Marjorie Liu et al.: Monstress

Liu, Marjorie and Sana Takeda (2016), Monstress, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632157096

Gibson, Claire, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland (2016), From Under Mountains, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632159441

_20161215_142408Marjorie Liu is slowly but surely growing into one of the mainstream comic industry’s most interesting figures, at least for me. She is not one of the steady writers, who write creator owned or licensed titles every year, but she’s also not one of those novelists who dip a toe into comic books here and there like Brad Meltzer or China Mieville. Liu has only a few titles to her name, but they are all important and worth reading, working with Marvel characters like X-23 (who is the new Wolverine in the current line of Marvel comics) and the X-Men (where she engineered the first gay wedding). This year, she wrote Monstress, a creator owned comic full of gorgeousness and brutality for Image comics that I would consider one of the four most beautiful and original comics to come out of mainstream comics this year, two of which I will review here. The second one under review is From Under Mountains, co-written by Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland. From Under Mountains is a comic by a writer and artist who I never heard of and I don’t remember what made me preorder the trade, but I am very glad I did, because its story of war and peace, of spirits and men, is worth reading and rereading. Both it and Monstress have created their own mythology, both of them based in fantasy worlds other than the typical European medieval environments we usually find. And both comics are true collaborations between writers and artists that found a unique visual language for a story that is complex but also as simple as any myth is. Sana Takeda’s sumptuous, rich art, which barely requires Liu’s dialog, is just as essential for Monstress as Sloane Leong’s angular lines and flat colors are for From Under Mountains. Neither comic is without flaws, but I recommend both very strongly.

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The first page from “Monstress.” Protagonist gets sold off in a slave auction, naked and without an arm.

Monstress, despite the adorable young girl on the cover, is brutal. Its story is a rough retelling of the aftermath of colonialism, as it happens in our world, but heightened with myth and metaphor. Liu’s story is set at the frontline of an uneasy truce between humans and a world of magical beings, the Arcanic. The book’s events are informed by the brutal war that preceded the truce, with a horrifying calamity forcing humans to accept a temporary peace. Humans are superior in every way to the retreating world of magical beings, but the unspecified calamity has convinced humans that the magical army possesses a terrible weapon that they will deploy with unspeakable ruthlessness. The basic opposition of modernity and myth has played out in many stories and movies, but I’ve never seen it expressed in such a physical, grounded way. Liu’s characters are former or current soldiers. They bear the scars, inside and out, of war, and the traumas thereof. The politics of the world Liu portrays are full of shifting loyalties and betrayals – the horrors of war makes people change sides, hide secrets and offer cruel compromises. The most convincing element, however, is the physicality of it all. Like a handful of good writers, Liu’s concept of magic involves the bodies of its practitioners. Magic is an ability that is bred into people, it is in their blood, and using it is a physical skill. So far, so common. Yet Liu, writing a world of realpolitik and brutal war, follows through with her ideas, and invents a specialized cadre among humans, the Cumaea, the so-called nun-witches, who extract material from the magical beings through various methods, none of them pleasant. People lose limbs, by and by, to satisfy the appetite of the voracious human military apparatus, which is increasingly dependent on its magical cadre.

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A temple of the Ancients from “Monstress”

It’s easy to see these elements, as I said, as metaphors for acts undertaken by colonial powers in our world. The greed for knowledge and the piecemeal devouring of the native people are framed in ways that make them enormously fitting, and makes much of the book’s story ride piggyback on our cultural memories of war and colonialism. There is an emotional narrative, but the book only occasionally touches on it, with the biggest revelation coming as a cliffhanger at the book’s end. The main impact is, so to say, political. It makes us feel the cruelty and brutality of slavery, genocide and colonialism. Yet Liu interestingly balances these metaphorical effects, where she blends a thing in our world with a similar (but different) thing in the world of the book, with clashing effects, such as her interrogation of the role of women in our histories. Liu’s book is centered completely on its female characters, which has interesting implications, as has her use of the trope of the witch. Sana Takeda’s art is more than just helpful in all of this. She creates an overwhelmingly decadent visual language for the book, replete in browns and blues and gold. The décor seems sometimes Asian, I think, without really using orientalist stereotypes. It draws from multiple sources including fin de siècle decadence. It is impossible to express the enormity of Takeda’s achievement, who creates full landscapes and buildings, deep in color and rich in detail. Nothing is neglected, everything has the patina of history. Going through the book’s amazing art, you get the feeling that Liu had to write a story as harsh and impactful as she did, just to keep up with the extraordinary power of Takeda’s art nouveau panels. Takeda’s art mirrors the complicated strategies of metaphoricity that Liu pursues in her writing by offering art that is both recognizable and alien, giving us details that remind us of things we know, and elements seemingly plucked straight from a drawing room in 1900 in Paris or Shanghai.

dsc_3157Monstress is, thus, both beautifully disorienting and gloriously immersive. Just so we’re clear: it’s not a perfect book. Liu’s dialog is nowhere near as good as Takeda’s art and the contrast is sometimes not entirely pleasant, and Takeda’s art forces the book into a very slow pace, with its preference for big, immersive panels rather than quick story-oriented smaller sequences. Liu’s decision to drop us into medias res without long expositions adds to the book’s atmosphere, but also gives the reader an impression of having to catch up sometimes. But these are small quibbles in an overall greatly entertaining book. Small quibbles are also the only things I can mention on the negative side when it comes to From Under Mountains. I have not heard of any of its creators up until I read the comic, so the book’s quality took me by surprise. Much as Monstress, it does not offer any slow world building at the start, throwing us right in the middle of a court intrigue, a wizard’s scheme and the aftermath of a war, expecting us to catch up and add up all the elements to a coherent background. The writing is much sharper than Liu’s, but the story, despite its intrigues and complications, is simpler and not as complex as Liu’s, because Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland are not as interested in creating a similarly complex web of myth and reality, history and fantasy as Liu did. This may be due to the fact that From Under Mountains is a spin-off of sorts from a creative project masterminded by Brandon Graham, one of comic’s most original writers, whose run on Prophet is a breathtakingly brilliant science fiction comic. I have not read any comics from that project called 8House, since none have been collected into trades yet, but if Graham’s past work is any indication, they won’t be simple. Thus, it stands to reason From Under Mountains was conceived as a simpler tale told in a more turbulent universe. I don’t know. In any case, the simpler structure of the book is not a bad thing. And it just means less complicated than the byzantine world of Monstress. Gibson and Churchland have written a world that is not without its own complications and difficulties.

