Fallen Words

By Yoshihiro Tatsumi, translated by Jocelyne Allen (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-074-4

After half a century of virtual obscurity, crafting brilliantly incisive and powerfully personal tales of modern humanity on the margins and on the edge, Yoshihiro Tatsumi found “overnight success” with his glorious autobiographical work A Drifting Life in 2009.

To describe his dark, bleak vignettes of raw real life, Tatsumi devised the term Gekiga or “dramatic pictures”, practically if not actually inventing the genre of adult, realistic, socially aware and literary comics stories in Japan. He began his career at a time when sequential narratives or “manga” literally meant “Irresponsible” or “Foolish Pictures”; a flashy and fanciful form of cheap, escapist entertainment targeted specifically at children – and the simple-minded – in the years immediately following the cessation of hostilities.

His tales have continued, in a never-ending progression, to detail the minutiae and moment of Japanese popular culture and, with his star assured in the manga firmament, have turned to a far older aspect of his country’s artistic heritage for this project.

The traditional performance art of Rakugo seems to combine many elements British observers would quickly recognise: reverentially combining familiar tales told many times over such as morality or mystery plays with instructive fables and especially shaggy dog stories and, just like Christmas pantomimes, the art derives from how the story is revamped, retold and expressed – but the ending is sacrosanct and must always be delivered in its purest, untrammelled form…

Developing out of the far older Karukuchi and Kobanashi shows, Rakugo first appeared as a discrete performance style accessible to the lower classes around 1780 during the Edo Period, establishing itself as a popular entertainment which still thrives today, regarded as a type of intimate comedy drama act in Vaudeville theatres.

As with all Japanese art-forms and disciplines Rakuga is highly structured, strictured and codified, with many off-shoots and sub-genres abounding, but basically it’s a one-man show where a storyteller (Rakugoka or Hanashika) relates a broad and widely embellished tale of Old Japan, acting all the parts from a sitting position, with only a paper fan (Sensu) and hand-cloth (Tenegui).

Equal parts humorous monologue, sitcom and stand-up act (or more accurately “kneel-down comedy”, since the Rakugoka never rises from the formal Seiza position) the crucial element is always the delivery of the traditional ochi or punch-line; inviolate, eagerly anticipated and already deeply ingrained in all audience members…

As is only fitting these tales are presented in the traditional back to front, right to left Japanese format with a copious section of notes and commentary, plus an ‘Afterword’ from Mr. Tatsumi, and I’d be doing potential readers an immense disservice by being too detailed in my plot descriptions, so I’ll be both brief and vague from now on…

‘The Innkeeper’s Fortune’ relates the salutary events following the arrival of an immensely rich man at a lowly hostel, and what happens after, against his express desires, he wins a paltry 1000 ryo in a lottery whilst the ‘New Year Festival’ only serves to remind one reluctant father what a noisome burden his rowdy ungrateful son is…

An itinerant young artist can’t pay his inn bill and, as a promissory note, paints a screen with birds so lifelike they fly off the paper every morning. The populace are willing to pay good money to see the daily ‘Escape of the Sparrows’, more than the bill ever came to. And then one day another far more experienced artist wishes to see the screen…

When a dutiful merchant succumbs to the temptations of his trade and engages a mistress she soon consumes all his attention, leading to his neglected wife trying to kill the home-wrecker with sorcery. Soon both women are dead and the merchant is plagued by their ‘Fiery Spirits’, whilst ‘Making the Rounds’ details one night in a brothel where four clients are becoming increasingly impatient and incensed by the non-appearance of the woman they’ve already paid for…

‘The Rooster Crows’ details the fate of a proud and puritanical young man tricked into visiting a brothel by his friends whilst a poor and untrained man becomes an infallible doctor after entering into a bargain with ‘The God of Death’ and this superb book of fables concludes with the sorry story of a lazy fishmonger who loved to drink, but whose life changed when he found a wallet full of money whilst fishing on ‘Shibahama’ beach

– or was it just a dream?

With these “Eight Moral Comedies” Tatsumi has succeeded – at least to my naive Western eyes – in translating an phenomenon where the plot is so familiar as to be an inconvenience but where an individual performance on the night is paramount into a beguiling, charming and yes, funny paean to a uniquely egalitarian entertainment, proving himself to be a true and responsible guardian of Japanese culture, ancient or modern …

Art and stories © 2009, 2012 Yoshihiro Tatsumi. This edition © 2012 Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Johnny Hazard: Mammoth Marches On

By Frank Robbins (Pacific Comics Publications)

Johnny Hazard was a newspaper strip created in answer to and in the style and manner of Terry and the Pirates, but in many ways the steely-eyed hero most resembles – and indeed presages – Milton Caniff’s second magnum opus Steve Canyon.

Unbelievably, until last year this stunningly impressive and enthralling adventure strip has never been comprehensively collected in graphic novels – at least in English – although selected highlights had appeared in nostalgia magazines such as Pioneer Comics and Dragon Lady Press Presents.

However, sporadic compendiums of the full-colour Sunday pages have popped up over the years, such as this glorious and huge (340 x 245mm) landscape tabloid produced by re-translating a collected Italian edition back into English, courtesy of the Pacific Comic Club.

Frank Robbins was a brilliant all-around cartoonist whose unique artistic and lettering style lent themselves equally to adventure, comedy and superhero tales and his stunning cunning storytellers mind made him one of the best writers of three generations of comics.

