Doing Time


By Kazuichi Hanawa (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
ISBN: 978-8493340902

Something of an obscure recommendation, this, but I wanted to highlight something different in manga, as I’m a little burned out with big eyes, big explosions, and big hair at the moment.

Doing Time doesn’t fall into any generally perceived Western stereotype of Japanese comics. For a start it’s an autobiography and bleak admonitory documentary. It’s a journal along the lines of Samuel Pepys’ with disquietingly intimate revelations calmly and casually rolled out at every available juncture. The account is also a moving insight into the psychology of the Japanese culture and mind-set as the pages unfold in relentless understatement with a complete lack of flash, dazzle or grand showmanship.

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1947, Kazuichi Hanawa began creating manga in 1971, generally specialising in historical tales, Buddhist legends and fantasy subjects. A keen collector of imitation firearms, in 1994 Mr. Hanawa was caught firing a remodelled pistol in an isolated wooded area. The creator then served three years in prison for possessing and using replica guns, which seems pretty stern to me, but clearly retribution he feels he deserved every moment of…

At the risk of being accused of racism, I cannot imagine the thoughts here portrayed coming from an individual of any other culture. Mr. Hanawa constantly and genuinely bemoans the quality and quantity of the food. It’s too good for the miserable likes of him…

“Is it right for us to live so well in spite of having perpetrated such misdeeds?” he asks. The attention to detail and meticulous cataloguing of minutiae almost makes this a cookbook and journal planner. The narrative structure is so fluid that all one comes away with is a fine pattern of detail and no big picture… probably just like being banged up in jail…

On its release AX Magazine in 1998 and in 2000 as collected book Kemusho no naka (In Prison), the visual and philosophical diary swiftly garnered domestic and international acclaim and was made into a live action movie All Under the Moon.

I have to admit that I was bewildered and captivated in equal measure with this collection of strips drawn with astounding veracity and authenticity. Japanese prisons – at least at that time – apparently allow no records of any sort (including drawings) to be kept by inmates, so the chilling pages here were produced from memory, and to my mind read like moments you’d prefer to forget, but if you’re of an adventurous mien this may brighten your jaded day and will certainly open your eyes to the power and potential of the comics medium.
© 2000, 2004 Kaziuchi Hanawa & Ponent Mon.

Unlikely


By Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-89183-041-4                  978-1-89183-041-9

If you’re a fan of Jeffrey Brown’s cartoon exploits you might understandably admit to a small degree of confusion. In 2012 he scored his first global best-seller with a hilarious spin on the soft and nurturing side of the Jedi experience in Darth Vader and Son, following up with equally charming and hilarious sequels Vader’s Little PrincessStar Wars: Jedi Academy and others. He followed that up by contributing to the franchise’s dramatic comics canon with Star Wars Jedi Academy; Star Wars Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan and Star Wars Jedi Academy: The Phantom Bully (2013-2015).

He has also directed music videos, created film posters, worked for public radio and co-written the feature film Save the Date.

Before that another Jeffrey Brown was the sharply sparkling wit who had crafted slyly satirical all-ages funny stuff for The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror, Marvel’s Strange TalesIncredible Change-Bots and similar visual venues.

There is yet another Jeffrey Brown: instigator and frequent star and stooge of such quirkily irresistible autobiographical Indy comics classics as BigheadLittle ThingsMome, Funny, Misshapen Body, Undeleted Scenes and the four-volume “Girlfriend Trilogy” (of which this is the second), comprising ClumsyUnlikelyAEIOU and Every Girl is the End of the World for Me

Whichever Brown’s your preferred choice, he’s a cartoonist of rare insight and unflinching integrity who still makes you laugh out loud when not prompting you to offer a big consoling hug…

Brown was raised in Michigan; relocating to Chicago in 2000 to attend the School of the Arts Institute and study painting. Before graduating he had switched to drawing comics and in 2002 Clumsy was released. A poignant and uncompromising dissection of a long-distance relationship, it quickly becoming a surprise hit with fans and critics alike.

A little later – and in the same vein – he produced Unlikely (or How I Lost My Virginity) – a True Love Story.

In both paperback and digital formats it describes a succession of painful torments, frustrations and moments of unparalleled joy as “250+ pages of young love, sex, drugs, heartbreak & comedy” involving the long and agonisingly extended process of “becoming a Man”…

The material is both delicious and agonising in its forthright simplicity: a sequence of pictorial snippets and vignettes detailing how a meek, frumpy, horny, inoffensively average film-fan art-student – and long-overdue virgin – cautiously navigates his first fully-sexualised relationship with a girl.

