries to add love to the vampire myth, love and resistance to the hunger, without all the horrible sparkling skin of Twilight. There is a brief moment too where Blood is jarred into the real world and becomes embroiled with everyday worries including jobs, relationships, and eventually cancer, and these concerns are written and drawn about in such a way that they seem not to be a mirror to the central action of the story but a metaphorical parallel. I guess mentioning Greek myths is fairly appropriate as the whole thing does read both in its visual and written elements like a Greek tragedy about vampires. Classical yet distinctly modern, Blood is a shining example of why an injection of the fine art approach in comics doesn't always mean that comic will be stifled and boring.

(*1)Thanks to the magic of the internet I searched the letterer Gaspar Saladino and found out that he is a 50 year veteran of comic book lettering and his work for Dave McKean's Arkham Aslyum, Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller's Elektra Assasian, and Sandman Mystery Theatre, has very much helped established the look of slightly off-kilter takes on the superhero genre.
(*2)Both Elektra Assassin and Stray Toasters feature incomplete half human half machine figures although in Blood this figure is not a threatening one but childlike and innocent.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Book cover of the week

When I think about what makes a great book cover, I often like to think of the package as a whole: how it feels in your hand, the quality of the paper, how convenient it is to carry around(*1), the smell, all the kind of things that make me wonder why I still haven't won Most Eligible Bachelor award five years in a row.
Therefore manga therefore has always caused a bit of a knee jerk prejudice to surface in me. The manga section of bookstores like Waterstones are often packed full of multiple volumes of a pulpy throwaway quality with huge Japanese text on the front and characters that resemble something off Drag
onball Z or Streetfighter that tend to make my bad taste monitor go off the chart.
It is always a relief then to see this kind of material handled well. My feeling about formats means I have always had a preference for the hard or paperback graphic novel over the comic book. There are exceptions to the rule of course, if something good is done with the design, and the paper is of good quality. But generally I like comics
to be treated as books, as something worthwhile, not to be thrown away, an object of value and quality.
Certain publishers have taken this approach both to graphic novels and to manga. Drawn and quarterly did this with Yoshihiro Tatsumi's autobiogra
phical tome A Drifting life and some of the reprints of Tezuka's more adult/alternative looking work is pretty nice. In fact most 'gekiga'(*2) reprints are treated with respect to match their content.
Penguin aren't a publisher that are first and forthright known for publishing graphic novels but the ones that they have published (amongst them Ma
us, a collection of comics from Raw magazine, some great work from Indian comic artist Sarnath Namerjee) are of high quality. I suppose it helps that as a company Penguin have a history of fantastic design behind them and they known how to best to treat a book.

The 14th Dalai Lama, a manga biography by Tetsu Saiwai is certainly no exception. The design is simple yet effective, from the slightly raised and elegant text to the limited palette of colours and the sparing details on the back and the spine. This book, despite the very typical manga visual style contained within(*3), demands to be taken seriously. The way in which the acknowledgements, author bio, and bibliography are laid out within the book give the story a scholarly and authentic grounding. It also reminds me in its thinness and design of another line of books that Penguin recently designed of slightly obscure eastern European modern fiction and essays such as War of the newts by Karel Capek and The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek, although the designers were slightly more inventive and witty with these covers.
And sadly I note, it's one of those books that feels great to hold (yes I do need to get out more)


(*1)Although this isn't a given, some of the nicest looking graphic novels (i.e Craig Thompson's Habibi) could be used to kill a man
(*2) Meaning 'dramatic pictures' a termed used to distinguish itself from regular manga)
(*3) It makes effective use of the unusual juxtaposition of slightly slapstick and hyperbole emotions and Manga iconography with a serious underlying plot such as in the classic true story of Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen by

Thursday, 1 December 2011

'Depressing subject matter' (or) The stigma of graphic medicine. Leeds 17/11/11

Having read a lot about the previous two graphic medicine conferences it was very exciting for me not only to finally get to go to one, but also to be able to take part.

For some people the idea of an all day conference on stigma, which covered such potentially depressing subject matter as disability, death, illness and decline, probably sounds like the precursor to a bottle of wine and a handful of sleeping pills, but the atmosphere in Leeds on the day was fantastic.

Thriving, eclectic, warm, encouraging, inspiring, and with plenty of laughs to be had, this open discourse between artists, academics, and health care professionals is surely an optimistic sign of the times.

Comics as a medium is pretty used to being stigmatised, as sub-literate rubbish for children, as well as being a dangerous influence on children's behaviour, morals, and intellectual growth. So what better medium in which to explore the different ways in which stigma works and ways in which to overcome it?

