White Rapids


By Pascal Blanchet, translated by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-897299-24-1

A fascinating moment in recent social history is brought magically to life in this captivating and innovative graphic novel which eschews the traditional iconography and lexicography of sequential narrative, utilising the bold stylisations of art deco design and the gloriously folksy imagery of 1950s Modernism (think the architecture and landscape of the television Poirot and the movie “Metropolis” wedded to the crinkly curlicue characters populating the titles sequences of Bewitched or “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”).

The effect is like looking at a period brochure, which tragically underscores the bold and far too typical story of a town which lived and died at the behest of forces beyond the control of the everyday working stiffs who lived there. The design tour de force is the first translated work of Québécoise creator Pascal Blanchet who transformed the history from dry fact into a magnificent torrent of visual music.

In the 1920s Canada’s growing power demands were supplied by private companies and the most efficient generation method was hydroelectric, created by damming the mighty rivers of the country. In 1928 the Shawinigan Water & Power Company decided to build a new dam in a remote northern region of the St. Maurice River at Rapide Blanc, a section where the waters narrowed into the eponymous fast-running white waters of the title.

To operate a power-plant in such an inaccessible – and for nearly half of each year actively hostile – region, a company town would need to be built for workers and their families. For any man to bring his family into such a wilderness it would have to be an impressive and wonderful town indeed…

Blanchet avoids the tempting option of personalising or dramatising the tale, preferring to let mood, impression, atmosphere and style describe the birth, brief life and sad, sudden death of White Rapids (no clues or answers from me – buy the book): a gleaming moment of Enlightened Capitalism actually doing the right and decent thing for the Proletarian Worker.

This is like no other Graphic Novel you’ve ever seen and is stunningly effective for that, rendered in reduced hues of orange, brown and grey, marvellously devoid of the heretofore presumed necessary clichés of narrative convention, avoiding the dynamic seductions of Protagonist/Antagonist and the avid fetishism of Vitruvian representational faces and forms that underpin all comics art no mater how avant-garde.

This is a beautiful work and deserves every award it’s ever won as well as your rapt attention.

© 2006, 2007 Pascal Blanchet. All Rights Reserved.

How to Commit Suicide in South Africa


By Sue Coe & Holly Metz (Knockabout/A Raw one-shot)
ISBN: 0-86166-0137

When the creative passions are aroused there is no more powerful medium of expression or tool of social change than graphic narrative. Whether it’s the swingeing pictorial satire of reformers such as Hogarth, the prose of Dickens, the publications of Mark Lemon and Henry Mayhew (founders of Punch) or the questing explorations of Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman the trenchant illustration wedded to the loaded word is an overwhelming Weapon of Mass Communication: cheap, universally accessible and capable of extrapolating terrifying conclusions from the scarcest of supplied data.

This perfect example comes from that period of rare world unanimity and applied social pressure which led to the fall of the vile Apartheid regime of South Africa and the literal liberation of millions of disenfranchised and terrorised citizens from their own government.

As part of a broad sweep of disgust and enraged global sensibilities ranging from stunning ridicule (such as e Tom Sharpe’s novels “Indecent Exposure” and “Riotous Assembly”) to such deeply moving audible cries of rage as Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” or Jerry Dammers/The Special A.K.A’s  “Free Nelson Mandela” and even Richard Attenborough’s momentous filmic exposé “Cry Freedom” the planet’s creative community lead a sustained assault on the monsters of Pretoria which eventually forced Western national governments to sever their commercial (and political, anti-Communist) ties to South Africa’s government.

Comic-books got into the act early and often, hopefully opening many young complacent eyes…

While I’m unsure of the exact and total effect of comic condemnation as opposed to legal sanctions and official reprimands, I am utterly certain that politicians listen to the people who vote them in and out, so the power to arouse Joe Public is one I completely appreciate and respect.

