Studs Terkel’s Working: a graphic adaptation


By Harvey Pekar & various, edited by Paul Buhle (The New Press)
ISBN: 978-1-59558-321-5

Further pushing the boundaries and stoking the social conscience of American comics, the truly unique Harvey Pekar, with a coterie of his best artistic collaborators, has adapted a landmark book by an immense talent and irreplaceable social commentator.

Louis Terkel was born in New York on May 16th 1912, son of a Jewish tailor. When he was eight the family (father Samuel, mother Anna and older brothers Ben and Meyer) moved to Chicago where the family ran a rooming house. The later writer “Studs” cited this crossroads of society as the root of his interest in and understanding of broad humanity.

He studied law, married, and worked at many professions including hotel concierge, actor, and even writer; working with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project before finding a true home in broadcast radio: everything from soap opera, voiceovers, news and sports announcing, disc-jockeying, advertising and scripting.

In 1952, he turned his semi-improvisational, picaresque television-drama Studs’ Place into a five-days-a-week, hour-long radio chat show entitled The Studs Terkel Program, where he interviewed the Great and the Good and every shade of person in-between for 45 unbroken years. In 1956 he published his first book Giants of Jazz, and followed it with many other volumes of non-fiction, all exploring the historical role of the common man, and exploring the social condition and context of the nation. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1985 for The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. Studs died on Halloween, 2008, due to complications from a fall.

He was probably America’s greatest proponent of Oral History; the lives of ordinary people in their own words, compiled to form a human-scaled understanding of the past and present seemed so much more open and honest than great events starring great men, written down by great story-tellers.

In 1974 he released the epic Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (ISBN: 0-39447-884-5) to such critical acclaim that it was adapted as a Broadway show in 1978 and a PBS TV show in 1982. And now that other champion of the “Ordinary Joe” Pekar, in conjunction with acclaimed social historian and academic Paul Buhle, has produced this magical tome that graphically expands on this seminal work, and will undoubtedly whet readers’ appetites for the rest of the book – and perhaps a few more serious tomes. It’s certainly what our industry and art-form – too long considered frivolous, juvenile and crassly commercial – could do with…

Thanks to the startlingly varied artistic approaches and skills of fellow adaptors Pablo G. Callejo’s, Gary Dumm, Danny Fingeroth, Peter Gullerud, Bob Hall, Ryan Inzana, Sabrina Jones, Peter Kuper, Terry LaBan, Dylan A.T. Miner, Pat Moriarity, Emily Nemens, Joan Reilly, Sharon Rudahl, Nick Thorkelson, Anne Timmons and Lance Tooks what could have been a worthy but dull illustration of sparkling interviews with a broad spectrum of ordinary Americans becomes in fact a sparkling visual extravaganza that perfectly marries the text to the icon-ized hopes, joys, regrets and passions of the interviewees.

Sub-divided into the categories Working the Land, Pecking Order, Footwork, In the Spotlight, Behind a Desk, Appearance, Cleaning Up, Second Chance and Looking After Each Other (From Cradle to Grave) the 28 individual stories here range from the tragic indifference of The Hooker, the passion of the Union Organizer and the frustration of the migrant Farm Worker to the simple joy and fulfillment of the Mail Carrier and the Baby Nurse with each tale more moving than the last.

The New Press is a not-for-profit alternative to Corporate publishers, established in 1990 and dedicated to innovation in publishing and the promotion of creative works of educational, cultural and community value. They’re not in it for the money and you can find out more about them at www.thenewpress.com.

Then you can buy this magnificent piece of narrative art and give them the wherewithal to do something else that’s great to read and a benefit to our art form.

© 2006 Harvey Pekar & Paul Buhle. All Rights Reserved

Barefoot Gen Volume 8: Merchants of Death


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-599-6

The eighth volume of Barefoot Gen begins on 25th June 1950 with America again at war, this time with North Korea. Ardent anti-war protestor Gen Nakaoka is both disgusted and frightened as he explains to a classmate that even if Japan isn’t a participant it’s still in danger as the Occupation troops are using Japan as the major staging post for attacks against the Koreans. In Kyushu citizens are already compelled to operate nightly blackouts…

His lecture is abruptly interrupted by raucous laughter. Fellow student Aihara sneers at Gen’s sentiments. For him war is inevitable, profitable and beneficial to the race. A fight is only prevented by the arrival of the new teacher, Mr. Ohta, who lectures the whole class on the horrors of war, but once more Aihara derides the message.

Later Aihara and Gen meet to settle things in the time-honoured schoolboy manner, but the aggressive war-lover wants to use knives not fists…

Meanwhile Ryuta has become a super-salesman, selling dresses made by Natsue and Natsuko on Hiroshima’s street corners until the girls have enough money saved to open their own shop. He’s also become a devoted follower of the city’s woefully sub-par baseball team the Hiroshima Carp. On his return he finds a battered and bruised Gen talking of his fight with the clearly disturbed Aihara.

Naturally the valiant little fighter won, but now can’t get over the war-lovers reaction; begging that Gen finish it. He actually demanded that he be killed! The boys then swing by the baseball game where the see Aihara, crying bitter tears.

On the way home they encounter an anti-war march with teacher Mr. Ohta in the vanguard, despite the repressive anti-protest ordinances issued by the occupation forces (which were used with ruthless efficiency by the police and local government officers to suppress civil dissent, political opposition and especially the growth of a labour movement). When the police arrive they begin to harass the protestors until activists of the pro-war, pro-America Japan-Blood-and-Iron Party arrive and attack the pacifists. Things are getting ugly when Aihara appears, single-handedly breaking up the clash with devastating rhetoric and phenomenally well-thrown rocks. Inexplicably the war-lover’s only targets are the Blood-and-Iron thugs…

When Aihara is jumped and beaten Gen rescues him and gets him to a hospital. Finding his mother he learns the whole story. Aihara is just another bomb orphan who followed her home one day, but she replaced her own dead son with him and they endured. He learned to love baseball. Then they found he had leukemia. Ever since he has devoured any book or article about combat, but he is simply looking for a good way to die…

As he recovers it is Ryuta who finds a way to help him. Anyone who can throw like that – even a sick kid – should be pitching for his beloved Carp…

Later as Gen and Ryuta exit a movie theatre (life wasn’t unrelentingly grim, even then) they find Mr. Ohta, drunk as a skunk. The pressure is getting to him, and he drags the boys into a bar. It’s not just his job. He’s demoralised because he sees Japan sliding around its own Constitution, scant years after writing it, as the militarists that brought about the country’s downfall sneak back into power and trick the country into another fruitless war.

