Tag Archives: comics

“A Residential School Graphic Novel” by Jason Eaglespeaker

Quite some time ago, I made a preview post about a comic book that I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on: A Residential School Graphic Novel, by Jason Eaglespeaker out of Calgary, AB. A few weeks ago, the book arrived and I feel that the review is now long overdue.

residential graphic novelTitle: UNeducation Volume 1: A Residential School Graphic Novel
Author/Illustrator: Jason Eaglespeaker (with dozens of community names listed under “contributors”)
Published: 2011 by Jason EagleSpeaker via “The Connection” in Calgary, AB – with support from Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Canada Council of the Arts

You can tell that Eaglespeaker isn’t messing around: he has a vision and he means business. This project has the righteous and unwavering purpose of educating native and non-native alike on the raw and real history of the residential school system and its effect on the first peoples of this land.

In addition to loving comic books, I am also a lover of zines, political literature, scrapbooks—in general, I am fascinated by ideas and how people choose to convey them.

Eaglespeaker’s Residential School Graphic Novel is a mix of all four of the mediums that I mention. There are original comic narratives here, mostly told in the Black Foot language. There are scores of newspaper clippings, compiling news coverage from around Canada of residential school abuses, even murders, that have never been solved. Overarching this are quotes and core ideas about the residential school system that the author has selected to point out some fundamental truths: quotes like Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1920, who said:

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed.”

…and so, generations of children were torn away from their families. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were burned, their bodies were bruised until they stopped speaking their language. Generations of children never learned what it meant to be a parent, because they had none. Family units and knowledge of the importance of those roles within a community began to disintegrate.

1996The format reminds me a lot of a zine: different sections use different methods of conveying these ideas. The beginning has quotes and newspaper clippings; the next section is oriented to look like a newspaper, called ‘Residential School News’ (it looks like the cover of Weekly World News). In it, the author uses his natural talent with slogans and sound bites to talk about some of the many issues that can be addressed with regard to residential schools: the psychology of being born with this severe emotional and cultural baggage, the storm of emotion at knowing that this baggage is not his people’s fault—that it was imposed, through the school system, by law; likening the treatment of native children to the treatment of POW’s in war-time; searching for what remains of native culture; and finally, settlement. Resolution. Eaglespeaker points out that the last residential school closed in 1996. (That’s right 1-9-9-6, as in less than 20 years ago).

Towards the end of the book are several short comics. The first depicts a native mother having her child torn away from her. The text is in Blackfoot, which, as a non-speaker of the language, emphasizes the realness of the story. It also makes me feel like I don’t have control—I’m an outsider, a bit, I guess—as I’m reading it, and I can only imagine flipping that around and being in her position as she approaches the residential school, asking for her child, and everyone is talking in English. Or the next scene, where the children are in school, and a nun slams a little boy’s head on his desk for speaking in Blackfoot.

Monochrome colours in the residential school depict a drab existence, devoid of culture or anything from the children’s previous life (their clothes are thrown away, and their hair is chopped off.)

The following comic is about two children who attempt to escape from the residential school. They finally make it home to their family, but the strip ends with their parent explaining that they have to go back to the school (it was written into law at the time).

The final comic is of a reality that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a comic, ever. I will note that I ordered the “uncut” version of the book, and that there is a PG version available for schools and younger audiences.

unredeemedIt is (essentially) titled “Will the circle ever end?”  and depicts a young native boy who is the victim of repeated sexual assault at the hands of a white man of his residential school. It is unclear exactly who this paedophile is, but he is depicted as some kind of priest or pastor. The panels themselves are crumpled, torn, burned in some sections, taped back together. It’s so terrible and intense. Finally it depicts the boy growing into a man, and he himself has now become a predator-within his family and community. He then is charged and sent to jail, where he again becomes a victim of the other inmates. The story ends with the man, now old and out of life, holding up a black and while photograph of himself as a child. Below the panel are the words, “…my life is unredeemed.”

The volume, as a whole, is a tour-de-force on the realities of this history. Residential Schools are a behemoth of an issue: so many ideas, concepts and debates stem from it—one of the reasons it’s such a crime to dismiss it, or downsize is as “a native thing”, ignoring the fact that it would not have even been a “native” issue if whites had not imposed it upon them for a century.

Eaglespeaker rightly sees it as a past, a history, from which stem many, many, many stories. In this book, you’re looking at the system from the past, the present, and the future looking back; you’re feeling the abuse as the native and reading the first-person quotes of government officials, seeing how they justified the atrocities. It is well-rounded and no-holds barred. I’m extremely grateful for its existence, and hope it reaches every school, every student, every corner in this country, and beyond. It’s about time this book has come into being.

For more on Eaglespeaker’s work, his full catalogue of published work can be found on The Connection.

history is brutal

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Supreme Court Ruling Raises Relevance for Reading Chester Brown’s LOUIS RIEL

panelsSome of you may have heard of the historic Canadian Supreme Court ruling this week – which spelled victory for a struggle as old as Canada itself.

In a ruling closely followed by Canada’s Metis community, the Supreme Court determined this last week that Ottawa has not lived up to their end of the bargain made through the Manitoba Act of 1870. This was the agreement that quelled the uprising of the Red River Metis community, made Manitoba a part of Canada, and in turn said that the federal government would set aside land for the children of Red River.

