Archive for the ‘history’ Category

An Artist, Who Escapes

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The Holocaust is a subject that’s been covered in comics before, most notably in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but Lily Renée, Escape Artist is a graphic novel takes a lighter approach, mostly due to the fact that its subject was lucky enough to never be in a concentration camp, though she did suffer her own trials and travails as a result of being Jewish during the time of the Nazi regime.

Lily Renée Wilheim was a teenager when the Nazis invaded Vienna, which meant she was old enough to recall the events clearly, but also young enough to be shipped out as part of Kindertransport, which means the bulk of the biography focuses on events that aren’t often talked about in the greater narrative of Jewish oppression and the Holocaust. We follow Lily’s struggles as a Jewish refugee in England, being classified as an “enemy alien,” and finally her immigrant experience in America, which leads her to her ultimate status as a pioneer in women’s comics.

The book focuses on smaller details and anecdotes in Lily’s journey, like eating too much food on a train or working as a mother’s helper. This makes it easier for younger readers to relate to Lily, but it also leaves the book feeling a bit shallow since it barely touches upon the larger war narrative going on. Lily herself may not have been too concerned with the bigger picture, as she was doing her best to survive, but the book is very much written toward an educational bent, so more historical context would have been helpful in imparting a history lesson to its readers. Most of the heavy-lifting is left to the appendix in the back, which explains some of the finer historical details. In this manner, it reminds me of the American Girl books, except that those novels are definitely intended to focus on their storytelling first and foremost, better to relate to their audience of 10-year-old girls (and sell more dolls). They aren’t sold as educational materials.

The copy on the front and back covers of Lily Renée, Escape Artist seems to be aimed toward promoting a strong female role model, except that the aspect of her they promote—her comics work—is barely touched upon in the book. She doesn’t reach that point until the last few pages of the last chapter, and it really feels like they’re name-checking the titles she worked on. I would have liked to see sample pages from her work, or maybe more audience reactions, or some further indications of how this work changed her life, beyond that it paid for her mother’s operation and that one of the characters “was a fantasy” for her. If her work in comics is being used as a hook to get people to read this book, it should have gotten a lot of more page time. While I enjoyed the book, it ultimately felt unsatisfying.

Lily Renée, Escape Artist
story by Trina Robbins
pencils by Anne Timmons
inks by Mo Oh
published by Graphic Universe (New York, 2011)
ISBN 978-0-7613-8114-3


Laika Lives!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Laika may have been the first animal to orbit the Earth, but there was no way to bring her back down safely, which also makes her the first to die in space—meaning that Nick Abadzis’ graphic novel account of her life doesn’t have a happy ending, upsetting a great deal of people. Some, including filmmakers, have questioned if the book needed to end that way, if there wasn’t some way to make the ending less depressing:

Filmmakers often get in touch, wondering whether there might be a way of presenting a version with a more positive spin to it. Well, of course there is, but then you’d be changing history, or at least blunting the truth of what took place that day in 1957, and unfortunately, you can’t change history, not one line.

Though history can’t be changed and the book will stay true to events, Abadzis is willing to play a game of “what if?” with Laika, honoring the 25th anniversary of Big Planet Comics in Washington, DC with a series of alternate endings dubbed “The Alternate Endings to Laika Show.”

So far two strips have been put up, both presenting stories that aren’t entirely implausible, but still vary widely from the truth in ensuring that little Laika survives.

(via The Beat)

Editorial Wikigroaning

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Editorial cartooning has a long history here in the United States, going all the way back to Benjamin Franklin’s infamous “Join, or Die” cartoon that was published as a call to action during the French and Indian War. So in preparing my last post about editorial cartoons and graphic journalism, I decided to take a look at the Wikipedia page for some background information and examples. I was greeted by this:

That’s the meat of the article in total. The article is comprised of an introductory sentence, two short paragraphs, two images, and a “See also” list of 10 items. For this old, influential form of communication that, judging from the amount of hits on Google, has a pretty decent presence on the web. And yet, the Wikipedia page (which is third in a search for “editorial cartoon” and fifth for “political cartoon”) is only a paltry 4,247 bytes of data.

On the possibility that a once-long entry might have been cut down by judicious editing or vandalism, a look at the article’s history shows a creation date of April 3, 2003 and since then it has endured about 1000 edits, and for most of its history wavered between 2000 and 5000 bytes.