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full page from “From Under Mountains”

At its center are three characters, whose stories intersect: Lady Elena, daughter of the Lord of Karsgate, Tomas Fisher, a war hero with a dark secret past and a present full of debauchery and shame. The final protagonist, bleeding through the stories, connecting them, is a young thief who one night witnesses Lady Elena’s brother, the heir to Karsgate, get murdered by a spirit. From this murder, the three stories fan out. An impending war has to be prevented, the murderous spirit needs to be caught and personal demons need to be encountered and dealt with. Like Monstress, Gibson, Leong and Churchwell work with a large backdrop of history and intrigue and have no exposition to deal with any of it. In fact, the broader politics of the realm, with its apparently incapacitated king, its marriage policies and its way of dealing with supernatural threats, is barely touched upon in the pages of the first volume, simplifying much. Indeed, the clarity of the art and the less overwhelming politics of the book may give From Under Mountains an appearance of simplicity, but Gibson and Churchland approach narrative almost associatively. The three protagonists and some side characters slip in and out of their story so that when one of these stories, the arc of the Lord of Karsgate, is somewhat resolved, there’s a great feeling of narrative tension being released, with a myriad of other threads still in the air. The complicated arrangement of the protagonists’s stories makes for compelling reading in a trade but I cannot honestly imagine how this worked for readers of individual issues. The series appears to be on a hiatus for now, and if that had anything to do with sales, I can guess why. Much as with Monstress (and Prophet), this book appears to reap the benefits of a less tight editorial reign. From Under Mountains reads and looks like a completely realized artistic vision. The story is excellently orchestrated, and the dialog is much better – moreover, the book frequently contains silent panels, sometimes for several pages at a time, never losing narrative tension.

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Silent full page vision from “From Under Mountains”

Much as with Monstress‘s Sana Takeda, this book is unthinkable without Sloane Leong’s art. It mirrors the flow of the narrative, it sometimes provides the book’s only language and overall dominates the whole book. Leong uses panels very freely, using the whole page for her effects. All pages are set in specific pastel hues, and the space between panels, when there’s such space, is colored in that hue so as to increase the immersive effect. Leong’s control of pace is masterful. Her broad, flat art is very static, but she uses panels within panels and blending with other panels to create time and focuses on attention as needed. Whereas Takeda in Monstress prefers big splashy pages deep and rich in detail, Leong’s backgrounds are sparse, but the artist constantly zooms in on small details, giving panels to hand gestures, flowers, flying insects, creating a story that draws you in without overwhelming you. As you can tell, I clearly lack the vocabulary or training for these descriptions, but suffice to say that visually, From Under Mountains is at least as virtuoso a performance as Monstress. And this doesn’t even include the attention lavished on dresses (there is a primer in the back about the different dresses for the different classes of people in the book, from peasants to nobles) and presentation. The way the book presents gender and race, visually, is intriguing, and the creative team appears to have decided to move some of its ideas in that department onto the visual level rather than have a disquisition on those ideas in the story which is exciting but conventional. If you’ve read mainstream fantasy comics these days, the story may have reminded you, for example, of Anthony Johnston’s very good Umbral, but whereas Johnston’s collaborator Christopher Mitten is fairly conventional (if very good), the end result of From Under Mountains is much more unique. This makes it so puzzling (and intriguing to see, on the comic’s final page, that the next trade/issues with end Leong’s run on the book and Gibson will continue with a new artist.

Anyway. If you trust me, you should go read these two books. You’re almost certainly not going to regret it.

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Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
ISBN 978-1-4721-0689-6

marbels coverYou know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.

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A page from “Marbles,” depicting mania and the patient/therapist situation

Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.

hyperbole1What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.

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A page from “Marbles”

I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by  Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.

cotter 4The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

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A page from Brosh’s book

Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.

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A page from Cotter’s book

Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.

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One of the many journal pages depicting an attempt to visually capture depression.

For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.

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Yeah…

The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.

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Line Hoven: Love Looks Away

Hoven, Line (2008), Liebe schaut weg, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3-938511-66-4

[Translated into English as Love Looks Away (2014)
Blank Slate Books
ISBN: 978-1-906653-18-7]

Hoven1The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff, in discussing memory, posits that what we call memory is really an “intersection” of various practices and discourses. Orality, testimony, historiography, and the symbolic structures of what Pierre Nora called “lieux de mémoire” are all part of the process that Le Goff envisioned as being constitutive of ‘memory.’ Photographies have, from the beginning, been part of that process. In a Baudelaire poem, the act of photography is connected to more ancient liminal moments, particularly rites of death, and photos have been part of examinations of witnesses and testimonies throughout the next century, from American agrarian classics of photography to the complex way text and photography interact in WG Sebald’s novels. In the debut graphic novel Love Looks Away by the young artist Line Hoven, there is a complicated representation of truth, personal memory and, to the extent that any public examination of history contributes, of cultural memory, or rather, following Marianne Hirsch, “postmemory”.

_20160827_010057Line Hoven’s art, consisting of stark black-and-white scratchboard or scraperboard art, exquisitely blurs the lines between representations of narrative memory, and between ‘found objects’ like photographs and ticket stubs and other things. The drawing of photographs, thus introducing them into the visual grammar of the artist’s vision, is not part of a Gerhard Richter-like interrogation of representation. On the contrary. I think the book is incredibly disinterested in questions of representation qua representation. Line Hoven’s focus is, almost obsessively, on memory and how getting a family memory ‘right’ can have an impact both on personal as well as collective identities. Hayden White has drawn attention to the way “imagistic” historical representations are “a discourse in its own right” which tells us things “that can only be told by means of visual images.” Love Looks Away is, I think, attempting to do just that, provide a doubly refracted “historiophoty” and the result may be a short book, but reading and rereading it can take a while. It’s been translated into English, but I cannot ascertain the translator’s name. I strongly recommend you acquire and read this book. It is very good. I am personally greatly looking forward to whatever Hoven produces next, given how patient and mature and intelligent -not to mention gorgeous- this first offering is. This artist is going to high places. Get in on the ground floor. Read this book.

The English cover features different script from the German one; the result is so much more anodyne. An inexplicable decision. It makes me worry about the way the book's been translated.

The English cover features different script from the German one; the result is so much more anodyne. An inexplicable decision. It makes me worry about the way the book’s been translated.

