Wolfsmund volume 3


By Mitsuhisa Kuji, translated by Ko Ransom (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1935654-96-4

Pseudonymous woman of mystery Mitsuhisa Kuji steps up the pace in this third volume (originally seen in Japanese publication Fellows! from 2009 as Ookami no Kuchi: Wolfsmund and a tankobon edition in 2011) of her gripping and chillingly fatalistic historical drama reinterpreting the legend of William Tell.

Set in 14th century Switzerland, the serial details the struggle of three conquered alpine cantons – Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz – for freedom and independence from the cruel, oppressive and savagely rapacious Habsburg proto-Empire.

At first this interpretation centred around the monolithic fortress Wolfsmund, situated in the Sankt Gotthard Pass: an impenetrable Keep, barrier and waystation between dangerous mountain passes which dictated and controlled the population’s ability to move – or flee, find allies, gather intelligence or stockpile war materiel.

The triple-castle complex is a crucial trade bottleneck between Germany and Italy, housing a garrison of hard-hearted soldiers commanded by a human devil with an angel’s face.

Wolfram the Bailiff is a sadistic sentinel with an infallible eye for spotting resistance: slaughtering freedom fighters and crushing the people’s hopes with baroque and monstrous flair and ingenuity.

Until now no one has survived falling under his excoriating gaze, but the lust for liberty has grown strong in the hearts of a people pushed too far for too long…

The horrific murderously medieval passion play resumes with ‘Albert and Barbara Part One’ and a spectacular display of martial arts illustration as a brother and sister, creatively maimed on Wolfram’s orders, complete their training of a very special student. Elsewhere in Lugano, on the Italian side of the mountains, the rebel force of “the Eternal Alliance” lay their final plans for taking back their land. Everything depends upon a suicide mission to take the barrier fortress and Walter, the forbidding and guilt-wracked son of the fallen liberator Wilhelm Tell

The resistance leaders have devised a scheme for the young avenger to climb across the unforgiving mountain peaks whilst his combat-teachers sacrifice themselves as living decoys. Albert and Barbara are keenly resigned to their fate, ignoring Walter’s crushing “Survivor’s Guilt”. He has to get through to coordinate the uprising within the cantons and their lives are just a fair price for victory…

The darkly uplifting parable concludes in ‘Albert and Barbara Part Two’ as the siblings boldly introduce themselves at the gates of Wolfsmund and, by sheer bravado and indomitable courage, invade the castle, chasing Wolfram deep into the bowels of his lair.

Their audacious attack leaves them dead, surrounded by a vast harvest of fallen enemies, and their greatest triumph is that the grinning bailiff’s confident poise is shaken as, in a rush of fury, he realises too late that the true blow against him has been struck elsewhere…

In ‘Walter and the Comrades in Fate’ that realisation is revealed after flashbacks disclose the siblings’ pep talks with the valiant Tell. The scene then switches to show in harrowing detail the mountaineer’s epic re-crossing of the treacherous peaks – an act of unsurpassed heroism balanced by Wolfram’s shrewd assessment that his hidden foe can only be the legendary Wilhelm… or perhaps his missing son…

The closing chapters of this excessively graphic and visually uncompromising saga at last relate a turning of the tide as ‘Hedwig and Wilhelm’ opens with a particularly shocking sequence wherein the sadistic bailiff personally tortures Walter’s mother and younger brother seeking confirmation of his mysterious foe’s identity. The interview proves fruitless and Wolfram feels his master’s growing wrath and impatience when he is summoned to report to the Emperor Leopold…

With rebellion brewing in distant Bavaria the supreme overlord is reluctantly forced to leave the Canton situation in Wolfram’s hands… but he is far from content…

Meanwhile Walter makes his way to the rebel rendezvous where he is informed of his family’s plight. Clandestinely joining the crowds rounded up to observe the macabre and grisly executions, the doom-laden wretch can only watch helplessly as the last of his family are put to death by the grinning monster. He might however draw some shred of solace if he knew the dread which secretly grips the bailiff’s heart…

This volume concludes with the climactic ‘Hilde and the Young Cowhands’ as the long-awaited uprising begins and the populace storms and destroys the barrier station’s Southern fortress. With the castle burning the surviving soldiers flee for Wolfram’s Central Keep, unaware that on the German frontier the Northern Fort is now under attack.

Whilst an enraged mob engages the defenders with a frontal assault, Walter leads another suicidal commando raid, bolstered by the jibes of a wanton woman prepared to sacrifice everything for vengeance…

Hilde is the widow of the leader of a local trades Guild. When her husband fell victim to Wolfram’s games she dedicated herself to avenging him, and with the last of his faithful retainers began a reign of horrific reprisals which earned her the nickname “the Ripper of Schwyz”. Now she and the last two cowhands, infiltrated through the roof of the North Castle by Walter’s climbing skills, grimly make their way down to the ground floor, unstoppable engines of destruction…

When the castle falls, the last Tell understands that he not alone in his guilt, but that some things are greater than human life. And now, with both wings fallen, only Wolfram’s force remains, isolated and trapped in the central keep of Wolfsmund…

To Be Continued…

Never a tale for the faint-hearted, with this volume the saga explodes into stunning savagery, forensically examining the costs of liberty in brutally uncompromising character vignettes and breathtakingly intimate portrayals of death at close quarters.

Harsh, seductively cruel and inspirationally ferocious, this unhappy saga is probably most comfortably enjoyed by older readers and those who already know that not everybody lives happy ever after…

Wolfsmund is printed in the ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.
© 2011 Mitsuhisa Kuji. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojimbo book 6: Circles


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-146-0

Wandering rabbit bodyguard Miyamoto Usagi started life as a background character in Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic comedy The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper before indomitably carving his own unique path to graphic glory.

Creative mastermind Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family moved to Hawaii two years later. On graduating from the University of Hawaii with a BA in Fine Arts, he pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California and started in comics as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Sergio Aragonés’ Groo the Wanderer.