Section 31 of the Act, the court ruled, was to “give the Métis a head start in the race for land and a place in the new province. This required that the grants be made while a head start was still possible.”

Many Canadian readers know where I’m going with this, let alone fans of graphic novels, because it is still one of the most acclaimed graphic histories and graphic biographies to date. I’m referring, of course, to the man who led the negotiations: a Metis man by the name of Louis Riel.

coverLouis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography
Author & Illustrator: Chester Brown
Published: 2006 by Fantagraphics

simple styleChester Brown released Louis Riel to almost immediate critical acclaim. Here was both a piece of Canadian history brought to life, and a genuine masterpiece of stylized art. When I first picked up the book, I disliked the art style despite respecting its quality and consistency throughout the book. I’ve just never been into minimalist drawings… not until recent re-thinking, anyway. But a friend of mine brought up a good point the other day: Chester Brown literally had all of 3, maybe 4 pictures of the man with which to draw an entire book about him. Sound difficult? I think it was… and I’m not sure if the minimalism was the result of solving that problem, but it does in a way that doesn’t seem like defensive measure.

The work of biography is just as artful as the illustration. Here is a sequential portrait not of a one-dimensional populist leader, but a man with conflicts–material and mental–who became larger than life. The book displays his natural inclinations as a leader with as little judgement as his delusions that he was a messenger of God. The best biographies are arguably those where you are certain of the author’s admiration for their subject–but you’re not quite sure what it is they find the most fascinating.

Despite minimalism, there are also wonderful details, like puffs of air in pictures where there is snow on the ground, and brackets around text when depicting that the language spoken is other than English.

I think I’m a little late in convincing many Canadian readers that this is a book worth owning- what I would recommend
is for readers outside of Canada to pick up this title- Chester Brown is a wonderful artist and writer, and in the process they can learn a little about Canadian history and one of its distinct cultural groups.

web riel

Black History: A Comic Book Reading List

For the last 10 days of February, I put out a list of Top 10 Comics relating to Black History. I didn’t consider this a quintessential list; moreso, I wanted it to be a startting point for anyone interested in exploring the genre/medium combo.

From the get-go, I knew I could at least name 10 different titles, although I hadn’t read them all. And as research tends to do, I’ve added another few to this list, along with some notes. 

Black History Comics – A Reading List

bayou page shotBAYOU – 2010, by Jeremy Love.
It’s the Deep South–in the deep dip of the Depression. Young Lee was already afraid of the Bayou–that was where they dumped the body of Billy Glass–and who knows how many other blacks who “hadn’t known their place”. But when Lee’s white friend goes missing and her father is suspected to be involved, Lee sets out into the Bayou, a dark place of murder and magic, to rescue the girl from whatever has taken her, and in turn rescue her father from the fate of the gallows.
Here in the “new world” we often have a hard time picturing our history as folklore and our folk lore as mythology, but that is what is at work here. Jeremy Love does a great job with this book bringing that mythology to life in the stylization of Uncle Remus and his Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, et al. He even takes it a little further, with pieces of social memory that still seem a little too real, too close, to feel entirely comfortable with: flocks of “Jim Crows” that will eat you alive; monsters with the faces of minstrel characters. There is an anthropomorphic element here–lots of talking animals, stories and song that make the characters really pop. Think “Alice in Dixieland”.
Two Volumes have been released of the story so-far: I do hope that more is on the way…
Published: 2010 by Zuda Comics (online arm of D.C. – now closed.)
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Writer, Best Artist, Best Female Character, Best Comic Strip, and Story of the Year (2009);
Best Digital Comic for the Eisner Awards – Nominee (2010);
American Library Association – 1 of Top 10 Graphic Novels for Teens (2010);
Further Reading: Nice Analysis over at Web Comic Overlook (although self-admittedly long.)

nat turner page shotNAT TURNER – 2006 by Kyle Baker. Four issues bound into two volumes here tell the story of Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, leader of one of the largest slave revolts in American history. The genius of this comic is that it tells a compelling story while allowing the historical value to shine through. It uses all excepts of Nat Turner’s own words, taken from a “confession” he gave to a newspaper while in prison awaiting his execution (the word “confession” of course, is an editorialization from the newspaper of the time–however, one can hardly expect him to be remorseful for killing the men who killed and enslaved his kinfolk). We not only have a primary source, but a first-hand account of what we’re seeing depicted in pictures: the life of a 19th Century slave, the horror of life from capture, transport, sale, work, and punishment. The role of religion and prayer for slaves who survived. As a political and historical comics enthusiast, this is one of the gems. Kyle Baker looks to have taken 19th Century newspaper illustrations and breathed them full of life and human emotion. This and a nail-biting narration have practically gift-wrapped this bloody episode of American history.
Published: 2006 by Kyle Baker Publishing
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist, Best Cover, Story of the Year (2006);
Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist (2008);
Further Reading: Nice review on Eye on Africa Blog