So over the past years I’ve consistently reviewed comic books of all stripes. None of those books, however, were German even though Germany has a fairly vibrant comic scene, plus I’m German, so it would stand to reason they would turn up on my shelves at some point or another. The reason for this absence is that until this year I’ve just never read any. A big loss, as it turns out. Love Looks Away is, as you can probably tell from my very laudatory first paragraph, one of my favorite German comic books, a small, but carefully crafted, powerful graphic memoir. It’s been translated into English in 2014 and published by Blank Slate Books, a publisher who also translated other major German comic book creators like Uli Oesterle or Mawil. Love Looks Away is a book about Line Hoven’s family history, and unfolds, in spare imagery and well spaced episodes, a story that’s more than just one family’s tribulations during and after WWII. It actually ends up providing a convincing picture of a whole generation, despite the unique family circumstances. The story is rooted in Hoven’s grandparents who came of age during the 1940s, and I think this connection allows us to see in the work a kind of exploration of what Marianne Hirsch famously (and importantly) called “postmemory” – a memory of a generation that did not experience historical traumata, but creatively and imaginatively invests in a kind of cultural landscape, a memory created from testimony, but more importantly from objects like photographs, documents and the like. Hirsch’s theory, like many in the area of memory studies, was written to deal with the aftermath of the Shoah specifically, but “postmemory” can really apply to any retroactively created memory of events that are hard to explain or comprehend, usually traumatic. There are things that defy easy channels of recollection, and the process of “postmemory” is one that deals with that, I think, fairly well. I think Derrida referred to the material objects that precede us as the “déja là” – the already here. Hoven’s book starts with what’s already there and her art fills the gaps with a subtle, prodding imagination that stops short of filling in all the psychological questions. This is why I said that her book is primarily about memory: it is not about the “why” of history, personal or political. What it attempts to do is give an artfully heightened account of the things that happened, creating a memory in art.

_20160827_010112The gaps are nowhere as obvious as in one of the first sets of family pictures. Throughout the book, the painted copies of photographs are arranged on pages that look like photo albums, with hand written labels, and more. In one of the early “family album” pages, the amorous history of Hoven’s paternal grandparents is represented in four labeled and dated photographs. They met in a Hitler Youth summer camp. That specific photo however is missing, and whether the real photo is genuinely missing, the marked and labeled absence of that photo, shown as a blank space in a photo album, is symbolic of the difficulties of German cultural memory dealing with the more thorny aspects of the nation’s past. Even today, so many year’s later, the events of the time are papered over, guilt is deferred or projected elsewhere. Hoven does not condemn her grandfather, yet neither does she wash him clean of his past. Drawing a blank half page is an indictment of the shame in a suppressed memory. We owe to Martha Langford’s excellentr studies our understanding of how family albums work – as an ersatz oral tradition. Moreover, Hoven’s art in the narrative sections dealing with the past are careful, but sharp. In them, we see a dreaming boy walk proudly and smilingly in his Hitler Youth uniform, and we see a wedding picture where the now young man smiles in a uniform that should not give him reason to be joyful. In a later scene we see that uniformed portrait hanging in a family living room. Hoven’s work consists of scenes with little connecting tissue except for the drawn pages from a family album. It depends on her reader’s sense of history, on our sense of contexts and motivations. According to Martha Langford, reading family albums is an interpretative performance. We all, strangers or actual family, create narratives around the arranged photographs, as Langford found. If we understand this to be part of the underlying oral structure of photographs, then Hoven’s sparse illustrations, low as they are on explanation, have a very similar effect. We get more story than we would from photos, but the isolated effect is very similar.

DSC_2504This style of memory and writing is further emphasized by the book’s use of language. Hoven’s father, Reinhard is German, but her mother Charlotte is American, and the family history offers us both sets of grandparents – who do not, obviously speak German (in fact, Charlotte’s father has an almost pathological hatred of Germans, which is partly rooted in his inability to enlist in WWII due to health issues). Charlotte herself frequently speaks English in the book. Hoven does not translate or annotate any of the English dialog. The book is, in this sense, completely bilingual. Anything that was German when it happened, is rendered in German by Hoven, and everything that was English is rendered as English. This only further emphasizes the near-documentary narrative ethos of Hoven’s work of “postmemory.” The documentary effect does not, however, really extend to backgrounds. I mentioned Nora at the outset, but the book isn’t incredibly concerned with places of memory. I am not entirely sure how strong even the sense of place is? Much of the book is set in Bonn, the former capital of (West) Germany, and since I also live in Bonn, I recognize the vast majority of facades and buildings we see, but I am not sure that for someone who does not intimately know this cooky little West German city, the sense of place is particularly strong here. Hoven does not connect her visualization of memory, or postmemory, to commonly shared buildings. Evading obvious landmarks that are understood across a shared culture is done so thoroughly that it seems almost intentional. One of the “family album” pages shows a foto of family members standing in front of the Cologne Cathedral, which is one of Germany’s most famous buildings, yet the angle only includes part of the front door, as you would in a family picture. There is no wide pan to include the whole building and unless you have been there a few times and will recognize it even from this small snippet, the building will, at best, say “some big cathedral.” The exteriors of Bonn, similarly, are obvious to me (and extremely carefully and precisely rendered), but evade some of the most obvious landmarks.

_20160827_010125I mean, all of this seems hyperfocused. I have not really discussed the smaller stories here because there is so little narrative that I think you should let yourself be surprised by it. I assure you, you’ll like this book, if you like this kind of stuff at all. And I haven’t even mentioned the art at all. Like all the content aspects, the art also contributes to the book’s theme. The art consists of black and white scraperboard etchings (see wiki for details). The effect is really interesting. It creates an interesting dynamic that strongly interacts with the static structure of the book, the photographs and all that, and it also allows us to read the book in a certain German artistic continuum. There is a lot of historically and politically heightened art with similar effects – I mean, it strongly echoes some stark 20th century woodcuts, and in many pictures here I think has a conversation with German expressionist woodcuts (think Ernst Barlach). Another well known/excellent contemporary German cartoonist who employs this scratchboard technique (and hews closer to the German expressionist tradition) is Thomas Ott. Look, I know this review discusses memory studies a lot, and it seems as if I am less interested in the art, but everything I described hinges on Hoven’s art. Fundamentally, the biggest and most entrancing aspect of the book IS the art. Hoven has been working on that art in the years since the publication too, picking up awards, exhibitions and I will read whatever book comes next. It is also the art that sets her apart from many of her German peers. Much of German art is influenced by American underground comix, with some extremely notable and excellent exceptions (the unbelievable Peer Meter comes to mind, who also, incidentally, works on memory and history). Line Hoven is in the process of carving out a space of her own.