As is always the case, his prospective partner comes with baggage that is at first beguiling and charming – or at least overlook-able – but which soon becomes a major sticking point. More telling, however, is what Jeffrey learns about himself in the process…

Every young man who’s gone gagging for it, gone for broke when the opportunity arose, and gone off to college or elsewhere to lick his amorous wounds has been through this, and for every inflammatory romance that makes it, there are a million that don’t…

Drawn in his deceptively effective Primitivist monochrome style with masterful staging, a sublime economy of phrase and a breathtaking gift for generating in equal amounts belly-laughs and those poignant lump-in-throat moments we’ve all experienced and regretted forever-after, this is a potent procession of crystallised moments which establish one awful truth. This is Not The One…

We’ve all been there, done that and then relentlessly reviewed and revised in our heads and wished we’d done it all differently…

Through dozens of individual episodes with titles like ‘Things of Mine She Still Has’‘I’d Do Her’‘No, This is Jeff’‘Virgin Alert’‘Talking and, Talking’, ‘All Nighter’, ‘I Had a Weird Dream’, ‘Will you Still’, ‘Sex’, ‘Sweetness Frustration’, and ‘The Last Time’: a web of triumphant relief, fractious accommodation and eventually, inevitably disappointment and fresh awareness for Jeff and Allisyn …

Brimming with portentous discovery, hopeful revelation and the shattering angst us oldsters can barely remember now let alone understand, Unlikely is a powerful delight for everybody who has confused raging hormones and intimate physical contact with love, and a sublime examination of what makes us human, hopeful and perhaps wistfully incorrigible…
© 2007 Jeffrey Brown.

Willie and Joe: the WWII Years


By Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-838-1 (HB)                                978-1-60699-439-9 (PB)

During World War II a talented, ambitious young man named William Henry “Bill” Mauldin (29/10/1921 – 22/01/2003) fought “Over There” with the 45th Division of the United States Infantry as well as many other fine units of the army. He learned to hate war and love his brother soldiers – and the American fighting man loved him back.

During his time in the service he produced civilian cartoons for the Oklahoma City Times and The Oklahoman, and intimately effective and authentic material for his Company periodical, 45th Division News, as well as Yank and Stars and Stripes: the US Armed Forces newspapers. Soon after, his cartoons were being reproduced in newspapers across Europe and America.

They mostly featured two slovenly “dogfaces” (a term he popularised) giving their trenchant and laconic view of the war from the muddied tip of the pointiest of Sharp Ends. Willie and Joe, much to the dismay of the brassbound, spit-and-polish military martinets and diplomatic doctrinaires, became the unshakable, everlasting image of the American soldier: continually revealed in all ways and manners the upper echelons of the army would prefer remained top secret.

Willie and Joe even became the subject of two films (Up Front – 1951 and Back at the Front – 1952) whilst Willie made the cover of Time Magazine in 1945, when 23-year old Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize.

In 1945 a collection of his drawings, accompanied by a powerfully understated and heartfelt documentary essay, was published by Henry Holt and Co. Up Front was a sensation, telling the American public about the experiences of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands in a way no historian would or did. A biography, Back Home, followed in 1947.

Mauldin’s anti-war, anti-Idiots-in-Charge-of-War views became increasingly unpopular during the Cold War and despite being a War Hero his increasingly political cartoon work fell out of favour and those efforts are the subject of companion volume Willie & Joe: Back Home. Mauldin left the business to become a journalist and illustrator.

He was a film actor for a while (appearing in Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy, among other movies); a war correspondent during the Korean War and – after an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1956 – finally returned to newspaper cartooning in 1958.

He retired in 1991 after a long, glittering and award-studded career. Mauldin only drew Willie and Joe four times in that entire period (for an article on the “New Army” in Life magazine; for the funerals of “Soldier’s Generals” Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall; and to eulogize Milton Caniff). His fondest wish had been to kill the iconic dogfaces off on the final day of World War II, but Stars and Stripes vetoed it.

The Willie and Joe cartoons and characters are some of the most enduring and honest symbols of all military history. Every Veterans Day in Peanuts, from1969 to 1999, fellow veteran Charles Schulz had Snoopy turn up at Mauldin’s house to drink Root Beers and tell war stories with an old pal.

When you read Sgt. Rock you’re looking at Mauldin’s legacy, and Archie Goodwin even drafted the shabby professionals for a couple of classy guest-shots in Star-Spangled War Stories (see Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier).

