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I grew up way up north in Norway. I was really into comic books. I liked American comic books just fine (both superheroes and stuff like Love & Rockets and Cerebus), but I loved arty French(ey) “albums” the most.

When I was about 14 (in 1982), more complex comics started being translated into Scandinavian languages. It seemed like an endless stream of wonderful French(ish) comics were being published. Tardi, the Varenne brothers, Hugo Pratt, Bilal, Comès, Manara, Moebius, Franquin… Each time I got a new catalogue from Denmark, there was something new and wonderful to order.

And then it suddenly stopped. Either because they ran out of the really major artists to translate, or because the audience had moved on.

I was reading this stuff pretty much in a vacuum. The only comics magazine I read was The Comics Journal, and that didn’t cover European comics much, but it seemed like that amazing five-year spurt of marvellous translated work was driven by an overhang of work from the late 70s and early 80s. The work from that period seemed to have a lot of ambition, tackling political and social issues in an interesting way. Some somewhat hippyish and “mystical”, and some not.

The 70s, dude.

By the time the translators had caught up, the French comics scene seemed to have devolved into sci-fi, porn, and sci-fi porn, and not much else. It recovered after a while, but I lost track.

Meanwhile, all these albums had remained in cases in the house I grew up in. I’d always wanted to bring them with me, but being a student didn’t give me that much storage room. And then later, so much new, great stuff was being published (mainly in the US) that it was hard just to keep up. (At one point I had an unread backlog stack two meters high.)

But, finally, this Xmas I rooted through the boxes and selected 90kg of albums and shipped them down. They’re now here.

DSC01045Most of these I’ve read time and time again as a teenager, but I haven’t read them in more than 25 years. I’m curious as to whether they’re good as good as I thought they were.

So that’s the project: I’m going to re-read a bunch of these, write a bit about them, and post some scans of some pages.  I’ll avoid works that have been widely reprinted lately (like Tardi and Corto Maltese), and try to pick some artists that interesting, but (perhaps) a bit forgotten.

I’ll try to post about one artist per day for about a week, at least.  Let’s see how that goes…

Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor: A Reappraisal

DSC01674The Sculptor is the long-awaited graphic novel (published by First Second) that has been reviewed a lot.  It’s a spellbinding urban fable about a childhood wish, a deal with Death, the price of art, the value of life, and a desperate love.

DSC01675It says so right there.

But it’s been months since it’s been published now, and I think it’s way past time that we reappraised this hefty work.

(In the following article, there are spoilers and triggers.)

To sum up the plot: An art dork gets super-powers enabling him to sculpt stone by just thinking hard.  The work he produces is terrible.  He then meets a magic pixie dream girl who dies to teach him a lesson about life.  The work he produces after that is even worse.  The end.

Now, many of the earlier reviewers seem to feel that there’s something wonky about this plot.  That perhaps that’s not what McCloud had in mind when making the graphic novel.  But let’s just look at the evidence.

DSC01676DSC01677That’s the first stuff he makes.  A critic accurately describes it as looking like a Polynesian gift shop.  You may interpret that as a dig against the critic, but if he’s not meant to be right, why did McCloud draw that Polynesian gift shop? You can’t argue with this logic.

The dork rails a lot against modern art in general, and Jeff Koons in particular because he’s gimickey and doesn’t make stuff with his own hands.  But look!

DSC01678Neither does the dork, really!  He just wills the crap to be there, and it is!  Just like Koons!  And the “masterpiece” he creates after the magic pixie dream girl dies is even more dreary than the Polynesian gift shop he made earlier, thereby negating the entire MPDG cliche.  The dork learned nothing.  Except how to make things even bigger, and use his hands even less.  Like Koons, I guess.

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Could also be a critique of Zurab Tsereteli

That the book obviously is an attack on the common philistinism found in some parts of comics fandom should be clear now.  The “betcha they can’t draw a hand” crowd.  But is it also a sly attack on tropes found in Japanese comics?

Take this “full bleed to the right to signal drama” thing:

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DSC01684 DSC01685So…  much…  DRAMA!!!  Every time you turn a page and you register a full bleed at the end of the two page spread, you know that’s there’s going to be DRAMA!  SO MUCH DRAMA!!1!  And you start hating reading the book because of all then anticipation of the DRAMA!!!