Shocked to hear the teacher’s own war-time experiences the boys get roaring drunk too. What else can they do?

On the fifth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, 3,000 police officers were deployed around the city to prevent peace rallies and protests. The people marched anyway and Gen and his friends were there. The next day they learn that Mr. Ohta will no longer be teaching them. Returning home they see another new evil – Methamphetamine Hydrochloride – a drug originally given to Japanese soldiers in the war “to stop them from getting scared” is now readily available in pharmacies. The nation’s young men are all becoming speed-freaks, injecting their lives away…

Forced out of his job, Mr. Ohta has also turned to the drug – until Gen talks him around. The next day Gen’s class all play hooky: they’ve decide to choose their own teacher, but the Principal and his stooges track them down, brutally beating them. Gen as always, resists, but Ohta demonstrates the power of passive resistance, gaining a moral victory and proving the worth of his pacifist convictions. Moreover the dissident will build his own school and prove there is a better way…

Rejected by the establishment for years, Ryuta cannot read or write: he becomes Ohta’s very first pupil.

As the war in Korea escalates tensions in Hiroshima grow, but amid the politics the kids have a more pressing problem. Natsue’s appendix was recently removed, but her wound won’t heal. The doctors keep operating but she’s fading…

The city is changing too. Capitalist profiteers and carpetbaggers are everywhere, flaunting their ill-gotten wealth whilst so many people still go hungry. A fight with a speculator in a restaurant ends with Gen nearly being beaten to death. Everywhere the monsters and criminals are regaining their pre-war positions of power, but at least Gen scores one small measure of utterly gratuitous vengeance…

And then authorities begin to clear the shanties built by the survivors whom they abandoned in the bomb’s aftermath. Everywhere ramshackle dwellings are destroyed; their inhabitants dispossessed for the second time in five years – except this time their leaders aren’t affected and actually profit from the tragedy. Gen and his brothers will soon be homeless again…

Life, even such a hard life as Gen’s, is all about change and struggle. As Koji finds a girlfriend and starts his own family and Natsue finds the courage to die on her own terms, the 13 year old Gen embraces again the words of his father and takes control of his path. His life will henceforward be lived on only his own terms.

Barefoot Gen: Merchants of Death is the most strident and polemical of the volumes to date: almost a graphic manifesto of how the world ought to be as much as a catalogue of its perennial mistakes. And yet even at its most bleak and traumatic Keiji Nakazawa’s magnum opus never forgets to be funny, compelling and enjoyably Human. This series should be on every school curriculum. At least you can keep it for homework…


© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 7: Bones into Dust


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-598-9

As another day dawns in Keiji Nakazawa’s brilliant tribute to the endurance of the human spirit, the escaped prisoner Ryuta reveals a dark secret and turns it into a unique opportunity for Gen and his band of atomic survivors.

Before his incarceration Ryuta and other bomb orphans lived with an old man slowly dying, like so many others, from radiation poisoning. “Gramps” had one great wish: to publish a book about the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima. As his end approaches he has begun to despair. The American Occupation Forces suppress any discussion of the Bomb and its aftereffects so no Publisher will look at the manuscript and every printer in the recovering city is afraid of being charged with treason and espionage if they reproduce it.

Now Ryuta informs Gen that he has the solution. Japanese prisons are full of men from all trades, and have access to industrial machinery. The institutions must retrain and rehabilitate inmates whilst operating on very limited funds. Unscrupulous people “in the know” can get anything made in a prison if they know how to work the system – and can pay…

As so often the case in Gen’s life, the result falls into the category of Good News and Bad News. The prisoners will print the book, but only if Gen provides the paper. Once more the kids are scrabbling to find cash…

As they ponder how to get it they see a body floating in the river. For once it’s not a corpse and when they retrieve it Ryuta recognizes Noro, with whom he escaped from Shimane Reformatory. The lad is in a terrible state. When he had returned to the uncle who swindled him and put him in prison the old man set the dog on him…

Determined to help Noro – and themselves – the boys try to shame and defraud the old crook out of his money, but none of Gen’s extra-legal schemes ever work (only those that depend on grit, determination, ingenuity and honest toil) but when the rogue breaks down and tells his own tale of woe, a reconciliation is reached. With his inheritance returned the grateful Noro splits it three ways. They can buy paper now, if they can find a supplier…

At this point Korean black marketer Mr. Pak turns up again. The ex-slave labourer has prospered in the new, all-but lawless Hiroshima, and as the Nakaokas were the only people who ever treated him decently during the war, he will never accept their money. After relating his own experiences of those terrible times Pak’s only request is that the proposed book tells the truth about the war and the bombing – all of the truth…

At the height of the fourth summer after the detonation a small band of urchins collected a stack of freshly printed books from the back door of a prison and stacked them high on a hand cart.

“The End of Summer” by Matsukichi (Gramps) Hirayama is a condemnation of Man’s failings and yet a victory of the human spirit, and in a break from dragging it to the dying old man who wrote it, Gen reads a copy to his fellow child survivors. The savage, poetic testimony of the horror and even the old man’s private battles in the wake of the explosion reduces all of them to wracking tears. It also reinforces Gen’s fierce determination that it must never happen again.

But when they reach their shack the old man is dead.

Ryuta loses control in his frustration and grief, brutally pounding Gramps’ chest in uncontrollable fury. The old pain-dimmed eyes open! Was the old man in a deep coma, or did pride and love and rage drag his ghost back? It is a perfect affirmation: Never, Never, Never give up.