Wikipedia has been accused of systemic bias and some groups (including Wikipedia itself) have taken action to counter this bias, but subjects like politics (particularly when pertaining to English-speaking nations), comics, and newspapers are not subjects that traditionally suffer from this bias. Yet somehow, editorial cartoons, which lie at the intersection of these, have been left behind.

The Left Forum recently held their annual conference back in March, and as part of their schedule, held a panel called “Political Cartoons: Resistance Through Ridicule.” Tim Kreider sat on the panel and later wrote a piece on The Comics Journal about the experience, describing it as “marginal and loserish and sad” because,

The crowd seemed to consist largely of grizzled, embittered Marxists, and the tenor of questions spanned the range from aggrieved to despairing. Why isn’t the Left availing itself of the power of political cartoons in this post-literate culture? […] Why is there no market for editorial cartoons anymore? […] Why are mainstream newspaper editorial cartoons so bland and craven and bad? Why can’t we seem to communicate our message effectively?

He spends the rest of the feature talking about the lack of a future for editorial cartooning as we know it, and what the Internet means for cartooning. The title of the piece cames from another panel he saw on the schedule: “What Is to Be Done?”

Maybe they should update their Wikipedia page, for a start.

MoCCA Fest 2011: Sequential Non-fiction

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

As we mentioned it several times last week, it should be no surprise that we attended MoCCA Fest 2011 at the Lexington Avenue Armory this past weekend. We walked the floor, attended panels, and of course, bought lots and lots of comics.

At 12:30pm on Saturday they held the “Sequential Non-fiction” panel, which started a tad late as the previous panel about “Teaching Comics” ran over. The late start was not a problem; moderator Heidi McDonald managed to keep things running smoothly and ended the panel on time. The panelists were Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Sarah Glidden and Nick Abadzis. I also spotted Lucy Knisley of French Milk in the audience, taking notes (and I’m sure she wasn’t the only one, as a few faces looked familiar).

Nick Bertozzi spoke about his recently-published Lewis & Clark graphic narrative, which was originally intended to be a mini-comic flip book that would read right-to-left in chronicling their journey west, then the reader would flip it around to read left-to-right for their return journey back east! The book ended up being a little too lengthy for that, so what we have instead is a fairly straightforward, 99% accurate account of their travels (Bertozzi admits he had to make dialog up). His next project is Shackleton, which deals with the famous Antarctic explorations of Ernest Shackleton.

The other Nick, Nick Abadzis, went into the origins of his graphic story Laika, about the first dog in space. He was inspired by a BBC article in which it was admitted that Laika did not survive very long on her journey. To create the book he did a lot of research in Russia, including visiting a private museum at the home of Gagarin (presumably Yuri Gagarin, but I’m not certain). The book was offered to several British publishers who were not interested, though one French publisher was. The book would have had its initial publication in French had First Second not made an offer for it. Abadzis is currently working on a book about the lives of his father and father-in-law.

Dean Haspiel went into his collaborations with Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Ames. Comparing the two, he said they were both very different in how they worked. Pekar turns in pages with stick figures and dialog, while Ames, despite being new to comics, understood instinctively to turn in full comic scripts that laid everything out. He also spoke about the origins of his book Cuba: My Revolution, where his friend Inverna Lockpez has been telling him bits and pieces of stories of her life in Cuba, and eventually he told her that she might have a real story to tell.

Of course, Sarah Glidden spoke about How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, and how she started off her career making daily journal comics to get into the habit, and doing the Birthright trip gave her an opportunity to write about a little more substantial. She originally started off making mini-comics about the trip (which she still had on sale at her table), but at a previous MoCCA Fest an editor Vertigo picked them up and asked her if she’d like to do an entire book.

When asked about the things that were most important in creating graphic non-fiction, Abadzis mentioned being balanced (and that his family was complaining he wasn’t), while Glidden cited this as a reason she didn’t like to tell other people’s stories, because she could mess up the facts. Haspiel emphasized it was important to him that he entertain his readers, while Bertozzi said something that is probably true of all the creators on the panel: he wanted a copy of his book in every library.

