North America: Why Aren’t you familiar with Darren Cullen? I think he’s right up your alley.
While his previous art, available for viewing on his site, http://www.spellingmistakescostlives.com covers other subject matter, his first published book, out October 17, is (Don’t) Join the Military – an absolute assault on the eyes that blends incredible artwork, political satire, and a dark sense of humour that had me thinking all through it that he must be a veteran.
Title: (Don’t) Join the Military Author & Illustrator: Darren Cullen Self-Published: October 2013 More Info: Darren Cullen’s Website: Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives
As the U.S. struggles with its ongoing war machine, here is a document that nips the syphoning of soldiers in the bud: at recruitment. Largely composed of content that mimics and mocks the recruitment-style propaganda, familiar to those of us on both sides of the Atlantic, Cullen juxtaposes biting humour (that will make you laugh out loud, as dumb as that sounds in a review) against images of war that can barely be reconciled: dismembered bodies, civilians being murdered, and soldiers having breakdowns.
The over-arching theme remains the lunacy of war, the ignorance needed to carry one out, and the level of lying and manipulation that must take place to market them.
“I’m really interested in advertising and the gulf between the advert and the reality,” says Cullen. “…and there doesn’t seem to be a starker example of that than when it comes to army recruitment. The adverts makes it look like a kayaking and abseiling holiday but if you join up you’re thrown into an actual hell on earth, forced to kill and be killed. It’s horrific.”
If this were not all enough, there are lots of goodies stuffed into the booklet itself. Most notably, in my opinion, is the fold-out at the end–a jaw-dropping 3-4 ft insert that reminds me of a Mayan Codex… a fold-out expanse of war in its various dimensions, from recruitment to death.
It need not be said that this kind of work doesn’t speak to everyone. Cullen has weathered quite a bit of difficulty just in finding a printer who would help him publish, due to the content–which I think is saying something in this day and age. But the offence is not so much to the violence, in my opinion. We see depictions of violence and war frequently. But this cuts into the insanity of advertising violence and war being sold to us as something other than what it is, and mocks it ruthlessly for being so blatant a contradiction. It seems quite natural, in this context, that Cullen would point out, “I think the expectation and the reality [of the military] are so different, it’s a perfect subject for satire.”
Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art is quintessential reading for those who appreciate comic books as a legitimate art form. It explores, with great authority, the method underlying the form of combining words and pictures in sequential art storytelling.
So what does all that mean to folks who don’t fall under the Art Nerd category?
Well, the ideas covered in this book can tackle some of the following subjects:
– Why comics, cartoons, and “sequential” art has been used for thousands of years
– Why the medium is accessible as a popular art form, as well as being capable of great sophistication
– Why film isn’t just “like comics, but better” – a favorite point raised by many comics afficionados including Alan Moore
Scott McCloud, who is creator of the both the book’s works and graphics, actually illustrates his theory and methodology as you’re reading about it–which is great for visual learners, and definitely drives home the points he is trying to make. What is more, the research is intensely thorough. Check out the chart on page 52-53 where he maps out the geography of the comic art universe, in which comics are located based on their varying gravity towards Reality, Meaning, and the Picture Plane.
Drawn images, McCloud points out, are all symbols, including the visual depictions of our languages. Yet written language is received, and is the process of training and education… whereas a drawing of a woman or a boat is perceived–that is, instantaneously understood as a representation of that thing. Comic arts, among other things, is a practice of reconciliation between these two distance cousins–an attempt to harmonize them in a way that only uses one sense–sight–to take it in, and yet professes all of our senses, and all perceived dimensions–including time.
So what does the typical comic reader get from reading Understanding Comics?
Aside from getting your mind blown about the abilities of the medium, Understanding Comics will truly help you to further appreciate decent comic art. It will help you to recognizing quality; it will help you to differentiate style, including cultural influences that you may not have previously noticed (Japanese comics, for example, are notably different in method than American or European comics, and this can be linked quite conclusively to a difference in values, philosophies, and methods of thinking.)
You may wish to pick it up as a map of what kinds of styles are out there, in terms of culture, style, time period. Or you may find it empowering to more deeply understand the comics you already know and love. Whatever the case may be, the book is a must-read for comics aficionados… and, arguably, those looking to understand why comics are once again on the rise.
For those who read and like Understanding Comics – you will probably want to check out McCloud’s next installment – Reinventing Comics, which takes the theory and method to the next level, and explores some of the new realms comics are tackling.
Scott McCloud also has a wonderful Ted Talk that combines the fundamentals of both of these books. Click on the image below to check it out in a new window.
Some discussion has come up around Ad Astra Comix and a recent addition to our stock list– a graphic history of the Vietnam War. Not only does the book gloss over major historical events, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and the fact that it never happened, yet was a major cause for the war to escalate). The historical narrative, which has had 40 years of time for reflection, comes to some very troubling conclusions. As a new generation looks back on Vietnam as the war of their Grandmothers and Grandfathers, and as a generation that has been raised far too comfortably around operations in Iraq and Afghanistan being “business as usual“, there is a serious need to dispel this re-write of history in the comic record. -NMG.
by Allen Ruff, guest contributor
A Little Background
As the U.S. aggression in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s, the liberal Cold Warrior Walter Rostow, an advisor to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, spoke of the need of “winning hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, at least those under the control of the US client regime in Saigon, if US force was going to prevail. As the barbarity of the venture — the toll in lives destroyed and the devastation exacted — spread, the invaders not only failed on that front in Vietnam, but also lost the campaign for political support, the battle for hearts and minds back in the States.