Many of the artists/authors at the conference talked about the troubles they faced trying to tell their stories in comic book form. People often found it offensive that such serious topics were to be reduced to cartoons. Even my dad when I told him that my talk had got a lot of laughs, thought that this was a bad thing, after all, surely my work was meant to be serious? There is an assumption that no humour can be found in these situations and that medical narratives are always to be dry, bleak, and depressing. As the experiences written and drawn about in these comics are very much real, and have happened, then it is safe to assume that the humour that is found in these situations is very much real as well.

Another stigma that faces the comic artist/writer of graphic medicine (and indeed in any writer who chooses to write about such things) is this idea of catharsis. A view that a majority of the speakers shared was that labelling their work as cathartic was perhaps oversimplifying things. For example Nicola Streeton does not consider her graphic novel 'Billy, You, and Me' (written about the death of her two year old son) to be cathartic. For her the catharsis took place at the time, and she wants her work to be considered simply as art, as a story. Sixteen years has passed since her sons death and while she can never consider herself to be truly 'over it' (the heading of her talk was 'The stigma of mourning too long') she is a little taken aback when the media interest surrounding her book has people asking in depth details about her son's death.

Nicola combats all these possible misconceptions by (in my opinion) exaggerating certain aspects of her personality both in person and within the pages of her graphic novel. This helps to put us at ease, and shows us that we can laugh alongside her, we become much more empathetic because of this. Despite the 'depressing subject matter' Nicola is by no means (to quote the title of the graphic novel by cartoonist Brick) a Depresso. Her talk is a performance, her slightly eccentric, cheerful demeanour reels us in. Nicola's background may be academic (she self-referentially quotes Freud and Foucalt and talks about her and her husbands unshakable belief in 'the talking cure') but she is by no means stilted or boring. Have you ever seen anyone use a tap dance routine to make a point about stigma and memory or interview themselves using a woolly hat to distinguish themselves as interviewer and interviewee? Nicola ties academia to passion, frees it from it's cage, and makes it relevant.

Sarah Leavitt talked specifically about the stigma of the caregiver and much in the same way I am trying to approach the idea of the model illness sufferer in my own comic, she deconstructs the notion of the perfect caregiver. She is incredibly open about moments of anger and frustration, both towards her mother during her decline, her father's treatment of her mother, and even her jealous rage towards the family cat. She also talked about about her sadness at the removal of boundaries not previously crossed and intimacies previously shared between her parents when helping to clean and dress her mother. Central to Sarah's story was her finding love with her partner Donimo at such a difficult time. Now without intending to put a heteronormative spin on things and thus discredit the importance of Sarah's lesbianism to the story, I would argue that this segment of the story is still entirely relatable to a heterosexual readership. Anyone going through or having gone through similar things to Sarah with her mother would probably would have had someone close to them (a partner or a friend) on whom they could unload all their ugliness, their sadness, their weakness, and frustration, without judgment and with total support.

Sarah also made one last interesting point. As a writer/artist she found herself going through these painful experiences whilst at the same time knowing she had to record them. There is a strange doubleness going on as the person living the experience and the persona already editing it down in their minds, sometimes you forgot that it might be painful for other people close to you or the person the work concerns, to read these things at a later date.

Paula Knight talked about her graphic memoir in progress The Facts Of Life, a very refreshing look at miscarriage and the child-centric view of women's role in life. Paula is clearly a feminist pro-choice, and not a firm believer in that whole anatomy is destiny stick. However she wanted children but sadly, this was not to be. In becoming a woman without purpose (as some people might say) she began to notice even more society's attitude towards motherhood and non-motherhood.

The subtle language pressed upon would be mothers, those who choose not to have children, and those who wait until it's 'too late' always point the finger of blame upon the woman (the word 'barren' certainly has judgement overtones). In Billy, You, and Me Nicola Streeton goes through the motions believing her sons death is her fault because she had an abortion when she was younger, and Paula too listed all the possible reasons she might be to blame for losing her child, including the fact that on a subconscious level she might not have been ready to have one.

Paula was self-conscious that he work was dressing, but many people reassured her that she had extracted humour from the situation, especially the awkward conversations with old friends who wondered, given her age, why she hadn't had any children yet. A wonderful device in comics is to be able to have more than one thing going on in a panel and both Nicola and Paula use this to humorous effect, projecting what they think people might be thinking whilst they are saying something entirely different. Paula's style is much cleaner than Nicola's (not that Nicola's scratchy style doesn't suit the story perfectly) but doesn't suffer from being boring because of this. There is some fantastic use of paint and collage and the symbolism I have seen of hers so far is inventive and funny. As what we were privy to at the conference was only the tip of the iceberg I look forward to seeing more in the future.