He first came to fame in 1939 when he took over the Scorchy Smith newspaper strip from the legendary Noel Sickles and created a Sunday page for the feature in 1940. He was offered the prominent Secret Agent X-9 but instead created his own lantern jawed, steely-eyed man of action. A tireless and prolific worker, even whilst producing a daily and Sunday Hazard (usually a separate storyline for each) Robbins freelanced as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life and a host of other mainstream magazines.

In the 1960s and 1970s he moved into comicbooks, becoming a key contributor to Batman, Batgirl, Detective Comics (where he created Man-Bat with Neal Adams), The Shadow and DC’s mystery anthologies before settling in as an artist at Marvel on a variety of titles including Captain America, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Morbius, Human Fly, Man from Atlantis, Power Man and The Invaders, which he co-created with Roy Thomas.

When the strip launched on Monday June 5th 1944, Johnny Hazard was an aviator, in the United States Army Air Corps and when hostilities ceased became for a while a freelance charter pilot and secret agent before settling into the bombastic life of a globe-girdling troubleshooter, mystery-solver and modern day Knight Errant babe-magnet.

The strip ended in 1977: another victim of diminishing panel-sizes and the move towards simplified, thrill-free, family-friendly gag-a-day graphic fodder to wrap around small-ads.

With the release at long last of a dedicated collection of the black and white Daily strips, I thought I’d spotlight a few of those fabulous landscape tomes which kept Johnny Hazard alive in fans hearts during years after it ceased publication beginning with the thoroughly captivating Mammoth Marches On and subsequent sequences which first appeared in American Sunday Supplements between January 27th 1952 to April 12th 1953.

In the steaming jungle heat of French Indo-China the pilot is transporting famed Movie Director Grippman of Mammoth Studios, and his star attraction Cerise to the heart of the rain forest on a location-shoot is stricken with malaria. Forced to land at a Military field they make the fortuitous acquaintance of our hero and his friends Brandy and Blitz Martin; all currently without a plane of their own…

Also in tow are an entire film crew, assorted extras and a baby Elephant, all destined for a distant abandoned temple and village of unsuspecting natives. Short of cash and with nothing to do, Johnny lets himself be talked into taking the pilot’s place whilst wandering journalist Brandy agrees to act as the haughty Cerise’s stand-in and body double… to limit the star’s exposure to sun, insects and peasants…

Amidst all the drama and passion such events always generate, Johnny warily keeps aloof. The big scene involves an ancient idol for which Grippman has brought a fist-sized hunk of glass to replace the legendary lost diamond eye it boasted until white explorers first appeared a century ago…

When Cerise makes a play for Hazard and is rebuffed she storms into the temple and falls into a secret chamber, finding the genuine lost sparkler. In a fit of greedy pique she replaces the fake with the real thing…

The trained baby elephant Mammoth has seen it all and Cerise determines to get rid of the four-footed witness in an increasing dangerous series of arranged accidents…

Things come to head when the monsoon hits early and disaster strikes for the greedy starlet…

The strip then effortlessly segues into blistering criminal action with ‘The Hunted’ as Johnny ferries the film crew on to Tokyo where old pal Blitz buys a souvenir samurai sword from a street vendor. Of course nobody realised that the katana was a thousand year old relic most recently owned by Baron Takana: a big shot in the recent war and a fugitive war criminal ever since.

When the sword is stolen and a venerated historical expert murdered, suspicion rests equally on the elusive Takana and Hazard’s sexy femme fatale foe Baroness Flame, but as the hunt continues the drama escalates into full-blown crisis when the fugitive Baron is cornered and threatens to detonate a stolen atomic weapon…

The fabulous frantic fun and thrills conclude with ‘Scavengers’ as Johnny is asked by his old boss Lisbeth Manning to investigate a series of mysterious plane crashes and cargo thefts. With typical savvy Hazard deduces the method and tracks the gang of highly sophisticated bandits to a deadly confrontation in the jungles between Vietnam and Cambodia, before this stunning old-fashioned romp ends with the thieves in custody and the tantalising opening pages of the next mind-boggling yarn ‘Ceiling Zero-Minus’.

To be continued…

These exotic action romances perfectly capture the mood and magic of a distant but so incredibly familiar time; with cool heroes, hot dames and very wicked villains decorating captivating locales and stunning scenarios, all peppered with blistering tension, mature humour and visceral excitement.

Johnny Hazard is a brilliant two-fisted thriller strip and even if you can’t easily locate these fantastic full-colour chronicles, at least the prospect of an eventual new Sunday strip collection is a little closer at last…
© 1952-1953 King Features Syndicate. © 1979 Pacific C.C.

Zorro in Old California

By Nedaud & Carlo Marcello (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-89172-920-1 hardcover,   978-0-91303-512-2 paperback

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world is perennial film favourite “El Zorro, The Fox”, originally created by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 in a five part serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ and debuting in All-Story Weekly from August 6th to 6th September. The tale was subsequently published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co. and Tor respectively.

Famously Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ in All-Story Weekly on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the adventure to be the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro was a global movie sensation in 1920 and for years after, and New York based McCulley re-tailored his creation to match the extremely different filmic incarnation. The Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be people by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Spider.

