Exhibition review: Pioneers of the Comic Strip, Frankfurt

Pioneers of the Comic Strip – A Different Avant-Garde (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, until September 18, 2016) is an exhibition of six American newspaper comic artists whose strips started between 1904 and 1921. So instead of creators such as Rudolph Dirks or Richard F. Outcault who actually pioneered the comic strip form, curator Alexander Braun (who had also curated the Going West! exhibition) has selected artists who in some way could be considered avant-garde. The problem with the concept of the avant-garde in comics is that comics developed largely independently of modernist printmaking, draughtsmanship and other ‘high arts’. Nevertheless, this exhibition – hosted by a major fine art museum, after all – tries to find links between comics and avant-garde movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism, with varying success.

The first exhibit isn’t a comic but a film: Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the N. Y. Herald and His Moving Comics from 1911. Apart from that (and McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur film), there are almost exclusively original newspaper pages and some original drawings on display. In other words, there are a lot of comics to read, which can be tiresome, but it’s better than the reproductions or book covers that one gets to see at other comic exhibitions. In some cases, they even managed to obtain the original drawings to corresponding newspaper pages and show them alongside each other.

Apparently McCay was included in the exhibition because he “can be considered the first Surrealist of the 20th century” (my translation). Salvador Dalí and René Magritte are also name-dropped in the text that accompanies McCays section of the exhibition. This is the central theme of the exhibition: all of the comic artists are judged by their relation to fine art and its avant-garde movements. The same is true for Lyonel Feininger, whose comic work is evaluated here as the job that had given him the financial freedom to pursue painting, and for Cliff Sterrett, whose stylistic changes in Polly and Her Pals are traced back to developments in high art (“echoes of the Bauhaus era” etc.).

The other three featured artists are George Herriman, Frank King, and, as the only really surprising choice, Charles Forbell. Forbell doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article, and apparently he only did a handful of episodes of his comic strip, Naughty Pete, in 1913. Each page is elaborately composed and lavishly coloured, but unfortunately he never used word balloons around his dialogue text. In some episodes he used different lettering styles for different characters, but in others it’s bothersome to figure out who says what. In a way, Naughty Pete is symptomatic of large parts of the exhibition: from a ‘high art’ perspective, one can see the avant-garde sensibility to it and why it was included in the exhibition, but from a comics perspective, it has neither been particularly influential nor is it actually that great a comic.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
part of a Naughty Pete episode by Charles Forbell

Artifacts from Japan, part 4: Miyajima Misen Story manga

Miyajima Misen Story #3 coverThis 14,6 × 21 cm, 15-page manga leaflet is available for free at the ropeway station on Miyajima island. It’s the third part of a four-part story, but from what I gather, the manga is about a girl named Aki who visits several sights on Miyajima and runs into supernatural beings. Time travel might also play a role – the Japanese title on the cover says, 弥山へ。。。時の旅人, “time traveller to Misen” (Mt. Misen is the mountain on Miyajima to which the ropeway goes).

double page from Miyajima Misen Story #3Compared to regular, professional manga, the artwork might be a bit amateurish, but it’s still significantly better than what you would expect from what is essentially an advertisement comic issued by the Miyajima Ropeway company and created by locals from Hiroshima (writer: Yatarō Ichimonji, artist: Hitomi).

The four manga chapters are also available from the Miyajima Ropeway website as PDF files (Japanese only): part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4


Artifacts from Japan, part 3: Barefoot Gen wheat

barefoot gen grainWhen I bought this item at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I had no idea what it actually was. Well, obviously it’s two ears of wheat sellotaped to a booklet with はだしのゲン / Barefoot Gen on the front. On the back there’s the first page of Keiji Nakazawa’s manga on which Gen and his father talk about growing crops, so the connection between wheat and Gen is made clear even to those who haven’t read the manga.