The war makers, of course, suffered a humiliating defeat despite their firepower. Failing to defeat militarily what was primarily a peasant-based anti-colonial and nationalist movement already decades old, it also lost the war on the political, ideological and cultural levels. Never having them in the first place, it never won the bulk of the Vietnamese people. The war machine murdered, maimed and debased too many and destroyed too much for that ever to happen. Those that survived, after all, were not about to buy the nonsense about “freedom” and “liberty” churned out by US propaganda specialists and parroted by a succession of corrupt, murderous regimes in Saigon. All the claims of the American “Free World” mission to save the country from “Communist Peril” rang hollow as that tiny land was scorched by what amounted to in a massive fly-by shooting.
Defeat in some sense became inevitable, a done deal, when the Washington war makers simultaneously lost large swaths of political support at home. They lost the battle of ideas, the claims and justifications, and explanations of what the war was about as the body counts and war costs mounted.
That loss of domestic political support for the war has never been forgotten, especially by those intent on winning future wars abroad who have come to view that home front defeat as a significant “lesson” of the conflict, not to be repeated.
In their ongoing efforts those still imagining that Vietnam could have been won and those already invested in current and future interventions have utilized every available means at their disposal to revise and reframe the story. At that level, the portrayals and accounts in the popular culture – television and film, in music, art and print media, even the comic book press – have long been been utilized in the campaign to mold “hearts and minds”, especially among the young and the impressionable, the potential recruits and fodder for future imperial campaigns.
Few recent examples illustrate that fact better than Zimmerman and Vansant’s graphic rewrite of the Vietnam war’s history. Well-illustrated by the clearly talented Vansant and shrewdly scripted by Zimmerman to include the actual words of participants, the book in some ways has more to do with the present than it does with some approximately accurate portrayal of what the US did to Southeast Asia.
Title: The Vietnam War – A Graphic History
Writtenby: Dwight Zimmerman Illustrated by: Wayne Vansant
Published: New York: Hill & Wang, 2009. 143pp
Now, of course, it can be rightly argued that the writing and depictions of history are always selective and that all historians make choices and have an agenda, an axe to grind. and that a graphic history could not possibly be comprehensive in any sense of the term. That all remains true since the agenda of this rightward revision of the war on ‘Nam comes clear right in the opener, in the foreword written by the retired Air Force General, Chuck Horner.
A combat pilot during Vietnam, Horner later commanded the U.S. and allied air assets during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. According to the publisher’s boilerplate accompanying his account of the Gulf War co-authored with fiction writer Tom Clancy, he, Horner “was responsible for the design and execution of one of the most devastating air campaigns in history.”
Horner, in one page, casts Vietnam in terms clearly pitched to the novice, the young high-schooler or working class kid, perhaps.
“Like other wars,” he tells us, America’s war in Vietnam, “began with a premise of good versus bad and which was which depended on whom you side with.” Well, okay for the obvious, war as some shape shifting morality play.
He then proceeds to explain that, “As the conflict dragged on, those views changed into the reality of a dedicated, committed North Vietnamese enemy and the committed-but-not dedicated US led-coalition.” The implication is simple (and simplistic): The US and its junior “coalition” partners (Who they were, he doesn’t say) lost because they weren’t dedicated enough, didn’t have the endurance or the will to win. Or, by implication, one running throughout the book, that their determination was undermined not so much by the tenacity of the Vietnamese adversary but by the falling away of support at home.
He goes on: “President Kennedy had committed our nation, but then President Johnson instituted polices that lacked dedication.” Here, immediately, one of the main themes of the conservative accounts creeps in: the war came to be lost because the civilian leadership, especially the politicians back home lacked the guts and the determination to see it through.
Following Johnson, “President Nixon became dedicated to getting us out of our commitment (to whom or what, Horner doesn’t say), but at “great cost to our honor.” Apparently even Nixon, known during the height of the war as the “Mad Bomber,” is viewed by this former Air Force lifer as aiding and abetting the commission of that sin of sins among the military, dishonor. (In some sense Nixon ended up getting a dishonorable discharge, but not for the major war crimes for which he should have been tried.)
What might be drawn from all that? Horner lays it out: “Years later, in Desert Storm, our politicians and our military, remembering the lessons of Vietnam, set goals and conducted operations that deserved our unqualified commitment and dedication.” That matter of dedication and steadfastness, once again.
Horner then raises a second read on the history commonly forwarded by the right: “In the case of the Vietnam War, the divergence of political will and goals resulted in constraints on our military operations.” Disregarding or not knowing that war is the extension of politics, he seems to suggest that the whole thing could have been “winnable.” If only the military didn’t have to fight with “one hand tied behind its back” and they weren’t “stabbed in the back” by the peace movement and their allies in the “liberal” media.
The old canards die hard.
Horner tells us, as well, that “our South Vietnamese ally’s leadership could not rally the dedication of its own people.” As venal, repressive and as illegitimate as the US-bolstered Saigon sham of a government was, could it have been any different? Horner may think so, but few others versed in the history appear to hold that peculiar line.
The Good General asserts, in closing, that Zimmerman and Vansant have come together to present the history, “in a clear and comprehensible way.” He concludes his foreword by describing the work’s present day purpose: “It serves to enlighten those for whom Vietnam is only academic history, so that we may be armed against making the same mistakes in the future.”
Interspersed with occasional accounts of heroic efforts by troops on the ground, the bulk of the narrative is loaded with half truths and craftily retooled tellings. Parts of it read as if it was selectively scripted by someone with the suppressed memory of a sleepwalking amnesiac.