Eventually the cartoonist within resurfaced: blending a passionate storytelling drive and abiding love of Japanese history and legend with a hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, Sakai began crafting one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The addictive period epic is set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) but scrupulously mirrors the Feudal Edo Period of Japan – (roughly the 17th century AD by our reckoning); simultaneously referencing classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Zatoichi and Godzilla, whilst specifically recounting the life of a peripatetic Lord-less Samurai eking out as honourable a living as possible by selling his sword as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire).

As such, his destiny is to be perpetually drawn into a plethora of incredible situations.

He is a rabbit – brave, noble, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering, conscientious and devoted to the tenets of Bushido – who simply cannot turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

This superbly stirring sixth black-&-white blockbuster collects yarns from Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo comicbook volume 1, #25-31 plus an extra attraction from funny animal anthology Critters #50, offering a selection of complete adventures tantalisingly tinged with supernatural terror and drenched in wit, irony and pathos.

Following an adulatory Introduction from Jeff Smith, the restless Miyamoto encounters a Hannya (female demon) plaguing travellers whenever they try to cross ‘The Bridge’ after which ‘The Duel’ sees him targeted by a ruthless bookie.

The gambler’s professional duellist only needs one final big payday to safely retire with his beloved wife and child, but his disreputable boss is determined to fleece the locals no matter who has to die…

‘Yurei’ means ghost and, when a weeping woman’s spirit invades the Yojimbo’s dreams crying for justice, Usagi becomes an unwitting avenger whose presence provokes her murderer into making a huge and fatal mistake, after which ‘My Lord’s Daughter’ finds the Rabbit Ronin relating his greatest – battle against a horde of Obakemono (monsters) and demons to rescue a princess – in a wry fairy-tale tribute to the aforementioned Groo…

The remainder of this rousing compendium details a revelatory exploit wherein Usagi makes for his home village with thoughts of finally staying in one place. However when he meets again his childhood sweetheart Mariko a shocking secret regarding her soon changes everything.

‘Circles’ is divided into a succession of connected vignettes beginning with ‘Wind over the Tombstones’ as the homeward-bound hero discovers his former sensei Katsuichi – whom he believed dead – is very far from it…

Then in ‘Remembrances’, young Jotaro is abducted by the deadly Jei.

This veritable devil in human form believes himself a “Blade of the Gods” singled out by the Lords of Heaven to kill the wicked. The raving loon has been hunting Usagi ever since the Yojimbo defeated him – with the aid of a fortuitous or possibly divinely sent lightning bolt….

Now, in the little boy Jei senses a connection to his despise quarry and recruits a band of brigands to assist him in his schemes for revenge…

When the devil’s hired killers attack the village where Mariko’s husband Kenichi is headman, the strands of fate knit together as ‘Shroud Over the Mountain’ unites former friends and rivals in their desire to save the boy – who has already escaped and got into even more trouble…

The drama comes to an emotionally shattering climax in ‘Closing the Circle’ as the Rabbit Ronin learns at last the shocking truth about Jotaro and Mariko.

Arranging for his aging sensei to take on a new pupil he then wearily resumes his restless wanderings …

Triumph, tragedy, terrific action and terror all seamlessly flow together in this addictive epic, and Circles is still one the best collections in an unbroken run of classic graphic masterpieces.

Usagi Yojimbo has been in continuous publication since 1987, resulting in more than 30 graphic novel collections and books to date. The Legendary Lepus has guest-starred in many other comics and nearly had his own TV show – but there’s still time yet and fashions are ever fickle so hope endures…

As well as generating a horde of high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games, RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi series and lots of toys to promote popularity, Sakai and his creation have deservedly won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny and scary, always moving, astoundingly visceral, ferociously thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a work of cartoon genius: engaging and irresistible with a broad appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of anthropomorphic adventures.
Text and illustrations © 1992, 1993, 1994 Stan Sakai. Usagi Yojimbo is ® Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1994, 2006 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

With Only Five Plums books 1-3


By Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle (CreateSpace)
ISBNs: 978-1-48399-114-6, 978-1-48399-123-8 and 978-1-48399-127-6

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics, and this collection – three books of an epic historical exposé of one of modern humanity’s greatest atrocities – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal the tragic story and eventual small triumph of Anna Nesporova whose family was targeted in error by the Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia…

Divided into three quietly understated, deeply evocative volumes, this triptych of ambitiously oversized monochrome memoirs is crafted by historian Terry Eisele and illustrator Jonathon Riddle from Nesporova’s own words, dramatising the horrific story of the Nazi atrocity at Lidice in Czechoslovakia. The memories are not merely those of a survivor but come from a woman whose entire family was intimately connected with the cause of the tragedy…

The history opens in With Only Five Plums: The Time Before as an elderly woman is encouraged by an interviewer to talk of times long past but never forgotten. She cautiously relates the idyllic life in the nondescript hamlet of Lidice before specifically concentrating on the expansive Horak family and her life as innocent, ordinary Anna Horakova in increasingly trying times.

Relating instances of village life, childhood experiences and the early days of her marriage, the story takes a dark turn when describing Christmas customs. In 1941 a cherished family meal tradition presaged disaster for the entire Horak clan…

In June 1938, European leaders trying to appease Hitler allowed Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia and as a consequence Anna’s brother Josef fled to Britain, joining the growing émigré/refugee population.

He soon wrote back that he numbered amongst his new friends Edvard Benes and Jan Masaryk: leaders of the government-in-exile…

The next stage in the tragedy came when Nazi aristocrat Reinhard Heydrich – a sadistic monster eagerly expediting Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews – was assassinated and the Horak family were mistakenly implicated in the plot.

The Nazi retaliation was astoundingly disproportionate: the village where they lived – almost universally Christian – was eradicated from the Earth, the male population massacred and the women sent to concentration camps in a display of calculated butchery as bad any thing visited upon the Gypsies, Jews or any other ethnicity the Nazis deemed “subhuman”.

