Monday, November 5, 2018

More Comics Recently Read

Robert Boyd


Coin-Op no. 7: The Doppler Issue by by Peter and Maria Hoey. (Coin-Op Studio, 2018).  Peter and Maria Hoey are a brother and sister illustration team who specialize in illustrations and infographics for large mainstream clients like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Their work is sleek and lovely to look at. In the 90s, Monte Beauchamp contacted Peter Hoey and asked him to do a comic for his anthology Blab!. Peter's sister Maria had just graduated from art school and he invited her to collaborate with him. They have been collaborating ever since--their collective studio is called Coin-Op Studio. When Blab! ended in 2008. Peter and Maria decided to start self-publishing their own comics anthology. A book collection of the first decade of their collaborations, Coin-Op Comics Anthology: 1997-2017, was published this year by Top Shelf Productions.

 Peter and Maria Hoey, "Served Cold" page 6, 2018

Their comics are clever and often feature formal tricks, as in "Served Cold." The title is appropriate--while the characters have emotions, there is no particular attempt to connect the reader to a character. It's more of an amusing way of telling a story, where each panel is not necessarily a different moment of time but occur with a degree of simultaneity. Each page is a panorama of the restaurant setting (the dining area, the kitchen and the alley behind the restaurant) divided into 12 panels. This reminded me a little of Joost Swarte (as did the very clean, minimal drawing style). Interestingly, I had just read two Donald Barthelme stories prior to reading "Served Cold." Barthelme wrote with the same kind of bloodless postmodern cleverness as displayed by the Hoeys here.

Peter and Maria Hoey, "The Spectral Screen: Val Lewton Walked With a Zombie" page 2, 2018

But bloodless formalism does not characterize all of their work here. One thing that seems clear is that they are both devoted fans or certain kinds of art--in this issue, the art they display fannish love of is cheesy B-movies, particularly science fiction and horror. "Omegaville" for example is a kind of history of science fiction movies and an attempt to find meaning above and beyond the surface. This kind of way of thinking about such pop culture goes even deeper in their story about Val Lewton and his series of RKO Films (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, etc.). Indeed, this combination of light-hearted postmodern experimentation and deep fannish examination strikes me as an interesting structure for understanding many artists we think of as post-modern--say, for example, Jorge Luis Borges. Anyway, that's an unfair superstructure to foist on the Hoeys. Their work is sleek, entertaining, clever and occasionally dives deep.

Survive 300,000,000 by Pat Aulisio (Retrofit/Big Planet, September 2018). I enjoyed this silly comic. There should be a name for this genre--where a cliched genre story is drawn in a cutting-edge, Fort Thunder-esque style. In fact, Fort Thunder might be the creator of this genre, especially the comics of Mat Brinkman and Paul Lyons. The work I've seen by Pat Ausilio in the past has definitely veered towards the art side of the spectrum, but with Survive 300,000,000, he goes full genre--whatever we choose to call this genre. (I mentioned this genre to a friend and said that it looks artsy but that the content is super-stupid. He suggested I call it "Super Stupid" which sounds good, but doesn't convey the artsiness of it. Maybe "Art Stupid" would work. I welcome any suggestions.) The story is basic--far in the future (300 million years), Earth is a wreck that was recently occupied by aliens. A father (a human torso riding a set of mechanized caterpillar treads) and his son, Blaze, are trying to find their way around this destroyed Earth.

Pat Aulisio, Survive 300,000,000 interior pages

It reminds me a little the famous "Cursed Earth" storyline in 2000 AD with a dash of Akira. But the storyline is ultimately not memorable. It sets itself up to be continued, but will anyone even remember what the story was the next when the next volume is released? The reason to get it in my view is for the artwork. Aulisio's style is deliberately crude and rough, but what really made an impression was the coloring--vast swathes of color underneath the scratchy linework.

Pat Aulisio, Survive 300,000,000 interir

John, Dear by Laura Lannes (Retrofit/Big Planet, September 2018). This is a body horror story. A woman in a relationship with a man named John loses her mom then comes down with a mysterious disease that starts putting holes into her face. At first, they are too small to be seen and it's John who notices them. Over the course of the comic, the condition grows worse and holes start to cover her whole body. Oddly enough, there is no attempt by the woman to seek medical treatment. At first, John is sympathetic and tries to be helpful, but as the disease progresses, he pulls away.

Laura Lannes, John, Dear interior spread

Laura Lannes is an illustrator like the Hoeys but with a much more minimal, hand-made style. The comic is also minimalist--there are no visible panel lines and no word balloons. The text is typeset in an all caps, sans serif font. Even the way she draws the holes in a minimal way--they look like leopard spots.

This is is a very short comic so the story doesn't have much space to get too complex. But it resembles Charles Burns' Black Hole in one important way--a very visible disease acts as a metaphor for something else, in this case the arc of the woman's psyche vis-a-vis her relationship with John.