 

jackie robinson coverJACKIE ROBINSON, Issues 0 – 6 – Written by sports-writer Charles Dexter. Now I know nothing about this comic – save that it was published in 1950 and that it’s real. That makes it one of the earliest comic book depictions of a black historical figure (maybe the first?) and impossible to leave off this list, where I try to encourage that there is black representation, but also a note-worthy link to Black History (sorry Black Panther, Storm, Huey Freeman…)
That being said, I know nothing of the quality of this comic – the writing, the artwork. But regardless I like having this comic on my reading this for two reasons. It’s not only that it’s the sole comic that is more than 10 years old… consider the fact that a black baseball player would have difficulty finding lodging or a bar to sit in when this comic was released. Second, it’s written by a sportswriter, and I love sportswriter/political commentator cross-overs (the “Olberman” effect?).
Published: 1950 – 1951 by Fawcett
Further Reading: Good luck getting yourselves a copy of this – some issues retail as high as $75 for their 16 pages. But a decent telling of Jackie’s story (and the story of African Americans in the major leagues) can be found here at Awesome Stories.com 

 

 

SOOF - page shot

THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS – 2008, Written by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and illustrated by Nate Powell. This is a deceptively simple memoir of a man who moved to a small Texas town with his liberal white family in the 1960s. The town was intensely segregated, and the author remembers the stir it caused when his Dad invited a black friend and his family over for dinner. Besides political overtones and largely untold events of recent Texas history, which included protests and a serious accusation of black demonstrators firing on police–which was later determined to be false–Silence of Our Friends is a story of childhood memory that is touching, personal and honest. With a heavy emphasis on Powell’s art, the narrative re-creates the [often quiet] tension of racism, privilege, and friendship.
Published: 2008, by First Second Comics / Macmillan
Awards:
Further Reading: I’m a huge fan of Nate Powell’s artwork, so I will take this time to direct you to his blog over here at See My Brother Dance

MALCOLM X A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY – 2006, by Andrew Helfer, Randy DuBurke.
Published: 2006 by Hill and Wang
I have yet to full read this piece, but have it on my list. There is also another Malcolm X biography – by Jessica Sara Gunderson and Seifu Hayden. Neither Helfer nor Gunderson are names that I’m very familiar with in comics, so I’ve been slow to pick these titles up. However they are available for those interested.

King coverKING: A COMICS BIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. – 2005, by Ho Che Anderson. Generally considered to be more comics journalism, this volume collects over 10 years of Ho Che Anderson’s work into a biography of the renowned civil rights leader.  From a review on Amazing: “KING probes the life story of one of America’s greatest public figures with an unflinchingly critical eye, casting King as an ambitious, dichotomous figure deserving of his place in history but not above moral sacrifice to get there. Anderson’s expressionistic visual style is wrought with dramatic energy; panels evoke a painterly attention to detail but juxtapose with one another in such a way as to propel King’s story with cinematic momentum.”
Published: 2005, by Fantagraphics (the Complete Edition)

birth of a nation coverBIRTH OF A NATION – 2004, by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker.
McGruder, Hudlin and Baker definitely have satire in their sights for this piece – that being said, it touches on black culture and history more uniquely than other books mentioned here. Aaron has admittedly used some real stories in this work, gathered by himself and friends over the years to make this comedic work ask a darkly humorous question: If East St. Louis seceded from the Union, would anyone really care? East St. Louis (“the inner city without an outer city” it says), is an impoverished town, so poor that Fred Fredericks, its idealistic mayor, starts off Election Day by collecting the city’s trash in his own minivan. (A real story is inserted here, says McGruder – some people kept their trash on their rooftops to discourage the packs of wild dogs from rummaging through it. No joke…well, yeah, I guess he kind of makes it into a joke.) But the mayor believes in the power of democracy and rallies his fellow citizens to the polls for the presidential election, only to find hundreds of them disenfranchised (this was the 2000 election, so that part is also totally believable).
“Birth of a Nation” to me, is what comics have always been about–pointed political commentary that makes you split your stomach laughing at the same time. And in doing so, it raises questions of culture and national identity. A great read.
Published: 2005, by Three Rivers Press

ROSA PARKS & THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT – 2007, by Connie Colwell Miller (Author) and Dan Kalal (Illustrator).
Part of the Graphic Library series, this book is an introduction to Rosa Parks and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Because the author provides a sequential and clear outline of the historical events of the time, the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott is told in a meaningful and interesting way. The graphic novel is broken into four chapters, each one telling a specific part of Rosa Parks’ story. Through the content presented, readers are introduced to important figures involved in the civil rights movement, racial segregation laws, significant dates and court decisions, important events in the civil rights movement, and the political and social climate of the time. Furthermore, the author shows the impact the Montgomery Bus Boycott had on the civil rights movement and tells about Rosa s life after the boycott.
Published: 2007 by Capstone Press

still-i-rise-graphic“STILL I RISE”: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS – 2009, by Roland Laird (Author), Taneshia Nash Laird (Author), Elihu “Adofo” Bey (Illustrator), Charles Johnson (Foreword)
Still I Rise is a lot packed into a little book: the entire history of Black America– recently updated in a new edition that includes the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.A.’s first African American president (the first edition, published in 1997, took us up to the Million Man March). I believe this work has excelled in highlighting history left out of a lot of American textbooks, for whatever reasons: including early attempts of slaves and former slaves uniting with white indentured servants, along with the rise of early black entrepreneurs and politicians in the South who were constantly attacked, broken down and weeded out. it it a solid portrayal of a lengthy question, and shows that the notion of American history as “white” history is manufactured, and deliberately dismissive of black culture.
Published: 2009 by Sterling