From that contentious time comes this stunningly savage graphic account of the day-to-day atrocities of the regime originally compiled and concocted for Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking magazine Raw. Journalist Holly Metz produces chilling, dryly factual accounts of the history in ‘Background’ subdivided into ‘Chronology’ and ‘Homelands’, moves on to recount the social situation of the oppressed majority in ‘84% of The Population’ examined as ‘Miners’, ‘Urban Workers and Unions’, ‘Rural Laborers and Domestics’, ‘Education Under Apartheid’, ‘Rape in Namibia’ and ‘Tsotsis’ (slang for “Criminals”), before moving on to recount with horrifying matter-of-factness the everyday working of ‘Detention and Repression’.

Divided into fully annotated and corroborated accounts of ‘Steve Biko’s Death’, ‘The Torture of Neil Aggett’ (the first white person to die in detention – officially at least), ‘Women Beaten, Tried and Tortured’, ‘Inside BOSS’ (Bureau of State Security) and ‘Deaths in Detention Since 1963’ the catalogue of iniquity concludes with ‘Free World’ a mortifying trawl through ‘The U.S. Connection’ and ‘Blue Chip Deals’ calling to account those governments and companies that upheld the regime and colluded in the suppression of Democracy in South Africa tacitly, overtly and covertly, often while officially decrying the actions of the white minority government. All the material throughout is fully accredited, annotated and supported by copious footnotes and bibliography.

Sue Coe steals the show and provides the emotional and pictorial stimulus with collages formed from found newspaper headlines, advertising material and photos, as well as her simply brutal assemblage of large cartoons and monochrome paintings: dark, moody and breathtakingly evocative. A tip of the hat should also go to the superlative design contributions of Francoise Mouly and Spiegelman himself.

The regime fell in 1994, when after years of gradual erosion and capitulation, the last white President Frederik Willem de Klerk called for the country’s first fully multi-national elections, before retiring to the sin-bin of history.

Even three decades later, re-reviewing this slim (44 card pages), huge (422x265mm) tome still evokes the white hot outrage and sense of injustice it was supposed to, and I sleep a little easier knowing that when the next moral atrocity occurs, somewhere, cartoonists and creators will be ready to employ the same weapons with hopefully as telling a result…
© 1983 Sue Coe and Holly Metz. All rights reserved.

300


By Frank Miller & Lynn Varley (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-402-7

Generally I reserve these graphic novel reviews for less successful affairs since I figure that most people have probably checked out something which has garnered as much press attention outside the comics industry as this chronicle has; but when I was joining my local library at the weekend this sturdy landscape-format hardback literally leapt off the shelf at me (almost killing the small child reaching stubby, stained fingers up to it). I took it as an omen from the gods to proceed.

Fear not, I didn’t steal it from that clumsy urchin either: his mother took one look at the thing and (ignoring the excessively graphic violence lovingly, almost poetically rendered by Miller and painted by Lynn Varley) dropped it like a burning brick when she saw that some of the warriors had no pants on.

Storming off to complain that the cartoon men had their willies out she left the tome in my bemused hands…

300 is not a history book.

This visually arresting drama retelling the Battle of Thermopylae is not a way to crib on your exams but rather a potent hymn to the ancient manly virtues of courage, honour, duty, patriotism and sacrifice, told mostly through the words and attitudes of an aging king (in the ancient world anyone who reached their fifth decade was truly remarkable) who decided that his code of conduct was more important than his life and even those of the men who loved and trusted him.

A picture book for adults, this fable is pared down to a rhythmic, economical asperity as austere as the legendary code of the Spartans it eulogises, with only the rich primal colours of passion – deep blues, blood reds, warm golds – to lift the spirits. The narrative is delivered in short choppy cadences that evoke the no-nonsense, terse lifestyle of the warrior king.

