Monday, 23 August 2010

Barack Obama, The Comic Book Biography

...what? Yes, I did read this.

So, a hardcover book published by IDW, covering the life of Barack Obama up to his election as US president, and 100 first days of his administration.
I have an interest in how non-fiction turns into comics. On the area of biographies there's been some great autobiographies in recent years, works like Fun Home and Persepolis, and a bit older Maus belongs to the same group. Of historical biographies I have read and enjoyed among others both poetic treatment Gilbert Hernandez gave to Frida Kahlo and more matter-of-fact stories Roberta Gregory has told of history of feminism.
I am also fascinated by even those educational comics telling about subjects like importance of zinc in everyday life, even if I understand this interest is commonly considered somewhat perverse.

So, how do these artists tell us about Obama? First observation comes from cover: neither front nor back cover reveal who are the artists responsible of the book which is pretty peculiar if you ask me. Cracking the book open reveals the creators: writing by Jeff Mariotte, art by Tom Morgan and covers by J. Scott Campbell. The art both in covers and inside is contemporary superhero style (well, except for people looking more real) and as such functional, even if I did spot occasional gaffes like an incredible shrinking man on the first page, and McCain morphing into a Nixon lookalike later on...

To call the book text-heavy is an understatement. Lots and lots of yellow boxes containing narration, and some big speech balloons, usually large blocks of speeches, this book is definitely tell-don't-show. For the most part the function of the art is to pace the text boxes, it does get to narrate very little by itself. What's more, there are very few scenes extending over two panels or more, and all of these are concentrated on the beginning of the book, scenes which quote Obama's own books. Later on, the writer just puts in the text boxes written in journalistic style, and the artist puts in whatever suitable pictures fit the text.
The style is that of a documentary film, in some ways better because obviously some of those pictures couldn't be replicated in film nor could the iconic qualities of the subjects be emphasized in that way, but in some ways worse, and it is definitely not a good way of making comics.

According to the back cover, the book is "[...] documenting the facts without bias", and to be honest I could have used a bit of bias here. The best parts are in the beginning of the book when Obama gets to tell himself what happened, but later on we get just facts after facts, and while those might work for newscasters or magazine or Wikipedia articles, here it just doesn't.
Cut the facts, tell us what happened.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

She is beyond good and evil

A casual observation from comics I have been writing about so far, and of my comics reading in general: I read lots of comics by both male and female artists. When picking up material to read, I have no preference for either gender (or any other, for that matter).
Naturally there are differences. Different genres get different creators, there are some thematic and possibly also artistic preferences, and in western world majority of female creators tend to be in indie scene (manga is naturally a different beast). But I read a variety of genres, I am open to many styles and read both mainstream and indie comics so that's ok.

Because I have such a difficulty to fathom why would anyone have a preference for either male or female creators, I am known to be occasionally dismissive about these female empowerment initiatives and whatelse. From where I am standing those are a step backward, even if when I look at things objectively I do notice the need for them.

I rarely say this but in some ways it would be better if everyone would think like me (in some other ways it would suck so hard). But honestly, all you need to do is to love comics as an artform.

Kiba Lumberg - Gipsycomix

In physical size Gipsycomix book by Kiba Lumberg, writer and painter, is quite small. It contains the comic strip that ran in the newspaper Ilta-Sanomat as "kuukauden kotimainen" (monthly changing strip by Finnish artists) in 1991, some additional strips and one longer story.
In terms of content it is thick one though, with Lumberg addressing several themes relevant to an ethnic minority, especially one who traditionally has been more an object than a subject in literature. In an interview she does mention the reluctance of Romani people to discuss their matters with outsiders and how they have traditionally moved from place to place without building or leaving other permanent traces of themselves.
Beside obvious themes like racism, Lumberg does not hesitate to handle some of the darker sides within Romani, like oppression of women and strict behaviour codes and casting out of those who don't wish to follow them. Yet despite heavy subjects, this is a comic strip and cartoonish humour and exaggeration is the chosen style (it should be noted that I have a strong appreciation for anyone who manages to be light in tone without being trivial).

Ai Yazawa - Nana

What drew me to the world of two girls named Nana? Well, it helped that the series was translated in Finnish and available in libraries, so I could pick a copy, and it was mentioned to be rather down-to-earth for those of us who are getting a tad tired on mechas, magic girls and martial arts type of manga.