This immense mostly monochrome compendium (with some very rare colour and sepia items) comes in hardback, softcover and even as an eBook: collecting all Mauldin’s known wartime cartoons and featuring not only the iconic dog-face duo, but also the drawings, illustrations, sketches and gags that led, over 8 years of army life, to their creation.

Mauldin produced most of his work for Regimental and Company newspapers whilst under fire: perfectly capturing the life and context of fellow soldiers – also under battlefield conditions – and gave a glimpse of that unique and bizarre existence to their families and civilians at large, despite constant military censorship and even face-to-face confrontations with Generals such as George Patton, who was perennially incensed at the image the cartoonist presented to the world.

Fortunately, Supreme Commander Eisenhower, if not an actual fan, at least recognised the strategic and morale value of Mauldin’s Star Spangled Banter and Up Front features with indomitable everymen Willie and Joe

This far removed in time, many of the pieces here might need historical context for modern readers and such is comprehensively provided by the notes section to the rear of the volume. Also included are unpublished pieces and pages, early cartoon works, and rare notes, drafts and sketches.

Most strips, composites and full-page gags, however, are sublimely transparent in their message and meaning: lampooning entrenched stupidity and cupidity, administrative inefficiency and sheer military bloody-mindedness whilst highlighting the miraculous perseverance and unquenchable determination of the ordinary guys to get the job done while defending their only inalienable right – to gripe and goof off whenever the brass weren’t around…

Moreover, Mauldin never patronises the civilians or demonises the enemy: the German and Italians are usually in the same dismal boat as “Our Boys” and only the war and its brass-bound conductors are worthy of his inky ire…

Let’s just hope that in these tense, “ten-seconds-to-doomsday” times the latest batch of brass-hats and political ass-hats keep that in mind and remember what’s always at stake here…

Alternating trenchant cynicism, moral outrage, gallows humour, absurdist observation, shared miseries, staggering sentimentality and the total shock and awe of still being alive every morning, this cartoon catalogue of the Last Just War is a truly breathtaking collection no fan, art-lover, historian or humanitarian can afford to miss.

…And it will make you cry and laugh out loud too.

With a fascinating biography of Mauldin that is as compelling as his art, the mordant wit and desperate camaraderie of his work is more important than ever in an age where increasingly cold and distanced leaders send ever-more innocent lambs to further foreign fields for slaughter. With this volume (and the aforementioned Willie & Joe: Back Home) we should finally be able to restore Mauldin and his works to the forefront of graphic consciousness, because tragically, his message is never going to be out of date…
© 2011 the Estate of William Mauldin. All right reserved.

Portugal

By Cyril Pedrosa with additional colour by Ruby; translated by Montana Kane (NBM/Fanfare)

ISBN: 978-1-68112-147-5 (NBM)                 978-1-91209-703-6 (Fanfare)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Perfect Family Holiday Getaway… 10/10

I read a lot of graphic novels. Some books are awful, many are pedestrian and the rest I endeavour to share with you. Of that remaining fraction most can be summarised, plot-pointed and précised to give you a clue about what you might be buying if I’ve done my job right.

Sometimes, however, all that kerfuffle is not only irrelevant but will actually impede your eventual enjoyment. This is one of those times…

Cyril Pedrosa was born in Poitiers in 1972, a child of Portuguese extraction. After pursuing science jobs and a career in animation (at Disney he worked on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules), in 1998 he moved into the world of comics with Ring Circus, following up with Les Aventures spatio-temporelles de Shaolin Moussaka, Three Shadows, Equinoxes and much more…

Since 2008 Pedrosa has devoted much of his time to fictionalised autobiography, beginning with with Autobio in Fluide Glacial, and that fresh string to his bow is at play in this newly translated, magnificently oversized (312 x 234 mm) hardcover (or digital edition): a moving and intoxicating graphic assessment of a crucial time in the illustrator’s life…

Through the vehicle of artistic analogue Simon Muchat, Pedrosa revisits a moment of his own history when he had lost the taste and verve for creative expression. In France, Simon’s relationship with his partner is breaking down; he’s living through a crippling writer’s block – and doesn’t care. Muchat makes a pittance teaching art or disconsolately doing little ad or design jobs. There seems no point to anything, but then he grudgingly attends a minor comics convention in Portugal and is suddenly reawakened to the intoxications of Existence…

Uncontrollably subject to recurring memory-snatches of childhood visits to his ancestors’ homes, Simon inexplicably beguiles himself into staying. His interest in storytelling is revived through one-sided conversations (he can’t remember much of the language) and before long he’s relocated to the sunny land of shiny, happy people…

Divided into three acts – ‘According to Simon’, ‘According to Jean’ and ‘According to Abel’ – the euphoric images cascade through picturesque hamlets and towns, country scenes and beaches – and bars of all types – as the gentle pace of life and friendly folk break down Muchat’s crust of indifference.