Kamadhatu by Bruce Carleton (Self-published, 1991). Here's the oldest item on this list of recently read comics, and it's not really a comic. It's more comics-adjacent. It's a series of 23 pen-and-ink drawings from Carleton's travels in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia. Carleton was the art director of Punk Magazine and was one of the artists that Peter Bagge tapped to appear in Weirdo when he was an editor. I always liked Carleton's louche travel drawings that Bagge published in Weirdo issues 11 and 14. So I wanted to get his pamphlet.

Bruce Carleton, Kamadhatu plates 6 and 7

The thing is that it is different from what appeared in Weirdo. Some of the drawings are identical, but some are the ones in Weirdo are somewhat more raw because they are straight from his sketchbook. Also, the Weirdo stories included a lot more text. Kamadhatu has one page of text--a page of footnotes that among other things explains the title. "Kamadhatu" is a Sanskrit word meaning "Sphere of Desire", which pretty much describes the booklet.

Bruce Carleton, Kamadhatu plates 20 and 21

The drawings depict life in the red-light districts of Indonesia, but as you can see from the drawings above, he includes myth and folklore among his subjects. So even though Indonesia is not a Hindu country anymore, Hindu mythology apparently has become part of its folklore. Kamadhatu doesn't put Carleton into the drawings and only once does he portray anything autobiographical, but in the Weirdo pieces, he was much more of a participant.

Pieroby Edmond Baudoin, translated by Matt Madden (New York Review Comics, 2018). New York Review Comics is the best publisher of comics in English today. Almost every comic they publish is a classic. No other publisher has a better batting average.

Piero is a comic by a great French cartoonist named Edmond Baudoin. Much of his work has been autobiographical, which is (in my humble opinion) the most interesting genre in comics. It took quite a long time for comics to embrace such personal stories. Although there were a few examples of autobiographical comics prior to the 1970s, as a movement it can be said to have begun with Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green in 1972. After this searing depiction of the artist's OCD, autobiographical comics became a deluge, and not just in the USA. Baudoin started producing his autobiographical comics in the early 1980s. His career has been highly unusual--he was born in 1942 and worked as an accountant until he was 33, when he quit to become an artist. This story is explained in this volume. Piero is the nickname of his brother Pierre, who like Edmond was a prolific childhood artist. Both brothers were gifted and loved to draw together, but their parents could only afford to send one of them to art school. The book is about how the two brothers shared an imaginative life.

Edmond Baudoin, Piero page 89

The two boys who lived in a small village outside of Nice started school late due to a lingering illness that afflicted Pierre. They were like a binary star, somewhat isolated from other children. But when they finally entered school, they were instantly known as the kids who drew well. They drew pictures at the request of their classmates--girls asked them to draw James Dean, which made Edmond feel jealous of the American movie star. But even as teenagers, they were still a pair who rotated around each other.

Edmond Baudoin, Piero page 86

Pierre finally goes off to art school and Edmond is drafted into the army and subsequently becomes an accountant. Pierre eventually drops out of art school after becoming disillusioned with the careerist nature of the students there. (Eventually he becomes an interior designer.)

This book is an beautiful and moving depiction of the childhood of an artist who would become one of the greats of French comics.

Berlinby Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly, 2018). I've known Jason Lutes since he started working as an intern at Fantagraphics Books in 1991, and I knew about him earlier from the minicomics he was publishing as an undergrad at RISD. This relationship is described in an essay I wrote for Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels a few years back. Despite my contribution, I highly recommend this retrospective volume. In 1996, the first issue of Berlin came out as a comic book. It was obviously super-ambitious--the story of a variety of figures in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. More than 20 years later, the entire 458 graphic novel has finally been published. All the things we think of when we think of Weimar-era Berlin are here--the rise of the Nazis and the Communists and their street battles, the feckless Weimar government, the economic collapse, the decadence of Berlin, the ferment in the arts there, etc. All of this would be expected in any large book set in Berlin in the late 20s.

Jason Lutes, Berlin page 189, Goebbels fires up the Nazis

But Berlin is not a nonfiction book--it is a book of historical fiction. Although some real historical figures make appearances, most notably Joachim Ringeinatz (a comedian and performer) and Carl von Ossietzky (a crusading editor who won the Nobel prize while held in prison by the Nazis), but also well-known figures like Joseph Goebbels in more-or-less walk-on roles.

Jason Lutes, Berlin page 201. Gudrun Braun killed in a May Day demonstration.