Rouben Mamoulian’s filmic remake of The Mark of Zorro further ingrained the Fox into the World’s psyche, and as the prose exploits continued in a variety of publications Dell began a comicbook version in 1949. When Walt Disney began a hugely popular Zorro TV show in 1957 the comics series was redesigned to capitalise on it and the entertainment corporation began a decades-long strip incarnation of “their” version of the character in various areas of the world. This classy tome collects half of the dozen stories produced for a French iteration which originally ran in Le Journal de Mickey, by veteran Italian artist Raphaël Carlo Marcello and relative enigma Nedaud, of whom I sadly know very little.

The celebrated and supremely stylish Marcello (1929-2007) moved to Paris in 1948 and began his long and prestigious career drawing Loana et le Masque Chinois in Aventures de Paris-Jeunes and Nick Silver for Collection Victoire before switching to newspaper strips for Opera Mundi in 1950, illustrating La Découverte du Monde and L’Histoire de Paris before adapting Ben Hur, Jane Eyre and the Bible.

In 1952, he joined Héroic, working on Oliver Twist, Gil Blas and Bug Jargal, then began a 15-year run on Le Cavalier Inconnu (1955-1970) in Pépito. His maintained ties to newspapers throughout and continued general interest literary adaptations for Mondial-Presse.

In 1956, he contributed Bob Franck to Bugs Bunny magazine and numerous strips to Lisette, Monty, Mireille, L’Intrépide/Hurrah and Rintintin. He moved to Pif Gadget in 1970, collaborating on his signature series Docteur Justice with prolific scenarist/writer Jean Ollivier as well as Amicalement Vôtre (a TV adaptation scripted Spanish by the legendary Victor Mora), Taranis (scripts by Ollivier & Mora), Tarao (by Roger Lécureux) and La Guerre du Feu.

Never stopping for breath Marcello illustrated John Parade, Patrouilleur de l’Espace, in Le Journal des Pieds Nickelés, the Larousse series L’Histoire de France en Bandes Dessinées, La Découverte du Mond and L’Histoire du Far West until 1985 when he joined Le Journal de Mickey to create Le Regard du Tigre, Le Club des Cinq and the subject of this collection.

Solidly based on the 1950s TV series Zorro ran for a year (1985-1986): 12 stirring fast-paced, swashbuckling romps, the first half of which are collected in this slim, full colour European-format album. After these thundering epics Marcello carried on improving, drawing sci fi extravaganza Cristal, epigrammatic short stories Voulez-vous de Nos Nouvelles?, Michael Jackson, Wayne Thunder, L’Épopée du Paris Saint-Germain and mature-reader series Nuit Barbare and Amok. In 1991 he returned to his hometown of Vintimille where he ended his days drawing episodes of iconic Italian series’ Tex and Zagor for Il Giornalino and Bonelli publishing.

Don Diego de la Vega is the foppish son of a noble house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession, who used the masked persona of Zorro the Fox to right wrongs, defend the weak and oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – and thwart the schemes of Capitan Monastario, his bumbling sergeant Garcia and the despicable Governor determined to milk the populace for all they had. In his crusade Diego was aided by Bernardo (the deaf-mute manservant retained for the assorted TV and movies) and the good-will of the oppressed and overtaxed people of Los Angeles.

Whenever Zorro appeared he left his mark – a bold letter “Z” – carved into walls, doors, curtains, but never, ever faces…

Written for an all-ages audience these stories, each around ten pages long, play out an exotic eternal, riotous game of tag, beginning with ‘Wanted!’ as a huge reward galvanises the town to hunt the Fox, until Zorro turns the tables by capturing the Capitan and ransoming him back, thereby emptying the military coffers…

Next, in ‘The Assassins’ bandits posing as patriotic rebels capture the masked hero as part of their plan to murder the Governor and loot the ever-growing township, whilst ‘Double Agent’ sees Monastario blackmail a girl into betraying the wily avenger, but again misjudges Zorro’s ability to connect with the downtrodden Californians…

‘The Scarecrow’ finds the hero thwart a plot to discredit the reputation of Zorro when the unscrupulous Capitan employs a murderous masked impostor, after which ‘Tight as a Noose’ sees Monastario arrest Diego’s father Don Alejandro for treason to entrap the mysterious vigilante, and this rip-roaring rollercoaster ride concludes with ‘The Winds of Rebellion’ as the latest illegal tax rouses the town council against the Capitan and Zorro gets involved to prevent bloodshed…

Full-bodied, all-action and beautifully realised these classy adventures of a global icon are long overdue for a comprehensive and complete re-release, but until then at least this terrific tome is still readily available in both hardback and softcover through many online retailers.
® and © 1986 Zorro Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Zorro – the Masters Edition volume 1

By Johnston McCulley (Pulp Adventures Inc.)
ISBN: 978-1-89172-920-1

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world is perennial film favourite “El Zorro, The Fox”, originally created by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 in a five part serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ and launched in prose magazine All-Story Weekly beginning in with the August 6th edition and concluding with 6th September).

The tale was subsequently collected as a novella and published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co. and Tor respectively.

Famously Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ in All-Story Weekly whilst on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the rights for the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro movie was a global sensation in 1920 and for years after, so a second prose serial was understandably commissioned from McCulley. ‘The Further Adventures of Zorro’ ran in All-Story Weekly from May 6th to June 10th 1922, but the magic thunderbolt didn’t strike twice and the Swashbuckling Señor wasn’t seen again until revived in the 1930’s pulps as part of a boom in extraordinary, more-than-merely-mortal adventures.