He even loses sight of his own troubles after gradually immersing himself in the cacophonous hurly-burly of his large extended Portuguese family and becomes increasing absorbed in discovering how and why his father moved to France.

That taciturn, work-obsessed worthy is still around (albeit, only in brief, breathless bursts between meetings) but has never and will never provide Simon with the answers he craves more than food or air…

And then, just when he thinks he’s made his peace with that onion-skin enigma, Simon finds another, deeper, more insoluble mystery to gnaw on…

This a truly breathtaking venture, a book full of humour, warmth and conflict, but one where nothing really happens. It does, however, happen with such joyous and compelling style and amiability that you cannot help but be swept along in its wake…

Enchanting, redemptive and captivatingly rewarding, Portugal is a book to chase away all winter blues and existential glums and a reading experience you must not deprive yourself – or your family – of.

© Dupuis 2011 by Pedrosa. Dupuis 2015 for the English translation.

Portugal will be released on December 1st 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

A UK edition from Fanfare will be available from November 30th.

For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea


By Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly Books/Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-22407-990-7

The world is always on the brink of extinction. That’s just the way it is. However, it’s perhaps comforting to be reminded that even the most demonised of boogeymen are fundamentally human too. So let’s take a peek at some graphic reportage from a temporary insider once au fait with and allowed access to a nation currently running equal first in the highly-competitive “Earth’s craziest ruler” stakes…

The only things I knew about North Korea I picked up from too many comics (mostly American) and television, so this engaging book was a rather surprising delight. As much lyrical travelogue as pithy autobiography, it relates the bemused culture shock of inveterate traveller and Canadian animator Guy Delisle, who, whilst possessing a French work-permit, was invited behind what was once dubbed “the Bamboo Curtain” to train and supervise Korean artists as a film production supervisor.

Cheap animators, as you are probably well-aware, are one of the few resources that North Korea can use as a means of securing capital from the decadent West – well, at least at the time this anxious odyssey was recorded…

What Delisle discovered and illustrates here both reinforces and explodes much of the modern mythology surrounding the world’s only communist dynasty.

Using a simplified, utilitarian style he depicts and deconstructs an utterly alien environment that is nevertheless populated with people who are so very similar to ourselves, even though the citizens do their utmost not to let it show. Pyongyang is stuffed with nuggets of revelation, dryly observed by the innocuous author.

Gently-paced and often dream-like in quality, the humorous tone and genteel accessibility of the illustration accentuates an oddly-strictured, constantly buttoned-down sense of foreboding.

Allowed only one book (in his case, perhaps unwisely, Orwell’s 1984) which must be donated to the State on leaving the country, and a CD Walkman (as personal radios are banned) Delisle’s airport interrogation is sheer mental torture.

Only once we’ve been thoroughly immersed in the culture and experienced the personal foibles of the limited number people he is allowed to meet does the placidly compliant Delisle surprise us by revealing that he risked everything by rashly smuggling in a tiny radio so he could get more than state-controlled information – and entertainment!

Subtly playing with the ominous reputation of part of “The Axis of Evil”, Delisle has produced a readable, gentle, non-discriminating reverie that informs and charms with surprising effect.

In this period of heightened thermonuclear tensions, this is a tale more timely than ever.
© 2003, 2005 Guy Delisle and L’Association. All Rights Reserved.

The Quitter


By Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1401203993 (HC)                        978-1401204006(PB)

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping truly creative individuals: lots and lots of critical acclaim and occasional heart-crushingly close brushes with super-stardom (which everyone except him felt he truly deserved) but never actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

In the 1970s, whilst palling around with Robert Crumb, Pekar began crafting compelling documentary narratives of ordinary, blue-collar life – primarily his own – and over successive decades invented “literary comics”. Despite negligible commercial success, the activity fulfilled some deep inner need and he persevered in his self-publishing and soul-searching.

One of those brushes with the Big Time came in the 1980s with the release of two compilations by mainstream publisher Doubleday of selected strips from his American Splendor comicbooks. To this day those tomes remain some of the most powerful, honest and rewarding comics ever seen.

By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying – out of his meagre civil service wages, and the occasional wheeler-deal or barter bonanza – any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards, Pekar soldiered on, inadvertently creating the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives. And that was when he wasn’t eking out a mostly solitary, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, knowledge-hungry, self-educated, music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life for the “ordinary Joe” is a magical journey into the plebeian far better read than read about, so go do that if you haven’t already.

