Category Archives: Comic Book Classics
Arguably the greatest living comic-book writer, Alan Moore (1953 – ) is certainly one of the best known. And funnily enough he lives just down the road in Northampton (where he was born) which is what, 25 miles from Leicester? So very much a local boy done good. I first became aware of him in the 1990s through his graphic novels V for Vendetta and Watchmen, although I’d read his stuff without realizing it in 2000 AD. The Ballad of Halo Jones and DR and Quinch somehow stuck with me, even as I (rightly) dismissed most US and British ‘graphic novels’ as inferior shadows of European ones.
One aspect of his work that stands out (perhaps the most important for me) is the way his comics are grounded in real world issues and are not afraid to tackle politics. V for Vendetta is a diatribe against Margaret Thatcher, Watchmen too is constructed around a critique of repressive impulses among the powerful (Superheroes being nothing more than fascist vigilante fantasies). In his less familiar works this tendency is also clear; ‘Brought To Light’ about conspiracy theories and 9/11, Aargh (an acronym for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), tackled the introduction of clause 28 and latterly Moore has become involved with Occupy Comics – a project by comic book artists to support the UK’s Occupy movement.
Issues of gender are also of particular interest to him. In a medium saturated with unfeasibly endowed superheroines, Alan Moore has collaborated with women artists (most notably Melinda Gebbie, his partner) to tackle the blatant sexism in the medium. Their most notable collaboration; Lost Girls, is an exploration of sexual fantasies from a woman’s perspective. An incredibly beautiful book, it references a great number of images, artists and styles.
Alan Moore is a writer who really understands the peculiarities of the comic book medium; its advantages and drawbacks. His writing is lyrical, literate and evocative, but when required it can be sparse, dense or spartan. In his dealings with big business comics he has specialized in turning round ailing franchises like ‘Swamp Thing’ and the bafflingly popular ‘Batman’. He no longer deals with either Marvel or DC, having fallen out over the adaptation of his work to film and their shabby treatment of artists and writers. A remarkable number of his comics have been adapted; From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen, V for Vendetta. Moore, however has disassociated himself from all of them.
Apart from comics, Alan Moore is a published novelist, has written widely on magic (he’s an occultist and a ‘neo-pagan’) and has a long-standing interest in music. His main legacy, however, will be a body of work that showed what comics as a medium could do and what they could be. Sadly, apart from the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask (bowdlerized to the extent that it is now used by Tea Party activists), it might just be the film manglings of his work that will endure. It will be a great pity if that happens.
Argentina’s (and Latin America’s) most popular cartoon strip of all time began its life as an advertising campaign for refrigerators. American manufacturer Mansfield commissioned the cartoonist Joaquin Salvador Lavado (Quino) to come up with a weekly strip to promote their goods in the press. One requirement they made on the artist was that the main character’s name should begin with the letter ‘M’.
Quino’s response was a strip inspired by Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ (that lasted a lot longer than the Mansfield brand!), revolving around the the lives and travails of a gang of children. The difference between both strips, however, are perhaps more telling. Where Snoopy, Charlie Brown and his bunch live in a world formed by their own psychological foibles and devoid of clearly identified adults, Mafalda (1962-1973) lives in a world where the real world does impinge. And Mafalda herself despairs about the state of the modern world.
Mafalda is also a girl. A bad tempered, opinionated, backchatting idealist who hates soup and injustice with the same venom. Mafalda has a baby brother (Guille) and a father who works in an insurance office and a mother who (to her daughter’s dismay) stays at home to look after the kids. Her friends encapsulate various stock characters from the Buenos Aires middle class. Susanita is a typical bourgeois snob, Manolito is the son of Spanish (Galician) grocer, Libertad the child of leftist intellectuals and Felipe the son of an engineer. The last member of the gang, Miguelito, has Italian grandparents who are fans of Mussolini. These characters are, however, so well developed as individuals and the humour is so acute.
The strip commented on all manner of issues both domestic and foreign, from the popularity of the Beatles and hippy culture to the war in Viet Nam and social injustice at home. Quino’s portrayal of Argentina’s middle class is so telling that he has been described as ‘a sociologist who draws’. Sadly, the atmosphere for social criticism in Argentina became increasingly unpleasant as the 1950s and 60s wore on (Dictatorships predominated with only the short-lived democratic interludes of presidents Frondizi and Illia to break it up). Quino himself had to flee into exile in the 70s where cartoonists (including Enrique Brescia and Hector Oesterheld and their families) became the victims of military dictatorships. As Quino had said, if Mafalda had grown up, she would have been one of the disappeared.