Heavily pregnant at the time, Anna – along with other expectant mothers – was separated from the rest. Once the children were delivered, they were taken away. Those that passed certain tests were removed to be brought up German, and the mothers joined their sister villagers in packed cattle-cars at rail marshalling yards. The destination was Ravensbruck Concentration Camp…

The tale resumes in With Only Five Plums Book 2: This Dark Age where, following a brief recap, Anna details the appalling journey, paying especial detail to an elderly Jewish woman’s attempts to cheer up younger girls with the story of Rabbi Loew’s Golem: created to protect the Jews of Prague during a previous wave of persecution…

After many days and hundreds of miles, the train arrives in Fürstenberg from where the survivors are marched to the camp. Anna’s record of daily humiliations and the slow, piecemeal destruction of bodies and spirits covers three years, but she considered herself lucky. At least she had a skill the Germans found useful (professional-standard sewing) and wasn’t part of a group considered genetically inferior such as the Roma Gypsies.

Heartbreaking memories of Romani inmate Florica (and her folktale of the origins of blonde-haired people) poignantly counterpoints the diary of privation and desperation and serves to underline the horrific accounts of the scientist-torturers Ernst-Robert Grawitz and Ludwig Stumpfegger who used the women as guinea pigs for their horrendous experiments…

The captivity ended one spring. The panicked Germans were in retreat: burning files and dismantling buildings. The women were led out of the gates with a few guards and ordered to march. They staggered through Germany and other countries shattered by bombs and, as the days passed, many died. Soon they were not enough soldiers and Anna and some other women slipped away, always heading towards home.

Avoiding the “liberating” Russian soldiers, the group finally reached Czechoslovakia, battered but once more a free nation. Here Anna met Mrs. Kubrova; wife of her husband’s employer, who took her in and eventually drove her to Lidice… or at least where it had once been…

The graphic documentary concludes in With Only Five Plums Book 3: Life in the East is Worthless, describing the aftermath of the war. Throughout all her trials and torments Anna had been utterly oblivious to the fate of her family and her home. Now she learned that both had been eradicated with devastating efficiency. All that was left was the daughter taken from her at birth and lost seemingly forever somewhere in Germany…

From Kubrova, Anna learned what the Nazis had done to turn a thriving, bustling village into a barren featureless field and of other survivors – mostly stolen children – and these scenes are more harrowing in their understated simplicity than anything else in this grim graphic testament…

However there is a slight moral victory to be seen as she then relates how Lidice was rebuilt and repopulated (despite the Soviet Union’s absorbing the newly liberated nation into their Warsaw Pact-enforced alliance) before the saga concludes with an emotional Epilogue wherein Anna finally shared the fate of her stolen daughter…

Slipping back and forth in time, conversationally adding depth and historical background to a remarkably restrained, tightly controlled and shatteringly effective examination of human nature at its worst and best, With Only Five Plums (a Czech expression akin to “with only the clothes on your back”) focuses on one of the most depraved and appalling acts in human history and manages to derive a message of hope and triumphant perseverance from the tragedy.

This triptych is a superb example of pictorial reportage and graphic memoir, with each big (280 x 216mm) book also offering poetry written about the atrocity (The Far-off Village by Mazo de la Roche, Lidice by C. Day Lewis and To Lidice by George England respectively), text features and extensive, fascinating excerpts from ‘Jonathon’s Sketchbook’.

Anna Nesporova passed away in 2006, before these books were completed, but the sense that the brooding, painfully oppressive and grimly moving story related would have made her proud remains. As with all accounts of Atrocity, the tale of Lidice needs to be told and retold, if there’s to be any hope of stopping such things from happening again.

With Only Five Plums is a powerful story of inhumanity, stupidity and endurance that will certainly impress fans of war stories and devotees of fine storytelling, but hopefully it will most appeal to history teachers; professional and not…

© 2013 Terry Eisele. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copies check out www.terryeisele.com

Paul Robeson for Beginners


By Paul Von Blum, illustrated by Elizabeth Von Notias & Ramsess (For Beginners)
ISBN: 978-1-934389-81-2

The For Beginners series of books are heavily illustrated text primers: accessible graphic non-fiction foundation courses in a vast variety of subjects from art to philosophy, politics to history and much more, all tackled in an accessible yet readily respectful manner. This particular volume was written by Paul Von Blum, author and Senior Lecturer in African American Studies and Communication Studies at UCLA with a wealth of strips and illustrations by graphic design specialist Elizabeth Von Notias and self-taught multi-media creator Ramsess.

If remembered at all, Paul Robeson (April 9th 1898 – January 23rd 1976) is thought of by most people as that African American singer/actor with an incredible bass voice. Maybe some will recall that he was a left wing political activist who fell foul of Joe McCarthy during America’s infamous “Red-baiting” witch-hunting period.

That’s true enough, but he was also one of the most accomplished and gifted individuals in the nation’s history: a true Renaissance man who was cheated of his ultimate potential simply because his skin was the wrong colour…

The Introduction lists Robeson’s astonishing accomplishments – all the more amazing when you realise the lack of opportunities if not outright repression facing negroes in a segregated America at the time of his birth and not truly tackled until the Civil Rights movement began gaining traction in the late 1950s.

As told in more telling detail – both in word and pictures in ‘The Early Days’, ‘Paul Robeson the Athlete’, ‘Paul Robeson the Stage Actor’, ‘Paul Robeson the Screen Actor’ and ‘Paul Robeson the Singer’ – he was born in Princeton, New Jersey; the son of a preacher.

He was the last of five children in a time and place rigidly defined by class and race divisions.

A brilliant student, he graduated Somerville High School in 1915 and won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University where, despite initial hostility and actual physical assaults – he became the star of the Football, Baseball, Basketball and athletics squads, twice designated “All-American”.

