Friday, 27 January 2012

Following on from the last post. Images you can click and resize.

Drawing Blood: The CF Diaries Issue 2-a work in progres

I thought I'd post about the progress of the second issue of my comic as certain stones have started to be unturned while scripting and drawing this that I think are interesting to discuss, if not at great length.

Firstly bare in mind that most of these images are rough, incomplete, and liable to change, although it'll give you a general idea. The focus of this issue is an event in my life that happened a number of years ago which is forever referred to in my medical notes as 'massive Hemoptysis', which in laymen's terms means that I was coughing up a lot of blood, over the course of one weekend.

The story branches out from there and touches a little more on how my friends dealt with it at the time, and how the way in which my friendship dynamic worked and why it was good for me in terms of my illness and how I wanted to be treated, and I indulge myself a little more in explaining my ego and my failings. Despite what could be considerably a downbeat subject I have tried to go into it with humour again, talking about my feeble attempts to wipe bloody fingerprints off the walls which still showed up weeks later, trying not to get blood on the leather upholstery in my dad's car, and (how could I forget!) having my pubes shaved by a male nurse called Moses on my birthday.

(The nurses found it very amusing that my birthday present was a dry shave and itchy balls, but they did get me two birthday cakes for after the procedure)

(I thought I was being ultra considerate trying to clean up the blood that I got in the bathroom as and when it happened, turns out I'm a pretty poor cleaner, my friends were finding blood fingerprints everywhere for weeks!)

I also try and touch upon the often conflicting memories and perceptions of the event in question by myself, my friends, and my parents.

(abstract/psychedelic representation of procedure I had done on my inflamed/bleeding arteries, it was either called (something) embolisation or bronchial angiography)

However drawing and writing this event as well as thinking about it did mean that I touched upon an issue which I know I am going to have to talk about in greater detail in the future: Death. (If your not a fan of self-indulgence I suggest you stop reading now)

(This image to be used in a later issue)

At the end of the issue I plan to relay a conversation I had with a friend following a piece of good news from my liver doctor. When I was diagnosed with CF-associated liver disease at the age of 10 I was given approximately 4 years before they estimated I would need a transplant. Since then my liver function has improved dramatically, due to nothing but oral medication (and certainly not due to my nun like aversion to alcohol *cough cough*). I was told that I would most likely never have any real trouble with my liver, that I seemed to be one of those select group of CF patients who was diagnosed young but who fully recovered. I still needed to see him every two years to be sure but everything was fine, there was no scaring at all, and the latest test results were just back in the normal range (that is the normal range for everyone not the normal range for people with liver disease). When I told this to my friend over a drink (very apt!) she was overjoyed:

This got me thinking about catharsis. For me the process of making these comics is almost the opposite of catharsis, I'm not working through things with words and pictures but rather holding them a distance. When writing and drawing these comics I am not thinking in terms of 'these are things that have actually happened, could happen, or will happen' but simply as creative problems to solve. I think about it in terms of the best way to tell a story, of the most creative and interesting way to represent it visually. It only really dawned on me lately when I was trying to think about the best way to draw myself vomiting blood at the side of a motorway and I had to stop and ask myself if that thought process was weird.

For me (and I guess I'm very lucky in this respect) and for my friends, my CF hasn't felt too real most of the time, which is why I sometimes worry that researching CF, and writing and drawing about my CF, might just be pouring salt in the wound. I'd be interested to know how other comic artists feel about this, which is why I think the whole process of creating these stories and the effect it has on yourself as well as those around you is an important thing to include in the story itself. This is something I thought was underrepresented in comics but going back through a lot of the medical themed graphic narratives I've read it does pop its head up more often than not. Sarah Leavitt reading her creative writing piece to her mum in Tangles, Darryl Cunningham talking about how the reaction to his comics online in a sense 'saved him' from depression, are just two examples I can think of off the top of my head. Of course you probably need to be sparing with this and not go into over blown self-indulgent postmodern meta-fiction overdrive, but still its something worth thinking about.

Finally to end things on a more upbeat note, I am quite flattered (but also equally anxious) to have had The CF Diaries Issue 1 selected as the small press comic to be examined and scrutinised by Mike Medaglia and Mark Haylock's monthly comic reading/discussion group Comic Gosh! in April alongside Nicola Streeton's excellent graphic memoir Billy, You, and Me. This group has been endorsed by much more heavyweight members of the small and mainstream comic press than myself and I have only heard good things about it. I intend to attend and might attend March's session as well as they will be discussing David B's Epileptic alongside transatlantic woman's comic The Strumpet. My ego will either take a bruising or will have to get it's own chauffeur, we'll have to wait and see. Read the rest of the reading list here.