But the main delight in reading a Mafalda strip is the strong vein of humour running through it. The kids are no mere cyphers but hold their own as little personalities and the world they create has been popular throughout the world. They are still incredibly popular in Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia where collections of the strips still sell well 40 years on. Truly one of the worlds most influential comic strips.
Carlos Gimenez – Paracuellos
Graphic novels and comic books have, ever since Will Eisner’s day, told personal stories; true tales of suffering, survival and hidden (or forgotten) histories. Paracuellos by Carlos Gimenez is Spain’s best example. It tells of the author’s own experience in a Spanish children’s home in the 1940s and 50s, during the early years of the Franco regime.
Gimenez himself learned his craft on the treadmill of Spain’s comic book industry: mass producing quality artwork at a speed that others in Europe have been unable to match. He published many kinds of titles; Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical… he’s even produced the storyboards for Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Devils Backbone. Paracuellos is, however, very much a solo project, a story the author felt driven to tell.
The orphans of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the children of those on the losing side, the huge numbers of the poor and destitute were dumped in institutions like Paracuellos. Gimenez documents the cruelty, abuse, malevolence, contempt and disregard these children suffered at the hands of their fascist ‘carers’. He picks at wounds that he can’t heal; how the rich charity ladies, Catholic church, and the Francoist state did what comes naturally: turned on the poorest and weakest in society.
The comic book itself is inked in a style that complements the narrative perfectly. The cartoony style large heads of the boys a visual echo the malnourished state they lived in a lot of the time. The use of tight close-up framing adds to the sense of claustrophobia. These kids were locked in these institutions and at the mercy of their ‘carers’. Their powerlessness is expressed in the brittleness of their thin limbs and necks, the depiction of the cruelty of their gaolers (anyone who has ever experienced the treatment that nuns mete out to the poor, the sick or the weak would sooner be in jail – don’t let the wimple and false smiles fool you).
And so the books in the series chronicle a vicious and bitter coming of age. All the innocence and goodness in the boys is beaten or bullied out of them. They learn from their elders to be bullies, misogynists, racists and to be pitiless. Although some, the more heroic among them, stage their own small rebellions. Some even win small victories.
Among all this harrowing detail, however, there is still the warmth of nostalgia – for a childhood that has passed, for games, language, friends and experiences that shaped the author in later life. There is even a vein or two of humour and exuberance bubbling under the surface. It is Gimenez’s genius that he can transcend the anger and the wounds of history to deliver such a human book. It is, without doubt, one of my favourites.
As the author of a forthcoming WWII themed vampire novel, I am wholly relaxed with the concept of distorting history for the purposes of fun. Donna Barr’s Desert Peach is a great example of a fine imagination giving the historical record a sound thrashing. The comic book’s central conceit, that Erwin Rommel had a homosexual younger brother commanding a unit in the Afrika Korps during 1940-1943, is a delicious one. The Nazi aesthetic, a fashion that has long entranced and fascinated some (including otherwise laudable individuals like Lemmy off Motorhead), is rendered simply fabuloso. A great way to undercut the attraction of Nazi chic.
It also draws attention to the undercurrent of misogyny and homoeroticism deep within the fascist soul. In his amazing book Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit analyses this very subject. Looking into writings of members of the Freikorps (the predecessors of the Nazi party; unofficial armed units who set out to destroy communists, trade unionists and other labour organizations). Using Freudian (and post-Freudian) readings, Theweleit examines their autobiographies and memoirs, to find some very revealing tendencies (For a start these ‘soldiers’ can name almost every single member of their paramilitary band, their servants, aides de camp and officers. All of them described in minute detail. Their wives? Not a single one is given a name).
Back to Donna Barr. Desert Peach, which follows a rather camp SS officer by the name of Manfred Pfirsch Marie Rommel, his boyfriend and a series of misfits in a support unit based in North Africa. Some of the characters and most of the plots have quite a surreal edge and the art style contributes to this. A rather trippy sense of irreality pervades the whole thing. Certainly more to it than German sausage jokes and innuendo (although some of that does make its way in, so to speak).
Barr seems to have nailed aspects of a German (or mittleeuropean) sensibility in the strip. This is more obvious in her fantasy strip Stinz (centaurs in pre-WWI Germany and Austria). Peach is however, her most celebrated work. It has been collected in eight volumes and led to a spin-off novel Desert Swans (2005). The real kick I get from Deser Peach is the sheer audacity of the concept and how Barr stretches such rich narratives from an unreal standpoint.