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Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King

Karlsson, Kolbeinn (2010), The Troll King, Top Shelf
ISBN 978-1-60309-061-2

troll king coverI have never read a graphic novel by a Swedish creator before, but if The Troll King is any indication, Swedes like their comic books like they like their rock music: weird and intense. I think the only book I read recently that approaches Karlsson’s interests and the direction of his work is Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy of novels. The Troll King is a novel-in-stories, I guess, but given how coherent the whole narrative turns out to be when we read the last story, it may just be a novel, full stop. The book starts off strange and then just keeps getting stranger until a surprisingly emotionally resonant ending. Reading the book I was so overwhelmed by its themes, its art, its contradictions and its metatextual elements that I didn’t even consider the direction the narrative was taking until the final of the book’s stories just took me by the hand and led me down a narrative path that proved to be as poignant, as it was strangely common, almost formulaic. Karlsson draws on a broad range of influences, from Nordic myths to anime/manga, he writes a story that is both tender and emotional as it is filled with a strange physicality. If you feel weird about two large bearded men/monsters having a loving and sexual relationship, depicted fairly directly, you won’t even make it past the first section, and you’ll miss fever dreams, the murder of birds, a lot of other (small) male genitalia, death, birth and rebirth and other topics. All of it realized in an art style that somehow straddles the divide between crude and precise drawings, colored with inspired abandon. It is a dark tale with a sweet ending, a violent story with quite a few funny visual jokes. If we look for the way the book relates to its audience, how it employs perspectives and speakers and voice, we (or rather: I) get the feeling that Karlsson is sometimes seduced by his own powerful artistic vision to the detriment of really mapping out all the book’s details. Would I recommend it? The blurb on the back of the book suggests that Karlsson and Miyazaki are kindred spirits and that’s not far off the mark. If you feel like reading a version of Miyazaki that is darker, more physical, more violent, more racist/reactionary, more explicit, but similarly inspired of and reverential towards nature, dreams and folklore, then read this book. I personally greatly enjoyed reading it, and I can assure you that the book only becomes better upon rereading. This is quite something.

troll king insideFor all its skill with visual elements, for the ingenious way the author uses color both in backgrounds as well as in lines, the most impressive part of the book is its narrative discipline. For much of the book I thought I was reading a couple of stories set in the same part of the world, united by the trippy visual imagination of the author and nothing else. The final section or story however ends up tying up all the book’s strands, even though it doesn’t do so neatly. Some asides, like an odd, seemingly LSD-fueled vision of the Wild West, don’t really find a place in the book’s final narrative concerns, but most do. It is, as we find out at the end, a story about family, humanity, about modernity and modern man’s resistance to it. For all the book’s violence, the underlying emotion is a gentle sadness, a longing for a more natural time. The two odd characters on the covers are not trolls or beasts, they are “mountain men,” as the back of the book proclaims. Their beards and body hair are just drawn with such attention to detail that it flips over into mild surrealism. Hence the hair helmets. The artistic goal is one where the way the mountain men are drawn and the way trees, grass and bushes are drawn resemble each other. The men are truly becoming part of nature, and in the process they lose some part of their humanity. This is where Miyazaki is likely most relevant, with his stories of nature resisting man-made modernity, of some pockets of humanity allying themselves with nature and with the magic that is fundamentally linked to that nature, magic that has its roots in the connection of people with the soil and animals. There is a reactionary element to that kind of story, which has been discussed a few times in scholarship, but Miyazaki leverages that reactionary element with his intelligent manipulation of gender and class discussions. Karlsson…doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a moment. At this point I’d just like to stress the way Karlsson’s book, despite looking like a surreal tale of madness, really does fit many of the ecological tales. In her influential 1962 study of pesticides, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes that, “[g]iven time […] life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world, there is no time.” In some ways, The Troll King is a resistance to the loss of time in the modern world. Events in it happen in some kind of dream time. While there is a clear chronology that connects many parts of the book, others appear to speed up or slow down time to allow for things (skulls, mushrooms, trees and dead cowboys) to grow and die. Human agency doesn’t shape time, the processes of nature do.

Uh. Can you say Dragonball?

Uh. Can you say Dragonball?

This attitude towards human agency also feeds into the book’s relationship towards language and myth. The longer the book continues the fewer lettering we get. The story starts relying on expressive images rather than on explanatory captions. Yet even before that, what few words we are given are rarely explanations and more emotional commentary by one or more of the people depicted in the panel in question. Karlsson’s lettering looks like very personal handwriting, so when he switches to a different character’s voice, I was at first taken aback (this, I suspect, speaks to the density of the book which made me assume that all details were calibrated exactly). The first two chapters, consisting of the marriage of the mountain men, and of a dwarf’s fever dream, are basically the only parts of the book with consistent words and voices. In a way, these two sections ease us into the book’s themes and concerns and having words at the beginning helps us jump the hurdle of the strangeness of the rest of the book. But there is another way to see this change. As the book progresses, it dives deeper into its themes of myth and creation, culminating in the tale of two chubby hairy green men burying a skull and digging up the dead cowboy from a vision they had. In Walter Benjamin’s discussion of language and divine creation, he discusses, I think, the idea that things have, originally, no name. Their mute language is a residue of the divine word of creation. According to this reading of Benjamin, it is with the Fall that language loses this immanence, this magic quality and starts referring to abstractions, to outside sources, to broad constructs of knowledge and culture. The book, for a while, until the two last chapters, reverses this process, stripping its story of the reliance on words and constructs. The mountain men, for example, describe themselves as “Ewoks,” and their marriage dance is maybe related to pagan rites, maybe to Dragonball Z (I admit that was my gut association because I am philistine trash, but, you know, why not). This relationship to language and signification seems to be an essential part of the book, and if we assume its centrality, then we immediately connect it to the overwhelming masculinity of it all. The book abounds in small chubby penises, and all the processes of procreation are specifically framed as bypassing the female element. Despite the book’s buoyant joy in using visual references to all kinds of pagan and neopagan takes on rites and liminal spaces, it does not appear to refer at all to the bible of neo-pagan nuttery, Robert Graves’ immensely readable book of questionable scholarship, The White Goddess. Graves’ story of the maiden-mother-crone, the universal Goddess, is completely subverted by Karlsson, whose book features a brown God of the woods, who looks as if he had been created from mountain men beard hair.

troll king mushroomThis odd masculinity of myth can, I suspect, be read as a commentary on feminist theorists like the extraordinary Helene Cixous and concepts like the phallogocentrism. Given how central the binary is to Cixous, Derrida and other critics of phallogocentric thinking, it’s interesting that The Troll King has removed all womanhood from its text, in full embrace of phallocentrism, even as indeterminacy increases. Of course, the slanted take on procreation always implicitly engages discourses of feminity, and the way the book’s ending fits neatly into the canon of Western narratives also shows up the indeterminacies in the book’s middle as mere skirmishes with signification. But if we look at the way myth is masculinized here, we can ask more questions of the text. One is the connection of nations with its folklore. Surely, myth and similar narratives are among the most important stories that hold together the ‘imaginary communities’ of nations, as Benedict Anderson called them. And just last week I read a really good book on how masculinity shapes nationalist discourses and debates, Charlotte Hooper’s Manly States. The point here is that this book, which is set in a vaguely Western/Northern wood, with high rises merely shown in a few panels, should, I think, be read in the context of modern Swedish national anxieties. I cannot possibly do that, my knowledge of Swedish culture is meagre at best, but I have some pointers. One is the reflection of this topic in Hans Henny Jahnn’s immortal masterpiece Fluss Ohne Ufer, the largest portion of which is dedicated to two German men who move to the Swedish countryside to escape modernity. The other is something that turns up in two and a half panels, but is extremely specific – and both racist and possibly misogynist. These panels describe the mountain men going to town to buy groceries. In order to hide their strange exterior, they wear burkas. Black embroidered burkas. What’s more, the panels that show us the burkas are panels of their return to the wild: depicted are two humans in burkas, carrying a plethora of full plastic bags of the Swedish ICA supermarket chain. That image, of women in burkas carrying plastic bags of groceries is one that is exploited by various caricaturists. The humor here is based both on racist and misogynist assumptions.

burka

Burkas

These two panels are instantly distasteful and repugnant, particularly since they are clearly supposed to be humorous, but there is nothing else in the book that directly takes up this line of discourse – except for the book’s take on myth and masculinity as I suggested before. It is quite impressive to what extent the book ties up all its concerns like that. It makes me dislike Karlsson as a person, but the artistic power behind this book is undeniable and the focus and density of it all is exceptional.