This tale — an illustrated comic after all — might seem “comprehensible” to the novice, those unfamiliar. After all, if Vietnam was nothing but a series of mistakes made mainly by a civilian leadership at home, unwilling to fight to win, then a further mistake, perhaps, might be made by one looking to this work for some understanding, today, of what that criminal enterprise perpetrated against the people of Southeast Asia actually was about.
Allen Ruff is a U.S. Historian, Social & Political Activist; Host, Thursday’s “A Public Affair” – WORT, 89.9fm, Madison, Wisconsin; & Writer of Non-Fiction and an Occasional Novel. You can find more of his writings on his blog, Ruff Talk.
Continuing on with my theme “Battle of the Graphic Biographies” begun earlier this year Che Guevera, this month I’ve had a couple different titles at Hill & Wang take each other on– all a part of their Novel Graphics series. I, somewhat arbitrarily, began reading these books in chronological order: Trotsky, J. Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, Reagan. My interest is obviously to provide some aesthetic feedback, but more to point out political strengths and weaknesses of the titles.
My first note is that each book appears to be politically tailored for the audience most likely to pick it up—the biographies speak more or less favorably of the people they spotlight. But my questions going in are, “Do I better understand the person I’m reading about?” “Am I hearing of their life in their own words–while seeing an interpretation of events from a 3rd person?” “Is this historically/politically accurate?”
Title: TROTSKY: A Graphic Biography Writer&Illustrator: Rick Geary Published: 2009
I had serious suspicions about this one, going in. Whereas the other book covers are more or less realistic, Trotsky’s is purely mythological. We see him astride a horse as some kind of atheist St. George–all the while he sits underneath, naked on a pile of human skulls. These images come from two very different interpretations of Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution–both over-zealous and emotional, both incorrect. While I appreciate the re-visiting of historical cartoons and illustrations, it seems necessary for me to make note of the the point that both graphics were commissioned by opposing governments during one of the most highly polarized moments of the 20th Century: the rise of the Russian Revolution.
I think anyone who sees a book of 100 pages claiming to tell the life of Leon Trotsky is pretty much kidding themselves. Once into the story, you might be able to tell why: this man was a mover and shaker of continents, social structures and financial systems in a way that practically boggles the mind. In a time before television, let alone the internet and social media, Trotsky was world-famous for his ideas and his conviction to carry them to fruition.
This book, albeit abridging-ly, details his early years as a landowner’s son in modern-day Ukraine, a student activist and intellectual, his political development, his multiple exiles by the Russian Czar. It’s a whirlwind. In fact, it’s a struggle just to get all of these points down, without even going into what made Trotsky’s ideas so intriguing/dangerous, let alone his various roles in the the Revolution. Despite the obvious limitations, I believe Rick Geary does a stand-up job trying to pull together an epic biography that at least attempts to discuss serious politics. Geary’s style lends itself well to the time period: a bit cold and minimalistic–but not cartoony. The line-work reminds me of borsch and cold, dry winters. In a good way.
I can’t really blame this book for what it isn’t–it’s not an in-depth biography of the Russian Revolutionary, in any sense. It’s not a clear history of the Russian Revolution either. But it will give you a crash course that may peak your interest, and lead you to other works about one of the most interesting men of modern times.
* * * * * *
Title: Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography Writer: Andrew Helfer Illustrator: Randy DuBurke Published: 2006
Like Trotsky, Malcolm X is one of those four-letter words of the 20th Century. People alternately love and cherish or hate and fear everything that the man stood for. It really is a testament to the power of their ideas and the charisma with which they disseminated them.
Malcolm’s story has been told in epic fashion many times: there is the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Spike Lee’s “X” with Denzel Washington was an immediate classic. Once these essential biographies have been consumed, you believe that you know the man’s story. However this graphic biography, in fact, delivers additional information that even someone familiar with Malcolm’s story will find new and enlightening. Scenes I found most interesting included the details of his time as a hustler on the East Coast–as well as his final days in conversation with Nation of Island leader, Elijah Mohammed, whose candid remarks about women are better displayed here than anywhere else that I’ve read.
Malcolm’s entire life is characterized by a seemingly endless sense of change and evolution. In the end, the man who seemed tireless in his conviction, his self-confidence, was also likely his harshest critic. He went from being a pimp and a hustler to a raging animal in prison, a Nation of Islam preacher and black segregationist to working with whites when and where he could. And where we led, people followed. Because of his constant evolution, it is difficult for critics to demonize him. His radicalism has also made it pretty much impossible to water down his message–as has been done with Martin Luther King.
Of all the illustrators of this graphic biography series, I am in love with Randy DuBurke’s style. It is by far my favorite. He illustrates an emotion with what seems be a shadow-heavy photographic realism. Stylized but not cartoony, I even see some graffiti-stylized splatters in the background, that give it an additional grittiness. Given that author and illustrator are two different people in this work, I find their respective trades synching incredibly well.
* * * * * *
Title: J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary Published: 2008
Rick Geary is back after Trotsky with this graphic biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Actually, this book was produced before the Trotsky one, but I’m going in some other kind of chronological order.
Unlike Trotsky and Malcolm X, I had never read a biography of Hoover before, although I was familiar with his role in Communist witch-hunting post-WWII, as well as his hand in the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO counter-intelligence programs. What hadn’t occurred to me was the length of his office. The man was active in government from Emma Goldman… to Ronald Reagan. Think about that. Through half a dozen presidents. He was arguably the country’s most powerful civil servant. His ability to avoid partisan politics and harness the power of government bureaucracy, ironically, reminds me very much of his arch-nemesis Joseph Stalin. These two men dominated their countries with iron fists, using many of the same tactics, for much the same period of time. The key to both of their success was securing and mastering the administrative machinations of their positions.