Eduardo Del Rio is a legendary Mexican cartoonist who has been publishing books, comics and press cartoons for over fifty years. His professional trajectory is unique in that he has concentrated his efforts on non-fiction works, specifically educational comic books. This tendency begins to manifest in the 1960s with his two seminal comic books Los Agachados (the stooped ones) and later, Los Supermachos (the super machos). Both these comic books are set in fictional Mexican villages and use stock characters to explain the political and economic reality of life. Apart from a political conscience-raising, he used these comic-books to promote vegetarianism, Buddhism, family planning and the joys of stamp collecting.
Rius is perhaps the first cartoonist to seriously consider the balance needed in order to make educational comics work, to include enough action, rounded characters and humour to draw in readers and keep them turning the pages. He is credited with helping to educate a whole generation of Mexicans as they followed the adventures of the laid-back electric-blanket wearing Indian Calzonzin and his tussles with the village PRI party boss, Don Perpetuo Del Rosal.
The context of Mexican political realities and a comic book industry that saw itself as a part of the entertainment industry, made Rius’s comics unique. As a trenchant critic of the government (from a radical left-wing position), he often faced official displeasure and harassment. At one point, he was even kidnapped by the Mexican secret police.
Cuba For Beginners (Cuba Para Principiantes) is an attempt to counter the anti-revolutionary propaganda that arose after the triumph of the Castro regime. Both the US and the Mexican media took a hostile view of the Revolution. Rius’s book does an excellent job of explaining the long view of Cuban history and the reasons why the Revolution occurred, the positive aspects of the regime change and to remind the Mexicans that they too had needed a Revolution to establish their sovereignty. The book became a best-seller, and together with another Rius book ‘Marxism For Beginners’ (a primer on Marxist theory), were translated into many languages and became international best-sellers.
And these two books also gave rise to the publishing phenomenon of For Beginners books. Naturally the world’s publishers simply ripped off the format (because international copyright law only applies to American comics. Funny that…). Today you can find these ‘For beginners’ type comics in bookshops all over the world. Rius, therefore, has had a major role to play in educational publishing. In style, nearly all these books ape the Rius formula. The images are complemented with cut-outs (like Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cut and paste animations) and take an ingenue through the subject tackled in a step-by-step fashion, breaking off at least once per page for a joke. Rius avoids the over-worded talking-heads format of many of his less deft imitators, because, well, the guy’s a genius and most other ‘for beginners’ books are just cheap knock-offs.
Cuba For Beginners, however, remains a joy. Not only a great introduction to the Cuban Revolution but also Cuban history as a whole. Later (1990s) Rius published a further volume criticizing the Castro Revolution and how it had betrayed its own ideals.
Rius still publishes uncompromising books that irritate the powers that be. His recent books have included critiques of Bullfighting, the Bible and an alternative history of Comic Books. Given his penchant for contrariness, his is a profoundly democratic standpoint.
The best illustration of this was the decision by Rius and his fellow cartoonists to suspend the publishing of the satirical magazine, El Chamuco in the year 2000. The reason? The left-wing cartoonists decided that the fall of the PRI government in that year’s election (after over 60 years in power), required that some breathing-space be given to the new government to help smooth the transition to democracy. They did this even though the new president (Fox Quezada) was from the right-wing PAN party, and the fact that El Chamuco was, at the time, the most influential satire magazine in the country (the closure must have also cost them financially). Cartoonists have long memories and they remembered how the ‘free press’ had lambasted president Madero after the Revolution and how that criticism had contributed to justifying the Huertista coup d’etat. Probably the only episode in history where a part of the mass media has done something for the good of people other than themselves. Relax, Rupert, it would never happen here.
The underground comix movement in 1960s America threw up a number of great comic book virtuosos: Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Vaughn Bode, even Harvey Kurtzman and Mad magazine can be attributed to this abandonment of mainstream comics by the brightest and best new artists and writers. Towards the end of that period, Richard Corben begins to make his mark as an artist in the underground press.
His first successes came in fanzines including Grim Wit, Slow Death and Fantagor. Soon he moved to the more established Warren Publishing where he contributed to horror and fantasy titles (Creepy, Eerie, 1984 and Vampirella). In the mid 70s he approached the editors of French magazine Metal Hurlant [see Comic Book Classics #13]. There he developed his very distinctive style. The culmination of this new direction is his adult fantasy series Den.
Den is the tale of a nerd who finds a gateway to a new dimension; Neverwhere. Once there the nerdy kid is transformed into an over-endowed muscleman hero and goes on a series of violent and erotic adventures. A strong vein of humour runs through the series, something that runs through the rest of his oeuvre. Den soon proved an extremely popular series and featured prominently (ahem) in the Heavy Metal film.