Life picked up late for Harvey Pekar – mostly through an award-winning movie of his career and the publication of Our Cancer Year (a stunning documentation of his and third wife Joyce Brabner’s response to his disease).

This all led to an elevated and celebrated glitterati status, allowing him the opportunity to produce even more personal and compelling tales such as The Beats, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me and The Quitter.

For all of that time he lived in Cleveland, Ohio and the city is as much a character in all his autobiographical works as the man himself. An irrepressible autodidact in the truest sense of the term, Pekar made it his business to learn everything about anything he was interested in… and he could be initially interested in everything.

Harvey Pekar died in 2010, aged 70.

First released in 2005, The Quitter is a bleak, coldly funny and often painful self-examination of a troubled and driven young outsider in a society gradually becoming a bit of a disappointment. All the trademark Pekar concerns are present: success with women, financial security, success in relationships, history, literature, success in a culture that won’t tolerate failure – or even mediocrity – and respect, all viewed through the fresh eyes of a troubled adolescent.

Harvey Pekar was never ordinary, and here he turns the autobiographical spotlight on his shameful early propensities to avoid potential failure by pre-emptive surrender and seek trouble or disputes he could settle disputes with his fists. The result is intellectual and emotional dynamite…

Pekar’s subtle mastery, gloriously illustrated by the simply magical monochrome artwork of Dean Haspiel, is to convey these dark themes in a compelling and frankly joyous manner.

Always gripping, never depressing, and utterly absorbing, The Quitter is, as its hype describes, some of his best work yet, and I’m aggrieved beyond explaining that his unique narrative voice has finally been stilled.

Still available in hardback or paperback editions, but not regrettably in digital form yet…
© 2005 Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel. All Rights Reserved.

Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? – A Comic by Liz Prince


By Liz Prince (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-89183-072-3

There’s an irrepressible rumour going about that Love makes the world go round. My grasp of physics isn’t strong enough to confirm or deny that hypothesis but I have read enough comics in my time to spot a magical and unmissable celebration of the all-consuming emotion when I see one.

Liz Prince originally hailed from Sante Fe, New Mexico before heading across county in an Eastward direction to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire).

She is a cartoonist – one of many – who thankfully opted to create a visual journal of her life and saw that one subject kept monopolising her attention. She is also an inspired raconteur who knows how to spin a graphic yarn in adroitly truncated form. Thus this slim collection which gathers a whole bunch of sublimely intimate, hilariously real moments spent with and apart from her equally fascinating man Kevin and the awesome force which is their cat Science.

Contained in this marvellous monochrome paperback posy are vignettes exploring the giddy silliness of fresh physicality, quirkily adorable breaking of bathroom taboos, the agony and relief of momentary solitude, incidents of intimate accommodation and lots of lovely eternal challenges that test every couple… especially the often bloody traumas of explaining to the incumbent household pet that they are not necessarily “Number One” any more…

Fronted by a suitably droll but downbeat pictorial Introduction ‘On Liz Prince’ by legendary lovelorn doodler Jeffrey Brown, Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? is thankfully still available – and instantly so if you opt for one of the downloadable versions (Kindle, Comixology etc.), or preferably direct from Top Shelf Productions – so if you want to share some romantic fellow feeling or just need to see that there’s still hope for all the lonely hearts, this a graphic gem you should promptly treat yourself to.
© & ™ Liz Prince 2005. All rights reserved.

Dreams in Thin Air


By Michael Magnus Nybrandt & Thomas Engelbrecht Mikkelsen translated by Steffen Rayburn-Maarup (Conundrum Press)
ISBN: 978-1-77262-010-8

Fantastic battles against overwhelming odds and magnificent, unlikely victories are the lifeblood of graphic narratives – and most of our popular fiction these days, I suppose – but seeing such triumphs in our own mundane mortal coil is barely credible in the real world.

Happily, miracles do occur, and one such forms the basis of this stunningly engaging chronicle of a good heart and love of sport defeating the political skulduggery of an oppressive yet publicity-shy superpower.