New York based McCulley was clearly no fool and had re-tailored his creation to match the extremely different filmic incarnation, making Zorro more a prototypical superhero than the broad Scarlet Pimpernel knock-off he had begun as (although many fictive historians prefer the idea that the character was based on real-life bandit Joaquin Murrieta, the “Mexican/Chilean Robin Hood”, whose life was fictionalized by John Rollin Ridge in 1854), so the Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be peopled by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Spider.

Weekly Argosy Magazine featured the four-chapter serial ‘Zorro Rides Again’ from October 3rd – 24th 1931 and a year later began a succession of complete novellas which ran between 1932 and 1935 and these are all reprinted in this glorious, album-sized volume.

McCulley produced a further chapter-novel ‘The Sign of Zorro’ for Argosy in 1941 (following the 1940 Rouben Mamoulian movie The Mark of Zorro) before switching to the monthly West Magazine in 1944. The first two of the 52 short stories produced between then and 1951 are also included, closing out this initial collection.

The author wrote two further stories ‘Zorro Rides the Trail’ for the May 1954 Max Brand Western Magazine and another, different version of ‘The Mark of Zorro’ which was published in Short Story Magazine in April 1959, the year after McCulley’s death and just as Disney’s epochal Zorro TV show was ending its three year run..

This wonderful monochrome celebration opens with an introduction from Don McGregor, who scripted comicbooks and a newspaper strip about the character, after which the stirring prose exploits begin…

For the uninitiated: Don Diego de la Vega was the foppish son of a grand house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession, who used the masked persona of Señor Zorro (the Fox) to right wrongs, defend the weak and oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – and thwart the schemes of a succession of military leaders and the colonial Governor determined to milk the populace for all they had.

Whenever Zorro struck he left his mark – a letter “Z” carved into walls, doors, faces…

By the time of ‘Zorro Saves a Friend’ (Argosy November 12th 1932) he had become simply Don Diego Vega, and had a whole support structure in place. His stiff-necked Hildalgo father knew his secret, as did his two assistants Bernardo (the deaf-mute manservant retained for the assorted TV and movies) and Jose of the Cocopahs – a native chief who often acted as stableman, decoy and body-double for the Masked Avenger. Diego also employed a retired, reformed one-eyed pirate named Bardoso to act as his spy amongst townsfolk and outlaws…

It is the pirate who warns the seemingly effete nobleman that his young comrade Don Carlos Cassara, amongst others, has been especially targeted by military overseer Capitán Torello. That cunning strategist had hired a professional gambler and card-sharp to ruin the wealthy grandees who constantly resist the Governor’s political schemes, intending to humiliate or even cause the suicide of a generation of rich men…

Forewarned, The Fox took action as only he could…

‘Zorro Hunts a Jackal’ first appeared in April 1933, and detailed in stirring fashion how Torello hires a horse-breaker to abuse and cheat the natives in a plot to draw out Zorro and expose him as Don Diego. However, the mercenary has a darker secret of his own, but all his machinations are as nothing against the wiles of The Fox…

New Army chief Marcos Lopez was an even more cunning opponent. In ‘Zorro Deals With Treason’ (August 1934) the Capitán employed an impostor Zorro to foment rebellion among the Indians, but was soon made painfully aware of the regard and trust they placed in the genuine masked marvel…

The lengthy novelette which follows was first published in two parts in the Argosy issues for September 21st and 28th 1935, and is here presented as an interrupted saga of grand romance and spectacular action as Don Diego and Bernardo travelled to distant San Diego de Alcála to escort his father’s greatest friend, his entire wealth and his beautiful daughter Carmelita to a new life in Reina de Los Angeles.

Major headaches along the way include astute new military commander Capitán Carlos Gonzales, assorted bandits, murderous rogues Pedro Pico and Valentino Vargas and an enigmatic mastermind building a criminals’ army known only as the ‘Mysterious Don Miguel’

The last two tales come from West Magazine: a brace of short stories from July and September 1944. The first ‘Zorro Draws His Blade’ finds Don Diego contacted by the Friars of the local Mission – who also aware of his other identity – to clear the name and save the life of a peasant who has been framed for murdering a landowner. Of course the task is accomplished with cunning and devastating panache before the adventure concludes with ‘Zorro Upsets a Plot’ as the dashing Night-rider is forced to clear his name and confound another military frame-up when a masked and cloaked figure boldly and conspicuously abducts a beautiful maiden…

These are classic Blood-and-Thunder tales chock-full of fights and midnight chases, with scurvy blackguards maimed or slaughtered according to their crimes and station in life and dastardly plots unravelled with great style.

The more observant will note that as the years went by the rate of wounding decreased whilst the body-count steadily rose: a sure sign of the changing times and one which was repeated decades later in the superhero comics this series is such a clear template for…

The volume also contains a complete checklist of the prose canon and is liberally sprinkled with spot illustrations and full-page plates by Joel F. Naprestek, Franklyn E. Hamilton, Glen Ostrander, Mark Bloodworth and Randy Zimmerman as well as all the (sadly unattributed) illustrations which accompanied the original incarnations, as well as the painted magazine covers of those issues.