Within days the books are all gone and the truth about Hiroshima has begun its hand-to-hand travels across Japan. Gen, Musubi and Ryuta are still basking in a rare success when the American military police pounce, delivering them to the US Base at Kure and the tender mercies of Nisei (foreign born, second generation Japanese – in this case Japanese American) Officer Lieutenant Mike Hirota. He wants the author of The End of Summer and is prepared to do anything to get him. As usual Gen cannot be silenced and his accusatory confrontation with the face (a Japanese face not a white devil face) of the nation that used the bomb has been building for years…

The boys are thrown in a cell to await “Thought Modification”. It is already occupied by a severely beaten man who also refused to play ball with the Americans. Through broken lips he describes the treatment he received – chillingly similar to what detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have described in the most recent unpleasantness – to involve the UK and USA. The boys are terrified.

Nakazawa briefly digresses to relate the fate of author Wataru Kaji and the CIA precursor the Cannon Agency (“Canon Z-Unit”) in the Iwakasaki Mansion Scandal of 1953 (use your search engine or you could read Eiji Takamae and Robert Ricketts The Allied Occupation of Japan for more details), probably to show that militarists – and human nature – never changes before detailing the extreme measures the kids resort to in order to be freed…

Miraculously liberated, the kids use their newfound knowledge of how to sabotage engines to wage a small war of revenge on American vehicles…

When he finally goes home his mother is there and looking better than she has in years. His delight is short-lived as brother Akira explains that nobody ever recovers. If she’s home from hospital it can only be to die. The bittersweet weeks that follow are the most poignant yet as the children try to make her days perfect, and Mrs. Nakaoka’s shared memories of their father and his courtship, and even his brutal treatment as an anti-war activist, all serve to draw the family closer together.

When Koji finally returns from the coal mines the united Nakaoka clan go on one final trip together to the great Kiyomizu Temple at Kyoto where the parents spent their honeymoon – the happiest time of their lives…

The book closes with Gen’s reaction to his mother’s death, scenes I don’t have the words or the will to describe. It would be crass and you would not thank me.

Read this magnificent book. Read them all.


© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 6: Writing the Truth


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-597-2

Hadashi no Gen originally began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen, (One Day, Suddenly). These led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45 page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano realised that the author – an actual survivor of the first Atomic Bombing – had much more to say and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country that too often prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions, and after 18 months Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferring first to Shimin (Citizen), Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism). Like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to the first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the original Project Gen into English, and other languages including Norwegian, French German, Italian, Portuguese Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. He completed the tale in 1985 and his dark chronicle has been since been adapted into three anime films, (1983 and 1987) and in 2007, a 2-part live action television drama.

Undoubtedly mirroring Nakazawa’s own creative journey this volume relates the false starts, little triumphs and perpetual set-backs following the bold declaration of old man Gramps to defy the American suppression policy and write a book about the effects and repercussions of atomic warfare.

The dying journalist had made Ryuta and his fellow bomb orphans his new family after his own children threw him out, but as he feels his death approaching and the kids (with the irrepressible Gen always in attendance) spend all their time begging and preying on the ubiquitous American G.I’s his resolve begins to falter. The kids have made enough money to buy black market food for him and Gen’s equally ailing mother, but their joy is ended when Ryuta’s pocket is picked by a better thief than he…

However, life is full of opportunities. They find a discarded stash of comestibles by the rail tracks, jettisoned from a train to prevent police officers from confiscating it. Despite their best efforts they too are arrested but Gen’s strident protestations about police corruption provokes a small riot and the kids escape with most of their windfall. Returning home fortune again turns away as Mrs. Nakaoka has weakened so much that she can no longer eat. Nothing can save her now but money. Lots and lots of it…

Whilst Gen tenderly ministers to her Ryuta explores another solution. The opportunistic gangs that would become indistinguishable from and largely supplant the traditional Yakuza have a brutal grip on Hiroshima’s rackets and are moving into politics. Working from gambling dens they are the largest repositories of cash in the slowly regenerating city. In an astounding feat of courage and stupidity the wayward lad single-handedly raids a casino, stealing a huge amount of money and brazenly kidnapping the Boss of Bosses.

It is an unforgivable affront and Ryuta is forever a marked man. The Yakuza turn Hiroshima upside down hunting for him and the boy is seemingly doomed until Gen conceives a unique solution. If Ryuta surrendered to the police and went to a state reformatory the Yakuza would be unable to find him…

Even with another loved one seemingly taken from Gen forever, his tragic defiance never wavers. By July 1948 he is eking out a regular pittance salvaging building materials from bomb-sites, with his mother in a hospital, paid for with the stolen Yakuza cash. Ryuta is safe in a penitentiary in Shimane Prefecture, whilst his fellow bomb orphans Natsuko and Musubi are still with Gramps, who is soldiering on.

Koji is gone. He left for the coal mines but they haven’t heard from him yet. Life is briefly tolerable, but Gen’s mood is spoiled when he finds another girl has committed suicide. This is a common and growing problem as radiation-deformity and growing prejudice make life intolerable for many survivors. Others simply cannot bear dying slowly and painfully…

On his way home he rescues another would be suicide from the river. It is Natsue, a young dance student he saved once before (Barefoot Gen: volume 2 The Day After, ISBN: 978-0-86719-619-1). Again he diverts her from her fatalistic intent, even after she unburdens herself by revealing her painfully familiar story. The big-hearted boy takes her to Gramps, who invites her to join his family of orphans. Both Natsue and Natsuko are talented seamstresses, and Gen determines to get them a sewing machine so they can earn some money…

The scrap metal trade has always been hovered on the line between legitimacy and larceny. When other salvagers reveal that copper can be easily “found” at the new Daido Shipyard, Gen and Musubi steal a boatload – but as always things do not end well. Even when they find a less risky source their treasure is hijacked by thieves until Gramps intervenes at risk of his life. Aware of how close to death he is Gen reaffirms his vow that the old man’s book “The End of Summer” will be published – no matter what.

At this moment a strange boy and girl burst in. She especially is horrified at the old man’s condition, and with a shock everybody finally realizes that Ryuta has escaped from prison and returned to them…

Possibly the most intriguing and revealing of Keiji Nakazawa’s ten volume graphic masterpiece, Barefoot Gen: Writing the Truth is mostly comprised of character asides as Gen often yields focus to the supporting cast whose personal stories add body and texture to the overall narrative. The long, hard and so-slow struggle to publish a book about the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima acts as a frame for a broader view of post-war Hiroshima, and the insights into cultural peccadilloes, particularly the rise of the organized gangster and politician, are irresistibly compelling.