Further Corben works include collaborations with Harlan Ellison, artwork for The Punisher, the adapting of classic tales by Robert E Howard, HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe and artwork for album covers. From 1986 to 1994 he ran his own publishing imprint, Fantagor Press. In addition, he has also developed further solo projects (Rowlf, Jeremy Brood, further volumes of Den etc.)
Comic Books have an odd habit of projecting distorted mirror images of the societies that spawned them. America, where ¾ of the population are obese, poor and treated like shit, has given the world the superhero. Additionally the Japanese,who enjoy the highest average age of any nation of earth, produce manga; a form where every single character – regardless of age or gender – has the face of a seven year old girl. When contemplating Richard Corben’s work you are often drawn to such psychoanalytical explanations because… well, look at this:
His depiction of exaggerated physical /sexual characteristics has certainly sparked controversy . Anyway, putting aside the shock value of the subject matter his artwork certainly deserves plaudits. The realism of his work (he pioneered the use of airbrush illustration) offers up landscapes that are almost photographic in quality. The fantasy worlds he creates are similarly rich, detailed and filled with exotic plants, animals, people and monsters. He also has a nifty ear for dialogue and brings a light humourous touch to his stories and characters. His ability to make such imagined worlds real makes his work truly great.
My first encounter with Sonny Liew’s work came as a result of a four day stopover in Kuala Lumpur. There I spent my time seeing the sights, taking in the atmosphere and dodging the heat. And that’s the overriding memory I have of Malaysia, it’s blood-boilingly hot. The only way I survived the whole thing was skipping from one air-conditioned shopping mall to another. In one of these malls I found a newspapers shop and on one of the shelves I found some comics. Most were your normal hegemonically extruded blandathons: superheroes, manga and the like, but there was other stuff too. Stuff that I bought from the surprised vendor. He looked surprised because the comics I bought were written in Malay and I looked and sounded like the kind of dumbass foreigner who doesn’t speak the local lingo. He was right.
The comics were kids stuff, really. One called Apo? aimed at young teenagers and another called Anna Muslim, supposedly for little girls. Armed with these two examples of local comic book art, I took my first steps into the world of Asian cartoons. As I couldn’t read a word, it was quite a small step too.
I soon forgot about these comics, but something in my back-brain must have kept some residual affinity for Malaysian comic books. A year or so later I first encountered Sonny Liew’s work from the fantastic Liquid City anthologies that showcase the work of Asia’s best cartoonists (which he edits). This godsend of a publication allows us ignorant anglophones to share the talent coming from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines and elsewhere. If you haven’t yet, check out the links on the site to Lat, Leong Wan Kok and Gerry Alanghan.
Liew has travelled a convoluted career path that included a time as a philosophy student at Cambridge and spells working for the Marvel/DC evil duopoly. Born and brought up in Malaysia, he now lives in Singapore. His most widely recognised work is the illustrations for a DC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and, wit Tommy Kovac, Wonderland (a riff on Lewis Carrol’s fantasy world). His own original creation, Malenky Robot, is a hit even in France (where it is published as a BD; an outlet that suits the artwork; a rich almost pastel-like colour palate, beautiful illustrations and quirky stories).
My favourite thing about Liew’s work is his ability to adapt his style in new and exciting ways. Even his superheroes are interpreted in a new and idiosyncratic style. The guy has elan, panache and chutzpah in his drawing arm. Long may he prosper.
The combination of humour and the mundane melodrama of real life is a familiar theme in comic books. It is present in some of the great narrative moments of the genre; the more wistful episodes of Love and Rockets, the bad-tempered satires of Harvey Pekar and many others I could trot out for you to show off. One of the most charming in this respect is the work of French artist Clare Bretecher (1940 – ).
Bretecher’s gift is to be able to encapsulate the anxieties and absurdity of modern life in her comics. Her observations of women, particularly with regards to their role in (a still surprisingly sexist) French society, are barbed, witty and insightful. Her heroines (if that’s the right word) are distinguished by their ordinariness. In short, Bretecher writes and illustrates how real women engage with life (not beautiful girls, Kerry Bradshaw-style journo wits or any other guff), with badly paid jobs, stroppy teenagers, average-to-dull relationships, unemployment… all the stuff that real people go through every day.