Nana is another of those odd-couple stories, two strongly different characters who by chance are thrown together and who get along despite their differences or possibly because of them. Blond Nana, usually called Hachi in the series, is a cheerful airhead ruled by impulses, gets to be the main point of view for large part of the series, while dark Nana, surly and ambitious rocker, opens her point of view much more slowly.
And to be honest, if the series had just stuck to the characters as they were in the first book and we had just wacky adventures of Nana and Hachi, I wouldn't have bothered to continue reading it for both the hyperactivity of Hachi and surliness of Nana rubbed me the wrong way. Luckily, this series does much better than that.

These characters actually grow during the series, and their relationship as well as the relationships of the supporting cast do evolve. Some become more mature, others start to fall apart...and there's a refreshing lack of easy answers, less-than-ideal situations can turn into blessings while dream fulfillment might end up in misery, and it's quite hard to decide who actually are on the side of angels.
These characters ring true, in slightly poisonous soap opera way, but still.

There's lots of good discussion about the first twelve books (which, incidentally, is as far as I have read the series so far) on Comics Should Be Good website.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Batman - Death in the Family & Lonely Place of Dying

A nice thick double feature here of late 80's Batman in hard covers, a book collecting two Robin-centered series, Death in the Family and Lonely Place of Dying.
At this point Dark Knight had Returned already, and while darker Batman was nothing new there's a demand of going even further. And yet we are not quite yet in the full doom'n'gloom of coming years, much of which would only end up a tad boring once the novelty and shock effect wears off.
Speaking of novelty and shock effect... retrospect Death in the Family is best remembered from the phone voting deciding if Robin, the Jason Todd version, would survive or not. The public demanded blood, and Jason died in an explosion set up by Joker. One could say that remembering the series just for that is doing it justice, for otherwise the story has plenty of...curious logic to start with and has not aged gracefully (Ayatollah? Really?) Aparo's art is of course enjoyable.

Lonely Place of Dying comes off as the better half of the book. The story is sprawling to many directions but manages to pull it off, new fresh take to role of Robin is done with Tim Drake and the Batman-Nightwing-Tim Drake personal dynamics work well. Two-Face is also dramatic but at the same time amusingly bonkers villain, and having Batman and Two-Face trying to double-guess each other was just great fun. And as something of an anti-Frank Miller I can see why some friends of mine are vocal George Perez fans: the world is clearly a better place when he is in it.

But it must be said that innocence once seduced can never be regained: it's probably impossible for me to read a Batman-Robin story without imposing a pederasty layer in it.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Maisa & Kaarina

Expanding from the last text, I thought to mention a comic which has been appearing weekly in Finnish women's magazine Anna for 20+ years now, Maisa & Kaarina by Sari Luhtanen and Tiina Paju.

The strip draws from odd couple tradition, with two highly different characters who just are friends. Maisa is blond, roundish, single and a bit uncertain what she wants from life, vaguely political and highly romantic, while Kaarina is dark, slim housewife, efficient and cuttingly pragmatic. Kaarina's husband is mostly off-panel or sometimes appears in silhouette and couple of other friends of M&K appear every now and then but don't really play a role in the strip.

The themes are mostly the same as the rest of the magazine, food, clothes, makeup, relationships, exercise, some politics and so forth. It probably wouldn't work on too large portions because there isn't that big variety of themes, but there is enough for weekly strips and also for 64-page albums (reading several albums one after the other would be too much though). And even if this reader lacks ovaries or the whole pantyhose experience, it is a good an funny strip, the characters ring true even if they play on stereotypes and the art is solid and professional.

What should a Comic-Con story look like in Elle magazine?

Couple of posts in Valerie d'Orazio's blog made me wonder about the aims of an initiative to bring comics to masses etc. and what do we talk about when we talk about mainstream.

Now, comics in America have somewhat unusual situation that what is commonly considered mainstream in comics is pretty far from what most "normal" people would consider mainstream and what is normally considered mainstream is in world of comics far away in the "alternative" horizon. Admittedly superhero comics are at the moment a fertile field to produce movies which do have a mainstream appeal, but being a raw ingredient is different from being a final product.
This mining part has in any case lead to the fact that Comic-Con has got more and more activity related to movies, and naturally also more interest in mainstream media.
However, the media will be discussing mainly about the subjects of mainstream interest, in case of Elle what various movie starlets were wearing. What should have they been writing? They are Elle, they most likely know what their readers are interested in. On the comics side of thing, was there anything interesting in the Con? And if there was, what was it and why didn't the people who do Elle find out about it?