The insights into the sordid criminal underbelly are subtly reminiscent of the early Graham Greene, and by seemingly moving slightly off his message Nakazawa actually drives home his points with far greater force. Barefoot Gen is positively Reithian in its ability to Educate, Inform and Entertain and its legacy will be as pervasive and long-lasting…


© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 5: the Never-Ending War


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-596-5

At the half-way point of Keiji Nakazawa’s ten volume masterpiece of anti-war, anti-greed polemic, the eternally resilient Gen Nakaoka is playing outside his ramshackle school when he runs afoul of a brittle, solitary girl who won’t let him see her face. It is December 1947 and much of the children’s school day consists of old fashioned rote learning and furtive brawling when the teacher isn’t looking. A grim and graphic recap is provided as the entire class is told to write an essay about their family…

This testament to determination and the human ability to endure continues with the return of the wayward orphan Ryuta, now a rising star of the local underworld. Delighted at the return of his “brother”, Gen is lured to a bar where he confronts Ryuta about his life of crime, and enjoys the fruits of thievery in the form of black market food and coffee. Here he meets another maimed bomb girl named Katsuko, whose desperate hunger for education was thwarted by intolerant teachers and her own shame. The mood is convivial when Gen promises to tutor her but swiftly changes when Ryuta’s brutal boss Masa shows up.

The gangster is in the middle of a turf war for control of the thriving rackets that have grown up in the demolished but still populous city. Although Ryuta and his fellow orphan’s believe themselves on a solid career path, they are unaware that Masa only wants them as disposable cannon fodder for the battle he knows is coming…

The daily grind continues with Gen always a strident outsider whose observations and protests are either embarrassing or laughable to those around him. However when the teacher announces that the Emperor intends to “honor” the city with a visit the boy’s resentment at what the militarists caused and indignation at the survivors fawning gratitude boils over.

Meanwhile older brother Koji becomes a victim of the city’s cash shortage. After months of working he learns his employer cannot and will never pay him. Once more the spectre of starvation confronts the Nakaokas, but Gen is more troubled by bad dreams. On awakening he finds his premonition to be true. Ryuta has been involved in another shooting…

On December 7th 1947, six years to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito to we westerners) toured the bomb craters and building sites of Hiroshima, safe within a luxurious automobile, whilst hundreds of cold, starving citizens clad in threadbare rags waved handmade flags and saluted. Furious at their insensate stupidity Gen could only look incredulously on whilst sneaking Ryuta and his surviving child gangsters into his family’s shanty shack.

En route they see an old man being kicked out of his home by his own family, but the ever helpful boy is baffled by the frail man’s seeming indifference to the situation. The delay causes them to overhear Mrs Nakaoka talking to a neighbour. Made aware of just how ill she is and how much strain three more mouths to feed will cause, Ryuta, Katsuko and little Musubi decide to strike out on their own.

Once more Gen’s spirit overcomes all obstacles. He convinces the three to set up their own home in hiding, and when they find the evicted old man still sitting in the road where they left him Gen talks him into joining them. The un-named gentleman was thrown out because he had “A Bomb Slackers Disease” (an enervating malaise as much traumatic shock and survivor’s guilt syndrome as acute long-term radiation poisoning, which manifested as a lack of energy and concentration in the early stages). Finding an abandoned Army Field Hospital, they cannibalise the structure to build a small house. The orphans have never been happier, but when Katsuko goes to buy some food to celebrate she is captured by Masa’s thugs. The Big Boss wants his cannon-fodder back…

Despite a brutal beating she refuses to talk. When Masa throws her out the distraught innocent is unaware that they are following her. As the gangsters burst into the ramshackle sanctuary, Gen leaps to defend his friends, suffering the worst beating of his terrible, violent life. To save him Ryuta once more resorts to his gun, shooting a thug and even wounding Masa himself.

Joyous in their new-found freedom, young and old celebrate the dawn of a New Year in the most lavish manner possible, but at school later that day Gen once more invites trouble by refusing to bow and bless the Emperor. However, despite the teacher’s wrath, the boy is beginning to win the admiration of some of his fellow students…

Certain elements of military Japan were re-establishing themselves as the city began to rebuild, attempting to whitewash their pasts for the New Japan. When Denjiro Samejima, head of the Merchants Association, runs for political office claiming he always opposed the war and was a “soldier for Peace”, Gen boils over at the arrant hypocrisy. He bursts into a public meeting to confront him reminding everybody that the crafty merchant and Black Marketeer had denounced Gen’s father – a genuine antiwar dissident – and even led the hate-campaign that tortured the entire family in the days before The Bomb. His brief moment of triumph is ended when Akira finds him: their mother has collapsed…

In occupied Japan the news media was absolutely forbidden from discussing or reporting the effects of Atom Bombs. 300,000 terrified and bewildered survivors had no idea what was happening to their bodies – or that they were not unique nor even isolated cases…

The doctor they beg to examine their mother tells the boys that the only hope is the American’s research agency ABCC – Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission – and he refers her to their care over the belligerent Gen’s strident objections. But the foreigners can do nothing to help and she returns home. With money in such short supply Koji leaves for distant Kyushu to work in the coal mines. Leaving his family for the second time he swears to send them all he earns.

Whilst looking for work Gen saves another girl from bullies, but this time occupation not immolation has provoked the citizens’ ire. Even seeking employment is increasingly risky as the police now have orders to round up street children and lock them in state orphanages. Chie has a father, and when he carries the girl home Gen is gratefully given his first taste of alcohol – which, like everything, he overdoes to the point of collapse.

He also discovers his suspicions about the ABCC were totally justified.

Chie’s father Seikichi Hirokawa is a “vulture”, employed by the Americans to buy the bodies of recently deceased Japanese for scientists to examine. Traumatised and plagued with guilt he can only feed his family by hounding the bereaved and dishonouring the dead. He reveals that the bomb’s makers are hungry for information on the aftereffects and don’t see the victims as human; dissecting the bodies, stealing organs and always hungry for more data…

The all-pervasive teams they send into schools to regularly examine the children have a hidden agenda and are aided by the local Japanese doctors who are all bribed to refer everybody they can to the Agency. For each referral they are rewarded with fancy American drugs – which they sell for profit to the black market. Nobody is treated or cured; they are just tested and catalogued. Kimie Nakaoka was just another lab rat and paycheck to the greedy physician and Gen’s inevitable remonstrance with the quack is at once uniquely disturbing and cathartically emphatic.