From there he attended New YorkUniversityLawSchool, before transferring to ColumbiaUniversityLawSchool.

Talented and seemingly tireless, he turned an interest in the dramatic arts into a part-time stage career and became a professional Football player in 1920. He got married, acted, sang, played Pro ball and kept on studying, graduating Columbia in 1923 and worked as a lawyer at a prestigious law firm until the bigotry he experienced from his own subordinates became too much.

In 1924 he switched from stage acting to movies but still carried on a glittering international career: starring as Othello in London and playing in many hit plays and musicals such as Showboat, Emperor Jones, Stevedore and All God’s Chillun’s Got Wings

Always politically active, he visited the Soviet Union in 1934, spoke out against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War, co-founded the anti-colonial Council on African Affairs and used his name and fame to agitate for social and legal changes in such contentious areas as Southern lynch law and trade union legislation.

Such activities made him a prime target in the USA and in 1941 J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to open a file on him…

In 1950 the US government took away his passport because he refused to recant his pro-Soviet, pro-socialist stance and he became an exile in his own country. He was unable to leave America for eight years, until a Supreme Court ruling decreed the State Department had no right to revoke passports due to an individual’s political beliefs.

Robeson’s life was filled with such landmarks. Once free to travel again, he became an international political celebrity and social commentator, using his concerts and stage appearances in places as disparate as Wales, Australia, Russia, East Germany and elsewhere to promote a dream of World “Freedom, Peace and Brotherhood”…

His beliefs, struggles achievements and failures are then examined in ‘Paul Robeson the International Activist’, ‘Paul Robeson the Domestic Political Activist’ before a thorough appreciation in ‘The Final Years and His Lasting Legacy’

Augmented by a ‘Bibliography’, ‘Selected Chronology’ and creator biographies, this absorbing documentary proves again the astounding power of visual narrative when wedded to the life story of a truly unique individual.
© 2013 Paul Von Blum. Illustrations © 2013 Elizabeth Von Notias & Ramsess. All rights reserved. A For Beginners Documentary Comic Book © 2013.

Black is the Color


By Julia Gfrörer (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-717-8

There’s never been a better time to find dark and imaginative horror comics tales and the genre has seldom been better represented than with this eerie yet elegiac historical fantasy from Julia Gfrörer.

The relative newcomer hails from Portland, Oregon – having been born in 1982 and raised in historic Concord, New Hampshire. She studied Painting and Printmaking at Seattle’s CornishCollege of the Arts and first began turning heads a few years ago with her thoughtfully terrifying comicbooks Flesh and Bone and Too Dark to See as well as appearances in Thickness, Arthur Magazine, Black Eye, Study Group Magazine and Best American Comics.

The author brings a gift for sensitive emotional scrutiny and quirkily macabre understatement to this slim monochrome tome detailing the last days of a marooned mariner and the strange creature who temporarily adopts him…

It begins in the middle of the ocean as sailors Xavier and Warren are approached by the Captain’s Mate. The voyage is going badly. Storms have battered the frail wooden vessel and provisions are low.

As they were the last to join the ship’s company, the crew expects the pair to calmly get into the dinghy and drift away, giving the rest some slim chance of survival…

Xavier is already quite ill and Warren enquires why they can’t just be shot, but nobody wants a murder on their already benighted souls…

Cast adrift and enduring harsh exposure, the pair float aimlessly. Hardship and privation soon ends Xavier, but as angry, resentful Warren languishes in the boat awaiting his own death, he thinks he hears singing in the night and is soon conversing with a woman who seems to know impossible things – such as how and what his far away wife and child are doing…

More than half convinced he’s gone mad he continues his strange delirious conversations with her, all the while certain that his life is slowly ebbing away…

She won’t save Warren but the sea siren is quite content to stay with him as he expires, sharing intimate memories. And far away across the waves, his former shipmates sail helplessly into another storm as mermaids gather to watch…

Bleak, beautiful and lyrically elegant, this oddly mesmerising, gently scary, utterly visual yarn tellingly explores pride and loneliness but is cunningly underpinned by wry, anachronous humour and a cleverly memorable conclusion which will delight fans of mystery and imagination and lovers of beguiling illustration.
© 2013 Julia Gfrörer. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fight the Power – a Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples


By Seán Michael Wilson, Benjamin Dickson, Hunt Emerson, John Spelling, Adam Pasion with additional cartoon by Polyp (New Internationalist)
ISBN: 978-1-78026-122-5

Politics is composed of and utilised equally by firebrands and coldly calculating grandees, and that’s probably the only guiding maxim you can trust. Most normal people don’t give a toss about all that until it affects them in the pocket or impacts their kids and, no matter to what end of the political spectrum one belongs, the greatest enemy of the impassioned ideologue is apathy. This simple fact forces activists and visionaries to ever-more devious and imaginative stunts and tactics…

However, all entrenched Powers-That-Be are ultimately hopeless before one thing: collective unified resistance by the very masses they’re holding down through force of arms, artificial boundaries of class or race, capitalist dogmas, various forms of mind control like bread, circuses and religion, divisive propagandas or just the insurmountable ennui of grudging acceptance to a status quo and orchestrated fear that unknown change might make things worse.

From its earliest inception cartooning has been used to sell: initially ideas or values but eventually actual products too. In newspapers, magazines and especially comicbooks the sheer power of narrative with its ability to create emotional affinities has been linked to the creation of unforgettable images and characters. When those stories affect the lives of generations of readers, the force that they can apply in a commercial, social or especially political arena is almost irresistible…

The compelling power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information and seductively advocate complex issues with great conviction through layered levels has always been most effectively used in works with a political or social component. That’s never been more evident than in this stunning and scholarly new graphic anthology detailing some of the most infamous and effective instances of popular protest.