This edition and its successors apparently retail for staggering prices, but since there’s only one Rights owner and the character is so unbelievably popular, surely there’s a publisher out there willing and able to produce decent new collectors editions of these timeless tales along the sturdy, standard B-format paperback lines of Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes or The Casebook of Sexton Blake?

I want more and surely there are hordes of others ready and eager to spend £s and $s for more “Z”s?
Zorro ® and © Zorro Productions. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2000 Pulp Adventures, Inc. All rights reserved.

Add Toner – a Cometbus Collection

By Aaron Cometbus (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-753-2

Before the advent of computers and the internet gave everybody with a keyboard and an ounce of determination the ability to become writers and publishers, only those truly dedicated, driven or Full-On Compulsive individualists self-published.

…Or those with something to say.

Aaron Cometbus (not his real name: use your search engine if you absolutely must find out about the man, but the best route would be to read his wonderful work) has been a drummer, roadie, author, designer, traveller, raconteur, social historian, bookseller and cultural anthropologist of the American Punk movement from long before he began his hugely acclaimed and long-running ‘Zine Cometbus in 1981.

In the decades over which his hand-crafted publication has been released (as photocopy pamphlet, offset magazine and even audio-mag) his writing and art have covered every aspect of the life of the contemporary outsider from self-exploratory introspection, reportage, criticism, oral history, music journalism, philosophical discourse and even unalloyed fiction – from epigram to novella, news bulletin to chatty remembrance – usually in a distinctive hand-lettered style all his own, augmented by cartoons, photo-collage, comics and a dozen other monochrome techniques beloved of today’s art-house cognoscenti.

Cometbus tells stories and has been doing so since the first death of the Punk Rock movement at the end of the 1970s, but the material is and always has been about real, involved people, not trendy, commercialised bastardisations.

In 2002 Last Gasp released Despite Everything, a 600+ page Omnibus distillation of the best bits from the first 43 issues (and still available) and now, with the publication of Cometbus #54,a second compilation has been released.

Add Toner, which samples issues #44-46, 46½, and 47-48 is a far more comprehensive collection with stories, reminiscences, interviews, artworks and added features such as the novella ‘Lanky’ and a selection of previously withheld and self-censored pieces which simply captivate and enthral.

Particularly informative and moving for me are the collected illustrated interviews with the “staff” and patrons of punk watering hole and communal meeting space Dead End Café from #46 (gloriously redolent and evocative of my own art-school punk band hang-out The Horn of Plenty in St. Albans) and a fabulous three-chapter oral history examination of the post-hippie “Back to nature” movement divided into interviews with ‘The Kids’, ‘The Adults’ and an appreciation of ‘Back to the Land’: a fascinating period in American history neglected by just about everybody, probably since most of those flower-power Arcadians and disenchanted just-plain-folks grew more pot than potatoes…

With graphic contributions and supplementary interviews from Phil Lollar, Nate Powell, Katie Glicksberg, Idon, Lawrence Livermore & Michael Silverberg, this is a gloriously honest and seditiously entertaining view of life from the trenches: happy, sad, funny and shocking…

Eccentric, eclectic and essentially, magically picayune, Add Toner is a fabulous cultural doctorate from the Kerouac of m-m-my generation…

© Aaron Cometbus. All rights reserved.

The Sky Over the Louvre

By Bernar Yslaire & Jean-Claude Carrière, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM ComicsLit/Louvre: Musée du Louvre Éditions)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-602-0

A few years ago the prestigious Louvre gallery in Paris began an intriguing and extremely rewarding collaboration with the world of comics, and their latest beguiling translated bande dessinée is now available in English courtesy of those fine folks at NBM.

The Sky Over the Louvre is a lush and beautiful, oversized hardback graphic novel which explores the very origins and philosophical underpinnings of France’s national art collection whilst peeling back the motivations and ambitions of the twisted visionaries who steered – or perhaps simply rode – the human wave of Chaos deemed “the Terror” of the French Revolution… catalyst for the gallery’s very existence.

As always, these tales are produced in close collaboration with the forward-looking authorities of the Musée du Louvre, but this is no gosh-wow, “Night-at-the-Museum”, thinly-concealed catalogue of contents from a stuffy edifice of public culture. Rather, here is a gripping, intense, informative and insightful glimpse into the price of art as engine of change and agent of obsession.

Jean-Claude Carrière was born in 1931, studied at the École normale supérieure de Saint-Cloud and wrote a novel before becoming an actor and one of France’s greatest screenwriters. He worked with Luis Buñuel for 19 years, scripting such classics as Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire and many more.

Other notable credits include working with directors such as Milos Forman, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima and others on iconic films like The Tin Drum, Danton, The Return of Martin Guerre, Max, Mon Amour and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although three generations of British television viewers will probably revere him most for his adaptation of the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (starring Robert Hoffmann and featuring that iconic theme-tune) which ran on BBC1 at tea time from 1965 to about twenty minutes ago….

Belgian artist Bernar Yslaire (Bernard Hislaire) began his career in 1978 drawing kiddie’s strip ‘Bidouille et Violette’ for Spirou before creating the historical epic ‘Sambre’ in 1986 (still going strong) and was one of the first creators to fully embrace the potential of the internet with his online strip ‘Memories of the XXth Sky’. In 2006 he produced the moving doomed romance ‘Sky over Brussells’.