But instead of concentrating on such characters, Lutes focuses on a kaleidoscope of characters from a variety of economic classes, professions, and subcultures. The three main characters are Marthe Muller (who starts off as an art student), Anna Lencke (a fellow art student) and Kurt Severing (a journalist), but in addition we follow Gudrun Braun (working class Communist who is killed in a May Day demonstration), Silvia Braun (her daughter), David Schwartz (a Jewish boy who is drawn to the Communists), Otto Braun (husband of Gudrun and a member NSDAP--the Nazi party), the Cocoa Kids (five black American jazz musicians working in Berlin), and others. Interestingly, their various stories barely intersect. It's not a giant puzzle where all the pieces fit neatly together--the slow dissolution of Germany's nascent democracy is meant to be observed from multiple angles.

Part of the issue of doing a modern telling of a period story is that our concerns as artists and readers in 2018 will be different from those of people in 1928. For example, Anna Lencke starts out as a rather butch lesbian but by the end, modern readers (and presumably Lutes himself) will realize that she is what we would now call trans. The book is obsessively researched, and I would assume Lutes has discovered that there were people in Berlin in the 1920s who in 2018 we would call trans or else he wouldn't have made Anna trans. But because the book took so long to draw, I don't think this was how Lutes originally saw Anna when he started the book. I don't know for sure, though.

Obviously the gradual descent of a democracy into fascism has incredible relevance that it perhaps didn't when Lutes began drawing it. Berlin is a book that got more relevant over the course of its multi-decade gestation.

Almanac Comics Annual by Iona Fox (self-published, 2015). Iona Fox has a curious connection to Jason Lutes--she was a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies where Lutes teaches. She mentions attending classes in this volume, which includes diary comics, fiction comics and sketches, but doesn't mention Lutes or any of her instructors. That was disappointing--I would have been more interested in knowing a little about the mechanics and details of being a student there. But the diary entries don't get into that level of elucidation. We readers learn that Fox has a significant other called in one strip Rock. She and Rock work at a collective farm and that labor is a large part of what's described here. It's interesting, but again, one wishes there were more detail. Admittedly a diary is not where you explain things to strangers, but if you are planning on publishing it, perhaps you should.

Better than the diary portions were the fictional stories. I laughed at the one about the bear who wakes up early from hibernation and then wakes up its partner, who realizes it's not spring yet and that its hibernation mate is just being a jerk. Sounds like it maybe about a human relationship more than actual bears.

Iona Fox, page from Almanac Comics Annual, 2015

Fox's artwork doesn't impress. She doesn't have a knack for telling a story. And the book is filled with random detritus (like her descriptions of some projects she's working on and thumbnails for strips not completed) that make the book seem to add up to less than the sum of its parts.


Baddawiby Leila Abdelrazaq (Just World Books, 2015). This is the story of Leila Abdelrazaq's father Ahmad, who was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon called Baddawi. It mainly deals with his boyhood in a world where political events are unfolding around him continuously. He lives part of the time in Baddawi and part of the time in Beirut, where his father ends up working. The book before his birth with the Nakba, or the catastrophe as Palestinians refer to their expulsion from Palestine by the Israelis. Ahmad's family is one of those that flees to Lebanon and becomes stateless residents of a refugee camp. But one doesn't get a sense of privation from this account--she tells of Ahmad's father's work and the various delicious-sounding dishes his family made for him, for example. Eventually the family moves to Beirut because his father gets a better job there, and Ahmad gets serious about his education. But Lebanon in the 70s descends into civil war. The complicated politics of this are glossed over quickly, but Ahmad ends up moving back to Baddawi to study for his baccalaureate because Beirut has become too dangerous. But Baddawi is hardly a safe haven. It gets bombed as well.

Leila Abdelrazaq, Baddawi page 99

In some ways Abdelrazaq's work is similar to Marjane Satrapi's in Persepolis--the drawing is simple but effective, for example. And like in Satrapi's memoir, important and disturbing political events unfold around Ahmad, but the most enjoyable parts of the book for me were the parts where he was just being a boy--hunting birds with his friends, studying at the American University for his baccalaureate exams, trying to get a job, hustling other kids with his exceptional marble-playing skills. In a way, this is a weakness in the book that we readers understand is meant to be polemical, but it doesn't really succeed in making its political point all that well. Abdelrazaq is better at telling her father's story than at turning it into propaganda. In this way it might be instructive to compare it to Joe Sacco's searing Footnotes in Gaza--a brutal story of the Nakba which is an unparalleled polemic in comics form. The question then is whether it is better to tell the very human story of Ahmad or to tell the highly political story that Sacco did.

1 comment:

  1. Always enjoy your reviews. Berlin has been one of my favorite comics since it began. One of those rarely printed pamphlets that got me excited, like Eightball or Black Hole in the "old" days. There aren't too many any more. Optic Nerve? Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading the collection in one sitting. It was also interesting to look through the issues and compare to the collection to see what Lutes decided to "fix" (which I put in quotes since I didn't think any of the changes he made were actually fixing any problems with the art). I saw Lutes in San Diego, and he says his next book will be a one-shot Western graphic novel (less than 100 pages). Looking forward to that.