While I see Rick Geary showing the light and dark of Hoover in this biography, he is at worst portrayed as a bit of a maniac who dabbled in unconstitutional activities for the protection of his dear country–and the all-sacred “American way of life”. We see the mass deportations of immigrant unionists, communists and radicals more as the shuffling of ants from one place to another outside the country–not the same brutal inhumanity with which Trotsky is depicted, sitting on a pile of bones.
Do I wish the comic would take a little more interest in how J. Edgar Hoover was a detriment to the country? The historical precedents of jailing and deporting descent, spying and wire-tapping, infiltration into progressive groups? Yes, in fact I can’t really think of any other singular man who probably committed more damage to democratic movements of the 20th Century than J. Edgar Hoover. But that’s my opinion on the matter–and Geary makes little to no effort to hide the evidence that would lead someone to those conclusions. He includes his very trouble remarks on communists, unions, student activists, black people–alongside the sea of other people that rubbed him the wrong way.
* * * * * *
Title: Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography Writer: Andrew Helfer Illustrator: Steve Buccelleto and Joe Staton Published: 2008
Of all of the graphic biographies, Ronald Reagan’s seems the most surreal. This is very much a theme of the book itself. Where was the threshold between Reagan the man and Reagan the actor? Reagan the actor and Reagan the politician? The book very much lends itself to the theory that there were no clear lines, even to Reagan himself. Acting was a part of him from a very young age, as were many of his political and moral influences.
Also more than any other comic in the series, this book relies very much on Reagan’s own interpretation of himself and his life–including instances like his student strike in university, which isn’t documented by the school–or his record 77 rescues as a lifeguard, even though there were many instances in those rescues where, hilariously, people apparently didn’t need to be rescued (THAT comic history vignette, I would love to see). More than many other American leaders, Reagan very much controlled what media and the public thought of him. That was his gift as an actor.
While there is some mention of his early days as an FBI informant, as a ‘friendly’ testifier in the mid-century Inquisition of American leftists and progressives, as well as his later involvement in the dismantling of unions, tax cuts for the rich, military intervention in Grenada… the underpinning theme Geary really seems to be driving home is Reagan’s mastery of the spectacle. It wasn’t really anything he did–and he did many things in his life–it was how he won support, how he charged through his competition and adversaries at the crucial moment. It wasn’t what he did so much as how slickly he was able to get away with it.
I find the artistic style of this work, shared by Buccelleto and Staton, to be my least favorite of the series. Faces and gestures are bubbly, cartoony, very “Leave It to Beaver”-ish, which works for Reagan but not for me. I feel like anyone who watched television during the last century knows this perspective of Ronald Reagan. So despite my distaste I understand perhaps why they went with it. Maybe, for all that time behind the camera, there really was no other way to see the man. He seemed to understand, at an early age, that public image is its own form of immortality.
* * * * * *
Of all the comics that I read, I enjoyed Malcolm X and J Edgar Hoover the most. Both had wonderful artwork and kept me intrigued with information that was new to me. However I appreciate the set as a whole for its fascinating takes on 4 totally different individuals. I have found much more intricacy in all of the books’ designs than I initially thought would be there.
I’ve just begun reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods and wanted to share the introduction with any non-readers or non-believers. From what seem to be almost arbitrary and even laughable (often laughable) beginnings, the rise of superheroes in comics speaks deeply of the politics and belief systems of our times. Since it’s already available online elsewhere, I thought I’d share with you the book’s introduction–which makes for a great article in and of itself.
Title: SUPERGODS: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human Author: Grant Morrison Published: 2011 by Spiegel and Grau, New York
FOUR MILES ACROSS – a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force. Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over. One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this mega destructive capability may, ironically, save us all—but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hyper-simulation we’ve all come to inhabit.
At night, the inverted reflection of the submarine dockyards looks like a red, mailed fist, rippling on a flag made of waves. A couple of miles of winding road from here is where my dad was arrested during the anti-nuclear protest marches of the sixties. He was a working-class World War II veteran who’d swapped his bayonet for a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge and became a pacifist “Spy for Peace” in the Committee of 100. Already the world of my childhood was one of proliferating Cold War acronyms and code names. And the Bomb, always the Bomb, a grim and looming, rain-coated lodger, liable to go off at any minute, killing everybody and everything.
His bastard minstrels were gloomy existentialist folkies whining horn-rimmed dirges about the “Hard Rain” and the “All on That Day” while I trembled in the corner, awaiting bony-fingered judgment and the extinction of all terrestrial life. Accompanying imagery was provided by the radical antiwar samizdat zines my dad brought home from political book-stores on High Street. Typically, the passionate pacifist manifestos within were illustrated with gruesome hand-drawn images of how the world might look after a spirited thermonuclear missile exchange. The creators of these enthusiastically rendered carrion landscapes never overlooked any opportunity to depict shattered, obliterated skeletons contorted against blazing horizons of nuked and blackened urban devastation. If the artist could find space in his composition for a macabre, eight-hundred-foot-tall Grim Reaper astride a flayed horror horse, sowing missiles like grain across the snaggle-toothed, half-melted skyline, all the better.
Like visions of Heaven and Hell on a medieval triptych, the post-atomic wastelands of my dad’s mags sat side by side with the exotic, triple-sunned vistas that graced the covers of my mum’s beloved science fiction paper-backs. Digest-sized windows onto shiny futurity, they offered android amazons in chrome monokinis chasing marooned spacemen beneath the pearlescent skies of impossible alien worlds. Robots burdened with souls lurched through Day-Glo jungles or strode the moving steel walkways of cities designed by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and LSD. The titles evoked Surrealist poetry: The Day It Rained Forever, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Silver Locusts, Flowers for Algernon, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Barefoot in the Head.