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China Miéville: Dial H

Miéville, China; Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli et al. (2013), Dial H: Into You, DC Comics
ISBN 9-781401-237752

Wood, Dave; Jim Mooney et al. (2010), Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2648-0

Pfeifer, Will; Kano et al. (2003), H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities, DC Comics
ISBN 1-4012-0168-7

DSC_0613   So, while I am a fan of comic books and do read quite a few of them, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the incredible amount of characters and complicated back stories. DC Comics is especially infamous for not just having complicated stories, but even multiple realities and universes, which they then attempted to collapse in amazingly readable and fun but convoluted “events”. Then, suddenly, DC decided to do away with all the accrued history and complications by relaunching all of its titles in 2011, calling the new set of books “the new 52”. This reset the stories on all their major titles, giving them new origin stories, and new slants. It also turned the DC universe somewhat more male, due to the fact that female creators were vastly underrepresented among the slate of amazing writers and artists, and also due to the fact that a lot of female characters either completely vanished, like fan favorite Stephanie Brown, or were declared dead, like Renée Montoya. Other female characters were revived as weaker or “sexier” versions of their old selves. And it’s not just female characters. The first waves of comics to come out seemed to have a decidedly conservative slant in how they were positioned vis-a-vis recent character history. One example is Judd Winnick’s Catwoman run, as compared to the more recent history of the character in the hands of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and others. However, DC also did something very interesting: they decided to use the bright lights of public attention in the wake of the relaunch in order to relaunch a bunch of much less well known characters, some of whom were pulled from DC’s more alternative imprints Vertigo and Wildstorm.

DSC_0628Frankenstein, for example, last seen in Grant Morrison’s book Seven Soldiers of Victory, was given his own title (written by the great, great Jeff Lemire), as were Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of whom had iconic runs with Vertigo. The characters thus revived are not all equally well known. While Swamp Thing is probably one of the best known ‘alternative’ properties of DC, they also offered much less well known characters and titles a spot in the limelight. One of these characters/properties is Dial H for Hero, a decidedly odd kind of title, with a very inconsistent publishing history. His revival could have gone either way. DC, however, asked China Miéville to write this title, and the result is incredibly good. I have been reading quite a few comic books during the past year, and some extremely good ones among them (I’ll probably review some of them in the near future), but Miéville’s Dial H is easily one of the best, if not the best among this crop of really excellent comics that have been coming out. If you have been following Miéville’s career (as I have), this will likely not have come as a surprise to you. Miéville has established himself as one of the leading contemporary writers of science fiction, and probably one of the better novelists in the UK regardless of genre. Even considering the regrettable duds like Kraken, his bibliography is full of inventive, smart, extraordinarily well written novels. The news that he would be turning his attention to comic books in order to write a title of his own had me giddy and excited for a year. I spent part of that year reading up on the history of the character or characters that would be featured in Miéville’s book. And as I found out, that is a peculiar history.

DSC_0606(1)Limited as I am to trade publications, I will focus on only two books centered on the “Dial H”-property. There were small instances of the title resurfacing in between, they were not, however, collected as trades. The first time comic book readers came upon the Dial H for Hero stories was in 1965, in the pages of “House of Mystery #165”. The stories featured a boy called Robby Reed who finds a strange apparatus that “looks like a dial…made of a peculiar alloy….with a strange inscription on it”. The “young genius” decipers the inscription running along the side of the apparatus and finds that it asks its user to “dial the letters h-e-r-o”. Intrepid young Robby Reed does just that and, lo and behold, he turns into a superhero. His whole physical appearance is transformed: he has become a giant, complete with a superhero uniform (that even has letters on the front) and somehow he knows that the hero he transformed into is called “Giantboy”. Using the powers of the character, he thwarts some evil villains, and returning home, dials o-r-e-h in order to transform back into his bespectacled mild mannered self. The boy turning into an adult superhero is highly reminiscent of DC’s Captain Marvel, which is a boy called Billy Bateson who turns into the superhero Captain Marvel by saying “Shazam!”. However, as far as I know, Captain Marvel (sometimes also just named “Shazam”) is always more or less the same guy. Robby Reed’s dial, however, turns him into a different superhero every time he gives his dial a spin. There is so much that is bad about this title, from the casual racism (at one point he turns into “an Indian super-hero – Chief Mighty Arrow” and is even issued a companion, “a winged injun pony”. When he is upset, he shouts “Holy Massacre” and wishes he could “scalp” a monster) to sexism (Robby’s love interest find the dial, dials “h-e-r-o-i-n-e” and turns into “Gem Girl” despite Robby’s warnings that the dial is not a toy, and he ends up forcing her to dial herself back into a girl “before she gets any more ideas”), and overall ridiculous writing. However, it’s some of the most incredibly inventive work I have ever seen.

DSC_0607Robby transforms into heroes that make sense, like Giantboy or The Human Bullet etc., but in one issue he transforms into geometric shapes with arms and legs, for example. Coming up with new heroes (although you can dial up old ones too, it’s basically a randomized selection out of a finite, but large pool) forced the writer of the books, Dave Wood, to dig deep. And Jim Mooney’s art perfectly realizes Wood’s wacky vision. It’s just so much ridiculous fun, and the Showcase volume is well worth your while. If you want an idea of the silly fun on offer, click here to see a selection of covers. After a while the Dial H for Hero stories petered out. There were various small scale revivals, including one in the 1980s by the great Marv Wolfman, also called Dial H for Hero, but since none of them have been published as trades, I can’t really comment on them. They introduced more characters spinning the dial and further enlarged the pool of super-heroes. I’ve had a look at the Wiki summary of Wolfman’s run and it seems delightfully insane, and it seems to have more of a coherent plot than the Wood/Mooney version, which is basically a gonzo one-off kind of thing in each issue.