BLACK IMAGES IN THE COMICS – 2012, Edited by Fredrik Stromberg (Introduction by Charles Johnson).
Endlessly browsable illustrated journey through comics’ history of radical portrayals both good and bad.
This book spotlights over 100 comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels to feature black characters from all over the world over the last century, and the result is a fascinating journey to, if not enlightenment, then at least away from the horrendous caricatures of yore. Fredrik Stromberg, who is from Swede, explains in the introduction that he more of less made the volume because it had not yet been made; he set out to make a comprehensive art history of (mostly) white people’s depictions of blacks: as primitive and savage–even cannibalistic, then as dim-witted clowns. Halfway through the 20th Century, this begins to change, and with the inclusion of more positive representations of blacks (mostly African Americans), we see the emergence of black writers and artists, breaking new ground once again.
What begins as a somewhat depressing window on the small-ness of humanity has something of a happy ending with this evolution. However I’m reminded of the words of Charles Johnson, who in the introduction writes, “I wait for the day when…stories in which a character who just happens to be Black is the emblematic, archetypal figure in which we — all of us — invest our dreams, imaginings, and sense of adventure about the vast possibilities for what humans can be and do– just as we have done, or been culturally indoctrinated to do, with white characters…”
Published: 2012 by Fantagraphics


Some Additions:

My entire reading list is seriously lacking in the realm of arts and culture. I looked far and wide for a Hip Hop Graphic History, but am perhaps a bit early on that one – Ed Piskor’s exciting Hip Hop Family Tree comes out this October. Until then, you can preview some work on Boing Boing – or pre-order it from Fantagraphics!

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture
Damian Duffy (Author), John Jennings (Author), Keith Knight (Introduction) – 2010, by Mark Batty Publisher

Super Black – 2011, by Adilifu Nama.
Super Black, although not a comic, it the most thorough work yet to break ground on the subject of black people in comics – their representation and significance. This also extends to blaxploitation film and art, where we see a real packaging of the ‘Black Hero’ for the first time in mainstream American culture.  Available through Amazon, some university literature courses, and perhaps your more-than-average book store.

ABINA AND THE IMPORTANT MEN – 2011, By Trevor R. Getz. Read more about it on the publisher’s website at Oxford University Press.

BAYOU ARCANA – An anthology of work in a similar vein to Bayou, looking at historical roles of race and gender in the Deep South.

The MARCH TRILOGY – Coming out in August, 2013. A graphic novel memoir of former Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis.

THE CAMPFIRE SERIES – by Steerforth Press includes “Mohammed Ali: King of the Ring” and a “Nelson Mandela” graphic biography.

There is also a “Nelson Mandela: Authorized Comic Book” that was produced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

African American Classics

BLACKSAD clip – “Spit at the Sky”

Just came across this last night… it’s from one of my favorite–generally non-political–comic books, BlackSad, by Juan Dias Canales and Juanjo Guarnido from Spain. Amazing artwork, great film-noir style plots with all the twists and turns… and all with cats, dogs, foxes, toads, birds, and all other manner of anthropomorphic folk.

This one hit home, and given its angle, I thought I’d share with the folks who follow my Political Comics Review. All work (c) Canales and Guarnido. Enjoy, (and get a copy of the full book here).


blacksad_panel0

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Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, Revolution: The Life of SPAIN!

spain mural

A couple of weeks ago, some good friends of mine in Toronto, also Americans, invited me to join them in a trip over the border to New York to check out the exhibit of Buffalo native, Spain Rodriguez: “Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, Revolution”.

On Sept 2012 - January 2013 at the Burchfield Penney Gallery in Buffalo, NY.
The Exhibit contains some 50 hanging pieces, in addition to original comic book copies of Spain’s work, and runs from Sept 2012 – January 2013 at the Burchfield Penney Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

Both my friends Nick and Tanya are themselves bikers, rebels, and surviving witnesses to that mythological time, the 60’s and 70’s (not to mention their occasional run-ins with Spain and folks he knew back in the days he rode with the Road Vultures and drew for now-legendary underground comic publications like Zap!). Going to the exhibit with them was as close as I would get to having Spain there to explain some of the nuances and timely political/cultural references.

Sadly, only a few days before we visited the exhibit, Spain passed away. He was 72, and had been battling prostate cancer for about six years. It became especially poignant to understand the legacy of this artist, who was a pioneer of indie comics, a pioneer of comics journalism before the term was even coined, and a pioneer for political comics and historical comics. What’s more, his career wasn’t 3 or 4 ‘golden years’ nestled in a lifetime of mediocrity. His cutting edge work ranges from the early days in underground comics, unbridled by still-McCarthy-Era censorship rules, to just before he died.