MK Czerwicz (a.k.a Comic Nurse) gave a talk about her ongoing graphic novel project, an oral history of the aids unit in which she worked for a number of years before it shut down. In her talk she tipped her metaphorical hat to Studs Terkel the great oral historian famous for the set text 'Working', in which he extracted a large amount of blood from a large amount of stones and painted a huge sociological landscape of race, gender, class, sexuality, and more. MK talked about her unit as one that broke all the rules when it came to patient care, by really emphasising the care part. Sitting on patients beds, visiting patients outside of hospital, forming close personal bonds with patients, all of the things that they were taught in nurses school, were a big no no. She came to write this history because her Internet searches came were fruitless, and she could not believe no one had done in before. She missed and wanted to make people aware of the 'community of crisis' that had formed in the unit at the time. Indeed even as a heterosexual male (watching documentaries like We Were Here and The Times Of Harvey Milk, I find myself getting nostalgic for what were incredibly painful times for a lot of people, purely because whist a lot protest these days seems to me to be without focus and to go nowhere, back then (and I know my vision is extremely rose-tinted) they seemed to be fighting for something worth fighting for, and they were actually making a difference. Testament to this is the fact that despite having the highest mortality rates in the country MK's unit was constantly referred to as a fun and supportive place. Like a lot of the other artists I've already discussed, MK's is a very personal history as well as being a straight up oral history, something which her simplistic cartoony style conveys brilliantly. I had more to say on MK's work, but realising that this is becoming a bit of an essay, I think it's best to let her work speak for herself. You can read the first part of her oral history online here and read an interesting article on a talk she gave on her talk to make World Aids Day here.

Also speaking at the conference was the cartoonist Brick ,Lu Miranda (who talked about the visually stunning La Parentheses, a graphic novel about epilepsy and memory loss, that sadly I think is only available in French) and Mita Mahato who talked about the use of silence in David Small's brilliant Stitches.

Finally fellow Bristol artist Katie Green (whom I spoke with at Laydeez Do Comics in June) talked in further detail about her forthcoming graphic novel about anorexia and sexual abuse Lighter than my shadow. In particular she opened up a little more about her experiences with sexual abuse and the stigmas surrounding it. She tapped into the patriarchal blame the victim mentality which she admitted was even ingrained into her brain as a young adult, a mentality that that is still very much prevalent in society today. I always admire Katie's bravery talking about such difficult subjects.

My own talk went pretty well, I had planned some humorous moments but due to nerves had sounded pretty robotic when running through it in front of friends, so I was a bit taken aback when I had to pause for the audience to stop laughing. The Q+A session at the end gave me a lot to mull over as well, which was good.

The day ended with a keynote speech by Darryl Cunningham (complete with irate accusations of exploitation during the Q+A session) and a final summary by Ian Williams before we went and gorged ourselves silly on Chinese in the evening.

The popularity of mine and Emma's moniker 'Sicker than thou' has also got us thinking about the possibility of maybe doing badges and t-shirts in the future.

Thanks to the two Ian's and Maria, and all the other speakers and people I met over the weekend. Probably the best academic conference I've been to (OK so I've only been to two, i may be a little bias) so let's hope they keep on going into the future!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Animation of the week-The Old Man and The Sea (Alaksandar Petrov)

It's been a bit quiet here for a while as I have been busy with my own comics, but I intend to resume posting, if not at my original post, then at least a couple of times a week.

Quite a while ago I picked up a book called Who's Who in Animated Cartoons by Jeff Lenburg from The Last Book Shop in Bristol, a bookshop where everything is priced two pounds and you can occasionally find an obscure treasure amongst the more mainstream reads. This particular book is something a mammoth tome, a Bible for anyone with more than a passing interest in animation. As well as listening every single significant major or minor player from the most famous animation studios, it lists more obscure and experimental animators such as John and Faith Hubley, John Canemaker, and Kihachiro Kawamoto.

Another one of the animators listed in the book Alkesandar Petrov was a Russian animator who developed a very unique, and very tricky, animation technique that only a handful of animators ever mastered. Using a slow-drying oil paint he would paint his animation onto multiple layers of glass in order to give depth to his visuals using his fingertips instead of a brush. To have such control with his fingers is a very astonishing and enviable skill and because of the level of work you can see going into it it gives you the impression that his animation was done in the 60s or 70s when in fact he was working from the 80's until the end of the 90s.