Inside there’s a fold-out leaflet with instructions on how to plant the wheat and raise it, as well as some information on Nakazawa, Gen and the atomic bombing. Enclosed there is also an envelope which can be used to send a message to be entered into the ‘Hiroshima Heart Database’  (http://ichinen-hokki.sakura.ne.jp/heartdatabase/, Japanese). The idea seems to be that one should grow wheat as a symbol of peace. At least some of the database entries reflect this (“As the wheat continues to grow, so will the awareness of peace” etc.).

Barefoot Gen wheat leaflet


Artifacts from Japan, part 2: Weekly Young Jump #27, 2016

Weekly Young Jump #27, 2016So this is the thing around which the whole manga industry revolves: the manga magazine.

Language: Japanese
Authors: various
Publisher: Shūeisha
Pages: 440
Price: ¥330 ($3.20 / €2.90)
Website: http://youngjump.jp/ (Japanese)

cover of Weekly Young Jump #27, 2016More precisely, this is a copy of the June 16 issue of 週刊ヤングジャンプ / Weekly Young Jump. Not quite as legendary as 週刊少年ジャンプ / Weekly Shōnen Jump by the same publisher, it is still a venerable manga anthology magazine that is sold at every convenience store.

Manga magazines are often said to be ‘phone book sized’, but that’s only true for the bigger monthly magazines. The smaller weekly ones like Young Jump are staple bound, measuring ‘only’ approximately 25,5 × 17 × 2 cm. This also means that the paper format is about 1.5 times larger than a tankobon.

The most obvious difference between Young Jump and Shōnen Jump is the ‘gravure idol’ on the cover of the former, advertising photo pages of young women in underwear at the beginning (in this issue: Anna Iriyama from AKB48, 8 pages) and end (Yūna Ego from SKE48, 6 pages) of the magazine. In other words, the cover is not representative of 97% of the content.

A page from Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Ryu Fujisaki. The poor printing shows particularly in panels with large black areas.

As for the manga pages, their printing quality really is abysmal – light grey ink on white paper, resembling printouts when the toner is about to run out, and guaranteed to come off on your hands. But most of the time it’s good enough to let you figure out what’s going on in the drawings.

An issue contains one chapter (usually 18 pages) from each of 20 different manga series, spanning various genres such as action, sports, and ecchi. The most noteworthy in this issue are:

  • キングダム / Kingdom by Yasuhisa Hara, a long-running samurai-era tale with somewhat sub-par artwork and over-the-top violence that seems to be quite popular at the moment;
  • ゴールデンカムイ / Golden Kamui by Satoru Noda, set in late Meiji-era Hokkaidō;
  • Terra Formars by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana, a science-fiction story that has already been published in English and German;
  • 東京喰種:re / Tokyo Ghoul:re by Sui Ishida, a sequel to the popular supernatural horror manga;
  • 銀河英雄伝説 / Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Ryu Fujisaki (of Shiki fame), a new manga adaptation of an 80s science-fiction novel series;
  • 精密機械とてきと一人間 by NisiOisiN and Kei Takizawa, a 45 page one-shot about football;
  • 君と100回目の恋 / one hundred times I was fallin’ in love with you by Chocolate Records, Inabaseri and Kumichi Yoshizuki, a manga to promote an upcoming teenage pop music film of the same name.

In the past, Weekly Young Jump ran such famous series as Gantz, Elfen Lied, Liar Game, and All You Need Is Kill.

Thanks to manga magazines like Weekly Young Jump, manga readers in Japan (in contrast to most of those outside Japan) can decide whether to buy these and get their cheap ‘weekly (or monthly) fix’, or to ‘wait for the trade’ which is more expensive and of a smaller format but of a higher printing quality. Of course, the manga industry wants readers to first buy the magazines, then discard them and buy the tankobon too.


Artifacts from Japan, part 1: Totoro

Chū Totoro plush figure

This fellow here is ‘Chū Totoro’ / ‘Middle Totoro’, or ‘Blue Totoro’, one of (Big) Totoro’s two little helpers from Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic となりのトトロ / My Neighbor Totoro. In this incarnation, Chū Totoro is a 4.5 cm tall plush figure. It comes with a chain to be used as a mobile phone strap charm or keychain pendant.