DSC_0611Even more coherent (and initially at least considerably more down to earth) is the 2003 incarnation called H-E-R-O, written by Will Pfeifer and beautifully illustrated by Kano. That run went on for 22 issues, but for some reason, only issues 1-6 have been collected as a trade (called H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities). Pfeifer’s run features different people finding the dial and examines what happens to their lives when you add the opportunity to transform into a superhero. There is a young adult mired in a mediocre life, “making sundaes at minimum wage”. In order to impress a girl, and more generally as an attempt to “be someone”, he uses the Dial to unimpressive and even disastrous effect. A business man finding the dial becomes obsessed with it. A girl uses it to become popular at her new school, etc. The book was a bit of a letdown, even though the writing and art was just so much better than the Wood/Mooney version. But Pfeifer got rid of the ridiculous fun and inventiveness and infused the whole book with a dour morality, mostly lectures about being content with who you are and knowing your limits and being nice and industrious within those limits. Much more than the original book, the dialing device becomes a metaphor for situations that we all face in our lives etc. etc. I’m boring myself just describing it. For all the good writing and wonderful art that went into this book, it’s hard to recommend, because Pfeifer so consistently underwhelms. The idea of the dial is one of the most liberating literary devices I have ever seen, and to see it used in this pedestrian, moral, middle-class way was disheartening. If that was the direction that the Dial H for Hero story was going, I was worried about Miéville’s run presenting more of the same. Silly me. China Miéville blows Pfeifer’s run clean out of the water.

DSC_0626Miéville renames the series Dial H, and provides a spin on it that is equal parts original and respectful to the Silver Age original. The protagonist of the first trade is called Nelson Jent, and he’s an obese unemployed middle aged man, who, one night, is almost beat up by a group of lowlifes and, attempting to call the police from a phone booth, transforms into Boy Chimney. From that moment the reader knows that this is something else than the other titles in the Dial H for Hero series. And it starts with small details: Mieville, like many writers, offers us the thoughts of the characters that he focuses on. And as Jent transforms into Boy Chimney, his thoughts seem to transform, as well. Strange fragments enter them, and as Boy Chimney proceeds to beat up that gang, he appears to have a dialog with the consciousness of Nelson Jent. Additionally, Boy Chimney is very clearly not a super hero, as all the previous titles imagined them. He is a strange creature that has uncommon strength and unusual powers and abilities, among them the ability to use and command smoke. But it’s only Jent’s consciousness that keeps Boy Chimney from outright killing the brutal assailants in the alley. It feels less like Jent is genuinely transforming into a super hero, and more like a kind of symbiosis. And there is another basic difference: Jent doesn’t have to transform back by dialing the letters in reverse. He automatically returns to his normal self, “into the worst identity of all”, after a certain, variable amount of time has passed. Apart from this, the book’s early parts seem to be fairly straightforward. There’s a villain with a secret plan and he and Jent’s super heroes keep meeting and fighting. And then, the book quickly goes off the rails into the most incredible insanity. The villain, it turns out, is a “nullomancer”, a kind of wizard of nothingness, able to conjure and control nothingness, and her plan involves channeling an ancient beast called the Abyss, a strange thing composed of nothingness, but at the same time, containing universes.

DSC_0625(1)If this sounds absurd, I can assure you that Miéville makes it work on the page, and in his origin story, which closes out the trade, he offers a brilliant explanation for what the dial basically does. It’s hard to give you more details without spoiling the book, so I won’t, but the upshot of it all is that Miéville managed to tell a story that makes use of the incredible artistic liberties that the material has to offer, and yet it’s a book very determined to make sense, in multiple ways. What’s more, the art is not a let down. Would it have been a better book with JH Williams III at the helm? Possibly. But Mateus Santolouco, of whom I have never heard, does an excellent job. I was especially impressed by his work on the super-hero identities invoked by the dial. They are the most crucial visual element of the book, as they have to appear both plausible and iconical – and absurdly odd at the same time. As Boy Chimney leaps from the phone booth he is instantly alive on the page, as a scary, off the wall character. Almost as important are the colors, and Tanya and Richard Horie have done a simply magnificent job throughout the book. In my review of Brian Wood’s DMZ I have lamented the fact that the art seemed but a servant to Wood’s writing in the book, making for a less than great reading experience. That is not the case with Dial H. Even though Miéville is a famous award winning novelist, Santolouco brings a very distinct artistic vision to bear. The sketches in the back show how he worked on and tweaked the look of various superhero identities. Santolouco’s achievement is thrown into even starker relief by issue #0, which presents a kind of origin story, and is included at the back of the trade. Riccardo Burchielli valiantly tries to do justice to Miéville’s amazing script, but it’s an overall disappointing effort, compared to Santolouco’s work that came before.

DSC_0631The book has so many ideas, and one of them is an obsession with identity. With superheroes, we talk a lot about identities, secret and public ones, but that is usually a naming issue: what name do I use? What mask do I wear. Alternative takes on superhero narratives (cf. Millar’s Kick-Ass) suggest that wearing masks is liberating, but they don’t really discuss or problematize the core issue of identity. Miéville, as all his work so far has also shown, is very aware of how identity is tied up in physical forms and in cultural and social ties. The characters that Jent turns into appear to have their own memories, and while it turns out to be an issue more of colonialism and appropriation than of sociology and psychology, Miéville opens wide the doors for these discussions. In doing so, I think, he goes beyond even writers like Morrison, as he uses the iconicity and language of big publisher super-hero comics and examines it carefully. This is not another one of those books critical of ‘superhero myths’, and it doesn’t offer a grimy reality based taken on super heroes. There are enough of those around. No, Miéville embraces a lot of the central qualities of the genre and uses its language in order to interrogate it and tell an absorbing story at the same time. The best news? There is much more to come. For all the density of this book, it merely collects the first issues in an ongoing run. The next trade is due in January 2014. You should be reading this book.