Originally released as a five issue miniseries, drawn as double page spreads for a truly epic scope, the five chapters Honor, Duty, Glory, Combat and Victory tell of the voracious Persian emperor Xerxes, whose armies were incomprehensibly vast and who determined to add the squabbling collection of states known as Greece to his dominions. It tells of the harsh, Darwinian life of Sparta and the unbending pride and courage of their king Leonidas.

In 480BC, unable to muster Sparta’s army to resist the Persian invasion due to the corrupt intervention of his own priests, Leonidas and 300 friends went “for a walk” to the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae, where with the dubious aid of a few thousand lesser Greeks they fought an incredible holding action until betrayed by one of their own. Finally surrounded, with no hope of escape, the Spartans all went to their gods with heads and spears held high, their example as much as their actions inspiring Greece to finally destroy the mad ambitions of Xerxes…

If you’ve seen the film based on this book, you still haven’t experienced the raw power and untrammeled tension of Miller’s original interpretation. Here there’s no padding: no perfumed council debates, no farewell lovemaking, no treacherous Dominic West (Theron to you) to dilute the polemical energy of the tale. The equation is pure simplicity: Homeland Endangered + Way Of Life Imperiled = Resistance At All Costs.

Now in its tenth printing – and still going strong – this is a book that perfectly displays everything comics can do that is unique to our art-form. If you still haven’t read 300, waste no more time: this tale was made for you…

© 1998, 1999, 2006 Frank Miller. All rights reserved.

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

By Lee Marrs & Bo Hampton (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-001-1 ISBN-13: 978-1-56389-007-9

During the 1950s, when superheroes were in a seemingly inescapable trough, comic book companies looked to different forms of leading men for their action heroes. In 1955 writer/editor Robert Kanigher created a traditional adventure comic entitled The Brave and the Bold that featured historical strips. The Golden Gladiator, illustrated by Russ Heath was set in the declining days of Rome, The Silent Knight fought injustice in post-Norman Britain, courtesy of Irv Novick, and the already-legendary Joe Kubert drew the adventures of a valiant young Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last strip appeared in all but one issue (#6), eventually taking over the entire comic, until the burgeoning superhero boom saw B&B become a try-out title with its twenty-fifth issue. Those fanciful, practically “Hollywoodish” Viking sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time and they’re long overdue for a definitive collection of their own, since the character of Jon has long been a fan favourite, intermittently returning in DC’s war titles and often guest-starring in such varied venues as Sgt. Rock and even Justice League of America.

This beautiful, vital and enchanting tale was released to very little fanfare in 1991, but remains a worthy sequel to those early strips. Scripter Lee Marrs took all the advances in our historical knowledge since the 1950s and blended them with the timeless basics of a Classical Edda to entrancing effect. Amidst a culture vibrantly brought to full life by her words and Bo Hampton’s awesome skill with a brush she has grasped a passionate but reserved old archetype and remade him as a fiery young hero of devastating charm, full of all the boisterous vigour of his mythic race, and confronted him with his worst nightmare.

In 10th century Scandinavia, Jon Rolloson, heir to Jarl Rollo of Gallund, is a perfect Northman’s son; fast, tough, fearless and irresistible to all the maids of the village. But the greatest horror of his sixteen years has finally come for him – an arranged marriage for political advantage. He must leave his home and the Viking life to wed a “Civilised” Princess. His joyous days are all done…

But Princess Asa of Hedeby is a young beauty every inch his match in vigour and vitality, and as composed and smart as he is coarse and oafish. Unfortunately, somebody is stealthily trying to thwart the match, even though Jon’s boorishness is enough to give both fathers cause to reconsider, and only the Viking Prince’s rash vow to recover a lost rune treasure and slay a fearsome dragon preserves the bargain. The wedding will proceed… Now all he has to do is find and kill Ansgar, the vilest of all Fire-Wyrms, and not die…

As well as being a superb writer Marrs is an underground cartoonist, animator and computer artist who has assisted Hal Foster on that other sword-wielding epic Prince Valiant, and her grasp of human character and especially comedy elevates this classic tale of romantic endeavour into a multi-faceted gem of captivating quality. Bo Hampton has created some of the best painted comics in the medium: This book is probably still the very best of them.