To escape the orphan-hunters Ryuta and his pal’s have been adopted by the old man they called “Gramps” but his health is fading. Originally a journalist he has determined his last act will be to publish a book telling the truth about the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima. Even though they know no publisher will risk taking it and Americans will try to suppress it the children swear his book will be released…

The broad cartoon style of Keiji Nakazawa’s art has often been the subject of heated discussion; the Disney-esque, simplified rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

Mister Nakazawa’s style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, the Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and literally hundreds of others – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young boy.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses, not dilutes, the terrible facts and scenes of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose the drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

So now you’ve been warned, buy this series. Better yet, agitate your local library to get a few sets in as well. Barefoot Gen is a world classic and should be available to absolutely everyone…


© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 4: Out of the Ashes


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-595-8

Hadashi no Gen began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional series of single stories released the previous year including Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen, (One Day, Suddenly) in diverse magazines. These led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45 page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano realised that the author – an actual survivor of the first Atomic Bombing – had much more to say and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning epic.

The tale was controversial in a country that too often preferred to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions, and after 18 months Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump and moved first to Shimin (Citizen), Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Like his indomitable hero Keiji Nakazawa never lost heart and his persistence led to the first Japanese book collection in 1975, later translated by a precursor of today’s Project Gen into English and other languages including Norwegian, French German, Italian, Portuguese Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. He completed the tale in 1985. This chronicle of despair and hope has been adapted into three live action films (from 1976 to 1980), 2 anime films, (1983 and 1987) and in 2007, a 2-part live action television drama.

Since I Saw It! became Barefoot Gen, it has been revised and refined: now the entire semi-autobiographical saga is being released in an unabridged ten-volume English translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, the multinational organisation dedicated to global peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The first book A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima (ISBN: 978-0-86719-602-3) began with six year old Gen Nakaoka singing folk-songs in a small allotment, cultivating wheat with his father, an artist whose anti-war sentiment had made life even more difficult for his family. Hiroshima was starving, with American air-raids a constant hazard and rabid patriotic militarists urging the weary populace to greater and greater sacrifice. Everywhere constant reminders that their greatest honour would be to die for the Emperor exhorted greater effort for final victory, but still American bombs kept raining down…

Out of the Ashes signalled the dawn of a new kind of oppression as General Douglas MacArthur became the de facto new Emperor of Japan. On 30th August 1945 the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers took complete control of the defeated and humiliated country, and began a process of westernization that though often scurrilous and brutally painful, led to a totally new country being created.

The attitudes of the Japanese, however, took somewhat longer to change. As usual, Gen and Ryuta are scavenging when they discover a huge dump of weapons casually abandoned by returning soldiers and disregarded by the villagers of rural Eba. As any children would, they play with the fascinating objects, terrifying themselves when the loaded weapons discharge. Entranced by the destructive power they each take a handgun, just in case the Americans are as bad as everyone is saying…

The mental state of the defeated peoples is perhaps hard for us to grasp. By declaring a complete surrender, the Japanese military overlords had inflicted upon the people a most crushing blow. Over and again the book’s characters say that the Americans can do “whatever they like” because of the absolute capitulation. The defeated are prepared for constant injustice; expect daily abuse and travesty – they almost welcome it. If the oft-abused maxim of surrender being the greatest dishonour is true then the entire country is now dishonourable, worthless, deserving of every wicked thing the conquerors inflict upon them…

When the boys return to the shed the family lives in they find big brother Koji has returned, badly traumatised by his experiences at a Kamikaze training camp, and horrified by the pitiful shrine to his father and dead siblings. His shock slowly fades but not the anger. When the Occupation Forces arrive; tall monstrous soldiers with alien faces, his emotions boil over and he rushes to attack them, but Mama Nakaoka literally beats the fury out of him. Throughout the drama the mother is a sheltering wall, holding her children safely together, but no-one knows how ill she truly is…

A more sinister event occurs when Gen and Ryuta, whilst playing in the rubble, spy American soldiers extracting organs from the corpses that still litter the landscape. Discovered the starving kids are placated with chewing gum – a taste of heaven for the sugar-starved waifs… As soon as the Occupation began, Americans were everywhere, collecting samples, gathering information. Things and people disappeared into a cavernous hole never to be heard of. Simultaneously US authorities suppressed all mention of and data about the bombs and their after-effects – as if they wanted the world to forget what had happened…

The family had been staying in a shed in rural Eba, guests of Mama’s friend Kiyo, despite the outright hostility of the good woman’s family. Now, with all the surviving Nakaokas reunited they are driven out. Resolutely they return to the ruins of the city, but not before Gen extracts a typically unpleasant and humiliating vengeance. On the slow journey back they meet returning soldiers and are taught the meaning of a new word: Malnutrition.

Gen realizes how close to death his family is – especially Tomoko – and resolves to get real food and nutritious milk for his sister. He and Ryuta break into the US base, but the mission goes disastrously, ludicrously wrong. It does however give him an introduction to the growing gangster element secretly thriving amidst the ruins, a connection that will have tragic repercussions in the future. And when they are swindled out of food and milk by two Japanese soldiers trying to take over the Black Market Ryuta remembers the gun he played with not so long ago…

By the time he returns Gen has been beaten near to death. Furious the little boy avenges his adopted brother by killing the soldiers, and falls under the sway of another gang-boss. When Gen recovers Ryuta has vanished, but not before leaving them money to buy food…

Life goes on: out of the rubble the Nakaoka’s build a shack from scavenged debris. With a roof over their heads a semblance of normality returns. A school reopens and the children of Hiroshima resume their education, but everywhere the effects of the bomb can be seen. During an ordeal of teasing Gen comes to the defence of Nomura, a young girl whose hair has fallen out, thereby revealing his own wounds and deformities. In this cruel crucible lifelong friendships are forged.