Stylistically he employs a romantically tinted realism which suits his work as a lot of it is literary adaptions of Puskin, Platonov, and Dostoevsky. However arguably his finest work is his twenty minute adaptation of Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea with its warm colours, its shifting sense of scene and its relaxed tropical pace at the beginning. Of course this is just the impression I get from the opening clip viewed on youtube which you can view here, as with a lot of the more obscure animators in the book, his work is hard to come by and more expensive, but you can get The Old Man and The Sea for about £35 on Amazon.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Review: 25,000 years of erotic freedom-Alan Moore


An exploration of The Pornographic Imagination:

When you read this book and then look at a picture of Alan Moore, the two things don't seem to correspond. Alan Moore is a very strange looking figure, a hairy behemoth with huge gothic rings who openly worships a snake-god/hand-puppet called Glycon. But in reality, as comes across very well in this book, Alan Moore is a person who seems well versed in everything, from history to philosophy, maths and the arts. His writing is intelligent, witty, extremely cohesive, and makes him appear very normal indeed. In fact his writing style and the way his argument flows so easily normalises the argument to the point that any other viewpoint seems ridiculous.

But I get ahead of myself. It would make sense that Alan Moore would write this treaty on the decline of pornography as art form across the ages, after all his three volume erotic masterpiece illustrated by his wife pioneering underground American cartoonist Melinda Gebbe is a definite attempt to make pornography credible and beautiful again. He is also extremely sexually progressive. Before marrying Melinda Gebbe he was in a three way relationship with his previous wife and her girlfriend, and he compiled and published through his own publishing company Mad Love a one off anthology comic called AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) which was a response to a controversial proposed government clause designed to outlaw the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. This is a comic book I would very much love to own as it boasts a very fine line up of writing and artistic talent including Howard Cruse, Dave Mckean, Kevin O'Neil, Savage Pencil, Posy Simmonds, Art Spiegelman, Bill Sienkiewicz, Oscar Zarate, etc. One of the stories from the anthology called The Mirror Of Love written by Moore is available from Top Shelf.

What Alan Moore does with this book is put sex at the centre of a vibrant and forward thinking society and swiftly dispels all myths that an overabundance of decadence was the cause of the demise of certain famous civilisations. In fact, in the most famous case of the fall of Rome, he blames the eventually forced conversion to Christianity which meant that forgien troops who originally felt more at home fighting for the empire as they were allowed to worship their own gods and observe their own customs, would no longer be so willing, leaving the empire vulnerable to attacks from all sides.

His opening sentence sets the tone: 'Whether we speak personally or palaeoanthropologically, it's fair to say that we humans start off fiddling with ourselves'. To Moore, its pretty common sense that sex is a vital part of human existence, so its repression by religion, and its repression in art, seem absurd and illogical to him.
Moore's basic argument is very simple: Sexually open and progressive societies such as Rome and Greece gave us civilisation: philosophy, maths, running water, heating systems, roads, great works of art and literature, etc. Sexually repressed civilisations brought us back into the Dark Ages. Even at one stage the Christian church embraced erotic art but by attaching the stigma of sin and shame, and by using it as a moral lesson and a fearful warning, it has left a very long sticky residue throughout history concerning our attitude to pornography and sex. It is this shameful attachment that has affected pornography ever since, taking it down into the shadows, particularly in the Victorian period where (in Moore's opinion) the last remnants of truly great erotic art died off in a gasp of shame (Beadsley on his death bed, the trail of Oscar Wilde etc). The shame has lead to its degradation, its decline in quality and merit. In fact merit is a quality that Moore thinks pornography should try and regain, quoting the infamous obscenity trial against Alan Ginsberg's Howl where the Judge was in favour of the poem because of its 'redeeming social importance'. Pornography enjoyed a brief resurgence with high end production values during the sexual revolution of the 60's with the underground comics (although the sex in these would often have brutal misogynistic undertones) and importantly with the liberating mass viewings in cinemas of pornography, but soon it all became commercialised and crass, and with the introduction of the home video boom in the 80's, pornography was more readily available but once again stigmatised as the pursuit of the lone weirdo.
Overall this book is thoroughly well researched, well argued, and entertaining. It is difficult to get across the amount of different strains of the argument and the various references Moore makes in the space of a single review (although it is worth mentioning his discussion of the uneasy relationship between the anti-porn feminists and the Christian right) but Moore does so in such a way as to make the reading an easy experience that seems to be over too soon. Perhaps the only small hole in Moore's argument is that these sexually open civilisations were also as much war-faring ones as our modern day sexually repressed cultures, if not more so, but this is a minor bone of contention in such a pleasurable book (puns not intentional there).

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Last night a comic saved my life: Comics & Medicine, a graphic revolution.

Comics and graphic novels with a medical narrative seem to be to the best example of comics that can actually make a difference to peoples lives. I've always been a little weary that political comics while giving a useful insight into the life of someone fairly remote from us have an aspect of 'preaching to converted' about them. Reading them won't stop a war in some remote country, and it will probably won't shift perceptions too far as it's highly likely that if you've sought this particular graphic novel out you're already of a relatively liberal mindset. Whereas with medical comics the issues discussed are more personal and close to the bone. Cancer can happen to anyone, and is something that most people have had a degree of experience with. Mental health issues as well, although more stigmatised than most illness, are a lot more common than people think, being stressed and feeling a little bit down are things that happen to pretty much everyone, but when these things are left unchecked they can often lead to unchecked feelings and anxiety that can often be difficult to understand. Mental health issues are not a sign of a weak will and mind (and neither are they on the other hand an expression of complete creative genius or something to glamorise, we need to find some sort of middle ground).