The Sky Over the Louvre compellingly blends history and drama by focussing on the revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David and close associate Maximilien de Robespierre (who called himself “The Incorruptible”) as they planned how to replace religion, monarchy and the Old Art with something unique and truly worthy of their revolution. David and his School (Drouais, Greueze, Girodet and students Serangeli and Gérard) have taken residence in the old Louvre Palace where past kings left their grandiose aggregation of treasures when they vacated Paris for Versailles. Here the Revolutionary council aspires to create a new aesthetic and new thought for their New Society…

Jules Stern is a 13-year old wanderer from the Black Sea, roaming the dangerous streets of Paris seeking his mother and claiming to have an appointment with David. On the 15th Fructidor, Year 1 (8th August 1793 for those of us not wedded to the Republic’s new calendar) the angelic lad confronts the artist whilst he inaugurates the Louvre as the first Museum of the Nation, dedicated to public ownership of art and the notion of beauty as a revolutionary ideal. Later they meet again and Robespierre forms a hostile opinion of the child, although David is clearly fascinated by the headstrong, beautiful boy…

As the high-minded idealism of the Revolution’s early days dissolves into factional in-fighting Robespierre and David become increasingly concerned with the spiritual and aesthetic, determined to excise and replace every vestige of the old regime and society. They seek images and concepts to embody their cause and plan a festival to the concept of Reason but across France backsliding and foreign invasion threaten their progress. In September 1793 the Convention (ruling body and parliament of the Republic) decrees “Terror to be the order of the Day”…

Blood, betrayal and horror rule the streets as David, from his apartments in the Louvre, begins work on a brace of pivotal works: The Supreme Being and The Death of Joseph Bara. It is difficult to assess which caused him the most grief and triggered his ultimate downfall…

The Incorruptible is becoming more arrogant and ruthless, desperate for revolutionary images that will fire and inspire the masses. He presses David to produce the ultimate physical representation of the conceptual spirit of the New France – a Supreme Being – but as time goes by and no image emerges, one too many people are whispering that what Robespierre actually requires is a portrait of himself…

Far less troublesome should be The Death of Joseph Bara; a boy who became the first martyr of the Revolution and one scheduled to become the nation’s uniting icon. However, David’s obsession with Jules Stern brings more trouble when Robespierre objects to the boy being selected as the model for Bara the Myth…

Nobody baulks The Incorruptible for long, but the obsessive nature of the creative impulse is insurmountable and eventually Robespierre can only achieve his ends by sending Jules to the guillotine. Incredibly, not even death separated the artist from his model…

Set solidly in the very heart of a moment of epochal historical importance, this is a stunning and utterly compulsive tale of humanity at its wildest extremes when grand ideals wedded themselves to the basest on bestial impulses, yet from that Yslaire and Carrière have crafted a magnificently realised tale laced with staggering detail and addictive emotion.

With extra features including biographies and a listing of the actual artwork woven seamlessly into the narrative, this is a truly magical book that no aficionado of the medium can afford to miss…

© 2009 Futuropolis/Musée du Louvre Éditions. © 2011 NBM for the English translation by Joe Johnson. All rights reserved.

“21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente

By Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-892-3

I’m not a big fan of American Sports, favouring the ease and simplicity of our own gentle pastimes such as Rugby and, of course, Cricket, but I am a complete sucker for history and particularly graphic biographies – especially when they are as innovative and imaginative as this superbly passionate and evocative account of the life of a groundbreaking sports star, quietly philanthropic humanitarian and culture-changing champion of ethnic equality.

Roberto Clemente Walker was born in Puerto Rico on August 18th 1934, one of seven kids in a devoutly Catholic family. Baseball and, latterly, his wife Vera and three kids were his entire life. He played for a Puerto Rican team until the Brooklyn Dodgers head-hunted him.

At that time racial restrictions were dominant in the American game so he actually only played against white people in the Canadian League for the Montreal Royals. In 1954 he finally got into the American game when he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates – a working relationship that lasted until his tragic death in a plane crash in December 1972.

During those tempestuous 18 years Clemente broke down many social barriers and became a sporting legend: the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter, the first Latino to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and winner of a dozen Gold Glove Awards. An all round player, he scored 3000 hits and achieved many other notable career highlights.

He worked passionately for humanitarian causes in Latin America, believed every child should have free and open access to sports and died delivering earthquake relief to Nicaragua after the devastating tremor of December 23rd 1972.

He body was never recovered and he was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, again the first Hispanic to receive the honour and the only contemporary player ever to have the five year waiting period waived.

He is a national icon in Puerto Rico and one of the leading figures in the movement to desegregate American sports

Rather than a dry accounting of his life, author Wilfred Santiago’s tale skips forward and back, illustrated in a studied and fiercely expressionistic melange of styles which sketch in tone and mood, and feel the life of a true frontrunner and a very human hero.

With its message of success and glory in the face of poverty and discrimination “21” is delightfully reminiscent of James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing but its entrancing, vibrant visual style is uniquely flavoured with the heat of the tropics and the pride of the people Clemente loved.

Lusciously realised in sumptuous earth-tones and powerfully redolent of the spirit of Unjust Times A-Changin’, this is a fabulous book for every fan of the medium and not simply lads and sports-fans…

Art and text © 2011Wilfred Santiago. All rights reserved.