In Britain the cartoonist has always occupied a perilously precarious position of power: with deftly designed bombastic broadsides or savagely surgical satirical slices instantly capable of ridiculing, exposing and always deflating the powerfully elevated and apparently untouchable with a simple shaped charge of scandalous wit and crushingly clear, universally understandable visual metaphor …or sometimes just the plain and simple facts of the matter…

For this universal and welcomingly basic method of concept transmission, levels of literacy or lack of education are no barrier. As the Catholic Church proved millennia ago with the Stations of the Cross, stained glass windows and a pantheon of idealised, sanitised saints, a picture is absolutely worth a thousand words, and as William the Conqueror saw with the triumphalist Bayeux Tapestry, picture narratives are worth a few million more…

Following a thought-provoking Introduction by author, journalist and filmmaker Tariq Ali, this procession through the history of dissent compiled and scripted by Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson begins with an agenda-setting ‘Prologue’ – illustrated by Adam Pasion – which can best be described without giving the game away as “Uncle Sam, John Bull and the Statue of Liberty (AKA ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’) walk into a bar…”

Their heated discussion on the value and need of people using their right to dissent is then captivatingly illustrated through a series of erudite, fascinating, shocking and even funny tutorial episodes beginning with a compelling account of ‘The Luddites and the Swing Riots, 1811-1832’ written by Wilson and rendered both palatable and mesmerising by comics legend Hunt Emerson.

The artist then turns his talents to recreating the horrific events and aftermath of ‘The Battle of Peterloo, 1819’ from Dickson’s script before, with Wilson, cataloguing a wave of ‘Colonial Rebellions, 1836-1865’ which the British Empire dealt with in its traditional even-handed, temperate manner (and in case you were wondering, that’s called “sarcasm”…)

Wilson & Pasion then detail the global impact of the ‘Irish Rebellions, 1791-1922’ whilst Dickson & Emerson’s account of ‘The Suffragettes, 1903-1918’ actually follows the story of Votes for Women right up to the present. The practically forgotten and brutally savage sagas of ‘The Australian General Strike, 1917’ (by Wilson & Pasion) and the equally appalling landmark events of ‘The Boston Police Strike, 1919’ – as told by Dickson & John Spelling – reveal the pattern of modern labour conflicts with working folk ranged against intransigent and greedy commercial interests.

The age-old struggle escalated during the ‘UK General Strike and the Battle of George Square, 1918-1926’ (Wilson & Spelling) and reached an intolerable strike-busting peak in Ohio during ‘The Battle of Toledo, 1934’ (Wilson & Spelling): a struggle which cemented management and labour into the intractable ideologically opposed positions they still inhabit today…

The championing of Human Rights is commemorated by Dickson & Pasion in ‘Rosa Parks and the Bus Boycott, 1955-1956’ and a deeply moving account of ‘The Trial of Nelson Mandela, 1964’ whilst the modern American soldier’s method of combating unwelcome or insane orders is reviewed in the brilliantly trenchant ‘Fragging’ by Wilson & Emerson…

Back home and still etched in many peoples memories, ‘The Poll Tax Riots, 1989-1991’ offers a surprisingly even-handed account of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest political blunder by Dickson & Spelling, before hitting today’s headlines with the origins and outcomes – to date – of ‘Occupy, 2011-’

Returning to that bar and Lady Liberty, Dickson, Wilson & Pasion then draw a few telling Conclusions to close the cartoon course in mass resistance, after which the writers discuss their process in Authors Notes: Why This Book? before then listing the truly phenomenal rewards of all those campaigns and protests with a long list of Rights Won (ranging from Women’s Suffrage to the universal formal acknowledgement of the Human Right to Protest).

Understanding the value of a strategically targeted chuckle, this fabulous monochrome chronicle concludes with one last strip as Dickson & Emerson hilariously reveal ‘The Four Stages of Protest’ courtesy of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi…

More so than work, sport, religion, fighting or even sex, politics has always been the very grist that feeds the pictorial gadfly’s mill. Of course cartooning can only accomplish so much and whilst Fight the Power! recounts a number of instances where physical and intellectual action were necessary to achieve or maintain justice, at least our art form can galvanise the unconvinced into action and help in the useful dissemination of knowledge about protest: the Who, Where, When, and How.

If you don’t understand What or Why then you’re probably already on the other side of the barricades…
© 2013 Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson. Illustrations © 2013 Hunt Emerson, John Spelling and Adam Pasion. Cartoons © 2013 Polyp. All rights reserved.

This book was reviewed and scheduled before the announcement of the death of Nelson Mandela. After briefly considering postponing the posting I’ve decided to go ahead. If you can’t understand why perhaps you should think really hard about what he stood for and what Fight the Power! is about.
Win – proudly wearing his little red rebel’s hat…

Pompeii


By Frank Santoro (Picturebox)
ISBN: 978-1-939799-10-4

A short while ago I carped on about America not producing many historically flavoured comic strips and, as if by condemnatory return, this lovely cartoon chronicle cropped up in my review pile; not only a captivating yarn of ordinary folk trapped in one of the most tragically infamous events of all time, but also a boldly experimental and mesmerisingly effective exercise in reductionist visual storytelling.

Pittsburgh-based Frank Santoro has been a bit quiet since the release of his magnificent Storeyville (except for Cold Heat, Mome, the Comics Comics blog and about a zillion mini comics and other projects) but with the release of Pompeii proves the wait has been worthwhile.

The story is beguilingly simple: exploring not only the complex web of lies which entangle a philandering artist, his wife, new favourite model and naïve assistant (still in the flush of first love), but also the very nature and layered reality of art itself.

The story opens in the blithely unaware doomed city – a flashy resort for Rome’s high and mighty situated in the scenic Bay of Naples – where keen Marcus acts as general dogsbody to the great Flavius, a painter of great renown and salacious appetites.

The lad’s duties include fetching and carrying, cleaning, grinding minerals to mix into pigments, painting backgrounds, and keeping the maestro’s wife Alba from discovering her husband’s infidelities.