Illustrating the March for Civil Rights

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Due to their pictorial nature, comics are sometimes thought of as being easier to read, which is why there are those who look down upon them as something for the young and uneducated. But there are those who see their ease-of-reading as a strength, a way to spread a message to those who cannot or will not read large blocks of text.

Among these advocates is US Congressman John Lewis, who recently signed a deal with Top Shelf to co-write a comic (with his aide, Andrew Aydin) about the struggle for civil rights in the United States. It’s a subject near-and-dear to his heart, as he was heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s: he helped organize and was a keynote speaker for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 (where the “I Have a Dream” speech was given by Martin Luther King Jr.), and led the first march from Selma to Montgomery that became known as “Bloody Sunday” when they were attacked by state troopers.

Chris Staros, John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin

Aydin and Lewis were driven to action by a comic from 1953 titled The Montgomery Story, which told the story of the Montgomery bus boycotts and inspired many people to join the Freedom Rides. It was recently translated into Arabic and Farsi by activist Dalia Ziada, and Lewis has stated that he believes it helped inspire the protests in Egypt earlier this year, as thousands of copies were distributed across the Middle East.

No artist has been announced for Lewis and Aydin’s graphic novel yet, which is set for release in 2012.

(via Bleeding Cool and Newsarama)

How to Understand Israel… in 208 Pages or Less

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Comic artist Sarah Glidden has somewhat divided loyalties when it comes to the topic of Israel. As an American Jew, she is aware of the complicated history of the Holy Land, the Jewish people, and the desire/need for a Jewish state, but as a self-proclaimed progressive she is disgusted by the treatment of the Palestinians. In an effort to justify her opinions and finally put the matter to rest, she decided to take a Birthright trip to Israel, to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” chronicling the experience in her graphic memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.

For those unfamiliar, Birthright Israel is a program where young Jewish adults (ages 18–26) are taken on all-expenses-paid, 10-day tours of Israel. The general purpose of the program is to strengthen Jewish identity and engender positive feelings about Israel, wherein lies the flaw in Sarah’s plan, and perhaps the book. She goes on this trip knowing that they are probably going to put some spin on many of the hot-button political issues, so she treats everything with a dollop of cynicism and waits for those “gotcha” moments where she can be right and they can be wrong. It can come across as irritating, especially when you consider that the trip is a free perk and some of her fellow travelers, like her friend Melissa, are just trying to have a good time. Melissa provides a good counterbalance to Sarah because she was raised in a pretty secular household and this trip represents a chance to reconnect with her Jewish roots.

With Sarah and Melissa as travel companions, the book provides an interesting look at Israel outside the usual tourist hot spots of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Those cities are included on the Birthright trip, but we also visit the Golan Heights, the city of Holon, the Negev desert, several kibbutzim, and the Dead Sea. Each section is accompanied by a map, and of course, the entire book is done in simple (but lovely) pencil drawings with watercolor. Though Glidden’s drawings are not overly realistic, they are detailed and colorful enough to give you a good sense of place and her people have just the right amount of expression to convey feeling.

Yet as a travel memoir the book can be frustrating. As a carefully scripted trip, Sarah can only see and experience so much, and it feels like her Birthright group spends a lot more time in and out of centers and lectures than it does actually exploring the country. Their trip to Jerusalem seemed so brief, as it took them to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum), and a mall. We don’t really get a “feel” for the city until the Birthright trip is over, and Sarah and Melissa take an extra day to explore the city on their own.

The highlight of the trip might be the group’s trip to Masada, where the Birthright participants climb to the top of the plateau and visit the remains of the fortress on top, where they are told a story of the “brave defenders” who held out against a Roman incursion for years, before eventually choosing to take their own lives in defiance. Sarah comes prepared for this, reading the original account in order to pick out the falsehoods in the account that Birthright feeds her. It stands out as one of the few instances where Sarah’s cynicism works to her, and the reader’s, advantage.