She began her career when Rene Goscinny (of Asterix fame) engaged her to work Facteur Rhesus in 1963. She became an artist for a number of comics and Bds, including Spirou magazine. In the 1970s she joined up with fellow artists Gottlieb and Mandynka in founding the magazine L’Echo des Savanes. It pioneered the genre of humour-based comic-book magazines aimed at adults and soon became one of the most influential comic-book publications in France (Gottlieb would go on to start up the most important contemporary magazine in this genre, Fluide Glacial).
In L’echo Des Savanes she began to publish her first episodes of Les Frustrés; a tale of urban sophisticates and their absurd lives and obsessions. It is popular series to to this day and is collected in a number of BD anthologies.
Her most famous creation, however, is the stroppy, baggy-clothed teenager Agrippine. Bretecher captures her in a variety of moods; as she is angry or reflective but also when she is feeling vulnerable, melancholic or happy. Her concerns are the commonplace of her age group; boys, friends, school, fears for the future, clothes and what people might think. The unfussy, unpretentious style of artwork adds to the charm of Agrippine without taking away the truth and honesty it conveys. I feel I have known girls like Agrippine in real life, something I can’t say about many comic-book characters.
A final thought here about the lettering used by Bretecher. She writes the text in the speech balloons using her own spidery, joined-up French longhand. This makes it difficult to read sometimes, particularly in long speeches, but it contributes enormously to the mood. The speech balloons mirror the minds of the characters speaking; twisting, slightly opaque and at times a bit loopy. I love it. Pick up a copy today.
El Cuarto Reich by José Palomo
José Palomo Fuentes (1943 – ) wrote his satirical comic-strip El Cuarto Reich (The Fourth Reich) in exile. A successful cartoonist in his native Chile, he was forced to leave his homeland after the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet’s junta to power. He was right to flee. Cartoonists had become politicised by the Chilean experience in a way that was hardly comparable elsewhere. Sure, the US had the underground commix trying to exercise their constitutional right to say the word ‘fuck’ and show some genitals in their comics, but in Chile they were caught in a propaganda war. A war that turned brutal after the generals took over.
Jose Palomo, co-founder of the humour magazine La Chiva (The Nanny Goat) left for Mexico where he still lives. There he used his art to take revenge on Pinochet and his regime (and the wider problems of Latin American poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship and US imperialism). El Cuarto Reich is his savage, bitter riposte to the forces of reaction. It is set in an imaginary (archetypal?) Latin American republic and includes all social classes. At the top, there is the dwarf-like dictator (a thinly disguised Pinochet) and his functionaries. The press corps (there to field easy questions) are part of a controlled and pliant media. There are soldiers, secret policemen, riot squads, and shanty towns. Endless shanty towns filled with the poor and destitute.
Doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, does it? The humour, however, is there in every strip; dark, satirical, graveyard humour, punctuated with the allusions, exaggerations and vulgarity that all great graphic satire carries inside.
In El Cuarto Reich we have torturers and secret policemen in gaberdine coats, their pockets always dangling an electrode plug, in case they have to torture somebody on the go. They all wear T-shirts emblazoned with telling English language slogans: ‘Status Quo Loyal Force’, ‘Fort Bragg North Carolaina’ and ‘Fort Benning Columbia Georgia’ are the most common. It is common knowledge South of the border that Fort Bragg is where the School of The Americas is based. This particular school trains foreign army personnel in counterinsurgency techniques including torture. Torture and psychological warfare manuals from Fort Bragg have been used by right-wing military juntas throughout the region.
The dwellers of the shanty towns are also present in numbers. The shanties are dilapidated, full of flea-bitten dogs, crumbling schools, sewage pipes leaving rivers of filth running through the streets. Above there is always a police helicopter, watching. Hunger is commonplace. In fact the capitalist system demands its presence. According to the Neoliberal economists who stalked the continent some decades ago, poverty is needed to drive wages down and encourage investment. Poverty in Latin America was a requirement of economic policy. As one of the poor people observes, cookery books are subversive texts in the Fourth Reich.
There are other characters to be found in this land. The rich widow in her stretch limo, lecturing her chauffeur on the moral depravity of the poor, the dictator’s wife (the Primera Lady), trying to cover up an ugly reality with pretty flowers, the combi buses, belching out smoke, the children asking questions in school (and you shouldn’t ask questions in the Fourth Reich), the riot police ready to crush the demonstrators that gather in the main square.
As I write, there are riots going on in Egypt and the Arab world clamours for democracy. They could do worse than look across the water, at nations with two hundred years worth of experience of resisting dictatorship, most of whom have left the days of military dictatorship behind. In any event, I hope your Fourth Reichs are swept away by history, that only the works of satirists like Palomo remain to prove they ever existed.