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Jeff Smith: RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light

Smith, Jeff (2011). Rasl: Romance at the Speed of Light. Cartoon Books.
ISBN 978-1-888963-33-5

This is going to be a short review, because it’s a review of the third volume of a series that you shouldn’t start in the middle. You should start at the beginning. If you click here you can find my review of the first volume, as well as general comments on Jeff Smith’s remarkable work, and if you click here, you can find a review of the second volume. If you need a summary of all my reviews, here it is: RASL is one of the best creator-owned comics we currently have, and if you haven’t yet, you should start reading it as soon as possible. Jeff Smith is one of the best graphic novelists of our time. Read him now. The whole RASL project has been, from the start, a fascinating undertaking. In its mixture of myth and science fiction, it resembled Terry Moore’s extraordinary (recently finished) Echo (see here my review of the first Echo trade), but with a much darker and twisted core. Readers coming to find a second Bone will be disappointed. This is no warm, full, engaging fantastical tale. The richness of Bone’s woods, mountains and ravines is in stark contrast with the desolate stretches of desert we’re offered in the RASL books. It’s really hard to believe that the same writer who gave us the gorgeously detailed rat monsters and fantasy foliage in Bone is the same that creates vast expanses of white emptiness in RASL. While I’m obviously commenting on a work in progress, it seems clear that there is less consolation in Smith’s most recent work than in his most famous books. The warm heart of Bone was palpable in its protagonists, the cartoonish Bones, and the lovably odd villagers. Even the monsters threatening to destroy the idyllic life are drawn with a playful love for furs and twinkles and the humorous moments of epic adventuring. True, there was much drama as the story of Bone unfolded, and a serious tragedy at the center of it, but it was all part of a much brighter, more colorful whole. RASL, on the other hand, starts off on a bleak note in volume one and maintains that mood throughout the second and this one, the third volume. Even the glimpses of love and sexual relations are shrouded in the anticipation and memory of loss and impending doom. By the third volume, sex is presented less like a loving act, and more like a desperate way to be less broken, less alone, less adrift in a multitude of worlds.

RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light is the best installment so far, as expected. It is the first time the plot and its characters really come together. I admired the way Smith took his time with the plot, without offering his readers easy satisfaction. The first volume, RASL: The Drift, is full of mysteries, full of beginnings and ideas, and it’s not an easy book to figure out. There was never any doubt that the end result would be magnificent, but the exact direction was unclear, as we readers were left impatient asking for more. And just as the first volume was full of beginnings, so the second volume, RASL: The Fire of St. George, was clearly transitory. Instead of whispered hints and intriguing settings, we were offered more muscular developments and a great deal of information was injected into the book. It seemed as if Smith tried to make up for the vagueness of the first by being extremely specific in the second volume. As a read it was much different, but every bit as brilliant. In it, Smith treats us to the (by now well known) story of Nicola Tesla and fleshes out most of the principal characters and their relationships with one another. Additionally, we are offered more background on the protagonist, and how he came to be this disturbed traveler between worlds, haunted by guilt, and driven by something dark lodged deep inside. Finally, we are introduced to the book’s MacGuffin, Tesla’s journals, which contain some powerful, brilliant secret that Rasl, as the books’ protagonist is called, endeavors to hide from his friends and the government. Tesla’s brilliant ideas have often served as pivotal elements in science fiction or steam punk culture. One of the most recent examples is Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige, where Tesla’s near-magical science provides the mechanics of one magician’s attempt to reproduce another magician’s magic trick (which, as it turns out, was achieved in a much more profane and simple (though not easy) way).

Indeed, The Prestige is a fitting reference because of how the RASL books are perched at the divide between magic and science. In fact, we might be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, stating that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In Smith’s work, magic is replaced by religion and myth, but the basic question remains: if something extraordinary happens, is it a scientific success or a miracle in a religious sense? The third volume puts considerable emphasis on this part of the book. As our memories of Tesla’s historical experiments slowly recede, we fall back into the protagonist’s attempts to fully make sense of what’s happening in his rapidly expanding world. Government agents are added, and questions of self and reality are invoked again, but most importantly. Smith evaded providing a faux-scientific explanation for the dimension-jumping. Instead, he confronts his readers with the bleakness of a man lost between multiple copies of the woman he loves and the multiple worlds that woman lives on. Rasl has no great plans: when he jumped into another dimension, he did so impulsively, and ever since, his actions have been less driven by careful deliberation than by impulsive acts. The first of the (so far) three books gave off a strong noir vibe, which is more expounded upon in this volume that affords more space to Smith’s protagonist. Like a character straight from Hammett’s pages, Rasl drinks in order to deal with the labyrinthine world around him (although in Smith’s work, the effect the world has on Rasl is a palpable, violent one as dimension-hopping exerts a heavy price on the person doing the hopping), he is quick to threaten and execute violence on other men, and his sexuality doesn’t lead to happiness or peace, au contraire, it’s as desperate and violent as everything else in his new life.

Like all extraordinary works of science fiction, Jeff Smith’s RASL books use the freedom afforded by the added and changed vocabulary in order to tell a story about the world that discusses issues on the fringe of knowable and expressible facts. Tesla’s scientific work proves to be a red herring, as it is his journals, which contain a secret discovery that makes sense of the scientific and metaphysical puzzles of the books, journals which are treated just like sacred texts. In Smith’s art, we are also presented with technically advanced objects that look like mythical or ritual artifacts. With every new issue, Smith continues to put the screws on what we feel can be easily said. He works within the languages of masculinity and violence, but at his hands, they blossom into possibility. Jeff Smith is a very good writer who, so far, had written two vastly different masterpieces, Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil. RASL, still a work in progress, is ready to join their ranks. When it’s finished it might well be his finest achievement yet.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese

Yang, Gene Luen (2006), American Born Chinese, Square Fish
ISBN 978-0-312-38448-7

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, created only five years into his career in comics, won several prizes and deservedly so. Among several honors it was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award; additionally, it won the coveted Eisner award, the Reuben award, and the Michael L. Printz award. However, being a NBA finalist (in the YA fiction category) is especially interesting and significant: Gene Luen Yang, who is both writer and artist, didn’t just produce a superior graphic novel, one of the best books of the non-superhero comic genre I’ve recently read, but a surprisingly complex young adult novel, within whatever convention. At 233 generously-margined pages, it’s not a big book, yet the story it tells, of Asian-American identity in a predominantly white(seeming) culture, is told with the scope of a larger, more epic book. Told not just through the writing: Yang’s art work (and Lark Pien’s colors) is simple, cartoonish, yet it delivers its points with aplomb; American Born Chinese is a serious book, one that makes concise and important points about second generation immigrant experience; but Yang’s art, as well as the light, humorous but never farcical dialogue, make this an entertaining, an amusing read. Yang creates indelible characters, although he doesn’t need all of them to be realistic, three-dimensional representations of reality. Instead, he weaves together myth, stark media criticism and a emotionally moving story of an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy growing up, and not just with what seems like effortlessness. As we read through the last pages of the book we can’t help but realize that Yang has managed to tie off the various strands of his story with a sophisticated flourish that is (to be honest) quite unexpected from comic books written for children.