As well as being reassuring things to be read by a person suffering from an illness, or a friend or relative of that person (Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters, a graphic novel about HIV immediately springs to mind, expect an indepth review soon) but the process of creating it for the artist can often bring them out of the very funk they are describing. For example in Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales it is the recognition he starts to receive for his strips that brings him out of isolation and therefore becomes part of the process of healing.
Katie Green, who I mentioned in my previous post, also mentioned in her talk that when she decided that when she wanted to be an illustrator, this was very much the fork in the road between her dying and her living.

Of course, you may complain, 'I don't have a creative bone in my body!', 'I can't draw!', but there are plenty of comic artists that tell their stories just as well with a slightly more primitive stripped down style (I'm thinking John Porcellino, and Sarah Leavitt's Tangles). Even the process of keeping a diary about your experiences is a useful one. To me the rising discipline of Medical Humanities which draws from literature and art when treating patients, is a highly important one. At it's roots, it seems to me to be about treating the patients as well as the disease, stressing the humanity in medical humanities (of course it would be fairly redundant without a certain degree of good medical care as well). But the fact that medical students are being encouraged to create their own comics in certain places about their own experiences (as well as thinking more carefully about what it might be like to be in their patients shoes) can only be a good thing. In my opinion I think that these graphic novels should be made more readily available not just to doctors, nurses, and medical students, but to the patients themselves(*1). Try to imagine for a second the conflicted emotions and guilt of a person suffering from mental health issues for the first time, and then imagine the relief they might feel knowing that they are not alone when reading something like Psychiatric Tales. The artists of these books often talk about creating the book they wish was there when they were suffering, it would be great to see that these books got into the hands of those who need them the most.

On a final note this post was inspired by the wide range of internet coverage of the recent two day Comics & Medicine Conference in Chigago organised by Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec and playing host to the likes of Scott McCloud, David Small, Brian Fies, John Porcellino, and Phoebe Gloeckner. Personally I wish I could travel back in time and attend this.

Publishers weekly coverage.

New York Times Coverage

Sarah Leavitt's blog coverage.

Brian Fies coverage

Scott McCloud coverage.

John Porcellino's coverage.

John Swogger's coverage.

and finally:

Paul Gravett at last years London conference talking to Darryl Cunningham, Brian Fies, and Phillipa Perry.

(*1) I know that libaries of medical comics are starting to be made avaliable to medical proffesionals and students but I'm not sure if they are being made avaliable to patients yet.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Laydeez Do Comics 20th June with Katie Green, Charles Hatlfield, Joumana Medlej, and myself

It's something of an extreme rarity for me to blog about something I have done rather than something someone else has done but on the 20th of June I had the extreme pleasure and the honour of speaking at the monthly event Laydeez Do Comics in London. Laydeez Do Comics was founded by comic artist and curator Nicola Streetham and artist, writer, curator, and academic Sarah Lightman. What started out as more of a reading and discussion group which set out to prove that ladies not only read but DO comics, has now blossomed into something of an institution. Dropping the book group aspect to focus more on bringing the best in speakers from the comics and illustration world, both established (Trina Robbins, Melinda Gebbe, Posy Simmonds) and non-established, male and female, LDC boasts a fantastically friendly and thriving atmosphere, which is inspiring and warm. It's a great place to meet people for whom the medium of comics is a passion, and to discover new things along the way.

I was hugely nervous about speaking myself, but having witnessed the general atmosphere of these events a number of times before, I was more nervous about the act of speaking in front of an audience than the response I would get (although I was perhaps a little self-conscious of looking like the dud in the room went put up against a soon to be published artist, a published and highly regarded academic, and a comics artist from Lebanon). Thankfully, the obligatory round-the-room introductions with the added question 'name something that has scared you recently' was a nice ice-breaker and it was reassuring to see some of my fellow speakers also admit to nerves.