Delivered as a sturdy and compelling full-colour landscape format hardback, Dreams in Thin Air details the struggle of a young Danish man whose life was changed by a pre-college visit to Tibet: the things he saw and the people he met…

To make the story even more accessible, the man at the centre of events tells his own story, teamed here with Danish comics superstar and educator Thomas Engelbrecht Mikkelsen (Wizards of Vestmannaeyjar, Einherjar) who adds zest, verve and spectacular imagination to the already heady mix…

Following a Foreword by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the story opens near the end as impassioned, frustrated Michael Magnus Nybrandt paces outside the Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen. We don’t know it yet but Michael has gambled years of hard work, devious conniving and soul-destroying dedication on a true long shot…

‘Chapter 1: Towards Tibet’ then takes us back to 1997 when Michael and his friend Thomas land at Lhasa Airport and are only saved from disaster by the quick thinking of Tibetan guide Jamphel Yeshi, who rescues the idealistic Scandinavians from a potentially lethal encounter with bribe-seeking Chinese Guards.

As they ride away from the airport the Europeans observe over and again the brutal results of China’s annexation and systematic eradication of Tibetan culture begun in the aftermath of the 1950 invasion. Of course, the gun-toting occupiers called it an act of “liberation”…

The white boys’ feelings as they contrast the broken relics of a glorious past with the urbanised concrete wastelands inflicted by two generations of self-serving Chinese occupiers are obvious and exceedingly painful, and before long they check out of their state-sponsored hotel and go on a trans-Tibetan tandem ride, looking for the real country…

In ‘The Easy Way’ that joyous if exhausting excursion brings them into constant contact with the earthy, gregarious Tibetans and solidifies a feeling in Michael that he must do something to help them. The revelation of exactly what that might be comes after they arrive at a shattered temple and meet Lama Tsarong.

During their stopover, the Europeans meet young monks in training and discover the Tibetans’ abiding passion for football – the proper “beautiful game” and not the dandified Rugby played by Americans…

Later, Michael endures a bizarre dream in which he is the coach of a Tibetan National Team. That’s clearly an impossible notion. Thanks to China’s political clout and annexation policy, there is no such nation as Tibet, only outlaw enclaves of dispossessed Tibetans living as exiles in well-wishing countries such as India and Nepal.

No politically expedient government on Earth recognises the annexed but unforgotten land and it has no official national standing in any arena… even sports…

In August 1997 Nybrandt returns to Denmark and resumes his education in Aarhus. He is part of the landmark radical education initiative dubbed Kaospilot, but despite all his studies cannot shift his focus away from that vivid dream…

At that time privately-sponsored Kaospilot trained less than 40 students per year in leadership, business design, process design and project design. The private school’s educational philosophy stresses personal development, values-based entrepreneurship, socially-responsible innovation and – above all else – creativity.

Although Michael strives to adapt to the program, eventually he gives in to his obsession and retools his lessons and educational modules to the ultimate goal of creating a Tibetan National Football team and getting them international matches…

And that’s when his problems really begin, as the full political might of the People’s Republic is brought to bear, not just on him but also on Denmark itself. In ‘Dharamsala’ that subtle, silent opposition becomes far more overt, even as Nybrandt tirelessly works with Tibetan bigwigs – in the conquered mountain country itself and throughout the rest of the world.

Undaunted, he sources players, finds sponsors bold enough to buck the Chinese government; sidestepping petty-minded obfuscations like visa-sabotage and rescinded travel permits and even terrifying physical assaults from thinly-disguised political bully boys in China’s pay…

The tide starts to turn in ‘Dharma Player’ after a meeting with the Dalai Lama and the arrangement of an international fixture against Greenland’s national team. With the threat of public legitimisation of a “non-country”, China begins turning the geo-political screws: threatening economic sanctions that might bankrupt Denmark and even more dire unspecified consequences…

On the brink of defeat, Michael thinks furiously and realises that although the prestige of international sport has caused all his problems, it has also provided a once-in-a-lifetime possible solution. All he has to do is confront the Chinese ambassador and not blink first…

The result was a milestone in the modern history of oppressed, subjugated Tibet and resulted in ‘Ninety Minutes of Recognition’ as China was forced to climb down and allow the match to take place…

Being a true story, this gloriously inspirational tale can also offer a photo-reportage-packed ‘Epilogue by the Author’, geographical and socio-political synopsis on the country at ‘The Roof of the World’ and a heartfelt ‘Acknowledgments’ section dedicated to the brave souls who made the miracle happen and brought this book into print.

Compelling, hugely entertaining and astoundingly uplifting, Dreams in Thin Air is a wonderful tribute to the power of sport and the resolve of good people. Don’t wait for the inevitable feelgood movie: read this magnificent graphic testament right now and experience the all-too-rare joy of good intentions triumphing over smugly overwhelming ensconced power…
English Edition © Michael Magnus Nybrandt, Thomas Engelbrecht Mikkelsen and Conundrum Press 2017.