There’s a particularly close call as Flavius and the Princess he’s immortalising are nearly discovered by the knowing suspicious spouse and, once the crisis is averted, the master makes his unwilling pupil a full partner in the deception…

Marcus has talent and dreams of being a great painter, but for the moment he and his beloved Lucia toil in relative poverty with little more than their love to sustain them. The hot-blooded girl has come with him all the way from distant Paestum, but now, just as the relationship deepens, Marcus is neglecting her: spending more and more time with Flavius.

Bored and lonely, she’s alternately talking about having children and returning to her family even though she knows her lover would rather die than go back.

During the next sitting the Princess wants to talk about the small earthquake that occurred that morning but Flavius is oblivious: in full swing he invites Marcus to work on the background whilst he is still finishing the figure.

That minor triumph is spoiled at home when Lucia again starts up about Paestum or inviting her mother to live with them in Pompeii. In a rage Marcus storms off to sleep in Flavius’ studio and accidentally overhears an assignation wherein the Princess begs the maestro to move with her to Rome. The besotted noble is even prepared for her artist to bring the inconvenient wife along too…

Fearing the death of his dream and assured of the end of his relationship, the lad is surprised and gratified when Flavius invites him to accompany him to Rome. Everything suddenly stalls, however, when smouldering, somnolent Mount Vesuvius explosively begins spewing smoke and gas for the first time in living memory…

The fates of the assorted characters is a grim and powerful reminder of the power of love in the face of death, and the rough, raw pencil illustrations and tone washes – all created at publication size rather than being reduced for publication – perfectly recall and invoke the loose, flowing style of fresco and pottery images of the time.

Santoro apparently translated his own experiences as student/assistant to painter Francesco Clemente to get inside the head of young Marcus and the result is a timeless and irresistible exploration of human relationships (master and servant, teacher and pupil, lovers, spouses and infidelities) all viewed through an intimate lens of storytelling in its purest and most intimately immediate form.

A perfect example of the vivacious renaissance of Comics as Art, Pompeii is book no aficionado of the medium should miss.
© 2013 Frank Santoro. All rights reserved.

Papyrus volume 2: Imhotep’s Transformation


By Lucien De Geiter, coloured by Colette De Geiter & translated by Luke Spear (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 978-1- 905460-50-2

Once you get a certain taste in your mind you just can’t stop – well I can’t – so here’s another all-ages sword & sandals saga just not available through American funnybooks these days.

British and European comics have always been happier with historical strips than our cousins across the pond (a pugnacious part of me wants to say that’s because we have so much more past to play with – and yes, I know they’re responsible for Prince Valiant, but it’s an exception, not a rule) and our Franco-Belgian brethren in particular have made an astonishing art form out of days gone by.

The happy combination of past lives and world-changing events blended with drama, action and especially broad humour has resulted in a genre uniquely suited to beguiling readers of all ages and tastes. Don’t take my word for it – just check out Asterix, Adèle Blanc-Sec, The Towers of Bois-Maury, Iznogoud or Thorgal to a name few which have made it into English, or even our own much missed classics such as Olac the Gladiator, Dick Turpin, Heros the Spartan or Wrath of the Gods …all long overdue for collection in album form.

Papyrus is the spectacular magnum opus of Belgian cartoonist Lucien de Gieter. It began in 1974 in the legendary weekly Spirou, running to more than 30 albums, plus a wealth of merchandise, a television cartoon show and a video game.

The plucky “fellah” (look it up) was blessed by the gods and gifted with a magic sword courtesy of the daughter of crocodile-headed Sobek. His original brief was to free supreme Horus from imprisonment in the Black Pyramid of Ombos and thereby restore peace to the Two Kingdoms. More immediately however the lad was also charged with protecting of Pharaoh’s wilful and high-handed daughter Theti-Cheri – a princess with a unmatchable talent for finding trouble…

De Gieter was born in 1932 and, studied at Saint-Luc Art Institute in Brussels, before going into industrial design and interior decorating. He made the logical jump into sequential narrative in 1961, first through ‘mini-récits’ inserts (fold-in, half-sized-booklets) for Spirou, of his jovial little cowboy ‘Pony’, and later by writing for established regulars as Kiko, Jem, Eddy Ryssack and Francis.

He then joined Peyo’s studio as inker on ‘Les Schtroumpfs’ – AKA The Smurfs – and took over the long-running newspaper strip ‘Poussy’.

In the mid 1960s he created South Seas mermaid fantasy ‘Tôôôt et Puit’ even as Pony was promoted to the full-sized pages of Spirou, so De Gieter deep-sixed his Smurfs gig to expand his horizons producing work for Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey.

From 1972-1974 he assisted cartooning legend Berck on ‘Mischa’ for Germany’s Primo, whilst putting the finishing touches to his new project. This creation would occupy his full attention – and delight millions of fervent fans – for the next forty years.

The annals of Papyrus encompass a huge range of themes and milieus, blending boys-own adventure with historical fiction and interventionist mythology, gradually evolving from traditionally appealing “Bigfoot” cartoon content towards a more realistic, dramatic and authentic iteration, through light fantasy romps starring a fearlessly forthright boy fisherman favoured by the gods as a hero of Egypt and friend to Pharaohs.

Imhotep’s Transformation is the second Cinebook translation (and 8th yarn, originally released in 1985 as La Métamorphose d’Imhotep) opening with Papyrus and his one-legged friend Imhotep (no relation) paddling a canoe through the marshes of the Nile.

The peaceful idyll is wrecked when Theti-Cheri and her handmaidens hurtle by in their flashy boat, but the boys don’t mind as they have a message for the princess.

The new holy statue of her father has arrived from the Priests of Memphis and the daughter of Heaven is required at the ceremony to install it at the pyramid of Saqqara before the annual “Heb Sed” King’s Jubilee.