Gen is no shrinking violet. When he finds Nomura throwing stones at a woman consorting with an American G.I. he is appalled to discover it is the little girl’s sister: doubly so when he hears their tragic story, but it pales into insignificance when Tomoko is stolen. The family searches for weeks, but with no one to help – nobody else cares – Gen is forced to desperate measures. He gets the local priest to teach him how to pray!

But in the end it is observational skills and a little luck that leads him to the kidnappers and another dehumanizing confrontation. The baby has become the good-luck symbol of a gang of ne’er-do-wells and the police – corrupt and powerless since their guns were surrendered to the Americans – can do nothing. But even this awful situation is not cut-and-dried. Gen’s rage fades when he learns why Tomoko was stolen and why the thugs cannot return her. The impasse crumbles and all enmity vanishes when the sickly baby starts to cough up blood…

On August 6th 1947, Hiroshima held the First Annual Peace Festival amid ruins and a starving, dying populace. The stupidity and hypocrisy caused a small riot but Gen wasn’t involved. He was desperately trying to earn enough money to pay the profiteering doctor treating Tomoko. As he hustles he discovers Americans bulldozing bodies into a mass-grave without even a blessing to ease their spirits. The appalling lack of respect inspires him. He will use the prayers he has learned to bless the newly-departed – for which the bereaved happily pay!

But even this is not enough for the American drugs Tomoko needs. Luckily, Black Marketeer, Mr. Pak, a Korean slave-labourer befriended by Gen before the bomb reappears, and happily gives him all he needs.

But not in time…

In a series riddled like a firing-squad wall with tragic and horrific scenes, the paroxysms of emotion as Gen denies, endures, accepts and moves on from the death of the beloved sister he delivered during the firestorm of Hiroshima is a beautiful, awful thing to behold – one that shows more than other how comics can affect and inform a reader. They are proof of what a master artist can invoke – and more so when Nakazawa then rides that tide of tragedy into a promise of hope by the skillful weaving of his chosen metaphors: growing wheat, folk-song and a new day dawning…

Although accessible and thoroughly readable by older children, Barefoot Gen is a work of astoundingly subtle layers and textures. Throughout the tale Gen is visited by dreams, the impact and relevance of which shape the way he grows and develops. They speak of things lost or uncompleted, populated by the family and things he misses most. But never does he retreat into those dreams or any form of fantasy. His world of harsh reality cannot be escaped or avoided: it must be overcome…

© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 3: Life After the Bomb


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-594-1

As much a justified assault on the horrors of atomic weapons and the kind of people who could even contemplate using them as semi-autobiography, Keiji Nakazawa’s epic Barefoot Gen is an examination of hope and change; of cultures in drastic upheaval.

Volume 3 opens with Gen, his mother and newborn sister Tomoko resolutely seeking somewhere to shelter, or a permanent place to live. But everywhere they are confronted by exploitative greed, suspicion and even superstitious terror. Bomb victims, displaced and helpless, were considered to be tainted with invisible disease and worst of all “Bad Luck”.

They had found brief refuge with the widow Kiyo, a childhood friend of Gen’s mother Kimie, but were driven away by their saviour’s greedy children and embittered grandmother. But now after searching her conscience, Kiyo shrugs off the institutionalised deference to senior family and offers the refugees her storage shed as a house of their own. Delighted with so little a gesture, the family rejoices unaware of the depth of resentment their very existence seems to engender.

This attitude to the A Bombs’ survivors persisted in Japan for decades. Even now Hibakusha (“Explosion-Affected People”) have a dichotomous existence in Japan. They are revered, spoken of with polite deference, but acknowledged as being “different”. To many Japanese this is still a major problem: conformity is everything. They have the dubious honour of being sacred pariahs. Laws were passed regarding them and they are still tracked and monitored by the Government.

The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defined Hibakusha as those people:

  • who were within a few kilometers of the hypocenters of the bombs
  • who were within 2 km of the hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings
  • who were exposed to radiation from fallout
  • babies carried by pregnant women in any of these categories.

The Hibakusha get a monthly government allowance, but they (and their descendents) were and are often the victims of severe discrimination due to ignorance about radiation sickness, which people initially believed to be hereditary or even contagious, About 1% of survivors, certified as suffering from bomb-related diseases, receive a special medical allowance.

Most of them live in Japan, but thousands have escaped social stigma by moving to more hospitable places like Korea. Every year, on the anniversaries of the bombings, the names of Hibakusha who have died in the previous year are added to the cenotaphs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As of August 2008, the death tolls stood at 258,310 at Hiroshima, and 145,984 at Nagasaki.

Desperate to earn money Gen tries everything, and eventually is hired by a rich man to tend his younger brother, whose bomb-induced injuries are so disgusting that no member of the family can bear to be in the same room with him. In a truly stomach-turning sequence Gen befriends the bitter, hostile victim, but all his neighbours and even his family think he’s a monster and pray for his death – his nieces even offer to double his pay if Gen will kill their uncle….

Seiji Yoshida was a promising artist visiting Hiroshima at exactly the wrong moment. Now maimed, deranged, despondent and dying, he is inspired by the irrepressible Gen to find a way to paint again. But as the petty abuses and tyrannies of the villagers, street kids, bomb orphans and even police make every day a new trial, Gen and Seiji establish a doomed rapport… And among those bomb orphans is a little thief named Ryuta (see volume 2, ISBN: 978-0-86719-619-1), the spitting image in looks and character of Gen’s dead brother Shinji. Eventually the waif is convinced to join Gen’s family, but this good deed, too will not go unpunished…

Seiji’s radiation sickness has inexorably advanced: whilst taken on a jaunt in a handcart by Gen and Ryuta they stumble upon a military body disposal site. The sight of thousands of bodies burned in vast, callous pyres with no thought of human dignity engulfs the artist: delirious and enraged he grips his brush, determined to record the impersonal horror for the world to see. As ever the message is “if we know, we won’t allow it to happen again…”

The effort nearly kills him, and in the final stages of illness he removes his bandages and demands the children take him naked through village, defying the people who called him “monster” and tried to ignore the hideous consequences of the war. With Seiji’s death his family breathes an unfeeling sigh of relief, but his example has inspired Gen: one day he too will be an artist and finish the tragic artist’s work. He will record the truth of Hiroshima…