It’s a very Japanese thing.  The same with the illusion of time not passing.  You read many, many pages, and it seems like months have passed in the story, but then the dork notes that a week has passed and you go “NO!  IT CANNOT BE!  WHEN WILL THIS BE OVER?!”

So, to conclude: The book is a satire, and a sly dig at expectations.  Well done, McCloud.

(McCloud’s figure drawing is less stiff now than it used to be, but that’s probably not a critique of anything.  Unless somebody can figure out how that’s possible.  I’m all ears.)

Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn

IDW announced last year that they were going to translate and publish a complete set of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese (in English translation).  There was much rejoicing across the land.  I haven’t read those comics for decades, since they were stuck at my parent’s house up in the North, so I thought “what they hey” and bought the first volume, Under the Sign of Capricorn.DSC01045

But this Xmas holiday it struck me that I could, like, just start shipping the comics up there down here so that I could re-read … all that stuff …  So I started packing.

After six boxes of 20kg each I stopped, because comics are heavy and I recalled that I live on the fourth floor, no elevator, and I’m lazy.

But included in those first six boxes were all the Corto Maltese albums published in Danish and Swedish back in the 80s, so I thought it might be slightly interesting to compare the new editions to the old ones.  I’m doing this on my comics reading couch for added versimilitude instead of doing scans.

So, first of all: That cover.

DSC01559That is ugly.  That’s just ugly.

In addition to choosing a pretty weird drawing of Corto Maltese here, there are just so many other bad things going on here. Let me linger on this ugliness for an unreasonable amount of time and pictures:

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There’s a drop shadow behind Corto

 

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There a compass thing that’s very busy in an of itself with all the pointy spokes in the background in addition to the Nato logo in the front. And then there’s the title with a drop shadow onto the compass, and then “Corto Maltese” and “Hugo Pratt” on the compass itself. At least they used the same font, even though the font is butt ugly.

 

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The teal background has both a map and a ship (and some seagulls) imposed onto the map.

 

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There’s a totally unnecessary border around most of the cover.

 

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It’s fun to see the old Eclipse logo make a reappearance, but even here they just can’t keep it simple. There’s the awkward “O” in “EURO” that’s reversed halfway through; there’s all that itty-bitty text underneath it, and as if that wasn’t enough, at the bottom right-hand corner they’ve stuck the Library of American Comics (!) logo. At least that’s what I think it is — it’s so tiny. And these are “EURO COMICS”. Wha?

The cover looks like somebody with attention deficit disorder went mad in Photoshop for fifteen minutes.

Seriously.

Here’s what the Danish version looked like in 1982:

DSC01573Peace.  Tranquility. Beautiful.

Ok, enough with the cover, already.  Get ready for some innards.  By now I was cringing, expecting the worst…

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Ok… It’s not restrained or anything, but the compass makes more sense here. It’s not very Hugo Pratt, though, but it’s not awful.

 

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Hey, that’s nice. Even included Pratt’s very handsome signature.

 

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Wow. Did they use a complety different designer on the innards of the book? That’s pretty excellent.

And then the story itself starts.  What does it look like?

DSC01571The printing looks really nice and crisp.  However, they’ve used a semi-glossy paper stock, which means that you have to keep shifting the page around to be able to read it, because the light makes reflections.  It’s not as shiny as many other modern reprint projects, but it’s still not… good.

DSC01578But when you angle the paper just right, it looks really nice.  The ink is nice and black, and the paper is just slightly off-white.  It’s perfectly acceptable.

DSC01579The Danish version from 1982 is more washed out, but is printed on completely matte paper.  So that’s a tie, I guess.  I do think the new printing is perhaps a bit busier than intended.  All those lines that were probably intended as barely visible skritches (compare the lines in the woodwork and the lines in Corto’s brow in the two versions), and these small lines are now solid, with even width.  It looks like whoever digitised this applied a thresholding function that makes all the lines look stark.  More lines mo better, perhaps, but…

Let me digress a bit about a subject that is, strictly speaking, totally irrelevant here:

These days, most reprint projects of European albums have a tendency to stick a lot of albums together into a great whopping book.  European albums are mostly in the 40-60 page range, and selling anything less than 120 pages is apparently impossible these days.