As the girls and boys race back an old peasant is attacked by a crocodile. Diving after him Papyrus wrestles the reptile away and is about to kill it when Sobek appears, beseeching him to spare it.

On the surface Theti-Cheri and her attendants are ministering to the aged victim and the princess can’t help noticing how he bears an uncanny resemblance to her dad…

By the time they all reach the pyramid the monumental task of hauling the statue into place is well under way, but suddenly blood begins pouring out of the monolith’s eyes.

The terrified workers panic and the colossal effigy slips, crashing to destruction. The populace are aghast and murmurs of curses and ill omens abound.

Rather than running away Imhotep heads for the rubble and discovers the statue’s head is hollow. Moreover, inside there is a dead dwarf and a smashed flask which had held blood…

Papyrus is in the royal compound where the recent events have blighted the anticipation of the court. During Heb Sed the Pharaoh has to run around the sacred pyramid three times and fire his bow at the four corners of the kingdoms to prove his fitness to rule, but now it appears the gods have turned against their chosen emissary on Earth…

Papyrus is not so sure and when he tries to speak to a royal server the man bolts. Giving chase the lad is in time to prevent the attendant’s murder, but not his escape.

And then a cry goes up: Pharaoh has been poisoned…

Knowing there is no love lost between the MemphisPriests of Ptah and the loyal Theban clerics doctoring the fallen king, Papyrus warns of a possible plot, but has no proof. What is worse, Chepseska, leader of the Memphis faction, is of royal blood too and would inherit if Pharaoh was unable to complete the Heb Sed ritual…

As loyal physicians and priests struggle to save their overlord’s life, Theti-Cheri remembers the old man in the swamp. If only the crocodile bite has not left him too weak to run…

The doughty dotard is willing to try and also knows of a wise woman whose knowledge of herbs can cure Pharaoh, but ruthless Chepseska is on to the kids’ ploy and dispatches a band of killers to stop Papyrus and Imhotep.

However, the gods are behind the brave lads and the after the assassins fall to the ghastly judgement of Sobek, the boys rush an antidote back to Saqqara, only to fall into the lost tomb of Great Imhotep, first Pharaoh, builder-god and divine lord of the Ibis.

With time running out for his distant descendent, the resurrected ruler rouses himself to administer justice for Egypt and inflict the punishment of the gods upon the usurpers…

This is another epic and amazing exploit which will thrill and astound fans of fantastic fantasy and bombastic adventure. Papyrus is one more brilliant addition to the family-friendly pantheon of continental champions who marry heroism and humour with wit and charm, and anybody who has worn out those Tintin or Asterix volumes would be wise beyond their years in acquiring these classic chronicles tales.

© Dupis, 1985 by De Gieter. All rights reserved. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Papyrus volume 1: The Rameses’ Revenge


By Lucien De Geiter, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 978-1- 905460-35-9

British and European Comics have always been keener on historical strips than our American cousins, and the Franco-Belgian contingent in particular have made an art form out of combining the fascinations of past lives with drama, action and especially broad humour in a genre uniquely suited to beguiling readers of all ages and tastes.

One ideal example of this is the long-running Papyrus by Belgian cartoonist Lucien de Gieter, which began in Spirou in 1974. It subsequently spawned more than 30 collected albums, a wealth of merchandise, a TV cartoon series and a video game through its progression of light fantasy adventures starring a simple child fisherman favoured by the gods who became the hero of Egypt and a friend to Pharaohs.

De Gieter was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on September 4th 1932 and, after attending Saint-Luc Art Institute in Brussels, worked as an industrial designer and interior decorator before moving into comics in 1961.

Initially he worked on inserts (fold-in half-sized-booklets known as ‘mini-récits’) for Spirou, such as the little cowboy ‘Pony’, and produced scripts for established Spirou creators such as Kiko (Roger Camille), Jem (Jean Mortier), Eddy Ryssack and Francis (Bertrand) before joining Peyo’s (Pierre Culliford) studio as inker on ‘Les Schtroumpfs’ – which you’ll know as The Smurfs – and soloed on long-running newspaper comic cat strip ‘Poussy’.

After creating mermaid strip ‘Tôôôt et Puit’  in 1966 and seeing Pony graduate to the full-sized pages of Spirou in 1968, De Gieter relinquished his Smurfs gig, but kept himself busy producing work for Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey. From 1972-1974 he assisted Flemish cartooning legend Arthur Berckmans (AKA Berck) on comedy science-fiction series ‘Mischa’ for the German Rolf Kauka Studios magazine Primo, whilst he prepared the creation which would occupy his full attention – and millions of avid fans – for the next four decades.

The stories of Papyrus encompass a vast range of themes and milieus, blending boys-own adventure with historical fiction and living mythology, gradually evolving from a traditionally welcoming and inclusive “Bigfoot” cartooning content towards a more realistic, dramatic and authentic iteration.

That’s not a concern in this first Cinebook translation as The Rameses’ Revenge (actually the seventh collected album, originally released in 1984 as La Vengeance des Ramsès) finds Papyrus en route to the newly finished temple at Abu-Simbel on a royal barge, part of a vast flotilla destined to commemorate the magnificent Tomb of Rameses II.

The worthy peasant had been given a magic sword by the daughter of crocodile-headed god Sobek to free Horus from imprisonment in the black pyramid of Ombos and restore peace to the Two Kingdoms – but that’s a tale for another tome. The lad was also charged with being lifelong protector of wilful Pharaoh’s daughter Theti-Cheri

Here his sedate Nile journey is plagued with frightful dreams but good friend Imhotep tells him not to worry. Nevertheless the boy hero consults a priest and is deeply worried when the sage declares the dreams are a warning…

That tension only grows when headstrong, impatient Theti-Cheri informs him that she has permission to go on ahead of the Pharaoh’s retinue in a small, poorly-armed skiff. Unable to dissuade her, Papyrus is ordered to remain behind. The Princess and Imhotep are blissfully unaware that a member of her small guard has been replaced by a sinister impostor…

The vessel is well underway before they discover Papyrus has stowed away, but before the furious girl can have him thrown overboard, the boat is hit by an impossibly sudden storm and attacked by a pair of monsters.