Comic book eccentric, Art school nerd, Tough-ass biker, leftist shit-disturber | Spain was an in-betweener, and these are always the folks who make incredible art. Their creativity isn’t confined to one genre, one subculture, one ideological viewpoint of the world. As a biker, Spain scared his comics compatriots and offended some of his lefty comrades: after all, these were three typically segregated subcultures within a man’s world of the 1960’s (none would even begin to include women as anything more than decoration for a few more years…a sidenote). For this overlap, we have some incredibly enlightening artwork depicting the era’s biker culture, general drug and counter-culture, and, more crucial for me and this blog, political happenings of the day.

DNC Chicago 1968Before drawing for Zap! with Crumb in San Francisco, Spain covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the East Village Other (a publication described by the New York Times as being so left-wing it made the Village Voice look like a church circular). This was the home of his other early work, Zodiac Mindwarp.

Above, we see some of the spirit of what went down.


There’s no argument that Spain was an expert brawl-drawer. From his days with the Road Vultures to his activist scuffles, the man had a talent for laying out scenes that generally pass most of us by in blurs if and when we experience them.

These illustrations, when compared to photographs or even video of the protests and police repression, give you more of the feel of the surroundings, and vividly so.  I’ve postulated that he had a tendency to compile several visual records in one large frame. Taking these many single instances he saw–he not only depicts what was in front of him, but he describes the scene and tells a story with it.

tumblr_m0vpq38z071qzhoqfo1_1280Spain went on with his occasional comics journalism, and much to my liking, even delved into historical comics. The book “Devil Dog” illustrates the life of one of my favourite American military figures, Smedley Butler. My friend Nick also told me of a piece he did on the Chaco War fought by mercenary pilots in Bolivia in the 1930s that I’ve yet to see, but I can’t wait to inspect. Untold American history is the bloodstream of my own comic series, so, needless to say, this interests me. His most notable political work is probably Che: A Graphic Biography, published in 2009, which he wrote with the editorial assistance of Paul Buhle, a radical history and comic book expert (best combination–ever).

Young comic lovers should appreciate the fact that, in addition to all his other work that had given him a legendary status in indie comics, Spain never stopped paying attention to political causes around him. The exhibit even included some work depicting the Occupy Movement, that he drew mere months ago.

On November 29, comix artist Def Backderf tweeted, “On the day he died, Spain Rodriguez was inking a poster. Died with a pen in his hand. Hell yeah, amigo! You’re a legend.

Everything else that he so wonderfully was–all aside, this fact alone commands my respect.

spain portrait

Good night, Spain. Your work will forever have a place in my heart.

NMG


Review of Penney Art exhibit:
http://artvoice.com/issues/...

Good informative video about Spain and his political work:
http://www.revelinnewyork.com/videos/spain-rodriguez

Great article from his good friends over at Salon.com:
http://www.salon.com/2012/12/01/death_of...

Pulp History trailer (Devil Dog part of this series)
http://pages.simonandschuster.com/pulp...

Who is Ana Mandietta? by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron

Title: Who is Ana Mandietta?
Author: Christine Redfern
Illustrator: Caro Caron
Got my copy: from creators @ TCAF  (2012)
Published: 2011 by Feminist Press (originally published in French in Montreal – now also available in English and Spanish)

It seems like the life of Ana Mandietta was social commentary from start to finish.

Although born in Cuba, she was brought to the United States as a child, one of thousands under the CIA campaign Operation Peter Pan in the early 1960’s. Over the next decade, like Ana, the world around her was coming of age: U.S. political movements, Latin American revolutions, as well as the cultural worlds of music and art. She began a rise of notoriety in the U.S. as a new kind of modern artist (a feminist), where she embraced and confronted tumultuous times, applauding the opening of minds while pointing out the hypocrisy of where they stayed closed. This was especially the case around the question of women–our rights as well as our popular representation.

In the 1980’s, just as Ana’s work was gaining exciting new attention, she died under mysterious circumstances–having apparently jumped out of her apartment window while arguing with her husband.

This book is not only the story of Ana’s life, but a histroy of the dismissal of women in the art world, as well as the scene’s suspicious apologism for domestic violence at the hands of male artists.

Even as a 27-year-old enthusiast for a lot of art, music, and political movements that arose in the 1960’s and 70’s, a lot of what is in this book is new to me. Even though I’d read William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller, I didn’t know that they both had serious histories of violence against women (Burroughs killed his wife by accidentally shooting her in the face, Miller stabbed his wife in the back; she survived, and tried to cover it up.) I first read it months ago, right after I picked it up at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I finished it over the course of an evening (it’s relatively short, at 84 pages), but found it too overwhelming in the first read to really get out a notebook and jot down my ideas. It’s amazing, intense, angering, saddening…

Christine Redfern and Caro Caron are both hard at work here, emersing you into another world–the world of American art and politics of the era. I really appreciate a lot of the imagery here, seeing as I wasn’t around to witness any of these iconic events first-hand. Pages are densely packed with information that isn’t always explained, (faces, sayings, music lyrics, historical venues) and I like being given the space to explore, wonder, and look things up (I will add, to their credit, that Christine and Caro did do a lot of work for the reader: the inside cover of the book is a portrait gallery of “who’s who’s” of the contemporary scene, as well as a glossary in the back).