As the trip wears on so does it wear down on Sarah, and she begins to doubt herself and her beliefs, realizing that the issues of Israel are more complicated than she probably thought, and that there are no easy or obvious answers. She leaves the country knowing more and less as the same time, feeling confused and perhaps even a little empty. The book ends like the trip does, with notes of doubt and uncertainty, conflicting ideals and an overwhelming sense of “it’s complicated.” It’s a real downer after a book that is at times funny, charming, thought-provoking, and rarely ever boring.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
by Sarah Glidden
published by Vertigo (New York, 2010)
ISBN 978-1-4012-2233-8

A Post-War Postcard

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Despite not being as long or as seminal as other epic works such as Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert is probably the longest I’ve ever taken in reading a graphic novel. It’s just so rich and dense, with so much information packed into every page and panel, that you can’t just breeze through it. Nor should you—this is the story of a man’s life, and what a life it was.

Alan’s War is the story of Alan Cope, a young man from California in the ’40s who like many young men his age back then, found himself drafted into the army and sent overseas to fight in World War II. “Fight” being a very loose term in his case, as he was drafted late into the war, and by the time he finally got sent to France, the war was mostly over. So he finds himself moving from place to place, performing mostly administrative and cleanup work, learning a lot about Europe (and life) in the process. He ended up living there after the war, which is how he met Emmanuel Guibert, the comic artist who took their conversations and transcribed them into this beautiful book. Guibert is not a speaking presence in this graphic novel; Guibert was the audience then as the reader is now.

Guibert chose to keep his dialog and pacing as true to Alan’s original delivery as possible. As such it is very comfortable, measured, and occasionally contradictory. Guibert notes these contradictions in the introduction, but they do not detract from the story one bit. I found it very easy to follow, even when Alan’s account gets sidetracked as he tries to sneak in smaller anecdotes and bits of information into the narrative, and even with all the people Alan met it was relatively easy to keep them straight, though I found myself at times flipping back to try and remember who he was talking about.

The book is actually a collection, as the novel was originally published in three volumes back in France. The first volume or chapter, covers Alan’s training and stateside experiences, while the second chapter is his travels through Europe. The final chapter is more of an epilogue, as Alan basically goes through a laundry list of what happened to him and all his friends: some moved away and he lost touch, some he was reunited with, and others died. As a resident of the 21st Century it’s fascinating to see how Alan was able to track down people without the Internet, using only letters and phone calls and coming up pretty successful most of the time. He even wrote to Henry Miller at one point and got an answer regarding the whereabouts of a couple of dear friends.

The narrative shines in this graphic novel, but the art is also beautiful to behold. Many panels may seem empty, but what few elements Guibert does put in them convey so much information. His facial expressions are charming, but the real standouts are his landscapes. Some are almost indistinguishable from photographs, the detail being so rich.

I really enjoyed this book; it was funny and charming, and provided a look at military life that was more humble and less violent than the portrayals we’re used to getting. Guibert is right in that Alan Cope was a natural storyteller, though he sells himself short: Guibert is excellent as well.

Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
by Emmanuel Guibert
translation by Kathryn Pulver
lettering by Céline Merrien
published by First Second (New York, 2008)
ISBN 978-1-59643-096-9

Manifested Destiny

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Last week the popular computer game The Oregon Trail made its way to Facebook, courtesy of The Learning Company and Blue Fang Games. For those too old or young to have experienced it, The Oregon Trail was a computer game created in 1974 where the player assumed the role of a settler in 1848 traveling on the historic Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City. The game was well-known among students as it seemed to be installed on every single school computer (which were usually Apples) and teachers often had students play it during computer class instead of actually teaching them anything. I suppose it had the virtue of making it so that kids learned a handful of basic computer skills with some American history on the side, but what people really remember is dying of dysentery and writing funny things on their headstones.

I’ve been playing the Facebook conversion and it’s not bad. Because this is Facebook, it’s had some of the mandatory social elements tacked on—you can use your friends as members of your party (and subsequently watch them suffer from scurvy) and you can assist friends who are playing the game by fixing their wagon or hunting for them. Hunting, by far the most popular gameplay element of the original, is no longer limited by how many bullets you have (bullets are actually unlimited), but by how much energy you have. Energy refills over real time, so you can log off and come back to a full energy bar. Because time stands still in the game when you log out, it’s actually far easier than the original computer versions. So far no one’s died of dysentery or cholera, my wagon only turned over once in a river, and I only actually lost the game once, when I failed to reach Oregon before winter came. The game stacks, so items and money earned in a previous attempt carry over when you restart in Missouri, and it’s actually easier as you level up.