Although the boy hero drives them away with his sword, Theti-Cheri sees nothing, having been knocked out in the storm. Still seething, she refuses to believe him or Imhotep and orders them onward to Abu-Simbel. The next morning Papyrus and the guards are missing…

Pressing on anyway, the Princess and her remaining attendants reach the incredible edifice only to be seized by the band of brigands who have captured it. They want the enormous treasure hidden within the sprawling complex and already hold Papyrus prisoner.

If Theti-Cheri or the hostageTemple Priests don’t hand it over the boy will die horribly…

The repentant Princess cannot convince the clerics to betray their holy vows, however, and in desperation declares that she will hand herself over instead. Appalled and moved by her noble intention, High Priest Hapu determines that only extreme measures can avenge the bandits’ sacrilegious insult and calls on mighty Ra to inflict the vengeance of the gods upon them…

The astounding, spectacular, terrifying result perfectly concludes this initial escapade and will thrill and delight lovers of fantastic fantasy and bombastic adventure. Papyrus is another superb addition to the all-ages pantheon of continental champions who combine action and mirth with wit and charm, and anybody who has worn out the Tintin and Asterix collections would be well rewarded by checking out these epic tales.

© Dupis, 1984 by De Gieter. All rights reserved. English translation © 2007 Cinebook Ltd.

Usagi Yojimbo Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-088-0

The wandering rabbit bodyguard Miyamoto Usagi began as a background character in Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic comedy The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper before indomitably carving his own unique path to graphic glory.

Creative mastermind Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family moved to Hawaii two years later. After graduating from the University of Hawaii with a BA in Fine Arts, he pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California and started in comics as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer.

Eventually the cartoonist within resurfaced: blending his storytelling drive with a love of Japanese history and legend, and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The addictive period epic is set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) but scrupulously mirrors the Feudal Edo Period of Japan – (the 17th century by our reckoning), simultaneously referencing classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Zatoichi and Godzilla, whilst specifically recounting the life of a peripatetic masterless Samurai eking out an honourable living as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire).

As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – brave, noble, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering, conscientious and devoted to the tenets of Bushido, the heroic everyman bunny simply cannot turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

This fantastically funny fifth monochrome masterwork gathers tales from Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo comicbook volume 1, #19-24 and offers a selection of complete adventures culminating in an unbelievably welcome and long-awaited spoof of Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima’s legendary samurai manga Kozure Ōkami, best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub

Following a fulsome Introduction from Stan Lee, the restless Ronin takes on a paying gig with very little honour attached in ‘Frost and Fire’. On the recommendation of friend and occasional patron Lord Noriyuki, Usagi contracts with the cold and snobbish Lady Koriko to recover the priceless antique swords – but not the body – of her husband; recently expired in a distant village.

On arrival however Usagi finds a thorny dilemma: fallen and shamed samurai Nagao broke all class stricture and protocol by consorting with a peasant girl. Grief-stricken Atsuko wants to keep his family’s blades as the only reminder of the man she loved and who loved her in return…

This impossible impasse is only broken when Atsuko’s greedy brother intervenes, more concerned with the blades’ monetary value than their sentimental worth…

‘A Kite Story’ is an enchanting agglomeration of connected vignettes divided into four visual epigrams beginning with ‘The Kite Maker’s Tale’ in which master craftsman Tatsusaburo describes his process and motivation in building the largest Odako ever to challenge the clouds…

Next comes disreputable Hatsu who in ‘The Gambler’s Tale’ discloses how a long-eared Ronin exposed his cheating and ruined his business. Now, Yojimbo has returned and the games-man sees a way to pay him back, but fails in his scurrilous scheme due to the warrior’s ingenuity and the giant kite in ‘The Ronin’s Tale’ after which the elegant micro-saga comes full circle with ‘The Kite Maker’s Tale II’

Although telling short stories here, everything is a fragment of a greater mosaic. Sakai is gradually constructing a massive overarching history and in the 2-part ‘Blood Wings’ the wanderer stumbles upon a man cut to ribbons by a flying killer. He soon discovers a village plagued by Komori ninja – a clan of bats trained in all the deadly tactics of Chi no Tsubasa – killing silently from above on “wings of blood”…

Although Usagi succeeds in helping the desperate villagers he has no way of knowing how the sky killers will affect his future, as the Komori are actually striving to prove themselves worthy replacements for the decimated Neko ninjas who have fallen from the good graces of scheming Lord Hebi since the end of the Dragon Bellows Conspiracy…

In the next tale the Yojimbo meets martial legend General Oyaneko but is distressed to learn the aged warrior is dying of a wasting disease. He’s even more upset when the General attempts to kill him, wanting to earn a clean end in ‘The Way of the Samurai’

This volume concludes with ‘Lone Goat and Kid’ wherein former imperial official Yagi – who became an assassin after being framed by underlings of Lord Hirone – is tricked into fighting a certain rabbit Ronin who has no idea he is the latest pawn in a Machiavellian scheme to destroy the noble goat and his capable kid Gorogoro

However, even though Usagi is tricked into fighting the doom-laden duo, the guilty impatience of the plotters soon reveals the true state of affairs…

Despite changing publishers a few times, Usagi Yojimbo has been in continuous publication since 1987, resulting in dozens of graphic novel collections and books to date. The Legendary Lepus has guest-starred in many other series and nearly had his own TV show – there’s still time yet, and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

As well as generating a horde of high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi series and lots of toys to promote popularity, Sakai and his creation have deservedly won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny and scary, always moving, astoundingly visceral, ferociously thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a cartoon masterpiece of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories and comics.
Text and illustrations © 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 Stan Sakai. Usagi Yojimbo is ® Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1992, 2005 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.