On television, images of pioneering astronauts vied with bleak scenes from Hiroshima and Vietnam: It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable. And then the superheroes rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything. Te first comic shop in the UK—The Yankee Book Store—opened in Paisley, home of the pattern, just outside Glasgow in the years after the war. With a keen sense of ironic symmetry, the comics arrived as ballast alongside the US service personnel whose missiles threatened my very existence. As early R&B and rock ’n’ roll records sailed into Liverpool to inspire the Mersey generation of musicians, so American comics hit in the west of Scotland, courtesy of the military-industrial complex, to inflame the imaginations and change the lives of kids like me. The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb. Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan. The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale. I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages. Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place. My own world felt better already. I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears. Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.
It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him. In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to deconstruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win.
I entered the US comics field as a professional writer in the mid-eighties at a time of radical innovation and technical advance, when the acknowledged landmarks of superhero fiction like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were being published and the possibilities seemed limitless,along with the opportunities for creative freedom. I joined a generation of writers and artists, mostly from a UK working-class background, who saw in the moribund hero universes the potential to create expressive, adult, challenging work that could recharge the dry husk of the superhero concept with a new relevance and vitality. As a result, stories got smarter,artwork became more sophisticated, and the superhero began a new lease on life in books that were philosophical, post-modern, and wildly ambitious. Te last twenty years have seen startling, innovative work from dozens of distinctive and flamboyant talents in the field. The low production costs (pen and ink can conjure scenes that would cost millions of dollars of computer time to re-create onscreen) and rapid publication frequency mean that in comic books, almost anything goes. No idea is too bizarre, no twist too fanciful, no storytelling technique too experimental. I’ve been aware of comic books’ range, and of the big ideas and emotions they can communicate, for a long time now, so it’s with amazement and a little pride that I’ve watched the ongoing, bloodless surrender of mainstream culture to relentless colonization from the geek hinter-lands. Names that once were arcane outsider shibboleths now front global marketing campaigns.
Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Why have superheroes become so popular? Why now? On one level, it’s simple: Someone, somewhere figured out that, like chimpanzees, superheroes make everything more entertaining. Boring tea party? Add a few chimps and it’s unforgettable comedy mayhem. Conventional murder mystery? Add superheroes and a startling and provocative new genre springs to life. Urban crime thriller? Seen it all before . . . until Batman gets involved. Superheroes can spice up any dish.
But there’s even more going on beneath the surface of our appetite for the antics of outlandishly dressed characters who will never let us down. Look away from the page or the screen and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived into mass consciousness, as they tend to arrive everywhere else, in response to a desperate SOS from a world in crisis. We’ve come to accept that most of our politicians will be exposed, in the end, as sex-mad liars or imbeciles, just as we’ve come to expect gorgeous supermodels to be bulimic, neurotic wretches.
We’ve seen through the illusions that once sustained our fantasies and know from bitter experience that beloved comedians will stand unmasked, sooner or later, as alcoholic perverts or suicidal depressives. We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.
Traumatized by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual. Towering, cadaverous Death-Angels, like the ones on the covers of Dad’s anti-nuke rags, seem to overshadow the gleaming spires of our collective imagination. Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skin tight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?
We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to and a way to save the day. At their best, they help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.
Stuart McMillen’s webcomic adapts (and updates) Postman’s famous book-length essay, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which argues that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World was ultimately more accurate than the one proposed by George Orwell in 1984. (Via).
The following is a little exhibition of the top student comics of the “Gender Through Comic Books” Massive Open Online Course (Codename: #SuperMOOC), which ran on Canvas.Net from the beginning of April to Mid-May of 2013. In a class of 7200, there were over 800 comic submissions, and these were the finalists. The top three are listed in order of the student body’s popular vote, beginning with #1 – Girls Don’t Like Dinosaurs…. ! Enjoy!
Girls Don’t Like Dinosaurs
by Natasha Alterici
For my story I blended together a few real-life anecdotes from my childhood; my mother trying futilely to make me dress like a young lady, the neighbor boy who told me “Girls don’t like dinosaurs!”, the exploration, and of course the dinosaur role playing. As a kid I was completely fascinated by dinosaurs, but I was also completely aware that this was not “normal” for girls. Looking back I think this is because dinosaurs are gendered toward boys and this is probably because they’re essentially a science-based play. Dinosaur-play involves lots of learning, about biology, natural history, geology, forensics, etc. If a girl is interested in animals or science they can play Barbie Veterinarian, but this isn’t a science-based toy, it’s just another form of dress up. You aren’t given opportunities to learn about how to care for animals, you’re given an outfit (sexy lab coat) and accessories (sickly baby animals).
Small and Waiting
by Nicole Marie Guiniling
In grade school I was told that a good essay was like a hamburger. You had a beginning and an end that reflected each other, with a meaty middle. (I even had a teacher go so far as to say that your thesis should be a “crisp, green line towards the top.”) Then I went to college, where another, arguably better Literature Professor threw that out the window and said that none of that mattered. A decent essay, he said, should look like Beyonce—an hourglass shape with a “KA-POW!” ending, so to speak. This definitely got some gasps and laughs when I first heard it in class 6 years ago. I thought it would be a little ironic to apply that method (if I can call it a method) to an assignment in a class on gender.
“Small and Waiting” is about me growing up, learning about gender roles, coping with the trauma of the worst aspects of that role (including eating disorders, body image issues, and assaults by men), and overcoming those challenges with a higher understanding of gender and systemic oppression in our society.
by Jacinda Contrerras
This is my brother and me when we were kids. He always wanted to hang out with his older sister and be like her, as he told me years later. Getting to wear a dress with a black towel wrapped around his head while poppin’ wheelies in our neighborhood was just a bonus.