(speaking of ego's, here's a funny little section I drew for my comic, not entirely sure where to place it yet)

I will also be concentrating on drawing the second issue of my good friend Emma Mould's second autobiographical comic about living with Borderline Personality Disorder in time for her presentation at next months Laydeez Do Comics alongside Karrie Fransman and Dr Ann Miller (author of the fantastic theory book Reading Bande Dessinee) on the 20th of Febuary at the Rag Factory in Brick Lane. Starts at 6.30, £1.50 to attend, homemade cookies, beer and wine, great talks, and the chance to go out for a curry afterwards.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Review: Absence-Andy Luke

Absence is a short autobiographical comic about epilepsy written by Andy Luke and illustrated by Stephen Downey. Everything about its format, from its length to the style of the images, the way it's all arranged, and the various logos that adorn its pages suggest a medical information leaflet disguised as a comic. However whereas anything purporting to give information to a certain audience (especially if that audience consists of younger children and teenagers) that uses comic as a form of communication often suffer horrendously from a patronising voice and a painful attempt at 'being down with the kids' (usually through a skateboarding talking animal or something along those lines).

Thankfully this isn't the case with Absence. It skilfully weaves essential facts and courses of action for epileptics alongside more sparse and at times even whimsical reflections of Luke's childhood and beyond. Something tells me Luke would be a skilled writer of textbooks or educational DVD's for disinterested youth, because he would be able to make children learn without them knowing, this is how easily digestible the information in Absence is, even with all the jargon.

Although the visual style is for the most part fairly straightforward harking back to the angular age of superheroes mixed with the kind of visual approach that might have been adopted by the artists of spin off Grange Hill comics there are moments of McCloud-esque multi media abstraction and visual wit to bring a smile to your face. I also find the bookending of the comic both with the information on the comic and various important associations and charities, and with repetitions of the opening and closing page, a very effective advice to draw readers in.

Luke and Downey have done a great job of producing something clear and concise but at the same time enjoyable and with real emotional weight. The potential for comics to be used in this way has already been explored(*1) by the Wellcome Trust and Edward Ross with his short comic on parasitic disease (see my review here) but Luke and Downey go one better. It is the personal element that readers will really empathise with, just as Darryl Cunningham's admission to his own struggle with mental health at the end of Psychiatric Tales reaffirms the message of the book, the advice and guidance seems much more palatable coming from someone who actually knows. Absence would be a welcome addition to any library, hospital, or charitable organisation. You can order it online for free or read it online for free via the website here.

(*1) I believe it needs to be explored more so long as these comics/information leaflets are produced by people who make or have a passion for comics otherwise the patronisation or the appalling visuals tend to rule supreme.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Animation of the week: Screenplay-Barry Purves

This is another one from my Christmas wish list, this time taken from the excellent first volume of the anthology DVD British Animation Classics (featuring some top notch independent animation which doesn't skimp on the female animators either-Joanna Quinn, Alison Snowden, Erica Russell, and Alison de Vere are all represented).

Purves is a master director, writer, and animator of mainly puppet based animation and has done work with countless animation studios including Aardman, Pixar, Dreamworks etc. Despite the fact that his own independent work only amounts to six short films he has been nominated for countless awards and is highly regarded in the British film and animation industry. He embraces a strong tradition of animation that stems from the likes of Ladislas Starewicz, Ray Harryhausen, George Pal, Lou Bunin, Jiri Trnka, etc, and carries on to the present day in the works of The Brothers Quay, the Bolex brothers, and Suzie Templeton (among others).

Screenplay is one of his two works that embraces the art and tradition of the setting for the story being told. The other example being Achilles which is obviously inspired by Greek art but is also staged like a Greek tragedy.

The title 'Screenplay' literally refers to the used of traditional Japanese screen painting as part of the storytelling process. The story is adapted from the legend of The Willow Pattern, a famous British ceramic pattern designed around 1790. The story is a Chinese romantic fable invented in England which follows the classic formula of star-crossed lovers of a different class who ultimately meet a tragic end.

Purves seems to create a fantastic sense of staging. The play part of the title is also highly appropriate as it feels like this is what we are watching, and the smoothness of the action and of the transitions almost make us forget that we are watching an animation. Scenery changes are swift and inventive and movement despite being stylised (due to the obvious influence of Kabuki theatre on the film, along with the English sign language narration) is fluid and believable. The use of everything from traditional umbrellas and pieces of material to represent everything from water to blood, and the constant use of a revolving/floor set keep the action confounded to one space very effectively.