You’ll Never Know Book 2: Collateral Damage

By C. Tyler (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-418-4

In 2009 cartoonist Carol Tyler published the first of a proposed trilogy of graphic memoirs that examined the difficult relationship with her father Chuck, a veteran of World War II. ‘A Good and Decent Man’ explored three generations of the family dominated by a capable mother and a hard working, oddly cold yet volatile, taciturn patriarch. Events kicked off when after six decades of silence incipient frailty suddenly produced in her once-distant father a terrifying openness and desire to share war experiences and history long suppressed.

As if suddenly speaking for an entire generation who fought and died or survived and soldiered on as civilians in a society with no conception of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, Chuck Tyler began to unburden his soul…

This second volume takes up the acclaimed and award-winning generational saga with Carol coping with her own husband’s desertion, leading to her resuming recording her dad’s recollections of Italy and France (including the infamous Battle of the Bulge) whilst re-examining the painful, chaotic and self-destructive existence she made for herself due to his hidden demons.

Now a single mother, Carol ponders her tempestuous past through a new lens. How much did her cold and terrifying father who was nevertheless a devoted, loving husband shape her mistakes? How can she prevent her increasingly wild daughter making the same mistakes and bad choices? Moreover, as her parents’ physical and mental states deteriorate, Chuck has become obsessed by a mystery that been forgotten since he came back from the conflict and needs Carol to solve it at all costs…

With an increasingly critical reappraisal of the family’s shared experiences, Carol discovers how her own mother coped with dark tragedies and suppressed secrets (revealed in ‘The Hannah Story’ – an updated sidebar first published in 1994), gaining an enhanced perspective but still no satisfactory answers to the conundrum of her father.

As she races to complete the self-appointed task of turning her father’s life into a comprehensible chronicle her parents are both declining visibly and her own life is becoming far too complex to ignore or withstand…

Delivered in monochrome and a selection of muted paint wash and crayon effects, the compellingly inviting blend of cartoon styles (reminiscent of our own Posy Simmonds but with a gleeful openness all her own) captures heartbreak, horror, humour, angst and tragedy in a beguiling, seductive manner which is simultaneously charming and devastatingly effective, whilst the book and narrative itself is constructed like a photo album depicting the eternal question “How and Why Do Families Work?”

Enticing, disturbing and genuinely moving, ‘Collateral Damage’ is a powerful and affecting second stage in Tyler’s triptych of discovery and one no student of the human condition will care to miss.

© 1994, 2010 C. Tyler. All rights reserved.

Vlad the Impaler: the Man Who Was Dracula (paperback edition)

By Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colón (Plume/Penguin Group USA)
ISBN: 978-0-452-29675-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 8/10: Perfect spin on the seasonal traditional terror tales

Here’s a handy “heads-up” Horrible History hint if you’re looking for an ideal Christmas gift for your horrors at home: an economical softcover edition of one of the best graphic biographies of 2009 unleashed just in time to read in front of the Yule Log.

As writer and editor, Sid Jacobson masterminded the Harvey Comics monopoly of strips for younger American readers in the 1960s and 1970s, co-creating Richie Rich and Wendy, the Good Little Witch among others, before working the same magic for Marvel’s Star Comics imprint, where he oversaw a vast amount of family-friendly material; both self created – such as Royal Roy or the superb Planet Terry – and a huge basket of licensed properties.

In latter years he has worked closely with fellow Harvey alumnus Ernie Colón on such thought-provoking graphic enterprises as The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation (2006) and its 2008 sequel, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror. In 2009 their epic Che: a Graphic Biography was released: separating the man from the myth of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, universal icon of cool rebellion.

Ernie Colón was born in Puerto Rico in 1931: a creator whose work has been loved by generations of readers. Whether as artist, writer, colourist or editor his contributions have benefited the entire industry from the youngest (Monster in My Pocket, Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost for Harvey Comics, and many similar projects for Marvel’s Star Comics), to the traditional comicbook fans with Battlestar Galactica, Damage Control and Doom 2099 for Marvel, Arak, Son of Thunder and Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, the Airboy revival for Eclipse, Magnus: Robot Fighter for Valiant and so very many others.

There are also his sophisticated experimental works such as indie thriller Manimal, and his seminal genre graphic novels Ax and the Medusa Chain. Since 2005 he’s been hard at work on the strip SpyCat for Weekly World News.

Jacobson and Colón together are a comics fan’s dream come true and their bold choice of biography and reportage as well as their unique take on characters and events always pays great dividends. Vlad the Impaler is by far their most captivating project to date: a fictionalised account of the notorious Wallachian prince who was raised by his enemies as a literal hostage to fortune, only to reconquer and lose his country not once, but many times.

The roistering, bloody, brutal life of this Romanian national hero and basis of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, is a fascinating, baroque, darkly funny yarn, capturing a troubled soul’s battle with himself as much as the Muslim and Christian superpowers that treated his tiny principality as their plaything.

With startling amounts of sex and violence this book makes no excuses for a patriot and freedom fighter who was driven by his horrific bloodlust and (justifiable?) paranoia to become a complete beast: clearly the very worst of all possible monsters – a human one.

Sharp, witty, robust and engaging, with a quirky twist in the tale, this is a good old-fashioned shocker that any history-loving gore-fiend will adore.