Akira Nakaoka was evacuated from the city before the bomb hit. All this time he has been “safe and well” in the country, working on a state farm in Yamagata. Or so Gen thought. As with so much the government proclaimed, the truth was painfully different. Starved and beaten, used as slave-labour, the children of the farm get a rude awakening when the new of Japan’s surrender reaches them on August 15th. Abandoned by their teachers they drift away, back to Hiroshima…

Stuffed with broad humour to leaven the dire situations, Life After the Bomb uses the hardships and brutality of the aftermath to further hone Gen into a valiant, self-reliant, eternally optimistic character, capable of unrelenting compassion and empathy even as he learns new tricks to relieve the “haves” of what his family “has not”; a terrifyingly resilient fighter (the amount of physical abuse he takes and hands out would make Bruce Willis fans wince) always ready for trouble whilst looking to a brighter tomorrow. But there’s much more horror and tragedy to endure before that day dawns…

Barefoot Gen is a series that should be mandatory upper school reading (with proper adult supervision) but I should mention a rather obvious cultural difference that English speakers seem to think of significant import: in many countries nudity and coarse language are not the almighty taboos they are here.

The Japanese do not share our view of the human body and they acknowledge that kids know and use the occasional cuss-word when we’re not listening. Barefoot Gen is an earthy, human masterpiece about real people enduring and overcoming one of the greatest atrocities in the history of civilisation. To forego this incredible reading experience because of a four-letter word or a coyly drawn willy is just bloody stupid…

© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 2: The Day After


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-619-1

The second volume of Keiji Nakazawa’s astounding anti war masterpiece finds six year old Gen Nakaoka with his mother and newborn sister in the streets of devastated Hiroshima, traumatised witnesses to a parade of unique horrors and madness as the walking dead of the city stagger past, looking for aid or surcease – or perhaps for nothing at all.

Nakazawa, like Gen, does not only blame the Americans for the monstrous tragedy. In dry, bulletin-like manner the author blends the facts of the event into his passionate drama, and shows that the Japanese Military suppressed the news of the Atomic Bomb, fearing a panic or popular revolt, and allowing – perhaps even forcing (although that’s a pretty hard-sell for me) the Americans to do the same thing to Nagasaki three days later.

What I hadn’t previously known was that on that same day Russia ended its neutrality agreement with the Empire and attacked the Japanese Kwantung Army in a Soviet invasion of Manchuria: the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation. Only then did the war leaders stop throwing away their peoples’ lives…

Gen and his mother make for the suburbs driven by revulsion and hunger. Severely malnourished for months, she has no milk to suckle her baby with, and the boy leaves her to scavenge for food, but comes upon a military clean-up squad literally stacking bodies, making no distinction between dead and nearly so…

He finds children and an old woman brutalising a dead American POW. Many prisoners and slave races like the Korean Mr. Pak (a friend and fellow Pariah, as despised as the anti-war Nakaoka “traitors” had been) were used for forced labour in the industrial heart of Hiroshima – a fact the Americans must have known…

Overcome with hunger and exhaustion Gen collapses, and ends up on a pyre with a pile of corpses. He is saved by one of the funeral squad – a decent soldier who tries to carry him home only to collapse from hideous, mysterious ailments – Gen’s first experience of the invisible destroyer Radiation Sickness. Soon he realises that he hasn’t escaped the unseen terror either as his hair falls out in knotted clumps. Nakazawa is a master of emotional placement – we readers know what is happening but to the survivors in 1945 this was a completely new experience – a ghost disease that struck without warning, affecting everybody in a different manner, and with his open, stylized drawing he makes us feel the bewilderment and terror.

Lurching from one encounter to the next Gen is an innocent cataloguing the many horrors of the bomb, but always he tries to encourage the people who had reviled him mere days ago. However when he stops the disfigured little girl Natsue from committing suicide, he finds a greater purpose and begins his lifelong campaign to defeat the evil of warfare with a positive attitude and bold action.

Throughout the epic, folk songs are used as a narrative device, and when Gen’s performance at a suburban house earns enough rice to stave off death a while longer it leads to a startling encounter with a pack of child thieves, one of whom is the exact double of dead brother Shinji. Called Ryuta, the boy’s tale of woe is as bad as all the rest but it does lead to a reunion with the Mr. Pak and a realisation: Gen must find and honour the remains of his family…

With all their obligations fulfilled the remaining Nakaoka’s head for the rural district of Eba and temporary refuge with Mother’s oldest friend. But the reception would prove to be anything but hospitable…

August 6th 1945 changed the world forever and deeply affected six-year-old Keiji Nakazawa. When the “Little Boy” thermonuclear weapon was thrown from the American B-29 bomber “Enola Gay” onto the city of Hiroshima, he was only one kilometre from Ground Zero, just entering Kanzaki Primary School. He was saved from instant vaporisation in the same manner as his comics alter-ego Gen Nakaoka, and over the years he has suffered many of the same hardships, tragedies and triumphs. Hopefully Barefoot Gen, the evocative anti-war weapon he created, will always stand ready to counteract the periodic madness that arouses the greedy and afflicts the vain and the foolish.

© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Barefoot Gen Volume 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima

barefoot-gen-v
By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-602-3

I first found the Educomics magazine I Saw It! in 1982; initially seduced by the garish cover and the Chester Gould-like illustrations. There was very little translated manga around then, and it was lumped in with the wild, wacky and often salaciously outrageous “Underground Comix” on the racks of my regular comics shop.

I was gobsmacked.

In England we’ve had educational comics for decades, but this was something completely new to me. There was no tasteful distancing here; just an outraged scream of defiance and a direct plea to make things right. This was history and politics – and it was deadly serious, not played for laughs or to make points as British cartooning traditionally did.

I Saw It! became Barefoot Gen, constantly revised and refined, and now the entire semi-autobiographical saga is being remastered in an unabridged ten volume English translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen originally began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) after an occasional series of single stories in 1972 including Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen, (One Day, Suddenly) in various magazines. These led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45 page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano realised that the author – an actual survivor of the first Atomic Bombing – had much more to say and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country that too often prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions, and after 18 months Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump transferring first to Shimin (Citizen), Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism). Like his indomitable hero Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to the first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the first Project Gen into English, and many other languages including Norwegian, French German, Italian, Portuguese Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. He completed the tale in 1985 and his dark chronicle has been adapted into three live action films (from 1976 to 1980), 2 anime films, (1983 and 1987) and in 2007, a 2-part live action television drama.