The style of the art itself, although not Ana’s style necessarily, is nonetheless a nod to her ethos and carries a lot of feminist undertones–there is a lot of symbolism mixed with a lot of reality, if that makes any sense. For example, her body is shown being figuratively impaled by tree roots in one scene, to describe a deep emotional connection with nature–but the illustration of her dead body after she, according to her husband, jumped out of her apartment window, is so sadly realistic. Her face is crushed, her underwear is wrinkled, her body is contorted.

Unlike many comic book artists, who strive to make a woman to look perfectly beautiful even after a violent death, Who is Ana Mandietta?  is a continuation of one of the legacies of feminist art: to diametrically portray more of how women [really] feel inside, hand-in-hand with with how things [really] are on the outside… a magical realism of sorts.

This is one of my favorite political comics yet, and one that I highly recommend, but readers should be warned: you need an open mind in order to appreciate the full power of Ana’s artwork, as well as this monumental book.

Day One

I have so little time to put down thoughts on TCAF at this exact moment. What I will say is CONGRATULATIONS: this year’s festival has some amazing political comic offerings compared to last year. I have already read one book and will definitely be doing some reviews in the coming days. Until then, a few snaps, subtly edited but not as well as they would have been with Instagram:

NMG

Two Fisted Tales, Harvey Kurtzmann and the Birth of the Anti-war Comic

When Two Fisted Tales first hit the presses in the 1950s, comics were the medium of choice for kids all across North America. They came after radio, but before television was a common household item, and so held the attention of young people as something new and exciting, all for 10 cents a copy. Although the art was often very good, the writing was largely composed of short, campy stories with horrible dialogue. The artistic layout as well (including the interplay between the images and their captions) had yet to really mature.

Issue # 25 is used on Wikipedia and in other sources to exemplify TFT’s ‘anti-war’ leanings. The soldier on the left comes running, yelling, “Guys! I just got word they’re arranging an armistice!” His comrade answers back, “Yeah! Yeah! Tell Jonesy here about your armistice! He’ll be glad!” The third soldier, to the right, lies face-down in mud, recently killed. Just to put this into perspective—Hollywood had yet to barely begun showing dead bodies in war movies. Putting one on the front cover, of a kid’s comic, during war-time, in a way that questioned the price of war, was largely unique.

At this time, the ‘war comic’ was at its peak in popularity. Comic historian and lecturer Roger Sabin writes:

“During the war years patriotic superheroes were sent off to fight for their country, and the conflict was polarized into one between supermen and supervillains: Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini stood no chance. These comics were unashamed morale-boosters, and retailed in unprecedented numbers: by 1943 it is estimated that they were selling nearly 15 million copies a month, thereby totally dominating the industry.”

Enter a young up-and-coming Harvey Kurtzman:

“When the Korean War broke out [in 1951], I naturally turned to the war for material. But when I thought of doing a war book, the business of what to say about war was very important to me and was uppermost in my mind, because I did then feel very strongly about not wanting to say anything glamorous about war, and everything that went before Two Fisted Tales had glamorized war. Nobody had done anything on the depressing aspects of war, and this, to me, was a terrible disservice to the children. In the business of children’s literature you have a responsibility, and these guys feeding this crap to the children that soldiers spend their time merrily killing little buck-toothed yellow men with the butt of a rifle is terrible.”

It’s really difficult to sum up Harvey Kurtzman’s life, and how it influenced such a leap forward for comic books, but it’s impossible to talk about TFT without him. Although his career began earlier, he is largely credited with the success of Two Fisted Tales and its companion comic, Frontline Combat, as the editor of the pair. In this time, he also went on to be the founding editor of MAD Magazine, among other projects. The contribution MAD has made in comedy cannot be overstated. Some have even suspected that it’s impossible to think of anything within American satire today that hasn’t somehow been influenced by MAD, and therefore, by Harvey Kurtzman.

That being said… what made Two Fisted Tales a good political comic? And Harvey a good writer?

Two Fisted Tales did two incredible things for comics, concerning both form and content. Stylistically, Harvey pushed the envelope in creating amazingly detailed layouts, stronger dialogue, and a text-and-image interplay that seemed much more seamless than work before it (I dare call it ‘cinematic’, even though cinema hardly had this down yet). Qualitatively, he told war stories that were researched and historically accurate, with realistic characters engaged in purposeful dialogue. More importantly, the stories would show blood, grit, death, destruction, civilian casualties, people losing parts of their bodies along with their minds. He showed the things that weren’t supposed to happen in war, but always do. In essence, amidst piles of war-time comics being published, TFT and FC were the first to properly convey that “War is all Hell.”

“I think the best way to look at the war stories, both historical and contemporary, in these comics is to think of them as attempting a previously unseen level of realism and historical accuracy,”  says Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling comic shop—and a big fan of Harvey’s work. “Since Kurtzman and most of the artists were veterans of the Second World War, it is easy to see any attempt at realism ending up showing the actual horrors of war.”

Kurtzman was drafted in 1943, but he never did go overseas. I mention this, because if he had in fact seen combat, I would have more easily attributed his qualitative difference with what he may have seen/experienced in war himself.