I was speaking about my autobiographical comic in progress about my life with the terminal illness Cystic Fibrosis. The one thing that's always drawn me to autobiographical comics is their non-idealised humanity, and this was something that I really hoped to try and achieve with my own work. I wanted to talk about all the things that I had done, or thought, concerning my CF that didn't exactly make me the model CF sufferer (which is why I called this first issue of the comic The Selfish Gene). I wanted to offer an alternative to what I like to call (in a typical nod to my Cultural Studies background) 'the poster-child syndrome', the image of the angelic smiling child with a terminal illness which to me is completely devoid of personality and places the person with a terminal illness way too easily into the role of passive victim. My biggest inspiration since the age of 17 is a guy called Bob Flanagan (I showed a clip from the documentary film Sick, which is about Bob, during my presentation). Bob Flanagan was an American performance artist, poet, and writer who at the time of his death at the age of 43 was the longest living survivor of CF. He was also a masochist, a submissive, and a prominent member of the S+M scene who combatted the pain of his illness, with more pain, but ultimately pain he was in control of. He was also an incredibly intelligent, warm, and funny figure whose gallows humour*(1) (along with the discovery of the hilarious and inappropriate gag cartoons of John Callahan) helped me determine the way I wanted to write and draw about my own experiences. After all, if you can't laugh about terminal illness what can you laugh at? I finished off my presentation by talking about another comic that I am working on, the semi-autobiographical 'Confessions of a self-hating male' which was inspired by my best friend calling me a self-hating male after spotting that I was reading a book called Women without men. This collection of strips is a chance for me to have fun by exaggerating aspects of my personality as a 'cowardly feminist', a straight white male who often gets mistaken for being gay because he doesn't like football or making noises like a baboon when he's drunk. A man ashamed, fearful, and disgusted by traditional masculinity, but also finds it difficult to stand up to it, and who is also very much afraid of women. A man who doesn't really identify himself as a man. These comics are going to explore this mainly through trivial events such as getting the train home from London after a big football match, somehow always being the target for blokes who like to shout stuff out of cars at strangers, and that grey area I like to call sex. I've got lots of ideas for this comic, as stuff that happens in my day to day existence tends to inspire it.

The response was far better than I could have possibly imagined, it was slightly surreal and astounding but a massive confidence boost as well. I'd been a little worried that my style was slightly too rough around the edges, but judging by the response, I needn't have.
There were many routes suggested to me but I think perhaps the first one I aim to explore is to tweak to perfection the pages I've got so far (I think there's about 28) because they are a perfect lenght to enter into the Myriad editions First Fictions Graphic Novel competition. In the meantime I'm going to work on developing it into graphic novel lenght, which is a very exciting prospect.

Next up was Katie Green who is also from Bristol and who is currently working on her graphic novel about recovering from anorexia and sexual abuse entitled Lighter Than My Shadow due out sometime in 2013. I admire Katie's bravery to be so open about these very painful experiences in her life, not just on paper, but in front of a room full of people. Katie's talk was very enlightening, and she peppered it with humour to put everyone at ease (talking about the surreal nature of these experiences being talked about in an editorial fashion, her editor at one point saying 'there are too many suicidal moments'). Katie said some very interesting things, for one thing, we often assume that the process of writing something like this is cathartic, but Katie questions this assumption herself, wondering if rehashing these events over and over again really is the healthiest thing. But then Katie has made a wonderful sacrifice in this respect because her intentions with this book is to write the book she wished had been there when she was suffering. I think the decision to make this book more aimed at secondary school children and beyond, as a realistic manual on recovery, is a fantastic one. The pressure on women to loose weight far outweighs realistic depictions of eating disorders in the media. As for the artwork Katie's childlike and naive characters perfectly juxtapose the dark underbelly of the story and I love the fact that something that was purely accidental (a crease in the paper she was scanning for her background) has become a crucial element in the structuring of her work. Katie you see doesn't like to use panels or speech bubbles(*2), so this crease became a way of separating the images although her splash pages and double page spreads are defiantly a thing to behold. Her representation of her eating disorder as a dark forboding shadow with whom she can have conversations is also a brilliant idea. I for one am highly looking forward to when Lighter Than My Shadow comes out.

After Katie's talk was American professor of English and published academic Charles Hatfield (he wrote Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature). A highly articulate and energetic guy Hatfield talked to us about his job teaching comics based courses at Calafornia State University and for one thing it was refreshing to have an academic openly demystify the process of academia. Hatlfield who was in the UK partly as a research trip (lucky man!) broke down his ideas into several areas which I'll try to remember off the top of my head (I was still in a post-nervous haze and foolishly didn't take down any notes). First and foremost Hatfield confessed to being a formalist at heart, encouraging his experiences to take from the formalists toolbox of terms. Hatfield talked about the influence of Thierry Groensteen's semiotic study The System Of Comics (which is one of the academic books on comics I've struggled with the most).
He then went on to talk about cartooning, and interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary being the area that most interests me. Comics more than any other medium seems to be able to borrow from a whole range of other mediums, and cross other into respected disciplines, such as medicine, history, sociology, anthropology etc. It was also interesting to hear him discuss certain limitations in alternative comics, mainly that culturally it is something that it is created in the majority by middle class white males (although I think this is changing quite rapidly) and creators of colour are still something of a rarity. I look forward to hearing Hatfield talk again at the Manchester conference and picking his brains afterwords.