The interesting thing about it is, it was sold in a small department store in Ōsaka along with other merchandise, such as pencil cases or towels, of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters. All three of said characters are from multi-media franchises: people who buy their merchandise might know them from a television series, a comic, an animated film, or a novel. Or they might not even know where they know them from. Some characters become more popular through their merchandise than through narrative media, even if the publication of the latter precedes the former.

Take Snoopy, for instance: countless children all over the world probably have a Snoopy T-shirt or a Snoopy eraser without ever having read the Peanuts comic or watched the animated films. While we (as scholars of Japanese popular culture, or students of anime, or international ‘otaku‘) naturally trace back the Totoro characters to a single work, the aforementioned My Neighbor Totoro anime, maybe it’s different for children in Japan. For them, Totoro might be another Snoopy, as it were, who has simply always been there.


Review, Darwyn Cooke memorial edition: Batman: Ego and Other Tails

Darwyn Cooke, who passed away last month, was perhaps best known for his masterpieces, DC: The New Frontier (2004), the Parker series (2009-2013), and Before Watchmen: Minutemen (2012-2013). His lesser known earlier stories for DC are collected in the trade paperback, Batman: Ego and Other Tails (2007).

3 panels from Batman: Ego by Darwyn Cooke

Ego: A Psychotic Slide into the Heart of Darkness a.k.a. Batman: Ego (first published 2000, 62 pages)

After he fails to capture a criminal alive, Batman returns to the batcave, where Bruce Wayne is haunted by a monstrous version of his Batman persona. Like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, this apparition lets Bruce revisit traumatic past events, and urges Bruce to renounce his ‘no killing’ creed.

In the introduction to the TPB, Cooke considers Ego “an earnest yet flawed first effort”. The biggest flaw is probably the colouring, which was apparently done by Cooke himself. An overuse of gradient effects and some unfortunate tonal choices considerably weaken the overall impression despite the beautiful line work. There’s also some heavy-handed dialogue. Apart from that, Ego is an outstanding Batman story.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Here Be Monsters (2002, 8 pp.)

Another Batman comic, albeit written by Paul Grist and drawn in black and white by Cooke. Once again, Batman experiences mental breakdown and is haunted by hallucinations, this time induced by poison. And once again, his fierce side threatens to take over. Here Be Monsters is a nice little story with striking artwork, but reading it after Ego feels redundant.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score (2002, 85 pp.)

Catwoman and some accomplices set up a major train robbery, but of course things go terribly wrong. Though ostensibly set in the present day, the overall design and some anachronistic references to e.g. I Love Lucy and Angie Dickinson betray Cooke’s fondness for the 1950s. This is the longest story in this TPB, and there’s (almost) no Batman in it. In comparison to Ego, it benefits immensely from Matt Hollingsworth’s colouring. The only problem with the artwork is Cooke’s character designs, as two of the major male characters, Stark and Slam Bradley, are hard to tell apart. As for the content, I found the relationship between Catwoman and Stark unconvincing and at odds with my perception of Selina as a strong and independent woman.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


The Monument (2002, 8 pp.)

Another black-and-white comic, written by Cooke and drawn by Bill Wray, this delightfully silly little story is about a statue erected in honor of Batman. While Wray’s over-the-top, cartoonish art style fits the tone of the story, it dominates the comic to such a degree that it doesn’t feel like a Darwyn Cooke comic (or a Batman comic, for that matter).

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Date Knight (2004, 11 pp.)

Another silly short comic written by Cooke and illustrated by Tim Sale, in which Catwoman likens a fight with Batman to a romantic rendezvous. Not much of a story, but it captures the essence of the protagonists’ love-hate relationship.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Deja Vu (2005, 13 pp.)