Since this isn’t the case, then we might conclude that even more influential than his time in service was his liberal/radical upbringing (his step-father was a staunch trade-unionist, his mailbox the receiver of the People’s Daily World of the Communist Party.) Kurtzman never considered himself a socialist or communist, but he had made his opinions clear on several occasions about war, racism, and religious intolerance.

Still, accuracy does not indicate political leanings–just honesty. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t an ‘anti-war film’, even though it was arguably the most accurate depiction of war in film when it was released. …So is Two Fisted Tales “anti-war”?

Relatively speaking, yes, according to Peter. “Other war comics that rushed to the market when the Korean War started were decidedly jingoistic and make Kurtzman’s work seem politically ‘anti-war’ in contrast.”

When compared to comics and even film of the time, it was definitely an opposing view politically. TFT was so much more multi-dimensional than anything else out there, in terms of both style and content. Specifically, the constrictions within the Hollywood film industry—thoroughly in bed with the U.S. government and military in the 40s and 50s—were so confining graphically and stylistically that films had to fit into the confines of 6 predetermined topics, according to the Office of War Information (OWI): The Armed Forces, The Enemy, The Allies, The Production Front, The Home Front, and The Issues (whatever that means–I don’t seem to remember any poignant films about fascism, Antisemitism, or imperialist rivalry). Obviously, showing civilian casualties, the ‘enemy’s’ perspective, or even blood was out of the question…

I agree with Peter in that these were not “anti-war” comics per se in their agenda—but they were anti-war as a result of their accuracy. This again goes back to the type of person Harvey was.

“I think Kurtzman’s message on war is not entirely different than his message on culture that comes through in his issues of MAD,” says Peter. “[That is,] ‘If you step back and look at this clearly, it is really quite absurd’.”

I will also add that it falls into Harvey’s habit of not being categorized easily. As a political comics enthusiast, I have yet to find a good ‘political’ comic that placed a political agenda before the telling of the story, and I think Harvey understood that well, having worked with comic artists who published everywhere from Marvel to the communist party newspaper. To begin, you create uncompromisingly, and in doing so, you largely defy (or re-define) categorization in your work.

… And yet, perhaps it was even a little bit more than that. I quoted Harvey earlier speaking to a certain “responsibility” in children’s literature. It is possible that Harvey felt a responsibility to show young people an opposing view of war as well as history (including Custer’s Last Stand and The Alamo—not how you learned them in school, kids!). That’s not just a strive for accuracy; that’s pro-actively seeking out an improperly remembered event or ‘hero’ of American history, and trying to set the story straight. In my opinion, that makes Two Fisted Tales not just an anti-war comic relatively speaking, but anti-war and political at its core.

[LEFT: Two Fisted Tales Issue #23 “KILL!” includes some interesting examples of TFT’s superior story-telling skills, as well as the recurring theme that these are war stories being told from someone who abhors war.]

Whether you see it as a bittersweet rite of passage or as a cannon fodder-drive for the imperialist war machine, there is no denying that war is a horrible thing. And sometimes telling it like it is will be enough to set you aside from everyone else. It was a bit of star-crossed fortune that Harvey made TFT at the time that he did… everyone had their gaze fixed so tightly on Hollywood films as the next big medium that comics fell under the radar as an unsophisticated business of “kids’ books”. As such, comic book writers had more freedom—intellectually and politically—to spread their wings. If Two Fisted Tales had been a TV or film series, you can bet Harvey Kurtzman would have been thrown into some Red Scare kangaroo trial. And the world would have been shorted a creative genius.

Introduction to a Crash Course

August 31, 2011

It was the 1980’s in Britain, the proverbial midday of the Thatcher-Reagan era, when comic author Alan Moore extended the logic of the right wing’s rhetoric to envision a Britain of the future, under the complete subjugation of a dictatorship. It went beyond the beginnings that had already been seen, of cutting down unions, banning gay marriage, and cutting off immigration. This Britain–racist, misogynistic, unloving, fearful of the very cameras on every street corner that citizens insisted they couldn’t live without—was the stage for one of the greatest stories of the late 20th Century.

It is at the foot of an Orwellian statue by the name of “Lady Justice” that the regime’s nemesis lays a final gift to this ‘betraying lover’ (“You always did have an eye for a man in uniform,” he says.) Before destroying the gilded monument, the man known only as “V” utters of her replacement:

“Her name is anarchy. And she has taught me more… than you ever did! She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none, unlike you, Jezebel. …Goodbye, dear lady. I would be saddened by our parting even now, save that you are no longer the woman that I once loved.”

It wasn’t the first political comic I’d read, but V for Vendetta was my political comic baptism: no medium would ever beat it.

Like George Orwell’s 1984, or Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, or any of its many pictureless literary siblings, V for Vandetta was a barometer for me to know how sick my society was. (Moore himself would quip years later, that someone must have liked those cameras in the streets: now they’re everywhere).

It is well known that Moore, as a comic book writer, would prefer the medium of comics over books or film. But apparently others thought so, too: it became one of the most popular and meaningful works of modern literature, and it still sold over 20,000 copies just last year, two decades after its original publication (a long time in the comics world–although now it is compiled in one volume). For millions of people, something resonates between the text-and-paper story, already heavy with meaning, and the graphic images that make it—and graphic novels in general—especially moving works of literature and art.

At a comic book store, among many more men-in-tights titles than you will ever care to read, you will find a countable few. If you go down the street to your local bookstore, you can find a smaller but nonetheless interesting collection of graphic novel fiction. On the rise now are also works of historical and biographical comics—libraries and classrooms can’t seem to get enough of them. But nestled here and there, in-between these surely enjoyable pages are the books I am writing about today: the political comics. V for Vandetta was surely an excellent work of fiction, science fiction, and social commentary. But it was also a political comic that spoke to real issues effecting an iron-fisted, Thatcherated Britain. It was a warning. And to this day, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by  “V” has adorned many a protester, and is even the avatar of the worldwide ‘Anonymous’ internet movement associated with Wikileaks and social media-assisted uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

“But wait,” you may be thinking… “Aren’t graphic novels just comics? And aren’t comics just… cartoons? Aren’t they supposed to be the opposite of serious?” How, then, have they been used so successfully to publicize the discussions of some of the most serious topics—from slavery and the Holocaust to modern warfare and political struggles? And let’s not forget that political comics themselves are older than the newspapers that first published them in the 19th Century.

The political comic—or graphic novel—is not a homogenous creature. Encompassing a veritable pantheon of different subject matters, authors come from a variety of backgrounds using many different formats and styles for different reasons. Allow me to give you a quick crash-course of some of the world’s most notable political comics.

In 1950’s America, Korean War vet Harvey Kurtzman was the editor and co-creator of “Two-Fisted Tales,” an anthology of war stories that was surprisingly anti-war for its time; no-where else in McCarthy-era United States would you find a publication so widely distributed, calling bullshit on Hollywood’s romantic notions of no-blood combat scenes and racist characterizations of enemy soldiers. Canadian journalist Mitchell Brown would write that Kurtzman,

“who had been drafted in 1942, knew warfare firsthand, and he was outraged by the gung-ho war comics that made war look like a glorious thing. In his stories, there were no heroes — just soldiers trapped in situations beyond their control. Often, his stories weren’t about soldiers at all, focusing instead on the lives of innocent people scarred by war…”

In 1986, Art Spiegelman created Maus (or “Mouse” in German), a two-part story of his father’s account as a Jew during the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Despite the serious subject matter, Spiegelman helped to illustrate the social polarization and predatory nature of Nazi society by drawing Jews as mice, and Germans as cats. He initially faced a lot of scepticism for his decision to make a “holocaust comic,” especially from fellow Jews; however, his work would end up as a classroom essential. Reporting on the story’s winning of a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times explained that Maus was selected under the category of “Special Award” because “the Pulitzer board members … found the cartoonist’s depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.”

Joe Sacco took a new spin on the political comic as a “comic journalist” in the 1990’s, travelling to war zones and… well, drawing everything. Among his prize-winning works were “Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–1995”, and “Palestine”. In both, he highlights the apparent lack of world interest in these millions of people suffering the ravages of war and military occupation because of their unfortunate geographical locations. He interviewed hundreds and drew thousands, but genuinely let the subjects speak for themselves, even when they made him look bad (maybe this is why he draws himself like a cartoon, even when everyone else in his illustrations looks realistic.)

Many more have been published since: “Uncle Sam” written by Steve Darnell with art by Alex Ross; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” written and drawn by Kyle Baker; “Louis Riel” by Canada’s own Chester Brown. But my current favourite is “Bayou,” an unfinished three-part (maybe four?) work by Jeremy Love. While fantastic in nature, there is little doubt in categorizing Bayou as political fiction: set in the Depression-era Deep South, a young black girl named Lee must rescue a white girl from the Bayou swamps to prove her father’s innocence. Through this eerie landscape, Lee slips into a parallel world of Southern folklore and political anthropomorphism—an “Alice in Dixieland”, if you will—where the she must outrun and outwit characters of a racist imagination: murderous flocks of Jim Crows and minstrel show monsters, to name a few.


It reminds me (again) of something Alan Moore said in reference to his take on the comic classic Swamp Thing: why only look to the supernatural to find horror? There are truly horrific things happening all around us here and now–racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia–that is much more scary when you consider the greater possibility of it affecting your life than, say, zombies. And, in a well-told story like Love’s or Moore’s, it will send prickles down your spine.

If you’re intrigued, Jeremy will probably be pleased: he’s got another edition of Bayou on the way needing your attention. And I’m pleased as well, because there should be more people going into comic book stores and asking for political work. I was amazed this year at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival—an incredible amount of talent under one roof, thousands and thousands of writers and artists—but so few political causes using the medium, and none exclusively so. When progressive and Left issues are so often marginalized or simply misunderstood, the medium is incredible for spreading awareness without being condescending or preachy. Political comics are a huge untapped resource, but they require research, time, and talent. More than anything, they require talent committed to progressive causes.

In the coming days, I will be listing and reviewing some of my favourite political comics, with a few image panels for you to see the work for yourself. I hope you enjoy what you find, and pass the work on. Feel free to send me your feedback, as well as any suggestions for new or overlooked work: I’m always looking for more.