The unabridged first book A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima introduces six year old Gen Nakaoka in a small allotment, cultivating wheat with his father, an artist whose anti-war sentiment has made life even more difficult for his family. Hiroshima is starving, with American air-raids a constant hazard and rabid patriotic militarists urging the weary populace to greater and greater sacrifice. Every one is constantly reminded that their greatest honour would be to die for the Emperor. I almost expected Darkseid to pop up at any moment…

Gen is the third of five children; Koji and Akira, are his older brothers, his sister Eiko and brother Shinji are younger. His beloved, devoted mother is heavily pregnant. It is a desperate time. Neighbours spy on neighbours, secret police skulk everywhere, criminals and police confiscate all the food and everywhere the militarists scream that total victory for Japan is only a few days away…

Spring 1945: Hunger is everywhere. The bitter realist Papa Nakaoka is increasingly unable to suppress his anger at the greedy warmongers who have brought Japan to the edge of ruin. His open dissent turns his neighbours and friends against the family. They are all labelled traitors for his beliefs, shunned and cheated. Akira is evacuated to the countryside, Koji forced to join the ranks of the Kamikaze, but for pregnant Kimie and her youngest children the stress is unrelenting and inescapable…

Gen’s father is a complex figure – often regarded by critics as a pacifist, though he is far from that. He is however a totally honest man with a warrior’s heart and a true descendent of an honourable warrior culture. Arrested, beaten, maligned, he is unwavering in his fierce belief that the war is wrong, instigated by greedy men to line their own pockets. He always fights for what he knows is right and even as he is beaten by the police he tells his sons “When you know something’s right, don’t give it up…”

His other lesson becomes a major metaphor and visual theme of the series “Be like wheat that sprouts in the dead of winter and gets trampled over and over, but grows straight and tall and bears good fruit”.

The level of domestic violence – and indeed casual social and cultural violence – is apt to cause some modern readers a little concern. Papa Nakaoka is a “hands-on” father, always quick to physically chastise his children, and Gen himself develops into a boy all too ready to solve problems with his fists, but that the family loves deeply and is loved in return is never in doubt – you will just have to steel yourself for a tale about and prominently displaying lots of “tough love”.

There’s a great resemblance to the best of Charles Dickens in Barefoot Gen, especially Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, but as the human travails of Gen and his family mount there’s no human face of evil; only a ghastly clock counting down. We all know what’s coming even if they don’t and a repeating motif of a circle sun – more often dark than light – keeps that dread tension and foreknowledge of an utterly abhuman crisis solidly in focus.

Monday August 6th 1945 dawns bright and clear. Gen is celebrating a rare personal victory as little Shinji plays with a hard-won toy. There’s a flash of light in the sky…

Much has been written about the effects of the bomb and the incredible, matter-of-fact, nightmarish way Nakazawa has captured them. They’re all true. The depiction of the atomic aftermath and its immediate effects upon the survivors – although I hesitate to use such a hopeful term – are truly ghastly, and a testament to the power of the artist’s understated drawing talent. But this is a book about overcoming the impossible and to understand Gen’s achievement and victory, one has to see the face of his foe.

As the firestorm engulfs the city the miraculously unscathed boy rushes home. The structure has collapsed upon itself, trapping Papa, Eiko and Shinji. Despite his and mother’s efforts they can’t be extricated and no one will help. Mother and child watch helplessly as the family burns to death and the trauma induces labour. Amidst the flames Gen delivers his sister into a world of pain and horror…

Polemical, strident and unrelenting, A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima is also a great piece of craft: graphic narrative at its most effective and powerful. Gen is a flawed but likable hero, big-hearted and trustworthy, a source of cathartic laughter of the best slapstick kind, and a beacon of tragedy, hope and (im)patient understanding.

Although undoubtedly overshadowed by the strength and effect of its message, it’s also a compelling read as a drama, supremely informative and entertaining, memorably beguiling. Please read it. Read all of the series.

It might make you sick: it should. It’s meant to. Read it anyway. And when you think they’re ready, show it to your children. “Those who do not learn from history…”

© 2008 Keiji Nakazawa. All Rights Reserved.

Mother, Come Home


By Paul Hornschemeier (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-973-9

Back in print and in a magnificent deluxe hardback lending it even more gentle gravitas is Paul Hornschemeier’s dreamily magnetic exploration of grief and coping mechanisms. Mother, Come Home originally ran in the marvelous indie publication Forlorn Funnies before being gathered into a lyrically stunning collection in 2004. Now Fantagraphics have produced this beautiful edition of one of the best, most emotionally complex and graphically symbolic tales ever to grace our medium.

Tom is a seven year old boy whose mother has just died. His father, a deeply intellectual college professor of symbolic logic, slowly retreats into a nervous collapse and young Tom assumes the household duties – as much as he is able – bolstered by his love and sense of duty, as well as the innate half-word of fantasy that is the rightful domain of the very young.

Empowered by a dime-store lion-mask his mother bought him he becomes the head of his diminished clan and guardian of the home until his aunt and uncle discover how ill his father has become.

When his father voluntarily commits himself to an institution, Tom goes to live with them, but dreams of reuniting with his real family, even planning a meticulous escape and joyous reunion. But when he takes action the consequences are painfully revelatory, inevitably tragic and hauntingly real…

Rendered in a number of simple, powerful styles, with a mesmeric, muted colour palette binding ostensibly neutral images (that nevertheless burn with a highly charged intensity) with a simplified heavy line, this subtle, seductive, domestic tragedy is a perfect example of how our medium can so powerfully layer levels of meaning and abstract a personal reality until it becomes greater than itself.

Deeply moving, monstrously deep and overwhelmingly simple, Mother, Come Home is a true classic and stands comfortably beside such noteworthy novels as Maus, Barefoot Gen, Stuck Rubber Baby, Pride of Baghdad or Persepolis. This is a comic nobody could ever be embarrassed about reading, but they should feel ashamed if they haven’t…

© 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 Paul Hornschemeier. All Rights Reserved.