One of the most accomplished and enjoyable historical romances ever produced in comic form, Viking Glory deserves to be on every fan’s bookshelf. Let’s hope that it’s on DC’s shortlist for a swift re-release.

© 1991 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.

Los Tejanos

Los Tejanos

By Jack Jackson

(Fantagraphics Books)  No ISBN

Known as ‘Jaxon’ in his underground comix days, Jack Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas was seeping through into all his work even from those early days. Portions of Los Tejanos appeared as the comic books Recuerden el Alamo and Tejano Exile (published by Last Gasp) in the mid 1970s, which the author fleshed out for this early prototype of the Graphic Novel.

Drawn in a captivating, etching-like, cross-hatched style that simply screams ‘true story,’ Los Tejanos provides an absolute wealth of information, social texture and sheer entertainment. It tells the story of Juan Nepomuceno Seguin, a “Texian” of Mexican birth who sided with the rebels fighting for independence. Before becoming part of the United States of America, Texas was briefly a nation unto itself, having won its freedom from a Mexican empire that was bloated, corrupt and in decline. How Seguin turned his back on one culture, only to be eventually betrayed by the other during that period when Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures battled for hegemony in continental America seems to echo even now with relevance. That battle still isn’t over.

The eventual fate of Juan N Seguin makes for powerful reading, rich in fact, well-paced as narrative, and even delivering the occasional solid horse-laugh. But the true measure of a history book, and this most wonderful tome is certainly that, is how the material impacts on the contemporary. Here it also succeeds. The issues were germane in 1840, they were just as much so in 1982, and they still are now.

Why this epic isn’t required reading for every US history or sociology course I’ll never understand.

©1982 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Havoc in Heaven

Havoc in Heaven 

By Tang Cheng & various

(Foreign Languages Press)  No ISBN

Although not strictly Graphic Novels, and certainly hard to find in many parts of the country, the picture books portraying Chinese tales and legends are always a rewarding read. If you have a local Chinatown it’s certainly worth a scout around, or perhaps you might try Googling.

This time out is a double oddity, in that Havoc in Heaven, another tale of Monkey, taken from Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West features full colour stills from an animated film of the same name, embedded with small blocks of English text in the manner of Rupert the Bear, rather than those wonderful black line drawings that drive western artists to tears of jealousy.

The irrepressible and wayward Monkey is the bane of the pious and stiff denizens of Heaven, whom he offends with his carousing and fighting and mischief. In an effort to control him, The Jade Emperor invites Monkey to join the Celestials and even gives him a job in the palace, but Monkey’s wayward nature cannot be tamed and the resultant chaos and combat shakes the heavens and rattles the gods themselves.

Spectacular, bright and irresistibly engaging, this colourful interpretation is an absolute delight, thanks to the beautiful illustrations of Yan Dingxian, Pu Jiaxiang, Lin Wenxiao, Lu Qing, Gao Yang and Fang Pengnian. Although these books are seldom out of print for long, it would be nice if some entrepreneur could pick up a British license for both the books and the film too.

© Foreign Languages Press BEIJING 1979

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence 

By Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Luke Ross

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-408-0

For a very long time westerns were an integral part of every comic publisher’s stable, and then they fell from favour. In the 1970s DC Comics published a grim, sardonic anti-western anti-hero with a ruined face who mirrored the dark turn that film cowboys had taken. Then the comic book West all but disappeared again.

There’s often a relationship between moving pictures and drawn ones, and I’m sure that the style and success of such shows as Deadwood has convinced the powers that be at DC that the time is once again right for Jonah Hex.