Blue


By Pat Grant (Pat Grant/Top Shelf)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-153-4

As far as the global mass-market is concerned, Australia doesn’t do comics. There’s no home-grown Oz equivalent to Beano or Spirou or 2000 AD, no Akira or Batman to enthral the entire nation.

You don’t hear about their industry bashes such as OzComic-Con and nobody applauds if you say you’ve been nominated for a Stanley Award…

Yet Australia harbours an incredibly potent and dedicated cartooning community, quietly turning out a broad and utterly beguiling range of strips and features from kiddie-comics to strictly adult fare that we seldom get to enjoy in the Northern climes (just check out UK ex-pat Eddie Campbell’s work or Neomad: Space Junk or the precious few titles from Gestalt Publishing that have made it to Britain to see what I mean…).

One of the most enticing and rewarding releases in decades recently came courtesy of cartoonist and passionate surfer Pat Grant. In 2012 his debut graphic novel Blue set tongues wagging not just down under but all over: a superbly realised amalgam of graphic autobiography, socially-relevant historical treatise and fantasy-tinged cautionary tale…

Like so much Australian graphic narrative, Blue owes more to the underground and alternative comics movements than to mainstream. The art is rendered in a muted, limited-colours palette in a style vaguely reminiscent of Peter Bagge, but the storytelling is all original; mixing memories of growing up in small remote company-town with themes of alienation as filtered through a lens of constant, unwelcome change, incipient onrushing maturity and impending humdrum crushing responsibility.

Blue is seductive, familiar, scary and also punishingly funny where it’s most inappropriate…

Bolton is a town by the sea, built a generation ago by the company to house its work force. Years passed and the town stopped being shiny and new. The workers had kids and the kids grew bored. They had school and surfing and no prospects. And then the aliens started turning up. Unwelcome, unwanted, probably illegal and so clearly unwilling to mix. Soon they were everywhere, spoiling everything…

Christian never made it out. He’s a burn-out these days, sucking down bevies when not coasting a dead-end painting gig – and boozing on the job too if no one’s watching – so he’s got time to tell you about those days when he was a kid and lived for surfing…

The day he remembers most vividly is when him and Verne and Muck skipped school to chase a truly massive wave and decided to go see the body of a bloke who died on the railway tracks the night before…

Graphically imaginative, boldly experimental and gratefully expressing his debt of inspiration to the film Stand By Me, Grant has woven here an intoxicating web of intrigue and memory which resonates with the mythic image we all have of life in Oz and the knowledge of what kids ought to be like.

However, the most powerful sense is one of constant motion, bolstered by stunning, nigh-abstract seascapes and wave fronts, as his actors move raucously, rowdily and rapidly through their scenes propelled by bad instincts and inexpressible desire for something different…

Although you may not share Grant’s personal background, readers cannot help but be swept away by the author’s utterly convincing immersion in the minutiae of nostalgia and poignant bewilderment in how we all got to here and now…

With an introduction by Dylan Horrocks and text feature ‘Genealogy of the Boofhead: Images Memory and Australia’s Surf Comics’ – an erudite and fascinating extended essay by Grant detailing the history of the nation’s board bound phenomenon – this enchanting hardback tome is a total treat for comics connoisseurs indoors or outside.
© 2012 Pat Grant. All rights reserved.

Through the Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in the Cubicles


By Jeff Nicholson (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80286-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Self-Exploration and Terrifyingly Revelatory Erudition… 9/10

To cheekily hijack a common aphorism, Comics Will Eat Itself whenever an opportunity occurs. The way creators, readers, devotees and collectors respond to the medium is infinitely fascinating to us and has formed the basis of many stellar strips and novels: not just in the arena of Graphic Autobiography but also in other picture/prose genres…

For a brief while and every so often, Jeff Nicholson was a comicbook creator. His most well known works are probably 1980s self-published satirical parody series Ultra Klutz and the award-winning Colonia. After this last concluded in 2006, Nicholson quit comics.

Somewhere in between those two radically different creations, he produced one of the scariest yet most compelling ruminations on the experiences and compulsions of making picture stories and working as an artist-for-hire ever put to paper.