To finish the night we had Lebanese comic artist Joumana Medlej who is the creator of Lebanons first superhero. Inspired by the her childhood in war torn Beirut and taking the city as her main setting Joumana's presentation was a testament to the fact that you can get used to anything if it is part of your everyday life (something I myself am very much aware of). For Joumana the reality of war was simple: bombs meant no school, and no bombs meant school. Surprisingly life during wartime could be boring and Joumana took to drawing as a means of escaping that boredom. Her superheroine Malaak (Angel of Peace) is by day your average teenage Lebanese girl but by night is an ass-kicking bringer of a justice with a bumbling male side kick who thinks he is stronger and more fearless than he actually is (a nice touch). Also a nice touch is the creation of a league of civilians who help Malaak along her way (which Joumana confessed, was an easy way to meet the demand of friends begging her to put them in the comic). Malaak, Angel Of Peace is a refreshing reinvention of the superhero genre which far outweighs some small press attempts I have seen her in the UK (which tend to follow the superhero soap opera line) by being firmly placed in a reality familiar to Jouamana.

So overall the night was fantastic, and if there are any budding comic book artists out there or simply if you have a passion for the medium, I highly recommend you get yourself down to a Laydeez event in the future.

The general euphoria of getting a good response however could not match the hilarity of me falling down the gap between the platform and my train home. Pure class!

Expect a blog post from Mike Medaglia soon on the Laydeez Do Comics blog, and you can read Katie's two part summary of the evening here.

(*1) For example singing 'um diddle diddle I'm gonna' die to the tune of supacalafragolistic
(*2) This is something I can sympathise with having put off starting my comic for so long perhaps partly out of an unnatural fear of square boxes and sraight lines.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Blog of the week: Paralellograma

This weeks blog of the week has nothing to do with comics, book covers, animation, or graphic design, but don't be disheartened, its still a very good blog! Parrellograma (the blog name being taken from an excellent album by folk singer Linda Perhacs, which happens to be the blogger's favourite) is a fairly neat representation of the interests and talents of one Emma Mould, and if you are into the cult and unusual, or wish to broaden your intellectual palette, this is certainly the place to go. With film and book reviews, snippets of gender and post-colonial theory with one foot firmly in the world of reality and popular(ish) culture, and examples of Emma's excellent creative writing (both published and unpublished) Parrellograma is certainly a 'variety is the spice of life' kind of blog.
I would also highly recommend reading any music related article she has written, as she does so with a love and a knowledge for the subject that far outstrips any hack NME journalist. She tackles bootlegging, confessional singer-songwriters, and writes a really interesting article on the disease that is record collecting that manages to reference Walter Benjamin along the way.

Find of the week: Dark Side Of The Moonies-Erica Heffmann

Ok so technically I found this quite a number of weeks ago but I'm running a bit behind with these and therefore have a ready made stockpile to take from.

It's quite a rarity here on Graphic Engine for me to do a find of a week that didn't grab my attention for its visual proprieties. This book's cover is nothing special but the book itself is something I am very much looking forward to diving into headfirst.

Dark Side Of The Moonies by Erica Heffman is a first hand true account of one woman's brainwashing and involvement in The Moonies cult (or The Unification Church), written after her deprogramming and liberation. Heffman since her liberation became fascinated by cults and the use of power in an academic and a 'I need to make people aware of how this works' kind of way. This book was first published in 1982 so if you think cults were just a phenomena of the 60's think again (read:Scientology).

Here's a qoute from the back if that doesn't get you interested.

'I was a Moonie. When I regained my mind, I looked back at the horror of it. I was haunted by the need to understand how and why I had been transformed into what I hated most'.

Comics & Academia: Where we are now, where we are going, and some great conferences to look out for....