It seems appropriate that Purves's films were chosen to be shown as part of a special season on Japanese puppet master Kicachiro Kawamoto back at the Watershed in Bristol in 2008, his influence on this film is very obvious although I think Purves adds a certain amount of wit to the tradition as well as making a massive improvement on the usual pacing. The action is quite fast but still you don't miss a beat. A truly beautiful piece of film!

(watch it here)

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: Tatsumi

In his epic five hundred plus page manga autobiography A Drifting Life , Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the godfather of alternative manga(*1), talked about the profound influence cinema had on the stories he came to create, so it seems appropriate that his life and his stories should be made into an animated film.

Directed by lifelong manga and indeed Tatsumi fan Eric Khoo, the film treats the comic text, and the visual style of Tatsumi, as sacred, and the animators have gone to great lengths to make you aware that these animations are based first and foremost on ink drawings done on paper. Everything from the crosshatching, the monochrome shading, and he dotted printing effects of his first full length work Black Blizzard, are all lovingly recreated here. Not only this but the animation is deliberately rough in places, as Khoo wanted to be as faithful to the experience of reading these stories on the page as possible, which is why the movements and expressions are perhaps much more limited then your average animation, to good effect.

While colour is added to the events that happen in Tatsumi's real life, his fictional stories that are interspersed within the overall narrative are distinguished through the recreation of their colour schemes. So we get a mixture of moody purples and yellows, sepia tones, and black and whites. The general feel of these stories I could describe as being the manga equivalent of film noir. Some of the stories even incorporate deliberate cracks of age and haze around the images to add to the atmosphere.

The visual mood of course perfectly mirrors the overarching sense of doom in the stories, and like in film noir we are presented with the seedy underbelly of a supposedly affluent society. Like the 1950's crime comics we are treated to sordid sex and perversions, violence, and an easy escape at the bottom of a bottle. But one thing that Tatsumi has over those EC artists and writers is a heightened level of intelligence.

His plots have clever little twists that seem surreal but that also make perfect sense. He really seems to get at the absurdity of life and maybe it would be hyperbole to liken him to existentialist writers such as Sartre, Knut Hamsun, Jean Genet, etc. Even though his stories are short and sharp (and quite often bitter) on the screen they come across as having qualities of merit, this is indeed literature (in hushed tones).

These stories were formed out of a personal bitterness that Tatsumi himself reflects on in the film (it his own voice that narrates the events of his life). Post-War Japan finally brought itself out of hardship and started to experience economic growth, a growth that Tatsumi felt personally that he and thousand others like him, were not entitled to. Tatsumi tells us that he 'vomited out' these frustrations in his stories. Bleak allegorical tales about the dull thud of progress and modernity in an increasingly overpopulated world where no one communicates face to face must seem pretty prophetic when we look back on them now. But these were written and drawn mostly in the seventies!

The additional layer of sound is also a very important one. In the story Beloved Monkey, we are immersed in the maddening noise of the factory, we feel it thudding around us even as our hero leaves the factory out onto the sickeningly overcrowded streets of Tokyo. The moronic and slightly idiotic voice of the American G.I in 'Goodbye', all these details suspend our disbelief that this 2D world of paper figures is anything less than real life.

The one thing this film could not do sadly was capture the great width and breadth of Tatsumi'sautobiography, but on reflection I realised this was not such a bad thing after all. I thought originally that this film showed a rare example of the limitations of animation but I think I was probably suffering from the old 'read the book before I saw the film' tunnel vision. I wasdisappointed by the omitting of huge chunks of his life story (although starting with the books ending, and the death of Sensie Tezuka, was a nice touch) but realised considering the pacing of this film was a tad on the slow side at times, this mammoth tale was probably best kept between the pages of a book. With 'A Drifting Life' you could dip in and out whenever you liked, and it was easy to pick up. At around about two hours in length, putting anything else in might have stretched it to bursting, and certainly a film consisting only of his life events might have been a bit boring. Intersecting his fiction into the film became a key device in the plot anyway, by helping to explain a lot of Tatsumi's own mentality when it came to life and manga.
Tatsumi is a master storyteller, a master of his craft, and upon reflection Eric Khoo has done him proud and hopefully opened up a whole new audience to his work.