Lucky for us then that the creators involved have done such a bang-up job of updating him. What was once one of the best comics DC published, is almost as good in this incarnation — and looks like getting better with every issue. Electing to buck the modern trend for continued stories, the first six tales collected here are short, punchy, complete adventures displaying the character of the man and the true barbarity of the world he inhabits. With titles such as A Cemetery without Crosses, Bullets of Silver, Cross of Gold, The Slaughter at Two Pines, Chako Must Die, Christmas with the Outlaws and The Plague of Salvation owing more to Sam Pekinpah than Zane Gray, these splendid stories are worthy addition to a great tradition — and just the sort of thing to get more people reading comics.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Comanche Moon

Comanche Moon

By Jack Jackson

(Rip Off Press Inc./Last Gasp)  ISBN 0-89620-079-5

One of the earliest Graphic Novels, Comanche Moon was originally published as the comic books White Comanche, Red Raider and Blood on the Moon during the 1970s by Last Gasp, a regular packager of work by underground cartoonists such as Jackson. This reworked and augmented edition appeared in 1979. So far as I know it’s not currently in print, although it really should be.

The book follows the astounding life of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah and the course of their lives among Texas Comanches and her own – white – people. Whilst the Parkers are eking out a living on the Southern Plains of Texas in 1836, their homestead is attacked by a Comanche raiding party and little Cynthia Ann and her younger brother are carried off. Separated from him she is raised as a squaw, eventually marrying a sub-chief and birthing a son. The folksy, matter of fact story-telling reinforces the powerful truth of this documentary of the final downfall of the Plains Indians under the relentless expansionist pressure of the new Americans.

Quanah grew to be the last chief of the Comanches and as the old ways died he was responsible for all the meagre concessions his people managed to gain from the unstoppable white men. He was a Judge, a Sheriff, a huckster for Teddy Roosevelt and died a loved and respected political figure among both the Comanches and the settlers.

My dry précis does nothing to capture the hypnotic skill of Jackson in making this history come alive. Comanche Moon reads as easily as the best type of fiction but never strays from the heartbreaking truth that underpins it. Jack Jackson’s work is powerful, charming, thoroughly authentic, astoundingly well-researched and totally captivating. If only all history books could be his good.

©1979 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Charley’s War: Book III (17 October 1916 – 21 February 1917)

Charley’s War: Book III

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun

Titan Books ISBN: 1-84576-270-3
                    ISBN-13: 9781845762704

After much too long a wait the third volume collecting the greatest war comic strip of all time is finally out. Charley’s War, originally published in the weekly comic “Battle” (beginning in issue #200 – 6 January 1979 and running until October of 1986), tells the story of underage East-Ender Charley Bourne, who lies about his age to enlist in the British Army setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

By the beginning of this volume he has already survived the hellish conditions of trench warfare, endured the cruelty and stupidity of his own leaders and lost most of his friends. The introduction of Tanks has brought a furious response from the Germans, many of whom consider the innovation to be an atrocity weapon. In retaliation, they unleash a savage attack using “Judgement Troopers” whose “total war tactics” overwhelm the British Lines.

Book III opens with the brutal battle for the British positions in full swing, with neither side gaining any real advantage, and ends for Charley when he is wounded sufficiently to be sent home to England (called “getting a Blighty”). Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the doctors behind the lines means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle. Once more facing the Judgement Troops, Charley and his mates are forced to experience fresh horrors before the bloody battle peters out indecisively. Charley is again wounded, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked amnesiac.

Mills and Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction, by switching the emphasis to the home-front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning. The writer’s acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, bombing raids and the callous exploitation of British munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland. The book ends as Charley attempts to rescue his mother from a bomb factory as Zeppelins drop lethal payloads all around them…

Included in this volume are a rare interview with artist Joe Colquhoun, a feature on the history of Zeppelin warfare and writer Pat Mills’ wonderfully informative chapter notes and commentary. Not just a great war comic, Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium.

© 2006 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.