There is a call for bigger diversity in comics which is of course all fine and dandy. But I couldn't help noticing that in the initial "Revolution" post the aim seems to be getting interest in comic pamphlets distributed via direct market. Why, may I ask?
One cannot help noticing that there are every now and then comic boosk which seem to get quite positive mainstream media attention, possibly also translating to sales (haven't seen the figures so don't know if they are just critics' darlings). Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, stuff like that. First of all there's the question of content: those books have some relevance to the world most of us are living in. The second thing is that you can go to a bookstore and buy a book from there and you have the story right there. No background information necessary (well, it helps if you have some idea what happened in WWII or where is Iran) and no need to go to the store every Wednesday to get another piece of the story.

Even if the content would change, would it sell unless other distribution methods are considered, or possibly even other formats? And I am not talking about distributing the bloody pamphlets in digital form into iPhone or whatever.
Among American comics enthusiasts I have discussed with I have been noticing a strange blindness towards perhaps the most mainstream comic format: strips in newspapers and magazines. It appears that less and less newspapers are paying attention to what is happening in the comics section, running any old thing, editing the strips so they fit the space even if they don't make sense after editing, cutting down the size etc. It also doesn't help that many comic strips need to sell to numerous papers across the country and to achieve that one needs to work with the lowest common denominators and avoid offending anyone, and that can lead to some weird issues like making "banana" a forbidden word.
Selling a regular strip to a magazine might work better, there you can hopefully address more specific audience. The problem are of course readers, who should demand a good comics section in whatever newspaper and magazine they are reading. And if comics are really such a diverse medium, there shouldn't be a magazine which couldn't possibly have a comics section.

Is there a comic strip appearing in Elle? If there isn't, why not?
There's a challenging but clear and IMO achievable goal to the revolution initiative: sell a regular comic strip to Elle (and Rolling Stone and Scientific American and church newsletter and every other paper everywhere). Maybe more people would get more interested in comics as a format and some of those might also venture out to check out an interesting book by Viz, Fantagraphics, or Marvel.
Because here's a nugget to consider: maybe DC, Marvel and direct market comic shops are hopelessly restricted to ghetto. I like superhero books, but I like plenty of things which I know will never have mainstream appeal. Maybe achieving mainstream success requires abandoning the current industry model, not just tweaking it.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Pearls Before Swine

I am not quite sure what to make of Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis as a newspaper strip because that's not a format I read it. The only newspaper I come across that carries it is this free one which I read very irregularly on buses, and I have not quite got into web strip format (web comics I read tend to be blogs, not dailies).
Instead I have been reading it in big chunks in treasuries, there's four of them out at the moment. What is interesting is that Mr. Pastis provides lots of comments on individual strips, telling about inspirations, reactions, planned alternative takes, pointing out details (usually mocking his own drawings) etc. And considering how Pastis makes regular appearances in the strip itself and there are also numerous references on being a comic strip, poking fun on other strips and so forth, there's a good deal of meta buzz going on without it being either the main point of the series like with e.g. Sam's Strip but far more than in pretty much every normal strip.

There is something deeply satisfying about Pearls Before Swine. Beside the frequent metacommentary, there's the crude and simplistic but extremely functional artwork, main characters named Rat, Pig, Goat etc. and writing ranging from really bad puns (the so-bad-it's great kind) to poignant social commentary to touching moments to funny jokes. It's practically the Platonic Idea of a comic strip.

And despite Pastis' claims of PBS being a dark strip, I actually find it quite positive. I am somewhat tired of cynicism and hopelessness of strips like Dilbert (I am perfectly capable of being highly cynical, dark and hopeless by myself, I don't need help by amateurs) and I absolutely loathe sadism as source of humour. Garfield started this trend by its popularity and while it was funny in its first years and put some variety to the concept, it inspired a number of copycats who thought making a strip of a character who torments other characters is comedy gold. So strips like Get Fuzzy have no appeal to me.
But a strip that is funny without being negative or sugary, there's not too many of those.
And as far as alleged edginess goes, my local paper carries Fingerpori, Viivi &Wagner, Wulffmorgentaler and Biller so my views of what is acceptable content in a comic page of a newspaper are somewhat desentisized...

I'm a fan of the band too.