My family consisted of one set of grandparents, my mom, 2 aunts, and 3 uncles. They grew up as migrant workers and believed that teaching children survival skills and street smarts outweighed raising proper little ladies and gentlemen. These hardworking adults were more concerned with the cost of clothes than whether they were buying pink for girls or blue for boys. So, I didn’t think of my toys as being girls’ toys or his as boys’. I owned the books, Hot Wheels & Tonkas that I allowed him to play with when he wasn’t annoying me, my brother owned the Atari and Star Wars action figures that he allowed me to play with when we were on good terms.
Eddie Blake did a great job with the art and inks, this story comes alive because of that.
Written by Ross O’Dell
Drawn by Raylene Winkel
Insert Title Here
By Greg Marcus
In high school (class of 1995) I was the staff cartoonist for the newspaper. In that time I managed to pick up some awards for my work. This strip in particular is a complete reworking of a strip that won an award from the Palm Beach Post. I rewrote it updating outdated ideas and things that are not accurate for my current age (Teacher crushes, mentions of things that were understood in 1995 but not today) I then redrew the entire strip using Adobe Illustrator.
All of the things mentioned in the strip are accurate, just not necessarily to the person saying them. I did test androgynous and have been known to loofah, but most of the things my friend said should be attributed to my wife. Although, I do enjoy a good mud mask from time to time.
Shawn Proctor’s writing has been nominated for Best New American Voices and published in several literary journals and anthologies, including Storyglossia, ThinkJournal, and Our Haunted World: Ghost Stories from Around the Globe.
It’s safe to say that this past week was one of the busiest for me in recent memory. On top of working a 40 hour week at my day job (in 4 days), the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was in full swing and I was pulling together what I’d hope would be two kick-ass events for the weekend.
TCAF breaks records every year–has since I’ve been attending at least. If this year didn’t reach fire-code-breaking capacity at the Toronto Reference Library (in addition to several off-site satellite locations), and to be sure, they’re still still waiting on the official numbers, then it was awfully close. More notably there was an insane amount of talent at the show: Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly of RAW Magazine / MAUS / New Yorker fame. Jaime + Gilbert Hernandez, Tagame, Matsumoto, Chester Brown, Seth, David B… the list goes on.
Unlike my previous years at the festival, I saw a notable rise in interest (as well as work available) pertaining to political comic books. This is despite the skiddishness that remains around the term “political”. But whatever people want to call it, I found much more to chew on over the weekend than in years past.
Before I go into some books, a note on Comics Journalism.
If there’s one way to get people to talk comfortably about political comics and their viability, it’s Comics Journalism. I think it’s seen as a happy medium for a lot of different interest groups, whether it’s non-comic folk looking for some different non-fiction, or comic fans looking for a different type of page to turn. In turn, the sub genre doesn’t effect the topic. Joe Sacco really birthed the term, from his thumb-to-index-finger loins, with work like Palestine and Safe AreaGoražde, using comics to take on some pretty acceptable topics of intrigue in the journalism community… but since, really, you could do a comics journalism piece on just about anything and it would have the potential to be amazing. I look forward to seeing more and more come to maturity in this genre over the coming years.
…And secondly, a brief note about Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. I did not include MAUS in this list, because 1) I think it’s deserving of a little more commentary than one paragraph, for all it has done to influence the world of political comics… and comics in general. 2) It was put out 20 years ago. I feel like it’s a bit silly to put it among a list of up-and-comers with newly released works. (In other words, there will be more on MAUS as a specific work to come soon on Ad Astra!)
OK. To the books.
LIFE BEGINS AT INCORPORATION by Matt Bors – I’ve never considered myself a fan of editorial cartoons, so when I decided to back Matt’s Kickstarter campaign, that really just meant that I liked his work more than I cared to admit. After a bit of discussion and a lot of planning on both ends, Matt was able to make it up to Toronto to promote his book at TCAF, in the midst of some type of Eastern-Time-Zone-only book tour.
The book is a collection of political cartoons and essays spanning years of wonderful American political drama- from the gay marriage debate that is still somehow being discussed, to the continuing occupation of Afghanistan and the reality that war-time simply seems to be the perpetual reality for Americans, post-9/11. I have plenty to say about this book and have already uttered plenty of niceties here. My recommendation over reading my book-length review is just to buy the book. It’s better.
I will add, however, that Matt gave a great presentation to an engaged crowd at the Comic Book Lounge on May 10, the night before TCAF–despite monsoon thunderstorms and a competing 10th Anniversary TCAF party down the road (we had this shit scheduled MONTHS ago. We’re not the splinter group. THEY’RE the splinter group!). Attendees included at least one other fellow Kickstarter backer, which was great to see.
On Saturday evening, Matt and I shared a table with comic creators Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan to discuss “Comics & Politics” at TCAF to a great crowd who asked lots of questions–from comics journalism to comics activism, free speech and “to draw or not to draw” (discussing the Mohammed cartoon), stereotypes, backlash for work done… it was great. And what’s more, it shows a genuine interest in political comics from a variety of entry points.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS by Sarah Glidden – Right in there on the topic of Comics Journalism. Sarah Glidden went to Israel on a Birthright trip and came out of it with How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Not only is it a journalistic piece about the country, it is journalism of herself experiencing it. The artwork is very much a European comic book style, with simple, expressive line work and really nice coloring (these are pretty much the first two things I think about when someone says European Comics). It’s packed with a thousand little stories that maybe tell us more about an American’s viewpoint on Israel than Israel itself, in all its historical and political turmoil. But I like the frankness that Glidden gave when describing the outcome of the book while at the TCAF panel (at the risk of seeming “wishy-washy”), when she said that this place became real when she traveled there, and the people in it became human beings. While I may not agree with Sarah on her political conclusions (and I’ve yet to see, as I’ve yet to finish the book!), it hardly seems relevant when we’re talking about a work of art that is depicting a personal experience.
