Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Review: Obsolete-Mikkel Sommer


Obsolete by Mikkel Sommer is another lovingly put together mini comic in Nobrow's 17x23 range (I reviewed Ben Newman's Ouroboros here) which compared to some of Nobrow's other input is much more complete when it comes to an actual story. Nobrow being a comics publisher with a slightly unorthodox (but not alltogether inappropriate) background in screenprinting, illustration, and pattern they tend to vere away from graphic novels or lenghty detailed stories in favour of visually interesting and largely wordless mini packages, although as you will see by the end of this review I have been forced to rethink my initial evaluation of them. Mikkel Sommer first appeared on the Nobrow rosta via the assault-on-the-senses colourful creation myth anthology that is A Graphic Cosmography, the biggest thing that Nobrow have put out so far, and well worth a look at.

The story centres on two US army officers who have just finished their tour of duty in Afghanistan (its hard to say for sure without words to confirm it but the huge barren dessert landscapes see more reminiscent of Afghanistan over Iraq) and homes in on one of them in particular as he is struggles to sleep at night, and is haunted by the ghosts of what he has seen there. He and his accomplice, perhaps disillusioned with America as a force of great and good since there involvement in the war, prepare to rob a bank. The reasons and motivations for this are never properly explained, this is a comic that forces us to use our imagination and read between the lines, which for me is always a good thing. There are people who perhaps look down on comics because whereas with novels you have to form pictures out of the words, whereas with comics this is already done for you, some may say making the act of reading a particularly lazy one. But there is still a lot of stuff that happens between the gutters (the white space between panels for the uninitiated) that we have to use our heads to figure out. A successful comic is one that doesn't make this process too painful yes, but this doesn't make comics any less worthy. Anyway, I digress.

Just before the robbery we see both protagonists downing a mixture of pills and alcohol both to psyche themselves up and obviously as a way of relieving at least a small amount of the psychological trauma of their recent pasts. The robbery itself goes horribly wrong as a security guards attempts to play the hero, which leads the main protagonists partner to shoot everyone in the room bar one, as at this point our main anti-hero cries out for him to stop. It turns out that the one person left standing is his sister, or most likely due to his psychological state and the fact that a flashback/old photograph technique is employed here, is someone who reminds him of his sister. The girl is subsequently killed as a harsh punishment for his hesitation, and by now we know who is the more heartless and brutal of the two. This is why I call him an anti-hero, he has been warped by circumstance, permanently scarred. It seemed he never intended to kill, in fact the only time he does is when he kills his partner out of rage for what he has just done. He then carries the girl to his car and being pursued by the police, kills himself. You can tell that for him the end is welcome, and perhaps this was his destination all along. The comic ends with a fantastic mirroring of the final panel of him lying in bed wide awake panicked, with him lying on a cold metallic stretcher, dead, in the morgue. But a close up on his face reveals a look of peaceful contentment.

Visually Obsolete is stunning, rendered in fleshy sweat and sun-drenched watercolours. It immediately reminds me of Flemish comic artist Brecht Evans (whose graphic novel The Wrong Place is well worth a look) albeit with much more realistically depicted figures and scenes. The pacing is very interesting, it has an almost hopeless drugery to it, as if everything is inevitable from the start. It doesn't suffer from being too melodramatic, or action packed. Subtle details like the burn marks left by the destruction of their passports and papers mirroring the Rorschach test in the post-Afghanistan medical they are given at the beginning of the comic, really add to the atmospheric weight of the story.

This little comic leads me to reevaluate and praise the direction in which Nobrow is heading, establishing themselves as much more than just a publisher of trendy (and because of that, sometimes derivative) screenprinters and illustrators. With emerging talents such as Luke Pearson and Rob Hunting producing more narrative based work for Nobrow as well as them branching out into unorthodox children's literature (S.J Donaldson and Bjorn Rune Lie's The Wolfs Whistle looks particularly appealing) Nobrow is very much establishing itself as part of the big three of the UK independent comics publishers (the other two of course being Self Made Hero and Blank State Books). One to watch, and if Mikkel Sommer produces a full lenght work, I will devour it almost immediately, and I would recommend you do the same!

Check out Sommer's blog here and site here.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Tintin on trial

Following the decision of a Brussels court to finally let the case of racism brought against the publishers of owners of Tintin by one Mbuto Mondondo go ahead after several years I decided to give my two cents to the argument. For anyone who doesn't know Tintin in the Congo is easily the most controversial book in the classic children's adventure comic series. It depicts the Congolease in a manner pretty typical of the time: coal black, thick lipped, not so sure how to wear clothes properly, idiotic, gullible, and in need of a sense of direction from the glorious white race. However there were plenty of other comics and books etc that also presented race in a questionable light, and if you search Youtube for controversial black figures in animation from the 1920's-1940's you'll probably come up with a veritable gold mine. There were no real positive black figures in comics until the 60's and 70's and even then they weren't exactly numerous, or fully formed human beings (I'm thinking of Marvel's Luke Cage who was the first black superhero with his own comic, and who at times pandered to blaxplotation cliches rather than explore more complex issues)*(1). Of course Tintin is the most famous example and this is probably why it got picked on, along with the fact that while superhero comics always carry a hint of violence to them, Tintin usually slips under the radar as being a torch bearer for the innocence of youth.

So the question is, should racist views, and uncomfortable events in our past be swept under the carpet and ignored or should we analyse them and try to learn from them? Hilter's Mein Kamp is available to buy and yet we don't worry about churning out a new generation of Hitlers. I used to work with a guy who once told me he felt guilty for the all the crimes white people had committed against black people. How did he elevate this guilt? By giving them free fried chicken, a food they are stereotypically inclined to like. I for one don't feel this 'white man's burden', I wasn't around then, I didn't commit those crimes, so why should I feel guilty?

If we censor something there will be people out there looking for an excuse to justify their own racist viewpoint: ""they did this because this is dangerous, they did this because they are afraid to speak the truth" etc. A classic example of this line of thinking was the relatively recent debate about whether or not Nick Griffin, the head of the BNP, should appear on Question Time. Many people thought he should not be given the opportunity to air his views on television, but I was in agreement that to censor him would just justify his party line, whereas what we saw was him making a fool of himself on national television, and hopefully taking a bit of credibility away from his beliefs.

I don't think the question here should be is TinTin in the Congo racist, it undoubtedly is, and I agree with one commentator who suggests that 'it's of is time' is a poor excuse that crops up time and time again. But should it be banned? No.

There are plenty of graphic novels, and books that can be used in a class room environment to teach tolerance and understanding. Art Speigelman's Maus is the obvious example (because something strange I have noticed when coming into contact with people with ignorant views concerning race is that they all think the Holocaust was a horrific unforgivable thing, yet they can't seem to put two and two together). But I really believe this book could be used as a tool for analysing history and indeed racism itself,. The racism presented in this book is a different kind of monster to the racism we might see today. In colonial times we the Empire took a paternalistic view towards those under our colonial stronghold. We were the fathers, the educators, the moral guides, to these ignorant unruly, yet ultimately well meaning children, and of course they were ever grateful for it (thus the allusions to Tintin being worshiped as a god). There was no unrest, ours was a perfect and nessecery presence (not an intrusion). I also think that we don't have to impose such age limitation on this book, and I think it could be introduced to children as early as 10 years old, in a controlled classroom environment. We should give children more credit, past a certain age they don't have to be sponges for everything they hear outside the classroom, perhaps making them feel that they can be trusted to handle this kind of material, will sharpen their powers of analysis and make them more aware of what racism is (after all children can often say things without being aware of the implications-I remember using gay a lot to suggest bad or rubbish without ever being aware of its link to homosexuality). So long as they are given the context of these images, as one commentator remembers soaking up and accepting this view of black people in the same way that as a child he accepted that America was full of cowboys, Indians, and gangsters from the movies.

According to one source Mondondo said he would be happy if the book was moved to the adults section in bookshops and an explanatory introduction putting the views and representations into context were to be printed in the book, both of these things I thought had already happened. My edition published by Egomont has a small paragraph explaining the influence of colonial attitudes, but perhaps this is not comprehensive enough.

One thing that often gets lost in the arguments surrounding race in this book is also the depiction of big game hunting. In one section of the book Tintin ends up (accidentally, but he had intended to kill at least one) killing a whole group of antelopes.

Also for a brilliant alternative to Tintin in the Congo you could do no better than reading Afrikaan artists Joe Dog and Conrad Botes Bittercomix (which relies heavily on satire to give a view of life in South Africa and references Herge probably on more than one occasion) and even Herge's later Tintin album Tintin in Tibet (approved by the Dali Lama himself) which takes an a slightly more peaceful view of forgien people (although you could argue that although Herge's representation of the Tibetan people is much more positive, it is still fairly one-dimensional).

(*1) For a much more comprehensive look at the depiction of blacks in comics you should probably buy Black Images In The Comics by Fredrik Stomberg

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Review: Gus & His Gang-Chris Blain

Although this book is claimed to be inspired in part by old Buster Keaton movies, it also belongs to a tradition of European comic artists and writers doing one of the many things they do best, that is turning a certain historical period on its head with amusing results. Think Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's infamous handling of Roman rule in Asterix, and Maurice De Bevere's wild west historical parody Lucky Luke. This isn't even unfamiliar terrority to Blain who has tried his hand on a few other twists on what could be called genre fiction both in his solo work Isaac the pirate and in the multi-creator dungeons and dragons style fantasy series Dungeon with the likes of Lewis Trondhiem and Joann Sfar.

In Gus we follow a gang of outlaws and friends, but while the main focal point of most Western films might be the gun fights and the robberies these just act as a background to the gangs endless chasing of the fairer sex. What is refreshing is that instead of chiseled idealised outlaws who never break a sweat when it comes to women, these outlaws can be clumsy and hapless, often falling over elaborate stories made up to impress women or not knowing how to make desperate women loose their scent. Even Gus's large Pinnochio style conch is an especially nice feature, especially since he is the member of the trio who has the most bravado when it comes to women and yet probably has the least luck and the most trouble. In fact, Gus is the most visibly interesting and alive member of the trio, his frantic arm movements and the colourful energy that surrounds him when he is frantically weaving a tale are great comic devices.

Visually this little book is a real treat mixing comic book iconography (in which the bubbles are for much more than just speech) slapstick and a regular smorgasbord of colour. The range of different colours Blain uses to depict different times of day and different degrees of light are outstanding ,sometimes even outlandish (and yet always believable-Blain is a master craftsman). We get treated to a range of beautiful and fantastic landscapes that would not look out of place in Jodorowsky's surreal western El Topo and on a superficial level Blain does a great job of recreating the fashion of the era, to the point that he makes me wish I could get away with wearing the clothes that he depicts here.

The thing that strikes me most about Gus is the style of line. At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, there is something distinctly European about the line and I'm sure I'd feel that way about it even if Blain wasn't French himself. Stylistically it is similar to artists like Blutch, Sfar, Trondhiem, and notably Kerascoet (especially his work on Miss Don't Touch Me, with its subtle nods to Argento's Susperia). This European line is looser, more energetic, free, and yet manages also to be elegant. All the characters here are more round, more fleshy as opposed to the dynamic, forceful, angular lines of American superhero comics. In my opinion this makes more sympathetic, more real. Of course American comics began to be influenced by Europe quite some time ago (Craig Thompson is a notable example, who was heavily influenced by Blutch) and I think that this style of line work really works better alongside the more alternative mode of comics, not just parody and pastiche, but stories where a serious point needs to be hammered home. I don't think that adopting a copy cat style for all alternative comics will work though, and experimentation (so long as it's not just for its own sake) is always welcome. Blain manages to be experimental while never letting that overshadow his lovable band of outlaws. This is the kind of a book that might get called a 'rip-roaring romp' Well worth a read!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Steve Bell Royal Wedding Mug

The one piece of royal wedding memorabilia I would have wanted to own would have been this royal wedding mug from Guardian political cartoonist Steve Bell, but unfortunately due to it being a very limited edition print of 50, it is now completely sold out, and there will be no more made.

Featuring his now trademark condom-on-head David Cameron and a very unusual cross breed of pig/arse face/unicorn/George Osbourne. You can watch a brief video with Steve Bell talking about the royal wedding here, braving the rain to get his first glimpse of the royal couple here, and about his mugs here.

Also, if the royal had been anything like this I would have definitely watched it.

In other news if you happen to live in or around Bristol Steve Bell is giving a talk at the Arnolfini as part of the Bristol Festival Ideas on Saturday the 21st of May at 12.30pm. Tickets are £7 (£5 for students, OAPS etc) and are available here.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Animation of the week: Great-Bob Godfrey

One of the only decent people I share my last name with (sorry family) is British animation legend Bob Godfrey who was responsible for such childhood favourites as Henry the cat and the chaotic Rhubarb and Custard (both of which had amazing theme tunes).With a career spanning more than fifty years*(1) (Richard Williams is another British animator who can boast this) his less child friendly work carries a tongue in cheek British sensitivity to sex like Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and the Carry On films but at times could be a little bit more risque (see Karma Sutra Rides Again or Dream Doll, which was made in collaboration with another renowned animation and film studio Zagreb Film based in Croatia)

The animation of his I have chosen for my animation of the week is his 1975 short Great (view part one here), a musical comedy about the life of famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Like his earlier satirical look at animation and commercial advertising The Do-It-Yourself Animation Kit, this uses the cut out technique where collage and cut outs are used alongside as well as instead of fluid drawings. This technique is sometimes mistakenly identified as being invented by Terry Gilliam but really it was Godfrey who had a huge influence on the Python animator and not the other way round*(2) (you can also see Godfrey's influence on Gilliam in the huge letters in the title sequences to all the Python films). Although Godfrey handles the subject matter and especially the Victorian period with a colourful irreverence (making fun of the empire's colonial powers amongst other things) you can tell that when it boils down to it it is tackled with love. Bright, cheerful, packed full of innuendo and achieves the near impossible feat of being a musical with not a single annoying song (not to mention the fact that it's educational!). There are some real strokes of genius in here, from 50's style rock and roll singers and found footage techniques that remind me a bit of Ralph Bakshi, to Freud calling Brunel 'a paranoiac with a pronounced phallic inferiority complex'. Also worth watching is this old BBC 2 documentary on Godfrey which was part of a series called The Craftsman. Click here.

I couldn't find any decent images of the film to post here but trust me it's worth watching.
*He also worked on Yellow Submarine, an experience his more traditional disciplined training made it hard for him to handle, as there was no real script to work to.
(2)*I'd say that Godfrey was perhaps one of the first British animators to use this technique but you can see it in a lot of Russian and Polish animation of the early 60's-70's as well.

Back from the dead

Having last posted something here in November, I decided it was time to get back in to the swing of things. As well as adding brand new grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, I will be working my way back through old content and correcting, improving, and adding hyperlinks.