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!