(*1) Or as he and his colleagues came to christen it 'gekiga' (meaning 'dramatic pictures')

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Review: The House That Groaned-Karrie Fransman

I live in an extremely quiet block of flats where everyone pretty much keeps to themselves, so a graphic novel which imagines what our neighbours could be getting up behind closed doors is going to instantly appeal to me.
And weird goings on in confined spaces and broken down buildings has a pretty rich history in storytelling(*1), particularly in cinema. Even before setting out to read this graphic novel, going on the limited information I had, I had already made some preemptive comparisons and expectations. Knowing that there were to be surrealistic and creepy elements to the story made me think in particular of Roman Polanksi's The Tenant(*2), the fancy dress scenes from The Shining, and parts of Rosamary's Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist etc.
However the fact that The House The Groaned didn't meet many of these expectations is not to be considered a bad thing, Franman's debut is a complete unique animal.
Scratch under the surface (which in this book you literally can do, with cross sections of the house revealing crumbling and damp walls, dodgy electrics, and rats) and this book is about much more than just a story about a seemingly normal girl moving into a building full of nut jobs.
This is a book about the fronts we put up for other people, the secrets and weaknesses we hide behind our carefully presented exteriors and the way in which early experiences can have a formative effect on the way our lives turn out, and the ways in which we compensate for what is missing.
Karrie weaves moments of magic realism and pomp amongst an unfolding soap opera that is far more believable than anything I have ever seen on Eastenders. The Midnight Feast Front Woman is a voluptuous Greek goddess of excess and in her eyes she represents freedom from norms and constraints, but towards the end of the story we see the sticky end to which her excesses have truly led her and the sudden transformation is jarring, surreal, and quite cinematic(*3). But it is her and Brian (the man sexually attracted to the terminally ill and morbidly obese) that are perhaps the most over the top and cartoon-like of characters and therefore they are the ones I care for less. Their origin stories are perhaps less solid and sympathetic than those of the other characters. Although the Midnight Feast Front Woman tidily fits nicely into a triangle formed by the protagonist Barbara and the fanatical and highly disciplined dietitian Janet representing two extremes of our obsession with body image.
The use of flashbacks gives a sense of plausibility and humanity to the remaining characters and helps us to understand better their psychological makeup, the fact that all of this centres around the building of the house during Victorian times is a nice touch, obviously indicating that this is where all their lives are going to come to a head.
Moving on from the story itself, Karrie's visual style is very unique. Her iconic cartooning is perhaps most effective when it comes to the design of her main character, the vain beauty obsessed girl-next-door with a deeply buried secret, Barbara. The circular cheeks and down pointed nose make her look both plastic and emotionless (as so many cosmetic surgery/botox obsessed celebrities do) as well as slightly grotesque(*4). Although the other character which really puts her style to effective use is that of the retoucher Matt who is afraid to touch, you can see the fear and the timidness in such a small number of lines. Of course she really gets to go to town with the elderly Mrs Durbach, a character who seems to be left behind and forgotten in life due to her age and her failing body and as a consequence, she literally fades into the background (she is hidden on every page and it is up to you to find her!). The inventive moulding of her body to chairs, railings, and bookshelves is a visual treat to try and decipher.
She also makes great use of a plethora of comic iconography whilst giving it her own unique twist. Sound effects, speech balloons, and in particular the text inside the speech balloons are constantly played around with in order to fit the precise moment in the story, at times becoming an active leading device in the story itself. The pacing of the panels, the use of wordless panels, and the atmosphere created(*5) is also spot on.
It ends with a punch as well, which will probably knock the wind right out of you. Without giving too much away I would say that Karrie's Argento-like shock twist towards the end of the book is a brave and refreshing move

The House The Groaned is a story of fantasy dripped in reality and I recommend you follow the advice of The Midnight Feast Front Woman and gorge yourself on it immediately.

Check out the site for the book here. Karrie's site here. And a much more articulate and perceptive review here.

(*) Think Dave McKean's epic Cages, or Brecht Evens The Wrong Place
(*2) If you haven't seen this film I can highly recommend it. Insane neighbours cross dressing and attempted suicide!
(*3)I can image this sequence of the book would be pretty fantastic animated.
(*4) In a chubby-cheeked cartoony kind of way
(*5) There is a particular tense moment when the lights in the building go out which reminds me at times of Charles Burn's Black Hole

Not comics but amazing nonetheless

When someone dedicates a large chunk of their lives (35 years!) to creating a toothpick sculpture of San Francisco you have to wonder if it was a colossal waste of time. But then you look at the amount of detail that has gone into it, and the fact that this is a kinetic sculpture with multiple 'tours' that can be travelled through using ping pong balls and you realise that this is a testament to the ingenuity of the human mind, a flagship of creativity , and most of all , passion and obsession. The fact that this sculpture is constantly changing, and the inventive witticisms dotted throughout, make this sculpture, 35 years well spent. Click here to view the video. View the original article on Colossal here.