It seems that something has defiantly been brewing in the world of comics and graphic novels which certainly seems to be reaching a new level of intensity in the last year or so. With more and more glowing reviews of comics in the mainstream press (although papers like The Guardian and The Times are still slightly more switched on than the rest) as well as interviews with UK creators such as Darryl Cunningham appearing everywhere from the much respected Comics Journal in America to BBC Radio 4's mental health and brain focused programme All In The Mind, it seems like the only way is up. Not to mention the fact that Dundee University have just announced that from next year they will be doing an MA in comics studies, focusing on the medium academically as well as creatively and helping to push potential comic academics, creators, and publishers into their chosen careers through work experience, guest speakers, expert knowledge, and the building up of contacts. Comics have been called by one particular online literary journal 'the only true new art form of the twentieth century' and while it isn't really as new as they may think (there are people that argue the roots of comics all the way back to cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry) what the medium is beginning to do is certainly new. For me there hasn't really been much in the way of truly great, groundbreaking modern literature or modern art recently. Modern art especially (I find) is derivative, pretentious, and doesn't really tell us much about us or the world we live in (even if it claims to do so, the message is so detached and distorted as to be rendered useless) . Whereas comics for the most part are all about us and the world we live in and not just us specifically but a multiplicity of us from all around the world, we now have access to a wide range of experiences we know nothing about and may never come into contact with. For me comics are literature, but they also are art, these two things work together and feed off each other in comics. But it's because comics are so versatile that I like them so much. I believe it was Scott McCloud the great sage wisdom of comics theory that was very fond of pushing this particular line: comics is a medium, NOT a genre. Within comics you get a wide range of different approaches. From history to philosophy, journalism, autobiography, political commentary, satire, allegorical or just plain off the wall sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thriller, literary adaptations, I could probably mention more if I wanted to. It seems people are constantly reinventing what we can do with comics, not just artistically and formally but it terms of narrative as well.

So it gives me a great thrill to see some really interesting academic conferences popping up across the UK.

The first of which is the Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Bandes Dessinees and Comics 2011 to be held at Manchester Metropolitan University between the 5th and the 8th of July. This four day conference will be split into two parts, the first two days focusing on Anglophone comics and Manga, the last two days focusing on European comics. It will feature some fantastic keynote speakers such as women's underground comix legend and co-conspirator behind Alan Moore's Lost Girls, Melinda Gebbie, as well as British underground staple Hunt Emerson and French artist Edmond Baudoin. But for me it would be equally exciting to hear talks from critics such as Ann Miller and Bart Beaty who have written some fantastically indepth books about European comics, and American academic and editor Charles Hatfield (who I had the pleasure of speaking alongside at Laydeez Do Comics last Monday). Flying the flag for the UK will be academics such as Chris Murray (who will be running the MA in Dundee) giving what looks to be a fascinating talk on pyschogeography in comics, Melanie Gibson a consultant who gives training to libraries and schools on how to stock graphic novels and comics (amongst other things), Studies In Comics editor Julia Round, and Graphic Medicine guru and comic artist Ian Williams. This event is probably really only for real die-hard enthusiasts as (a it's quite expensive and (b four days of academic talks might get a bit much, but for me I approach it with as much anticipation as someone might await something like Glastonbury Festival. Check out the full programme here. Expect a report and a selection of interviews with some of the speakers on this blog.

Next up is the Comics and Conflict Conference taking place at The Imperial War Museum in London between the 19-20th of August as part of their Children's Literature Festival (although I'd hardly call the way some of the authors/artists speaking choose to tackle war child-friendly) Again featuring some fantastic guests in the form of 2000AD writer Pat Mills who created his own World War I series Charley's War, Mikkel Sommer writer/artist of Obsolete (which I reviewed here), Francesca Cassavetti who has turned her mothers wartime diary into a comic, and academics Roger Sabin and Martin Barker who will be discussing the long-running Doonsbury series.
Sadly French comic artist Jaques Tati who was going to be one of the keynote speakers is no longer on the bill, for reasons I do not know. Tati created a fantastically bleak and human tale of trench warfare in It Was The War Of The Trenches (which you can now buy as a hardcover book published by Fantagraphics as part of their Tati reprint series). Comics/graphic novels about war and conflict appeal to me as a pacifist because they look at the very human toll of war, not just that of civilians but the people fighting as well(*1), of course if you seek it out a lot of classic fiction does this as well, but comics of course have the bonus of interesting and expressive artwork.

Next up is the second Transitions Comica Symposium chaired by Dr.Roger Sabin, on the 5th of November at the School of Arts, Birbeck, London University. This conference will be look specifically at new emerging research in comics studies spanning across multiple disciplines and featuring work from postgrad students and early career lecturers alike. An event without the restrictions of theme, this promises to be a melting pot for new ideas, and they are calling for papers, so budding comics theorists apply!. (Deadline 31st July)

Finally, following on from a highly successful conference in London last year (and an even more successful one in Chicago this year, but I'll post about that later) Leeds Thoughts Bubble will be playing host to a one day conference on Graphic Medicine subtitled Visualising The Stigma Of Illness, on the 17th of Novemember. Again there is a call for papers, so you know what to do! (Deadline 18th of July) There are two other conferences, one on scultpure and comics, the other on the way in which the material form of comics affects our reading experience, but fo my money the Graphic Medicine one looks the most interesting.

(*1) An early example of human tales of war in comic book form would be the classic EC series Frontline Combat which managed to be historically accurate while carrying a strong anti-war message and featured the artwork of such luminaries as Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis.