Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Great War by Joe Sacco

The graphic novels of Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, Footnotes in Gaza) have always shown considerable commitment by him as an author and journalist, but The Great War – July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is his most ambitious work as an artist to date. As the title suggests, the book depicts the events of just a single day during the First World War. But if its subject matter seems to be so narrow, how can it be ambitious then? Well, Sacco does not use the traditional form of a graphic novel here. What he does is tell the story in one panel. One epic 54-page, 24-foot long foldout panel.

the accordion-style foldout
So how does it work? The Great War shows the British frontlines at the river Somme in France, where one of the most notorious and bloodiest battles not only during the First World War, but in all wars before or since took place. Around 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded during the four months it lasted, with around 60,000 casualties on the British side alone during the first day. Of course such a “great” battle needs considerable planning, with which Sacco begins his story. The massive build-up to the British attack, orchestrated by General Douglas Haig, is seen in the early parts of the panorama (the German frontlines were constantly bombarded by artillery for almost a week, with over 2 million shells, the sound and impact of which could at times be heard and felt as far away as London). The depiction then moves on to the actual attack, when the British soldiers have to leave their trenches to face the presumably annihilated German defences and where they are basically just slaughtered (staying in the trenches or fleeing was not an option, since there were officers who specifically had to prevent soldiers from doing so). The last parts of the panorama then deal with another look “behind the scenes”, this time the British lines behind the trenches after the initial attack: the masses of wounded and dead are dealt with while fresh troops arrive.

Although The Great War is one long panorama and does not include any words, the term “story” still fits, because Sacco shows events that chronologically followed each other by going from left to right in the depiction of events. That it is not a single moment in time is made clear to the reader in the very first part of the panorama where General Haig can be seen three times.

the "three General Haigs"
It is also a story because as realistic as the depicted events are, Sacco has a message. Already by giving his graphic novel the title “The Great War” (terminology that is still used for example in Great Britain today) instead of “First World War”, Sacco shows the futility of this battle and the war in general. That it was a “Great War” is clearly undermined by the contents shown in the book. Men are sent like cattle towards the German frontlines, which due to mistakes in planning and overconfidence by the military leadership are largely intact. Since admitting a mistake and stopping a planned attack is unacceptable to people like Haig, the generals send hundreds of thousands of men into their deaths. If soldiers die, the last part in the panorama suggests, there will always be more.

behind the lines during and after the attack
In all this the attention to detail in the artwork is astonishing and rivals that of Geof Darrow. One can spend several hours looking at all the (historically correct) minutiae Sacco has included. It easily conveys the horrors and the futility of the battle that the soldiers must have felt in the trenches and the battlefield.

The book comes in a sturdy slipcase and is accompanied by the booklet On The Great War which includes an essay on the preparations and the first day of the battle by historian Adam Hochschild, as well as annotations that help to decipher the individual elements and events of the actual panorama. 

annotations from the booklet
If you are a history buff like me or just want to marvel at the incredibly detailed artwork, Joe Sacco's masterful The Great War is for you.

The Great War is published by Jonathan Cape in the UK (£20.00/ISBN 13: 978-0224097710) and by W. W. Norton & Company in the US ($35.00/ISBN 13: 978-0393088809)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Books to check for Halloween Prt 2

For the first part:

It's almost time for Halloween and you know what that means?!? Time for some horror stories to give you the heebie-jeebies.

Before I start with the books, let me start with sharing with you one of my favorite short horror stories: http://weirdfictionreview.com/2011/12/the-red-tower-by-thomas-ligotti/

I remember reading this story for the first time and being blown away from it. Not only being blown away but feeling disgusted and uneasy; I don't feel that in a lot of horror stories which is sad because they should be ripe with such feelings.

Also another thing: http://sayainunderworld.blogspot.tw/  This is an awesome blog on Japanese Urban Legends, ghosts and other spooks

Now to the books:
  • The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Stories by John Langan: One of the best collection of short monster horror stories. What makes Langan different from other monster writers is that he takes the genre inside-out and put its on it's head. Not only does he turn the monster genre on its head but he takes familiar tropes of horror and flips its head, and combine that with layered nuanced characters, you're in for a hell of a good time. I fucking love this book and the story The Wide, Carnivorous Sky is one of the best takes on a vampire story I've ever read.
  • The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels: Take the abominations of Lovecraft,  cult supernatural of Arthur Machen, and literary weirdness that Borges has at times filtered through a unique voice that takes the best of all those but puts his own original spin it, you have Mark Samuels.
  • The Weird: A Compendium of Strange from Jeff & Ann VanderMeer: This is one of the best horror/weird fiction anthologies I have ever read. A thousand and hundred fifty-two pages long, collecting stories from Dunsay, Lovercraft, Kafka, Blackwood, Ligotti,  Mieville, Cisco, Gaiman, Barker and a whole list of other fantastic writers. Anything you love from Horror and Weird Fiction you'll find here.
  • Anything you can get from Ligotti: Ligotti is an amazing writer that understands how to use loneliness, weirdness, subtly, and pessimism in horror. He also knows how those elements work in horror and where they work best in a story and he also knows how to keep the horror out of the picture; that's the most important thing. The horror in a majority of his stories are underneath, always there, waiting to strike out but when they do strike we only see part of the picture, and the picture we do see leaves us befuddled, not knowing what happened or why it happened, a clear picture of the events never in our grasps. 
All these books have a unique take on horror, each having something for all different types of horror fans and those who are not, whose stories linger in your mind after you done reading.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The use of colors and space in Fires by Lorenzo Mattotti

Heads up, for some reason it's not posting some of the pictures I uploaded. Please have some patience and I'll fix this as soon as possible.

I love when comics are conscious of colors and how they can add a new dimension to the story and structure of a comic; Fires is one of those comics. I would say that the colors and how it occupies the space its in is essential for Fires to work. Without it, the whole story and its characters fall apart. You don't see that a lot in comics, where it's not the words or the characters or the pictures that tell--they do in Fires but it's not dominate--but it's the color and the use of space that tell us everything. With this post, I just to do a small breakdown on how color, the space it occupies and the shape of that space works in Fires.

A bit of a synopsis on the comic. There's a mysterious island that the inhabits the Archipelago. When ships or vessels enter the parameter of Saint Agatha, the mysterious island, they are mysteriously destroyed and nobodies knows who or what is doing it. To understand this, warship Anselm II is sent on a reconnaissance mission to survey Saint Agatha. Absinthe is a Lieutenants in the ship and it is through him we see the island and it's inhabitants come alive in a Lovecraftian nightmarish way and becomes a clash between Anselm II and Saint Agatha.

When we first open the comic we see a beautiful lush green island with a bright blue sea surrounding it. From a corner, we a see a small warship that's colored in a dark purpish, gray tone that makes it look sickly and pale and stale. Mattotti sets up for us the players right there, what they look like and an small insight at their personalities; lush beautiful open island against a small, ghoulish looking "warship". That back and forth between colors, size and space dominates Fires.

Next page we get a view of the sailors and the warship they live in. We move from an expansive panel to small restrictive panels. We see the purple, gray, muted use of colors mixed with the small panels to portray a staleness and rigidity of the ship and it's inhabitants. On the distance we see the bright  lush colors of the island threatening to overtake them and the panels change to a landscape. These change of shapes tell us that the island is more free and open. It's trying to luring the sailors away from the ship to live in it's lands uninhibited. And all that attracts Lieutenant Absinthe and like a virus, it invades him and starts to change him. Now, the island may only truly attract one person, but the other sailors aren't completely safe from the lure.

When Absinthe and a handful of other sailors row to the island and start exploring, something about them changes; it's a subtle change and it's the color of their clothing. The clothing changes from a gray, darkish green to a bright luscious mixture of green, red, white, yellow. The freedom of the island is slowly invading them, trying to change them bit by bit.  The panels change from small to bit, the space the colors inhabit are free to flow wherever they want. Hell, even the linework of Mattotti changes from a structured line to abstract and flowing.

Colors and space are used here to either give freedom or to take it away, to convey the beauty or ugliness. Now do you get a picture of why colors are so essential to this story. And it's through those sharp contrasts between the players that Mattotti is able to successfully convey a deeper meaning that enriches his story. The lifeless ship enhances the color and mood the freeing island. The battle between the dark muted colors vs the bright lush colors help Mattotti convey the nature of the island in a fuller and subtle light. Mattotti continue to does all the way till the end where they finally battle each other.

As you can see, with such conflict within the comic, it has to come to an end, a clash; Mattotti does this masterfully. You see the dark muted warship and sailors attacking the island. When they attack, it's violent battle of colors. Just look at the first panel of the first battle image I posted. See that abstract thing, that's the battle of colors. A mixture of dark and lush, going at each other. See that a battle again, even more vivid in the fifth panel. This is a battle to the death,. Through these pages, we see a vicious battle of colors, going at each other. Not only are we seeing a battle of colors but a battle of  images. How far can Mattotti push his images until they fall apart into complete abstractions, when they no longer mean anything to the reader? How far can he push his linework combined with his experimental use of color and space? This is more than a battle of island vs ship. A battle of color, pictorial dissonance, pushing the language of comics until it all falls apart on you.

Fires is an amazing and experimental comic as you can see. It is a standard that all other comics should strive for. Well, comics who want to use the language of color and shape to tell a story. I can't recommend this comic enough. This is a comic that all comic fans should read and study.  It's a comic that pushes the medium into new and different territories that we rarely see. And hopefully, we start to see new creators playing with different languages in comics, taking them to new and exciting places and hopefully us with them too.

One Soul by Ray Fawkes

Once in a while a graphic novel comes along which challenges the conventions of the medium and makes you realize what this art form can be capable of. Ray Fawkes’ One Soul is such a book. It leaves you astonished, excited and exhausted - all at the same time.

One Soul was published in 2011 already, before Canadian cartoonist Fawkes started to write for DC, but the book could not be further from what he is doing over there. It tells the stories of eighteen individuals, from their births to their deaths. Unusual is not only that the characters stem from different eras in human history (starting in the Stone Age through, amongst other periods, Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, both World War I and II, and all the way to the present), but especially the narrative structure of this graphic novel. Fawkes uses the traditional set up of nine panels per page, but each panel is assigned to a different character. Thus, in each two-page spread we get to know a part in the story of one of the eighteen protagonists. This enables the author/artist to interweave the individual stories and show similarities and dissimilarities in the lives depicted. All this makes for an incredible and demanding read, forcing the reader to switch back and forth between pages, trying to keep up with the individual stories and recurring motives.

Moments of life...
The scope of the book then is grand, dealing with of course life and death, but also the things in-between: childhood and coming-of-age, love, war and religion. Interesting is also how the two lives that ‘frame’ the others (the first one: a man in the Stone Age, the last one: a present-day girl) seem to be the least complex and most straightforward ones – which does not mean that their respective lives are easy ones.

But One Soul is not just a mere description of these lives. It reveals how we as human beings define ourselves and shape our lives. Our destiny, the book seems to say, is created by ourselves but not without the influence of others. This is of course a commonplace, but also at times a disheartening insight as some of the protagonists can never fully realize themselves because of their surroundings, try as they might. While the eighteen people are the same in birth and the first few days of their lives, they quickly begin to distinguish themselves from each other, based on their respective socio-cultural environment as well as their own deeds. This is expressed in a series of paradoxes towards the end, where the characters seem to speak with one voice, telling us that we are “scattered in union”, “united in isolation”, “confused and intermingled”. It comes as no surprise then, that at the end all the panels begin to merge. Additionally, the connection between the individual lives is created by the text, which is devoid of almost any punctuation or capitalization, making the thoughts and utterances seem like one long run-on line.

...and a moment of death.
The quest for finding meaning and purpose in one’s life is then the central aspect that unites all the characters. Those that realize their purpose have a moment of clarity in One Soul, symbolized by a small flame. For some, this moment is reached in their lifetime, for others only at their point of death. Others still never reach this moment at all. The search for meaning and identity being such an important element here, it makes sense that religion plays a central role in most of the characters’ lives as such systems of belief have always been used by people to define their role in the world.

One Soul is not an easy read, but certainly a rewarding one. If you like to challenge yourself once in a while, this should find a place on your reading list.

One Soul is published by Oni Press/$24.99 US/ISBN 13: 978-1-934964-66-8

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sin Titulo by Cameron Stewart

“It’s like my whole life was pulled out from under my feet, but instead of hitting the ground, I just keep falling. I don’t know where the bottom is.”, Alex Mackay relates to a friend, “But I’m fuckin’ scared of what’s waiting for me when I get there.” This quote does not only sum up the story, but also accurately describes the feeling I had when reading Cameron Stewart’s graphic novel page turner Sin Titulo.

The book begins when the protagonist finds a photo of his recently deceased grandfather with the arms of an attractive but unknown woman around him. A day later Alex finds himself beaten up, drugged and with his car gone after having followed an orderly who seems to know the woman in question. From there on things spiral out of control.

Memories of a violent past, dreams and the present blend, while it becomes more and more difficult for Alex to tell what is real – or in fact what reality is in general. Who is “D”, the mysterious woman? Why does Alex have this recurring dream about an old tree? And what does an old Czech naturalist painter have to do with all of this?

Past, present and dreams merging
Cameron Stewart (Batman & Robin, B.P.R.D.) has written and drawn an exceptional mystery thriller. The closest that comes to mind when looking for a comparison is David Mazzucchelli’s masterful adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. What begins as a noir thriller soon becomes a treatise on existentialism a la Camus. Questions of the relationship between man, dreams and reality are brought into play that surpass the noir genre; but all this without losing sight of it being a crime story at heart.

Not only the story is reminiscent of City of Glass (though make no mistake: Sin Titulo is completely its own beast), but in part also the role of Stewart’s tuned down black and white artwork – in contrast to the former broken up by the use of a brownish tone for coloring parts of the artwork. The almost minimalist artistic approach serves the book well, in that it does not distract from the actual story. But at the same time it gives the reader a false sense of simplicity, which counteracts the increasing narrative complexity.

Sin Titulo was originally published as a webcomic in 2009 and as such has already won an Eisner and a Shuster award. Now, Dark Horse have taken it upon themselves to finally publish it in print form, so that Stewart’s work will hopefully gain the wider recognition it so rightfully deserves.

Cameron Stewart proves with Sin Titulo that he is not only a great and varied artist, but also an author to look out for.

Sin Titulo is published by Dark Horse Books/$19.99 US/ISBN 13: 978-1-61655-248-0

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pachyderme by Frederik Peeters

If we could enter our subconscious, would we? Where would we begin our journey? Would we even know how to navigate our subconscious? And if we're able to know where and how, would we? What emotions and secrets would be brought up? Would we come through the other side the same or drastically different? And it's with these questions that Peeters tackles with his comic, Pachyderme.

It's 1951 and we see a woman whose a bit overly dressed walking through heavy traffic. Traffic that's located in some remote country side and which has been jammed by a collapsed elephant on the road. Weird? Well... Within a few panels, we find out the woman is trying to find the hospital her husband was sent to. She finds out she's not that far away but she has to walk through a forest to get there. And within the forest we see a blind man with a squealing pigs and a dead baby. Amazingly, she's not freaked out about the blind man with pigs or the dead baby. You think all that would freak her out? Nope. It seems like nothing fazes her. Actually, within those moments, we sense there's something wrong with our protagonist and the world. There's a sense of uneasiness and apathy throught the air and within our protagonist. Luckily, she finds her way out of the forest and finds the hospital. 
It is within those five pages that Peeters is setting up our journey and what to expect from it. He isn't about to pull the rug right under us right away, no. He's allowing us a chance to get our bearings in this new world we're about explore. Letting us know or at least sneak peak at the rules and logic that govern this world. Once we get past those pages, when we get some type of bearing it's then that Peeters starts to pull the rug under our feet. We see a spy whose nose looks like a dick, more dead babies, dead bodies talking and knowing deep secrets about our protagonist and a vaginal wall made from flowers. As we keep reading, we realize there's some sort of dream or subconscious logic that's ruling this place.
One worries that it's easy for the story to get lost in a jumbled, unreadable mess due to it's nature, but that never happens. Even at moments where things go absolutely bonkers, you don't get lost or overwhelmed or confused. Well, you do get those feelings when reading but they're part of the story. I'm talking about when an creator doesn't have a handle off things and you can tell or feel that he's lost control of the story and he's just flailing around. Luckily, Peeters never lets that happen.

When you read Pachyderme, you get a sense that everything builds off each other and what we're going through logical motions of the story, and that's due to the tight control Peeters has over the story. Peeters has an understanding that when you're trying to communicate things that are vague or inexplicable, you need to be able to do so with exact precision. For a story to get loose and abstract and surreal a creator needs to know how to use his tools and know how to execute them with precision. Peeters pulls it off marvelously. He knows when let go and when to release. He has tight control over the pacing and plot, never letting go out of control. And that tight control is seen and felt through the way he sets and arranges his panels; there's a natural beat ot them. When you eyes are going through panel, you get a sense of rhythm and more improtantly, you don't get lost when things start to pick up.

Pachyderme is packed with surreal and hallucinogenic moments but there are also a lot of beautiful moments. This might surprise the reader due to Pachyderme's nature and the heavy issues it deals with. But some of the best parts of Pachyderme are the quiet meditative parts. Parts where nothing much is happening, we're given space to breath and quietly exploring the emotions and thoughts of the characters.
One of my favorite pages is also Moebius's favorite page. Great minds think alike. :P
I haven't talked much about Peeter's art and his color scheme. Just as his storytelling and pacing is tight, so is his art. He draws everything with amazing clarity, even the most surreal moments are brought to life with amazing precision. Peeters has an uncanny ability to convey a range of expressions, both facial and bodily, are a beaut to see. His characters are breathing individuals that pop out of the page. His artwork demands to be taken in and digested; you can't fast read through this comic like you can with others. 
As good as Peeter's art is, his color scheme is even better. When I read comics, I get a feeling that color is the last thing on the creators mind. They don't fully utilize the power of color and how it can drastically change or add to a story. It's always refreshing to see a comic that is color conscious and knows how to use it to add a new depth or dimension. Peeters is very conscious about what colors to use, how to pair them and how to blend them together. Peeter uses color to express his character's inner-workings of our characters whenever words of expression can't do it justice. The color also plays with the environments and how we perceive them. Peeters uses them to add a level of claustrophobia or madness or to calm us down and mediate on what we're seeing; it's a beautiful thing to see. 

Pachyderme is an emotional roller-coaster that will leave you guessing until the end. You don't know why you're in the ride, how the ride will go, or where the ride will take you. But there's a feeling that when the ride ends, you'll be changed and maybe, that change won't be just a bad thing.

Pachyderme is published by SelfMadeHero | $19.95 | ISBN: 9781906838607

The Park by Oscar Zarate

Based on the strength of SelfMadeHero's other publications I thought I'd blind buy this book and dammit am I glad I did. This is a serious contender for graphic novel of the year! So read on to see why I am so enthusiastic about this new graphic novel.

It all starts when a dog bites a man in the park and as a bonus the bitten man get's punched in the face by the dog's owner. An apology would have been better served I'd say, but this is exactly the event that is the motivation for this book. The bitten man is Chris who doesn't fully seem to realise what just overcame him. But why isn't he angry and why is he avoiding his son Vic's questions about what really went on in the park? Why didn't he demand an apology from dog owner Ivan Grubb, a popular columnist? Rather he goes back to his telly at home and watch some more Laurel & Hardy episodes and watch how Stan is constantly humiliated by Ollie there. Does Chris feel humiliated by the great Ivan Grubb?

Meanwhile Vic, not expecting a reaction from his father to Ivan's abuse, decides to take matters into his own hand and due to events I don't want to spoil gets into contact with Ivan's daughter Mel, an ecowarrior. She does artistic graffiti on all sorts of things like trees and cars, much to the dismay of Ivan, who thinks her activism classifies as vandalism. And could also interfere with a job offering he's had.

So what we get in this graphic novel is two single parent families with four different characters that in some way question their own actions and reactions, or lack thereof, and how this single dog bite is the catalyst of further events and how that influences their lives in one way or another. This book is all about action - reaction, but shows us how different reactions lead to different outcomes and different new actions and reactions to that, if that makes any sense.

I don't want to sound too philosophical (and there's plenty to laugh about in The Park), but I think Zarate did a great job in showing us this chain of causation. He also did fantastic in fleshing out these four main characters and gave us a look into their psyche, what makes them tick basically. All the while making use of the Laurel & Hardy episode where he draws different parallels between the silent movie and the events that are put forth in this book so well.

The chirping of the birds, the dogs running after balls, the disturbed swans that go out of their way to show they do not tolerate dogs getting too close, the runners and all other happenings you'd expect in a park were an excellent choice by Zarate to serve as the background for this story he tells us so well. The park is a place of experiences that can be different for every visitor and different every time they visit. The park is a place to reflect, to calm down, to relax. Or to play, with or without your dog, to share a laugh and a drink.The park truly serves as an excellent background to give us a birds-eye view of this oldest of human stories, but in a distinctively modern way.

I also want to share a few words on the art here, but first check out the video above about the creative process of The Park. I love how Zarate does his illustrations. I don't know much about his techniques, or about techniques in general, but he is a genius in the use of watercolours. It's all done very effectively and I mean that in a very positive way. He knows how to create a mood that suits the story and the characters well. The use of lighting during different times of day creates a different atmosphere in different parts of the book and makes the park look gorgeous. Not just the park, but also the night scenes are especially stunning with use of purples, dark blues, reds and oranges. You never truly know what's going to happen when putting watercolours to paper, but Zarate shows he's a master in doing so.

One piece of criticism though and that is quite minor, is that I think Vic looks older than he is supposed to be. This doesn't detract from the story at all though, but I think Zarate could have tried making him look a little younger. I might be wrong too, since Vic's age is never once mentioned, but as he's still living with his dad I'd say he'd be early twenties at most. However let this minor quibble not discourage you from trying out this book, since it is a masterpiece nonetheless. Oh and yes, Zarate uses thought bubbles and plenty of them. This is 'not done' in the States I'm told, but it's quite common over here in Europe. To be honest I don't really see the problem with thought bubbles and certainly not in The Park.

I hope my review is perceived as a love letter to The Park, in the same way as Zarate's The Park is perceived as a love letter to comics. So if you like to read a book in which an everyday event leads to a tit-for-tat revenge in graphic novel form do nothing else and buy The Park from SelfMadeHero today!

You've probably noticed by now that we love SelfMadeHero at The 9th Blog. They have an excellent nose in choosing some of the best books around, be it original works like The Park, or translations of French, Dutch and German publications like forthcoming titles such as Aâma and The Boxer. Be on the look out for a review of The Boxer soon which we are reading or have already read in German. But also for other SelfMadeHero books such as When David Lost His Voice and Pachyderme. All books that deserve some more love and more readers!

The Park is published by SelfMadeHero | £15.99 | ISBN13: 9781906838478

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Books to check out for Halloween Prt 1:

Before I continue I have to share this: http://www.npr.org/2013/10/20/236325245/first-listen-juana-molina-wed-21
What an unworldly and hypnotic album.

It's amazing how Molina layers her sounds and how the sounds themselves sound like they're coming from bizarre, alien creatures that Molina found or came to her just for this album.
Now the books:
  • Nightingale Songs by Simon Strantzas
  • North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
  • The Janus Tree and Other Stories by Glen Hirshberg
  • The Dark-Wine Sea by Robert Aickman
 I tie these books together because they all have something in common and that's the effects of supernatural. l LOVE the idea of ghost, the unknown, the paranormal and what they mean and how they interact with our lives. 
I come at this from a psychological point and I love to see how something that unknown invades us, our beliefs, emotions and lives. Think about a ghost interacting with us, that's just amazing to think about; there's something erotic, undefinable, grotesque about it, and the atmosphere it creates and the thrill of unreality which surrounds it. There's also something infinitely sad about a ghost existing and the power it holds on people and those who interact with one.

These books in one way or another deal with what I just said. As you read on, you start to realize you don't even know why these brushes with the supernatural are happening, the characters themselves don't know why, but that's how it is and we see what happens when we brush with such things.
Thinking about it more, there's a lot of sadness, loneliness and at times anger within these characters. Sometimes we see those powerful emotions bursting from them and sometimes they're underneath the skin getting ready to burst. And maybe that's why they're interacting with the supernatural; an entity that embodies all those emotions--sometimes singularly or all-together--needs something else to interact with and why not these people who are feeling the exact same thing they are.

These books aren't for those who want a visceral scare, these are
stories (most of them are) of subtle, disquieting and mysterious brushes with the supernatural. They linger in your mind and force you to digest and think about what has occurred. These are powerful books with powerful tales that us a lot about ourselves and what they tell us may not make us happy, they might even startle us but such emotions are needed to make us view our world and ourselves in a different light.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy & Frederik Peeters

I gotta say, I love that cover. It's beautifully done, disorienting, and the artist, Peeters, has a fine eye for composition.

Sandcastle is an interesting comic, a well done existential, low-key sci-fi comic. Though there's going to be a problem with this talk. I'm having a hard time doing this because if I tell you want Sandcaslte is about I ruin the surprise but I can't talk about Sandcastle without ruining the surprise. So, there will be a bit of spoilers up-ahead. You have been warned.

It's a beautiful sunny day at a secluded beach and a family is getting ready to enjoy their time at the beach. That seclusion is quickly destroyed by another invading family and a roaming Kabyle whose first impressions come off as a creeper. While they argue amongst themselves and each other, a dead body floats towards them; it's of a woman. After discovering that body, it's all downhill from there. More people start to come to the beach and discover there has been a murder. But after awhile they start realizing that it's not the body they should worry about but something else. There is something off about that beach and the mother of the first family recognizes it but only vaguely.
The problem is that the beach forwards time. Not only do the people on the beach age drastically faster, they can't escape it. No matter what they do, they are stuck there, aging until they die; "every half-hour is equivalent to a year of our lives."
She says it the best, they're all going to die no matter what they do. This comic is about exploring the ramifications and the psychology of death and what a person would do in that situation. Lévy and Peeters explore the mind of all their characters and how they would react and deal with. It is a marvelous character study that I have not seen in many comics.

Jesus, how terrifying of a thought is that? Knowing that you're going to die on a beach with strangers, no one will find you and that your children are going to meet the same fate you will. That your children are not going to have full lives and that their mental state will stay the same when they get older and not experience the wisdom and beauty of old age.
And that's what this comic is about; tackling the big issues like mortality, legacy, one's self and putting that in front of the reader. How would you deal with this? How do you deal with the idea of death? That, unlike the characters in this comic, you have the luxury of living a nice full life. Sandcastle holds no punches when dealing with these issues but Lévy & Peeters treat their characters in a somewhat kind light and let them die with some dignity. Sandcastle makes you think about your own mortality and it lingers in your mind.

This is all brought to life by Frederik Peeters. As you can tell from the images, he is a gifted artist. He knows how to use his B&Ws to create depth and emotion with. His characters are people with ambitions, emotions, lives, and they have all come to the realization they will never meet those goals and ambitions. So Peeters is able to portray that feeling of betrayal through his characters faces and expressions. At times draws them in a kind light and at other times in a terrible light, but never forgetting that these are living people who are face-to-face with their mortality.

I keep harkening mortality because it's something that hounds me everyday. I'm not one to believe in an afterlife and the idea of not existing anymore is terrifying. So I can, to an extent, understand what these characters are going through. Reading Sandcastle has had a lasting effect on me. It made me think about myself, of all the things I've accomplished and have not accomplished but plan to. And I like that. I like it when something forces me to think of a big issue like mortality and one's self.

Sandcastle is a comic that will linger in your mind for days and leaves a lasting impression. So I will leave you with this page. I don't know why I love it but I love it. There's something oddly beautiful about it.
Sandcastle is published by SelfMadeHero | $19.99 | ISBN: 9781906838386

District 14 - Pierre Gabus & Romuald Reutimann

When I first bought District 14: Season 1, I knew nothing about the comic. So, why buy it? Why waste almost 40 bucks on a comic that might just be wasted on you. Well... There was something about the cover that grabbed my eye and it wasn't the foreword by Jeff Smith. It's a simple cover, well, to an extent. The logo and title is very elaborate but that wasn't it. There was an indescribable urge that hit me, that made me want to buy and read it. And let me tell you, I'm so happy that urge hit me; District 14 is comic gold.

But before I continue let me give you a small synopsis of the comic: An anthropomorphic mystery story told in a fantastic setting. Simple right? Nope! 

Once you start delving into the story, what was once simple mystery is now an intricate and at times baroque mystery story that only gets more mysterious as you keep reading. There's so many twists and turns it makes your head spin and in the end you're left with more questions than you started! But that
isn't a bad thing, because it keeps the story moving and when the answers and questions are put forth to the reader, it's done at a critical moment in the story. So you're almost always moving to get to the next part of the puzzle. 

Now, it may sound exhausting always being on the move, Gabus & Reutimann do an interesting thing. Though we're moving from place to place, character to character, the creators make sure to take their time in those places. Gabus & Reutimann make sure to show us parts of the city, show us those places you jump into when you're hungry because it just looks appealing, show us every aspect of the city and its citizens and to allow us to take it all in. What I'm trying to say is, while it's always in move, when we stop at our destination, we're given space to breath and relax and take things in. It's a comic that's very character and environment conscious. It's a very fine line that Gabus & Reutimann are walking but they pull it off so masterfully, it seems like they've been doing this for a long time; knowing when to breath or when to move, when to parse out information or when to withhold information; it's a tightly paced and plotted story.

As rich as their story is, their characters are even richer. Their characters come off as if they have their own lives outside the page and panel, and they have a HUGE cast of characters that they weave from and to. Everyone they introduce in the story has a reason to be there: either to move the story or to enrich the story or to tell more about the world we're readering and the characters we're reading. Even the small characters are fully realized and get a limelight in the story. It feels like Gabus & Reutimann have made a whole profile, a life story for all their characters and that each play an important role in the world, no matter how small their role is.

District 14 is one of those rare comics whose creators know how to utilize the medium successfully. Gabus & Reutimann masterfully interweave words with pictures. They fully understand the relationship between words and pictures. They are able to build from every panel and page, that if you take one word out, or move a character a certain way, or change the shape of a certain panel it would destroy the storytelling, the illusion they've put you under. There's no awkward pairing of the two, the word and pictures work together to not only tell us something but also allow the reader to delve more deeply into them.

Now this is all helped by Reutimann's art; it is a joy to look at. He has an amazing ability to suck you into the world; a world that's both strange and familiar, filled with so many miscellaneous things and homages to past comics. You can literally spend hours looking at certain panels. Not only does he suck you in, he has an uncanny ability to make a simple drawing come alive; even his background characters are full of life. It helps that he knows how to use motionlines, anatomy and how set and move his characters and pieces. It also helps that he knows how to express emotions through his characters. His characters are fully expressive beings, there's no dull moments in any panel.

Gabus & Reutimann are putting out a modern classic. When I read District 14, it brings forth a love. A love for great art, a love for great stories, a love for rich characters and especially a love for the comic medium. District 14 is the reason why I have stuck with comics for as long as I have. District 14 is why I think comics is the best field in the arts. Do yourself a favor, go out and buy this comic, please. You won't be disappointed and even maybe, you'll get the same childish joy when you first discovered comics and feel love with it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Munch by Steffen Kverneland

Two drunks are visiting the Munch museum in Tøyen, Oslo, the capital of Norway. They are constantly joking about everything, such as the security gates at the entrance of the museum, resembling airport security. A panel later August Strindberg is quoted saying "Everyone who visits an exposition and takes a good look at the audience, must see that some people act awkwardly in a certain way." And later "When two of these people meet they will behave horrible." That is certainly true for these two visitors, that stop at a variety of Munch's creations, arm in arm doddering through the museum, talking about how they see auras, pea heads and green beards in Munch's paintings. All the while slashing writers that wrote biographies about Munch, calling them nerds. They are Steffen Kverneland (the creator of this book) and his friend Lars Fiske, another comics creator. Kverneland would do all of it differently if he would do a graphic novel about Munch. He would only use quotes and that's it, apart from the pages that feature Fiske and himself. "Genius, let the sources speak for themselves" Fiske says, as he sips some vodka (I don't think it's water) from the flask, after which Kverneland stated that it would only take him a year at most to finish it.

One of Munch' (left) 'getting drunk with his buddies' scenes
So that was in 2005....  Now in 2013, about seven years later, Munch - the graphic novel - is fully realised and what a beauty! Just flicking through this 280 page book will have you understand that even though you know drunks always overestimate what they can achieve, this book is even an accomplishment to realise in seven years. Just look at the many different art styles and the last two pages that are full of sources Kverneland used as quotes in the book, just like he cockily said in the introduction pages. So overestimating or not he did come through.

But wait a minute! Who on earth is Edvard Munch anyway? And why should this dude have his own autobiographical  graphic novel? And should I care about him? And what if I don't even like paintings? Museums are boring! Let me address a couple of these questions you might have and start with the fact that museums are not boring! Especially not after a few drinks like Kverneland and Fiske have demonstrated in this book 8D

Well Edvard Munch is world-famous for this painting The Scream. But the eccentric Norwegian artist has many more achievements attached to his name. At the peak of the belle époque, Munch, together with a host of other revolutionary artists awoke the sleepy bourgeois that had become the owners of the art world at the time. Munch' drive really showed in his paintings that are a mixture of autobiography, symbolism, and dangerous women. He always painted what he remembered and never what he saw. Think about that for a second.... Quite a unique concept or not?

Munch' life was full of alcohol, friendships and women, which served as a great inspiration for his paintings and makes for an interesting and exciting read for us. You could say that the alcohol sometimes distorted his memory of events and that the alcohol fueled his somewhat insane, insubordinate and self-destructive personality. His controversial work was loved by many, but loathed by even many more, leading to exhibitions being cancelled even before they started.

"I don't paint what I see, but what I saw"
It's not all insanity in this book though. Kverneland did a lot of research that shows in the number of sources he used and quoted from, such as the aforementioned Strindberg, which is a true achievement in itself! Correspondence between Munch and his aunt show a different side of him than his alcohol fueled nightly escapades. I loved the artwork too. The characters are portrayed in quite a cartoony way, but that really brings these characters and their emotions to life and shows Kverneland's obvious sense of humour, or lack thereof I suppose. Munch' artwork was very diverse and so is Kverneland's. The way in which he adapts his skills to the stage where Munch's life and paintings fare are a reflection of the chameleon-like ability Kverneland has.

It is beyond me why an announcement has not been made for an English translation of this book. I've probably read close to about 80 newly published books (including some reprints) this year and this is certainly top 5!! On the Norwegian publisher's (No Comprendo Press) website it is mentioned that the rights for the English speaking parts of the world have been sold, so fingers crossed for this to become a reality sooner rather than later.

Kverneland's book seems to be following a trend over here in Europe in which graphic novel creators write biographies about a painter's life. Of course this is not the case here, because Kverneland started this seven years ago but still... This year alone, besides Munch saw the release of Herr Merz (by Kverneland's buddy Lars Fiske) and Typex' Rembrandt (published in English by SelfMadeHero). Also the third volume of Angoulême winner Pablo (Picasso) was published by Dargaud in France. Munch however is by far the most unique and thorough biography that I've read and certainly deserves that English translation. Very highly recommended.

Review based on the Dutch translation by Oog & Blik - De Bezige Bij | €34.90 | ISBN13: 9789054923848

El Invierno Del Dibujante (The Winter of the Artist) by Paco Roca

The five artists have had enough. Sure, working for one of the biggest comics publishers in the country means steady work and income. But in return they lose all the rights to their work, not to speak of the constant editorial changes they have to live with. So why not leave and publish their own comics where they retain full creative control?

Sound familiar? Well, the year is not 1992 and we're not talking McFarlane, Lee, Silvestri et.al. here, but Escobar, Penarroya, Conti, Cifre and Giner, five of the biggest names in comics in Spain under dictator Franco in the 1950s and 60s.

Most readers outside of Spain will not have heard of any of the names involved (perhaps apart from Francisco Ibanez, whose Mortadelo y Filemon has gained popularity in some countries), but that should not stop you from reading this book - for one, because the topic of a comics publisher (former Spanish publishing giant Bruguera) who denies artists and authors their creative rights is, as noted above, one that should be instantly familiar and relevant to especially comic fans in the US (which makes publication of an English language version all the more necessary).

Spanish author/artist Paco Roca has done meticulous research to tell this story, which, according to his afterword, had always been close to his heart. This does not mean, however, that he is taking sides in what at first glance looks like a simple story of good (the artists) vs. evil (Bruguera). For the most part Roca just documents the events and he is right in doing so, because the story is much more complex, as it will eventually turn out. 

Life in Spain under Franco's dictatorship has affected everyone, including Rafael Gonzalez, the publishing director despised by the artists since he keeps making editorial changes to their work and who runs Bruguera similar to General Franco running Spain. The struggle for artistic freedom in El Invierno Del Dibujante can thus be seen as an allegory for life in Spain in the 1950s, where censorship and other forms of oppression are all around - perhaps creating an independent comics magazine can bring at least some kind of freedom into the lives of the five creators? At the heart of the story then is not the question if the group of artists will succeed (which is indeed answered within the first few pages), but what the motivation is behind the things that people do in this book and how it affects others' lives.

Roca's artwork is minimalistic, but precise and hauntingly beautiful. His use of shade, for example, is reminiscent of Blacksad's Juanjo Guarnido (or should that be the other way round?). 

The most striking artistic feature however is Roca's use of colour. The story jumps back and forth between different seasons in 1957 and 1958 and for each season the background around the panels uses a different colour that fits the time of the year as well as, on a metaphorical level, the content of the particular stage in the story (for example, red as a symbol of life and courage is used for spring 1957, when the five hopeful creators first set out to create their own magazine).

An example of Roca's use of shade and coloured backgrounds
Paco Roca has delivered an atmospheric work that gives the reader an insight into life in 1950s Spain while dealing with artistic freedom as well as with freedom and the role of hope in general. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Last Days Of An Immortal by Fabien Vehlmann & Gwen De Bonneval

I've been a fan of Vehlmann's writting for a while now. I've enjoyed reading his (and other artists') Green Manor series with Denis Bodart, Isles of 100,000 Graves with Jason, and Le Marquis d'Anaon series with Matthieu Bonhomme (not yet translated in English, to my knowledge).  But it is with this comic that made me fall in love with him and made me buy any comic that had his name. Not only Vehlman but also Bonneval, who is an extraordinary artist (who I will talk about in this review).

This is a re-read for me but I didn't mind re-visiting this comic; actually, I was gushing with joy because I was re-visiting it. I love this comic!

Lasts Days Of An Immortal is a fascinating sci-fi story that is a complex cultural and character study. It revolves around Elijah who is a part of the Philosophical Police and he's been put in charge of investigating a centuries old murder. This murder is causing a huge friction between the two species in which it revolves around, and it is put to Elijah to solve it. Elijah also has to deal with other species and their truly alien beliefs and cultures and deal with his friend who decided to die and not tell him and with other cases. So how does Elijah deal with all this?

Well, here's were the immortality comes into play. The terrans (humans, the species Elijah is part of) are immortal. There are things called echoes, they are made from the primary body of a person who is being echoed and are 100% copies of them. People can make multiple echoes of themselve so they can focus on various things at the same time and when they're done, the echoes come together in the primary body and the primary body gets all the memories and skills from those echoes. Another thing, if you die or get killed, one of your echoes can be turned into a primary body, so you can live on and keep on echoing.

But there's a catch, when you echo, you lose old memories and are unable to get them back, and if one of your echoes dies or gets killed, you can get the echo back, or whatever is left of it, but you feel the pain and last moments of that echo; a big price to pay for immortality. This is how immortality is used in the comic and it is a great tool and concept used fabulously by Velhmann and Bonneval. By being able to echo, the creators can bring further various plots and sub-plots into play and expand and further explore the world so us readers can have an enrichening experience. Which brings me to the world.

The world that Vehlmann and Bonneval created is singluary unqiue and like nothing I've ever seen before. There is truly blue and orange morality and cultures in play here. What I mean by that is these are cultures and morals that are so alien to us (humans), that we can only really grasp a bit of the surface of their meanings but never delve deeply into them because they're so utterly foreign. Velhmann and Bonneval do an amazing job putting forth so many different species and cultures, sometimes the species are only there a few pages but they're foreignness are so strong, strong enough that they linger on in our minds for days. Not only are the species so unqiue, the terrans (humans) are even weird. Humans still look like us (though have really weird fashion senses, imo) but their moral, arts and culture are wildly different. Humans now can change their bodies and looks and sexuality is a very grey upon gray standing. Not only that, humans have taken other species' cultures and arts and morphed them into their own unique vision. As you can tell from the pictures, unique. 

Aside from the species, the actual world is wholly alien. There are weird alien plant species, moving 3D swimming pools, dimensional modern art displays that drift, morphowrestling and a whole list of other things that I just don't want to ruin for you.

Even with all these alien cultures around us, Vehlmann and Bonneval are able to make us care for them all and oddly, relate to them; everything here is fully realized and nuanced. Vehlmann and Bonneval made me feel a range of emotions, and made me care for the species I came across, Elijah and everyone else in this comic. All that takes great skill to do, to make something so alien so relatable. 

Now I can't talk about this comic without talking about Bonneval, oh the great Bonneval. As you can tell from the examples I've posted, he's one hell of an artist and visual storyteller. He has elegant and expressive lines, that have weight and drama to them. With a few strokes, he can heighten a scene and convey loads of information for us to decipher. Looking at his line work I see influences of Matisse and Jules Feiffer but with his own unique vision and touch.

Bonneval's panel arrangements and composition are flawless. The way the puts together panels, there's a... a beat to them, a rhythm that just flows naturally that just guides your eyes, moves the story and never lets you get confused. And the way he places characters, set pieces, and word ballons in his panels are beautifully done. You get the feeling that placement of everything is natural, that they deserve to be there and any slight movement will ruin the illusion that Bonneval has put us in. It's hard for me to put into words, but it just works. This is a comic I can give to a novice comic reader and I don't have to worry about them getting lost. They can easily follow everything and never get lost.

This is one of those rare comics that just leaves an impression on you. You'll never forget what happened and it changes you. So do yourself a favor and buy this. Also, be on the look out for Vehlmann's new comic Beautiful Darkness coming out soon from Drawn & Quarterly.

The next reviews from me will be District 14 (comic of the year, imo) and works of Nicolas De Crecy and Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

Thank you for your time.