But sticking separate stories together into one volume changes the way they read.

Most European albums are separate works that have a definite beginning and ending.  After reading one, you feel you’ve experienced something complete.  Sticking several of these works together into one volume changes that experience.  When the next story starts three pages later, there’s a compulsion to continue reading, but more importantly, when you have 60 pages left in the book when you’re reading the end of a story, it doesn’t really feel like the end of a story.

It’s like if films were realeased with a two second pause between “The End” and then the next film the director did starting.  American comics are often more serially oriented, and presenting collections of those works fine, as does collections of TV series.  But doing the same with most European comics changes the reading experience, and not for the better.

But like I said, that rant is irrelevant here, because this book is a collection of six related stories, so just forget what I just said.

As is the norm, though, this volume is over 120 pages, while the 80s edition comes in two volumes:

DSC01581Oh, and there’s the cover of the second 80s volume:

DSC01580Kinda purdy, that one too.  I mean, not as good as the first volume, but still way better than the IDW cover.

Oh, and what’s the stories like?  They’re fantastic, of course, and if you haven’t read them already, you should run out to your nearest comic book store and buy one immediately.  Then rip off the cover, put it in the paper recycling, and then read the stories.

Australian Comics

Whenever in a new city where I can read the language, I try to visit interesting comics shops.  This can be rather difficult, since what’s interesting to me isn’t really what comics shops make a living off of.  I’m looking for stuff I can’t get anywhere else, which means small press and local books, and there is no art comics book store finder.

So binging for “good comics stores <city>” will invariably point me to the one that has the best selection of American superhero books, of which my interest is pretty low.  For Sydney that’s King Comics, which turned out to be a perfectly nice comic book store with a shelf of Australian comics that was pretty slim.  To say the least.

But then I went to Canberra.  Score!

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Impact Comics only had two small shelves of Aussie stuff, but they were jam-packed, so I got a nice little stack of stuff.  (There was still books left on the shelves after I left.)

I haven’t read any of it yet, but it looks pretty nice:

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Somebody really should set up a “destination comic book store” site to inform us tourists what’s worth seeing.  It’s too bad crowdsourcing is dead, otherwise I’d feel tempted to create one myself…

Art Comic Book Store Finder Wanted

I’ve been travelling a fair bit the last couple of months. One of my favourite things to do in furrin cities is to visit comic book stores. However, finding the interesting stores isn’t trivial.

If you’re reading the comics blogs religiously, and you travel to the conventions, and you know a lot of other people who have the same interests, you just know which stores are the good ones.

The current minimum standard for a good art comics store is (after thorough research) that it should have 1) some Michael DeForge, 2) some issues of Copra, 3) a Gabrielle Bell mini, and 4) a smattering of local, hand-made comics. In addition to the Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics perennials that you can find anywhere.

But I’m pretty oblivious when it comes to the “comics community”. I find myself in a city, and I google for “best comic book store”, and I invariably end up at the local Superhero Dungeon & Games. For instance, I discovered Desert Island Comics in Brooklyn on like my seventh visit to New York.

This time I did a bit more research, and I managed to stop by Comix Experience in San Francisco (very nice, indeed) and the Wow Cool store in Cupertino (extremely nice; we were down in Palo Alto and I convinced my friends to stop by on the way back to SF after reading about it on The Beat and The Comics Reporter).

In London, I stopped by Gosh Comics (got lots of British floppies) and Nobrow (got lots of… Nobrow comics).

Couldn’t someone, somewhere, make an Art Comics Store Finder? Please. Avoid having people going to to Ye Comics Basement in vain, and guide us to the right stores.

Profit!

Last of the Mohicans, or: Diminishing Returns

I bought a lot of stuff from the PictureBox sale. I kind of thought that I had most of their stuff already, but I ended up with like eight kilos of excellent comics.

Then there’s Last of the Mohicans by Shigeru Sugiura, edited by Ryan Holmberg.