A.D. NEW ORLEANS by Josh Neufeld – This book has been on my list to pick up for some time, and it was a pleasure to share a stage with Josh and talk to him about this project. I’ve yet to fully pinpoint my thoughts on this, but there is something to be said about a writer’s perception of an experience, and a visualist’s perception of the same thing. Neufeld seems to pick up on details of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that go missing in other accounts–and it’s not just a matter of mainstream vs. independent media. The wreckage, the crowds, the sweat, the loss of cherished items… all pulls at you differently when you are immediately able to absorb the information through a drawn depiction, without the filter or process of language. I particularly like the variety of people interviewed and their respective color palettes in the book’s pages. This will be a great one to finally read cover to cover.
I also got two other books that were illustrated by Josh Neufeld – The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, and Stowaway, written by Tori Marlan. Both works of comic journalism, although entirely different.
BEST OF ENEMIES by Jean-Pierre Filiu et David – When I first eyed this book at TCAF last year, I’d already spent all my money. Good thing I have a better job this year. Best of Enemies explores the long and complex history of U.S.-Middle East relations. It is part 1 of 3: 1783-1953, and so incredibly fascinating. David B.’s illustrations are absolutely addictive; despite history typically being considered a dry subject matter, he ads enough art and style to the panels to keep even the subject’s most un-enthused reading on. In my limited French comprehension, David had to tell me in English that he and Jean-Pierre, an historian and former diplomat, are busy working on the next book, despite their own crazy schedules traveling around the world. I look forward to reading this one, as well as the coming two.
THE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston – One of the few works of fiction that I picked up over the weekend, this self-described ‘political thriller’ is available through Top Shelf Productions, one of my favorite publishers. I always worry about books that look like this one… I don’t want to read a comic book version of the Bourne Identity, although the plot to this one sounds a bit more like the BBC TV show, Utopia. What pushed me over the fence with this one was the attention to detail that I can see–the stylistic and color scheme differences in the artwork as the pages change scenes, the elaborate plot that all ties together at the end (according to the dude from Top Shelf…. who I believe, cause they’re usually believable). Great cover art, too. I will get to this one, albeit a little later than some of the others. Suspicion ensues….
HARVEY PEKAR’S CLEVELAND with art by Joseph Remnant – In hindsight I’m trying to remember the reason I purchased this comic. It may have been the incredibly detailed pen and ink cross-hatch artwork, or the wonderfully vivid content of working class history in the Midwest, or the introduction by Alan Moore. All are good takers; combined, they won me over. It looks like a great read that most people would greatly under estimate.
SEVEN STORIES PRESS at TCAF
Was so psyched to see Seven Stories Press –traditionally not a comics publisher–at TCAF this year. What a great addition to the exhibitors list. Tons of historical and political comics to choose from. I would place them as pretty much the only contenders to have stocked radical comics at the festival. Kudos to them coming and to TCAF for welcoming change and getting them on-board!
THE BEGINNING OF THE AMERICAN FALL by Stephanie McMillan – Yet another work of comics journalism, documenting the nature and relevance of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. This book was the 2012 winner of the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights Journalism Award – not an award that I’m familiar with, but impressive nonetheless for a type of journalism not yet fully grasped. I am particularly interested in this because it is a political comic that isn’t afraid to take a side- it clearly sees its prerogative as educating a broader audience about the Occupy Movement and inciting a greater level of political participation in the world around us. Can’t wait to read.
AS THE WORLD BURNS by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan – Also at the Seven Stories Press table was this title, also one that I’d never heard of. This book teams McMillan up with notorious deep ecology activist Derrick Jensen to make satirical play on the impending environmental and ecological crises of out time. While it is fictional (perhaps allegorical?) it is undeniably meant to shock people at just how close we’re getting to a great collapse. Looking forward to the read.
PARECOMIC by Sean Michael Wilson and Carl Thompson – Also by Seven Stories Press, about Michael Albert and his development of Participatory Economics. I will probably pair this one up with another comic I plan to review about capitalist economics and see how many of you are still awake at the end. Introduction by Noam Chomsky. See, now you have to buy it.
CANADIAN POLITICAL COMICS at TCAF
If political comics can be construed as typical, then it is assumed that the great bulk of them at the festival would be from the U.S. Despite TCAF being a Canadian event, there’s just more of everything coming from the U.S. in comics. But to my delight I was able to find some great work available through Conundrum Press, a publisher based out of Nova Scotia.
THE HERO BOOK by Scott Waters – Not so much a graphic novel or comic as an illustrated memoir (it says that right on the cover), The Hero Book is an artistic yet journalistic look at the culture and psychology of Canadian soldiers. At least, that’s as far as I can tell. Sorry, I was too busy looking at the ABSOLUTELY JAW-DROPPING artwork to read any more than a couple of sentences. Holy shit, this book is beautiful. And from what I can tell, the content is right up my alley. Looking forward to the read.
CHIMO by David Collier – While dealing with the topic of Canadian soldiers like the work above, Chimo appears to be much more comic book-y. As a part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (seriously, I was surprised as well to hear that such a thing existed), Collier actually went through basic training to be able to write this book. As far as I know, he was in his early 40’s at the time. Impressive, David! It makes drawing out 100 pages sound pretty damn easy!