These strands mainly consist of three stories told separately, in alternating chapters. All three are drawn in the exact same style, differing only in small respects, if at all, which helps bring home the idea that all three stories are really only about different aspects of the same story, i.e. what it’s like to be an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy. These three stories, similar though they look, draw on different traditions, and reference different media, different ways of telling a tale. This absolves Yang from having to be openly preachy or lecturing in the most ‘realistic’ strand of the book, because he can rely on our knowledge of these modes of writing and storytelling. He knows that in our heads, all this comes together and makes sense in an obvious yet not obtrusive way. The conventions and lines of thought and plot are so clear and move the book along so quickly, that, at the end, as all three stories finally collapse into a single one, we are even slightly taken aback. This moment of explicit synthesis at the end poses more of a challenge than the separated strands did in the bulk of the book. All these aspects show that Yang is an artist both with a profound knowledge both of the extent of our knowledge of cultural termini, tropes and markers, and with the ability to use this knowledge in a way that is accessible and rewarding. American Born Chinese is a book for young adults, and it continues a trend in recent YA fiction of creating art that does not talk down to its pimpled audience, but involves them both emotionally as well as intellectually in surprising ways. The most surprising way of them all is Yang’s decision to make the final tweak, the last part, less about shock, less about hammering a moral stance into its readers. No, the final section is about art, it asks its readers to really think about the function of each of the three story lines. This is easily the most elegant, smart, self-reflexive ending I’ve read in a book targeted at young adults in a long, long time.

Much of the complexity of this derives from the first of these story strands, a re-telling of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey To The West. This is a novel about a monk’s pilgrimage through China to India, accompanied by his three protectors, three mythical helpers. Among them: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The monk barely makes an appearance in the book, which rather looks at Sun Wukong’s life before he became the monk’s protector. It tells us about how Wukong became one of the most powerful demons of his time. We see how he learns the “Arts of Kung Fu”, including the “Four Major Heavenly Disciplines”, yet when he tries to enter a dinner party for demons, spirits and gods, he is thrown out by the scruff of his neck on account of his merely being a monkey. Sun Wukong then proceeds to throw the heavens into Chaos, defeating heavenly armies, beating up Gods and so on. The diminutive monkey seethes with anger, trying to force the Gods, spirits and demons of the heavens to acknowledge him as an equal. Eventually, he uses his skills to change his shape, making himself taller and stronger of body; this change marks a difference even to his fellow monkeys, and places him, as a queer mixture of monkey and humanoid demon, between two worlds without being able to belong to either. It takes the Buddha himself to take him down a notch: after losing a challenge posed to him by the chubby deity, the Monkey King finds himself trapped for several hundred years under a mountain, until the monk comes and frees him. The story, as sketched out here, is canonical. There is little that Yang actually changed about it, it is straight myth, though told with a lightness of tone befitting the book’s audience. What is interesting is the visual aspect of it all: on the one hand, Yang’s panels crawl with a slapstick-like humor, on the other hand, his representations of demons and Gods are clearly rooted in traditional imagery, containing echoes of traditional Chinese theater masks.

In as smart a book as this, depictions of traditional masks and looks are not merely there to display ethnic roots or connections. Yang also uses them because they conform to Western readers’ expectations of how Asian cultures look, and of how traditional Asian stories would have to be told visually. The implicit light satirical criticism is enhanced by the other non-realistic story, which is introduced to us with a TV title card saying “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”, accompanied by a stereotypical/racist picture of a Chinese person with buck teeth, a long black braid, a cap, sallow skin and slanted eyes. On the bottom line of the frame the word “clap” is printed several times, suggesting a clapping audience. As this first panel makes abundantly clear, we’ve entered the territory of contemporary myth here, so to say. This story is told in the form of a sitcom, with the prerequisite laughs (“ha ha” printed several times on the bottom of the ostensibly humorous frame in question), and the typical looks, postures and narrative build-ups of the genre. While Wukong’s tale was genuinely funny, this one isn’t, at all; it is a rather intense (yet not preachy) criticism of the way we represent immigrants in the media, our easy way with racial and cukltural stereotypes. While the example of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” may seem exaggerated, characters like Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali from the hit TV show Big Bang Theory (or indeed the brand new sitcom Outsourced) show that Yang is not far off his mark with this satire. More importantly, however, it sets the ‘traditionally Chinese’ masks and pictures from the Monkey King story in a context of how Asian narratives are told and framed in general. Also, the themes of belonging (or not) to groups that discriminate based on looks, of the imperfection of not being quite Godly enough in one case, or not being All-American enough in the other, these themes are raised and presented in two related, but very different ways.

All of this sets the stage for the main story, the story of Jin Wang, whose parents immigrated to the US from China. Jin Wang grew up in San Francisco first but his parents soon move to an unnamed different city, where Jin has to attend an elementary school with just one other Asian-American student. As a scrawny, differently-looking kid, he is picked on by many of the other students but seems to find a place for himself within the complicated hierarchy of school life, an achievement that is threatened when one day a first-generation immigrant boy (whom Jin calls an “F.O.B.” as in “Fresh Off the Boat”) enters the school. To survive in that school (sarkastically named “Mayflower Elementary”) means for Jin to be -or at least seem- less different than the majority around him. The new student, who speaks Chinese, and looks and acts much less like a regular American boy, is in danger of reminding the others of just how Asian (as opposed to Asian-American) Jin actually looks. But, his initial hostility eventually wanes, and he strikes up a friendship with the new boy that will even carry over into his high school years. All this is just preamble, told in a quick, almost matter of fact way. What follows is much more typical of the ordinary teenage experience and yet contrasts starkly with how the ordinary American teenager might have experienced it. Jin falls in love and, shamed by his different looks, tries to change himself into a more regular kind of teenager. This story is warm and readers of the same age group can easily relate to the woes and worries of Jin, yet unlike most of the readers, Jin runs into a wall of racism and prejudice now and then in a way that white Americans won’t. There are no easy answers for his problems and questions, and to his credit, Gene Luen Yang doesn’t try to provide them.

Instead, he uses the “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” show and the Monkey King narrative as parameters of what complicates the usual American romantic high school experience (falling in love, courting, being shy and euphoric etc.) for Asian-Americans like Jin. There is tradition, in the form of tales told by grandparents, and in texts and movies one is expected to read or watch, and there is the racist incomprehension of the vagaries of ethnic (or religious) difference. Make no mistake: Yang doesn’t throw his hands up in the face of it all. The complexity of the problem is his point, and the potential that is hidden in this chaos. American Born Chinese is everything at once. An entertaining read, an insightful deliberation on immigrant experience in the US, and a seductively crafted comic. The simplicity of the forms Yang uses turn out to fit each story as if they were created especially for them. And in a way, they were. The two contextualizing stories of American Born Chinese are, at basically allegorical, and not retellings of old stories qua old stories, but modern re-creations that just contain old proper names. In this, Yang follows the tradition of books like Journey To The West, which is itself a complicated set of allegories, pretending to retell the monk’s story but really providing an intellectual and spiritual mirror for its own time. What Yang offers us are three stories of being challenged by difference, wrapped in a book that might, read by avid children all over the country, just make a difference. Read the book, buy it for others, and follow Gene Luen Yang’s career. I expect great things from him.

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