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As always, I just skipped past the introduction and started reading.  (I read the introductions afterwards.  Don’t want no spoilers.)

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So…  this seems to be pretty crude.  The story is totally unreadable, but the drawings have a certain charm.  But what’s really going on here?  You have one Indian tied up there, and there’s a smiling boy who has his tongue sticking out…  Is he captured, too?  It turns out that he is.

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They escape and fight a bear…  Ok…  Looks a bit like something a 14-year old would have drawn after watching too many cartoons.  (I had just read the Rory Hayes book.)

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Or perhaps too much Li’l Abner?  Anyway, it’s pretty dull book, incompetently drawn.  So I start reading the introduction.

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“One of the masters of Japanese comics.”  Uh huh.

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“is as beautiful to looks at as it is a delight to read.”

I guess that’s technically true, because it’s nigh unreadable and it’s rather ugly.

Now, you wouldn’t expect an editor to undersell the book in the introduction.  If he’d written the truth (something more along the lines of “a turgid mess that some might say is historically important, because it shows how much early Japanese comics ripped off contemporary US comics.  INTERESTING FOR COMPULSIVES ONLY”) you might sell fewer books.  Hyping the work as a “masterpiece of post-war manga” might lead to some disappointment, though.

Which leads me to the point of this rant: For almost fourty years, we’ve suffered through the same hype.  We’ve been told, over and over again, that there’s a vast treaure trove of Japanese comics out there, and when they’re finally translated, we’ll be overwhelmed by masterworks.

Japan is the land where, we’re told, businessmen read comics on the Shinkansen.

What they neglected to inform us is that the businessman was reading Shonen Jump and Dragon Ball.

Some people just adore Japanese comics.  That’s fine.  There are adults that like superhero books, too.  I don’t judge.  But fans of Japanese comics are more annoying.  Every time somebody in the US writes an overview of any comics genre, or makes a top ten list of whatever, you can be sure that some Japanese comics fan pops his or her head up and starts complaining about the lack of Japanese comics on the list, and whines about provincialism.

Superhero fans whine, too, but nobody takes them seriously.  The reaction to the persistent whine from otaku is an embarrassed shuffling of feet while they promise to do better next time.

Why are most Japanese comics awful?  I don’t really know — it’s a field ripe for investigation.  Perhaps it has something to do with the way the works are published?  The norm is for serialisation, and the deadlines and the interference from the editorial staff can be (according rumour) fierce.  Is it because of the widespread system of using assistants?

Are Japanese comics, on average, worse than US comics?  I think it’s difficult to claim that Parasyte is worse than Geoff Jones’ Green Lantern (difficult to make a distinction when things are that bad), but Finder is better than Planetes. C’mon.

There are good comics being made in Japan, of course.  To stay on the PictureBox circuit, Yuichi Yokoyama is amazing. And you can’t deny that Gengoroh Tagame is something, even if that something may be something you wish you hadn’t read.

But from the evidence provided us so far, there’s less of interest being made in Japan than (say) Italy, to take a country at random.

Of course, there are more Japanese masterworks to be unearthed!  One day, somebody somewhere will finally find the hidden treasure trove of Japanese comics, and then all us unbelievers will finally see the truth!  Oh joy!

Funniest Comic Book of 2013

The funniest comic book of 2013 must be Lisa Hanawalt’s My Dirty Dumb Eyes.

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It covers all of life, like movies:

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Fashion:

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Movie reviews.  She points of that the sign language in the latest Planet Of The Apes looks oddly obscene:

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Actually, this is a test post to see how WordPress works.  I’ve moved from Blogger, because I don’t really want to be part of the Grand Google Empire.  Google were trying to get me to use their single sign on for years, and I avoided doing so.  It became more and more intrusive, and I guess I must have clicked on the wrong link at some point, because there I was, suddenly.  So I left.

So, WordPress…  Well, the HTML editor is really crappy.  Kinda surprising for a firm that has as the main business idea to, well, make it easy to blog.  It’s a nightmare of too-small frames, awkward image editing tools, and impossible to make anything insert where you want it to without dropping into “raw” HTML editing.

I am disappoint.