PAUL JOINS THE SCOUTS by Michel Rabagliati – This book fascinates me. The folks at Conundrum described it to me as something from their ‘Young Adult’ section, but pointed out that it covers a lot of the FLQ crisis in Quebec during the 1970s. What an interesting combination! I love the idea of mixing political and non-political plot lines (isn’t that more like real life?). Paul is the author’s semi-autobiographical character, so it would appear that the work draws from a lot of first-hand experience. Looks like a great piece – can’t wait to pick it up.
Title: Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America Author: David Talbot Illustrator: Spain Rodriguez Published: 2010 by Simon & Schuster (Pulp History Series)
It’s almost impossible to fathom the life of Smedley Darlington Butler. He began his military career at 16 (in 1898, in response to the supposed Spanish attack on the U.S.S. Maine off the coast of Cuba), and spent the next 34 years rucking and getting shot at in China, the Philippines, Central America and the Caribbean. He would also serve in WWI, being deployed in France.
If that were not enough, consider that in Butler’s final years he was among the country’s most decorated veterans and fiercest critics. Just 5 years before he died, he wrote a book called “War is a Racket” about the nature of the U.S. military industrial complex—a slogan that still gets used today in the anti-war movement.
Unfortunately Smedley Butler’s incredible story fades with each generation. The idea that “War is a racket” became at risk of becoming just another dusty and out-dated slogan of protest.
What “Devil Dog” brings to the table is a remix on a story that’s too good to forget in the past and too important to leave on the fringes.
Staying true to the look and feel of its “Pulp History” series, Devil Dog is actually a book of prose dotted with vibrant comic art by the wonderful Spain Rodriguez, in addition to press clippings and other contemporary visuals- art, photographs, etc.–all of which lends to the “Pulp” nostalgia that the series is shooting for. It is, much to my pleasant surprise, a very artfully written piece—you can tell Talbot is engaged by the story and wants you to feel it, too—with each chapter feeling like its own self-standing story of adventure, suspense, romance. Spain’s illustrations, especially with the Technicolor palette choice, really give the book the feel of an old pulp adventure comic.
More importantly, Smedley’s anti-imperialist politics aren’t editorialized by the book’s creators. In fact David Talbot goes out of his way to illuminate much of Butler’s military adventures (even prior to his anti-war awakening) as campaigns of corporate adventurism. He has probably taken a cue from Butler’s own memoir-styled book, where he is looking back on everything that he did with mature hindsight.
I would recommend this work to anyone interested in American war / anti-war history: it truly is a gem. The narrative is one that works well for being told aloud—if it weren’t for a few passages of sex and violence, it would be an amazing story to read to kids.
If you want to know more about the work, S&S actually made a trailer for their Pulp History series- and you can check that out here:
Title: Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story Author: Mat Johnson Illustration: Simon Gane Published: 2010 by Vertigo Comics
Dark Rain is a fictional heist story set against the backdrop of an historical moment in both time and space—a flooded New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Katrina hit, I personally thought it was an event of such a magnitude that it would find its way into more comics. After all, it’s a medium that has a long reputation for wrapping current events and recent history into its story lines. What I find interesting about Dark Rain, though, is that it is more true than most readers realize while they’re reading it.
There are two fundamental elements taking place here. The first is that there is a fictional narrative of Dabny and Emmit, two ex-cons who, despite a recent history of bad luck, now see a golden opportunity to rob a flooded bank. This comes into conflict in two ways. They are physically confronted with the reality that Dark Rain, a private security contractor (read: mercenaries) have been deployed to protect the bank, and their twisted Colonel has a similar heist plot in mind. They are also socially and morally confronted with the reality that the people around them, their neighbors and fellow community members, desperately need their help.
The second over-arching element is a political and social commentary of how Hurricane Katrina was handled: how the event intervened in millions of lives, and subsequently, how opportunists intervened in the disaster for financial gain—a reality that has been under-reported, largely because it was in the aftermath of the disaster, after camera crews and reporters packed up and went back to their regularly-scheduled programs.
Seriously, I have yet to find a review of Dark Rain that points out what, to me, was so obvious it made me buy the book—the fact that the name Dark Rain is an allusion to Black Water, the largest private military contractor in the U.S. at the time. They have since changed their company name to Academi, in the face of horrifying investigations into their practices both in the U.S. and particularly Iraq (as of right now, in 2012, there are more private military contractors in Iraq than there were U.S. soldiers, ever. A reminder that the Iraq War is still going on—it has just been privatized.) For more information about this, I highly recommend picking up Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
Now I don’t know if Mat Johnson had this in mind, but I find it incredibly difficult to believe otherwise. Blackwater was deployed to New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina, to protect “valuable assets” in the city. There is a great video of Scahill talking about witnessing this first-hand while he was covering Katrina as a reporter for Democracy Now!. After hearing that testimony from an award-winning investigative journalist, I also find the storyline of a heist to be ironic—if not, also, subtly alluding to Blackwater’s activities. Scahill points out in the talk that the company was hired by the Department of Homeland Security to deploy to New Orleans, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $950 per man, per day. If that’s not a heist, I don’t know what is.
I’d like to think that was all part of Mat Johnson and Simon Gane’s plan… but I’m still having a hard time tacking that hypothesis down as proven–seriously, no one has written about this?! Still, it gives me pause to think about some of the critical reviews I’ve read of this work. The common criticism of Dark Rain is that the personal story doesn’t mesh with the social/political commentary. Maybe those reviewers, in reality, are complaining of all that space those written words. As the cold hearted Colonel would say….