From 1990 to 1997 Through the Habitrails appeared episodically in Steve Bissette’s groundbreaking horror anthology Taboo and there has never been a better examination of an (extra)ordinary guy being creative on command, turning visual tricks and drafting wonders whilst under corporate pressure and an obsessive personal need to make art…

Moreover, he crafted the experience as a mesmerising blend of autobiography and toxic, paranoid terror-tale; rendered even more isolating and crushing by adopting a fiercely bleak science fictional tone and deeply symbolic method of illustration…

After Matt Fraction qualifies the vicissitudes of the modern work experience in his ‘Foreword’ Bissette’s Introduction offers history, context and untrammelled appreciation in ‘Never on Monday: Through the 21st Century Habitrails’ and ends by explaining how Nicholson was persuaded to return to his sinister seminal work to update – if not placate – his growing legion of (perhaps unwanted) admirers…

Lettered throughout by Chad Woody, the cartoon catharsis begins with ‘Increasing the Gerbils’ as a literally faceless wage slave – drawing to order in a corporate studio which is only a small division of a massive mercantile monolith – describes his increasingly intolerable life. The office is crammed and ponderously industrious and incorporates tubes and tunnels in the walls where creepy rodents run maze-like from room to room: a Byzantine and barely explicable connection with the serried, unknowable Powers That Be…

None too slowly, the line between employee and subject beast of burden begins to blur…

Another unwholesome aspect of the job is how Management wanders the halls, arbitrarily tapping the workers and consuming their vital spirit, as grimly revealed in ‘It’s Not Your Juice’

The steps taken to remain an individual are touched on in ‘No End’ and pitifully laid out in ‘Jar Head’ as the worker describes the use and variety of intoxicants used by the not-quite-captive Creatives to maintain output before his attention shifts to describing the fate of ‘The Doomed One’: the worker who did not bend to an oppressive, self-selected yoke but instead tried to rebel. Her fate was incomprehensible and appalling but not unexpected…

Such pressure to perform can not be endured forever and our pictorial peon eventually found release in walking and wandering in his downtime. The shocking repercussions of ‘Escape #1: “El Muerte”’ were expansive but still tantalised him with a promise of better… once he returned to work…

Not all needs can be met by the benefits of being a corporate drudge. Nevertheless, it’s the most likely place to meet potential mates. When ‘Futile Love’ happens and goes horribly wrong, naturally it provokes another deviation from protocol and ‘Escape #2: “The Dry Creek Bed”’ quietly carries him far away but ultimately only back to where he started from…

The unshakable drive to resist only brings uncomfortable attention from the managers who simply demand ‘Be Creative’, but after another pointless close call the worker heads home and in a barren wasteland discovers a possible answer to all his problems: a weapon he secretes as a tiny, prospective notion of rebellion he chooses to call ‘Animal Control’

With a glint of hope and a possible ally in reserve, the thought that one of his fellows might be untrustworthy begins to dominate, but the truth about and fate of ‘The Infiltrator’ leaves nobody wiser or happier…

The hunger for space and wish for clarity push the artist into ever-greater unsanctioned ventures but ‘Escape #3: “Concow”’ again proves that no matter how far you go, what awaits is never going to be a welcome surprise…

A near-escapee who was dragged back into the fold attempts to rationalise his twice-lost liberty with the suffocating security of wage slavery and constant draining by creating an exposé. Sadly his assumptions about the value and efficacy of his ‘Dark Spiral’ can only end one way and the artist must resort to collusion with his dark side as delineated by ever-encroaching sometime ally ‘The Gerbil King’

With work and notional reality fully at war, a catastrophic climax approaches as ‘Jimmy’ enters his life and changes everything forever…

Was that all a little vague? I certainly hope so because this is something you really need to work your way through on your own. The tone fits though: don’t read this unless and until you’re psyched up and suitably apprehensive…

The material has been collected a number of times since it first appeared but this superb Dover Edition offers what we smart-arse cognoscenti never expected: a continuation of the tale and dialogue with the creator from a place and position far less dark than that animal-infested region of the 1990s.

Preceding an ‘Afterword by Jeff Nicholson’ and the now-mandatory ‘About the Author’ feature, the comics self-diagnosis concludes with ‘Epilogue 1: Beyond the Habitrails’ and ‘Epilogue 2: Ghost Town Studio’: bringing us up to date in an equally abstracted but far more upbeat manner and supposing that at the end of some tunnels – or tubes – there can be light, not darkness…

Barbed with allegory, using metaphor like a scalpel and employing all the darkly surreal glamour and oppressive verve of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, this potent dose of exploratory surgery for the soul simultaneously dissects why comics are made and why some of us must make them whilst telling one of the scariest tales of modern times.

Although certainly an acquired taste, Through the Habitrails is a must-see, never-forget graphic novel for anybody with a vested of intellectual interest in the Ninth Art.
© 1994, 1996, 2016 by Jeff Nicholson. Foreword © 2016 Matt Fraction. Introduction © 1996 Stephen Russell Bissette. All rights reserved.