This comic is a remake of the 1974 Batman story “Night of the Stalker” by Vin & Sal Amendola, Steve Englehart and Dick Giordano. Composed in a rigid 2 × 4 layout, this remake is written, drawn and coloured by Cooke, and this time it’s a pleasure to behold. Particularly as a colourist, Cooke seems to have had learned a lot since Ego. Once again there’s not much of a story here – Batman hunts down a gang of jewel robbers, some of which also appear in Selina’s Big Score.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

2 panels from Deja Vu by Darwyn Cooke

Overall verdict: Obviously, Batman: Ego and Other Tails is highly relevant for those interested in Darwyn Cooke’s comics, and – while not on the same level as his aforementioned later works – will not disappoint them. Apart from that, this trade paperback can be considered required reading for readers with an interest in the characters of Batman (mainly due to the title story) and/or Catwoman (due to Selina’s Big Score, although this story has also been published as a standalone TPB).


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight

Depending on where you live, May 1st may have some connection, historically or actually, to labour and workers’ rights, or even socialism and class struggle. On this occasion I thought I’d write a little blogpost about politics and comics. Some years ago at a conference, I attended a talk on a certain political or ideological stance in the comics of Warren Ellis,¹ which made me wonder what stance, if any, can be found in one of his latest comics, his short-lived Moon Knight run from 2014.

Each of the 6 issues is beautifully illustrated by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and tells a largely self-contained story. I have already reviewed issues #1-3 on this weblog, so today we’re going to look at the second half of the run, which consists of the stories “Sleep”, “Scarlet”, and “Spectre”.

Politics is sometimes defined as “beliefs and attitudes about how government should work” (Macmillan), and that is the definition with which we’ll work here. At first glance, there seems to be nothing political about these typical masked vigilante stories: Moon Knight comes to the scene of the crime, confronts and eventually defeats the criminal(s). (At least in “Sleep” and “Scarlet”, whereas “Spectre” is told from the antagonist’s point of view, but the result is the same.) On closer inspection, though, society and government appear in all three of the stories.

Government is always present in the struggle between police (i.e. enforcement of the law made by the government) and crime (i.e. defiance of the government and its law). The New York Police Department is portrayed in an unfavourable light: unable to solve the crimes themselves, they rely on Moon Knight, who works outside of the law. Unlike in other superhero stories where police officers try to solve the crime themselves, overextend themselves, get into trouble and need to be rescued by the superheroes, the NYPD in Moon Knight doesn’t even try. Moon Knight does their work for them, and he does it in a way police couldn’t (or shouldn’t), killing, maiming and unnecessarily hurting his opponents instead of arresting them.

There's absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 "Sleep")

There’s absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 “Sleep”)

The criminals, on the other hand, – including Ryan Trent in “Sleeper” who starts out as one of the ‘good guys’ but ends up killing innocents – are basically given free rein in this New York City. In all of the three stories, their crimes are ultimately avenged by Moon Knight, but only after they were able to placidly commit them. Moon Knight is not one for preventing crime.

For all we know, this corrupt policemen never gets caught. (from #6 "Spectre")

For all we know, this corrupt policeman never gets caught. (from #6 “Spectre”)

Warren Ellis has created a world in which government has failed. To maintain order, it takes a force – Moon Knight – that has the necessary financial and physical power, without being controlled by the government. This is a political vision that has little to do with democracy, in the sense that the people had any control over Moon Knight’s ‘work’. But it has a lot to do with ‘might makes right’ and the ‘longing for the strong man’ – ideas more closely associated with dictatorship. Granted, many superhero comics operate within a similar mindset, but in Moon Knight these ideas are particularly noticeable.


¹ This blogpost has very little to do with that conference paper and I don’t mean to evaluate (or even paraphrase) its hypothesis; as far as I know it hasn’t been published anyway. But just for the record, I’m referring to “The Paranoid Style in Warren Ellis’s Comic Book Politics” by Christian Knöppler, presented at the 2012 ComFor conference in Freiburg, Germany.

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