Text © 2009 Sid Jacobson. Art © 2009 Ernie Colón. All rights reserved.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon volumes 1 & 2

By Wang Du Lu, adapted by Andy Seto (ComicsOne Corp.)
ISBN’s: 978-1-58899-999-3 and 978-1-58899-175-1

Hong Kong comics are beautiful. They’re produced using an intensive studio art-system under the aegis of a master storyteller acting like a tactician and commanding general; which means any individual page might be composed of numerous graphic styles and techniques: literally anything that will get the job done.

And that job is to enhance not nuances of plot but rather details of the dynamic action and poetic mysticism/philosophy of Kung Fu that my western sensibilities just aren’t attuned to. They are astounding to look at, but I don’t expect them to make much sense.

However in this series, adapting an earlier part of the epic tale (a mere part of which inspired the phenomenal Ang Lee movie) the non-stop kinetic hurly burly is nicely tempered by a more universal narrative form that shouldn’t deter even the most hidebound Gwailo like me.

The original saga forms a sequence of five “Wuxia” novels by author Wang Du Lu known as the Crane-Iron Pentalogy which Andy Seto adapted into a twelve volume series of graphic novels. Wuxia is generally translated as “martial arts literature” with Xia denoting “honorable” or “chivalrous” and wu “soldier”, “warrior” or “military.” The film mostly worked from the fourth novel, so this interpretation could be construed as a prequel of sorts.

Chinese languages are hard to master because the tongue is filled with willful ambiguity. Almost pun-like, one translation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is “dangerous or talented individuals concealed from view” and the names of the lead characters are also coded symbols for their symbolic characteristics… Don’t let that deter you though, this is classical storytelling winningly wedded to non-stop crackerjack action, magnificently illustrated.

In the first volume masked thieves steal the mighty Green Destiny sword from the palace in Beijing despite the best efforts of master guard Yu Gan Cheung – called “Golden Spear”. Tasked with retrieving the invaluable blade Golden Spear prevaricates. His wife Jeng Ho has called him to help her finally avenge the slaying of her father…

Meanwhile in Hebei Province aged Master Grand Yu knows his prowess is failing, but is proud that his beautiful daughter Yu Shu Lien will soon be an even greater Kung Fu practitioner than he ever was. Whilst travelling to a festival the family is attacked by Jeng’s siblings the Ho brothers, determined to have vengeance for the death of their sire at Grand Yu’s hands.

Elderly and overmatched, Yu is saved by the fantastic fighting skills of his daughter, but the Ho clan are determined to destroy the old Master, if not with Kung Fu then by bribing the corrupt local judges…

Meanwhile Wudan disciple (if regular Shoalin Kung Fu concentrates on outer or corporeal strength Wudan teaches the harnessing of inner strength – Chi: nobody messes with Wudan Masters…) Li Mu Bai is looking for a wife and an emissary tells him of Grand Yu’s accomplished young daughter…

Travelling to Hebai Li challenges Shu Lien to a spectacular duel and finds her satisfactory, but although he would be welcome as a son-in-law Grand Yu has to decline the marriage offer as the girl is already betrothed to another. Decent and honorable Li Mu Bai decides to wander the world alone but the Ho brothers scurrilous plans to destroy the Yu clan draw him inexorably back to the girl he desires above all others…

Volume 2 finds Li following a gang of riders. His sensitive nature instantly knew they planned evil and his honorable spirit drove him to help whomever they wished to harm. Grand Yu’s family are being attacked again by the murderous Ho brothers and Shu Lien has her hands full battling the deadly Jeng Ho when Li arrives to turn the tide.. The combat abruptly ends when the local authorities arrest everybody.

Old Yu is severely drained by the conflict and fares badly under questioning. Moreover the corrupt officials seem to favour the bigger bribes of the Ho faction. Things look bleak for the Yu clan, and Li volunteers to bring more money but before he can leave the old Master passes away.

Although he desperately wants Shu Lien for himself Li promises to convey the girl and her mother to the arranged husband Master Yu picked for her, but when the party arrives more trouble awaits. Shu Lien is betrothed to Chou Mong, the son of a wealthy lord, but the bridegroom-to-be has gone missing. A troublesome son, he was always getting into shameful situations and has now vanished…

Honouring their obligation, the Mongs welcome Shu Lien and her mother into the household until the groom’s whereabouts can be established. The noble Li determines to find the wastrel and return him to his intended bride: the honour-bound but extremely reluctant Shu Lien…

Li’s search takes him to Biejing where the Wudan adept encounters and trounces a terrifying gang of bandits who are holding to ransom all roads into the city…

These digest-sized tomes pack a lot into their pages. As well as the lush and lovely, if panoramically rambling, tale and non-stop breathtaking fight scenes there are also enticing previews of other oriental epics, creator profiles, biographies, art and information pages on the character’s weapons, honorariums from the author’s widow and even Andy Seto’s diary.

Superhero fans might be amazed at the variety of powers a lifetime of knuckle push-ups and bowing can produce, but these tales are wedded to the concept of training and will creating miracles. They are, however, irresistibly exuberant, beautifully illustrated and endlessly compelling. If you’re an open-minded fan, you may find yourself carried away on an incredible tide of non-stop action, apparently shallow characterisation (at least to Western eyes – for the target market the pictures are everything: how a participant looks is his/her interior and exterior) and immense scope of this colossus of a tale.
© 2002, originated by Seto Kim Kiu. All Rights Reserved.