There’s also a real life monetary element to the Facebook version, where you can use your real money to purchase “Trail Notes,” which are used to buy really useful items and favors in the game. However, the game is easy enough you’ll never really need these extra perks.

The Oregon Trail is one way to make westward settlement come alive for today’s youth, another recent interpretation is Nick Bertozzi’s graphic novel adaptation of the journey of Lewis and Clark. The book is set for release next week (February 15), but right now you can take a look at his overall creative process on the First Second Blog. He goes through five overall steps: writing, layout, penciling, inking, and digital manipulation. It’s really interesting to see a page go from a rough layout to a finished page, and it will be even more exciting to see the entire work when it’s released.

The Glorious Struggle

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Communism has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, with many people equaling socialism to communism, the better to make villains out of those who promote socialist policies by associating them with the big bogeyman of the 20th Century.

George Rigakos is also creating heroes and villains, but from the opposite side of things. He’s adapting the Communist Manifesto into a series of graphic novels from Red Quill Books, in order to teach his students political economy at Carleton University. According to him, “The original work of Marx and Engels focused on the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and their heroes – the Communists.”

The adaptation will be broken up into four parts, each focusing on a different group. The first book, “Historical Materialism” is available now in English for under $20. The books are also set for release in French, German, and Spanish.

Check out some interior art in the book trailer:

(via Bleeding Cool)

Liberty and Fraternity

Friday, December 24th, 2010

World War II is the most popular war depicted in comics, most likely due to the fact that the modern comic book industry co-existed with the war, and those creators came up with ideas and characters that linger in continuity even today. But other historical conflicts continue to make their mark in comics, such as the American Revolution in the Lagos Brothers’ Sons of Liberty.

Sons of Liberty is a work of historical fiction, which may seem out of place on this blog, but considering we’ve written about real science couched in science fiction and culinary lessons embedded in a dramatic manga, using a fictional story to teach history isn’t completely off-base. Unfortunately, Sons of Liberty is loose with facts and its accuracy is shaky to non-existent, focusing on two escaped slaves that gain superhuman powers.

The story takes place in a number of real locations and features Benjamin Franklin and his son, but these places and these characters could have been anywhere and anyone, adding nothing unique to the story; Benjamin and William Franklin are really only there for the electricity angle they can add. The book spends a lot of time focusing on the two boys as escaped slaves, a point that is repeatedly hammered in for the reader, as they are abused by their slave master, chased down by a slave hunter, discriminated against by the world at large, and helped by kindly white men who believe that “all men are created equal,” so to speak. The real icing on the cake is when one of these kindly white guys teaches the two boys, Graham and Brody, an African martial art. At this point we’ve left any kind of historical analysis, choosing instead to follow a role of empowerment, similar to the current Hudlin-era of Black Panther.

And there is the main narrative problem with this series; if Graham and Brody really existed with the superhuman powers and skills they gain in this volume, then the American Revolution and the practice of slavery in the United States would have ended quite differently. Superheroes existed in World War II and the writers had to come up with ways to explain why Superman didn’t just capture Hitler and end the war right then and there. Though the Sons of Liberty are not Superman, it is not unreasonable to say that they would have a huge impact on history if they really existed.

Besides the historical accuracy problems, the storytelling, both in its text and art, is poor. The story plods along, introducing characters and situations bit-by-bit that go nowhere, promising a payoff that never comes in this volume. One particular nitpick I have is that Brody sometimes calls Graham “Grey” with no explanation; I assume it’s a nickname but this is never clearly explained and really only serves to confuse the reader, as do many other things in the book. As for the art, the coloring is more complex than the static and unclear pencil work it supplements, and the colorist has a strange habit of choosing one color for each page and bathing everything in shades of that color. Some pages are yellow, or blue, or purple-tinged; there is never a balanced mixture of colors, leaving each page feeling either washed-out or too dark. This is particularly harmful in the action sequences, which are unclear and poorly paced to begin with.

Overall, the book feels incomplete; incomplete visually, emotionally, and most of all, plot-wise. Everything is setup for future volumes, and we never actually see the heroes that are promised to us by the cover illustration, merely two scared little boys.

Sons of Liberty
written by Alexander and Joseph Lagos
art by Steve Walker
color by Oren Kramek
letters by Chris Dickey
published by Random House (New York, 2010)
ISBN 978-0-375-85670-09