(It is worth noting that the blog that hosted this article, Colossal, is a fantastic art and design blog mainly fixated with impressive scale, ingenuity, and invention, but also showcases some pretty lovely small scale design as well).

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Illustrated Review: The Butcher's Wife-Li Ang

(originally intended for a zine but the list of contributors was full)

The Butcher’s Wife-Li Ang

This short sharp novel has been reclaimed as a classic piece of feminist literature but its scope goes well beyond showing up the abuses of patriarchy. Based loosely on an actual newspaper report that the author had read, it imagines the truth behind the general assumption that the only thing that would drive a woman to murder he husband in rural Taiwan would be adultery on her part.

However Li Ang is careful not to cast the abusive husband as a complete two dimensional monster and instead examines the root causes of a society that would not only allow something like this to go on unchecked but would also consequently would put all the blame on the woman. Li Ang’s husband even has some, allbiet fleeting, sympathetic moments-whether recounting tales of hardship in his youth, or feeling momentary remorse for the surge of violent energy he all too often does not recognise. Although of course these are not presented as excuses but it does give an interesting insight into a way of life that cripples the vast majority.

The Butcher’s Wife is a tale of the dangers of superstition, and the desperate lenghts to which poverty will drive a person. The fact that the female protagonist’s feelings towards her husband are not always of horror is quite telling(*1). She has been through hard times and is at least grateful for the food being married to a pig-butcher brings, and even the much less frantic lifestyle and home life, and it is because of this that she quickly flicks from fear and upset to feeling self-satisfied and almost carefree.

A brilliantly layered story that paints a pretty vivid picture of rural life and mixes in some surreal and nightmarish horror in the vein of oriental ghost stories. Each of the stories settings are brought to life in all their stark duty, and the smells and tastes richly weave through to your senses. Finally the addition of the gossiping, judgmental, interfering and disingenuous Auntie Ah-Wang is an essential piece of the jigsaw, which shows that there is more than one guilty party in this tale. An essential read!


(*1) It is only the violence of his sexual demands that she fears at first

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The death of a British institution

The legendary British cartoonist/satirist/graphic artist Ronald Searle died peacefully in his sleep at his home in the south of France on december the 30th, aged 91. Only last year Searle gave his first TV interview in 35 years to celebrate his 90 years, an occasion marked by another British institution Steve Bell calling Searle 'our greatest living cartoonist'. Creator of the hell-raising belles of St Trinians (before it was given a god-awful modern makeover) and Molesworth, he has also done countless illustrations for the likes of Punch, The New Yorker, Life, Le Monde, etc.

Searle was simply following in the footsteps of the greats, like Hogarth and Gilray, and indeed produced his own legion of imitators over time, or at least people heavily influenced by him (Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe to name just two). He could turn his hand to any subject, and most styles although there was always a frantic energy in his drawings, even with his most haughty-toighty of creations(*1). But he was also a fantastically skilled artist who continued to evolve, fusing his artistic sensibilities, flitting between playful inventiveness and abstraction to joyously wiry cartooning, to straight (not to mention frightening/moving) reportage using whatever primitive tools he had to hand. For Searle was also a survivor of a POW camp during World War II and worked on the infamous 'Railway of Death' project initiated by the Japanese, an attempt to construct a railway between Thailand and Burma which resulted in the death of 100,000 labourers, including 16,000 Allied Prisoners. All this is powerfully recorded through Searle's drawings which are collected together in the book 'To The Kwai and Back. War Drawings 1939-1945' You can imagine the kind of influence this probably had on Joe Sacco (who has already acknowledged his debt to another British great George Orwell by doing an adaptation of TheRoad To Wigan Pier, which sadly is only available as a bonus when you spend over a certain amount on the Fantagraphics website).

Searle's influence will continue to be felt throughout the world of cartooning, art, design, and animation, for the foreseeable future. He is a man who has truly left a mark.

There are many tributes floating around the web, but I recommend this blog for a fantastic array of of Searle's best artwork.

(*1) Like Posy Simmonds, Nicolas Bentley, and Osbert Lancaster there was a particular upper-class Britishness to his drawings although Searle did it all with much less restraint and a cheerful sense of anarchy. It's also worth mentioning that Searle was one of those handful of artists who really understands the unusual relationship that British pet owners have with their pets. Searle's dogs and cats are among my favourite cartoon animals (next to B.Kliban's cats).