|Domen Finžgar, Stripburger 56
Slovenian comics delay 3
This year, the Slovenian national television programme aired two documentary films about comics. On the 16th of May we were able to view the film Comic Books Go to War. The film was an excellent overview of the so-called documentary comic, which offered us interviews with comic strip authors who are engaged in reportage from the hotspots of conflict. On the 11th of September, the movie Art Spiegelman’s Comics was screened, which is a classical portrait of the artist from his underground beginnings to his mega-success with Maus.
I will not be spending too many words on these films, I mainly mention them to celebrate the fact that such films get aired in the first place and, if that wasn’t enough, have also been very competently translated and even dubbed, without subtitles, but this is already becoming a broadcasting fixture for RTV (i.e. Slovenian public television). However, both films are suitable starting points for writing this article.
It must be noted that the movie Comic Books Go to War forgot to mention La Guerre d’Alan ( L’Association, 2000) (Alan’s War) by Emmanuel Guibert. This incredibly good comic book has been an essential reading since 2000, but critics have so far failed to pay it enough attention. The reason probably lies in the sparse drawing style, which, under the pretext that the readers are supposed to imagine particular scenes themselves, comes across as somewhat barren and empty. A better reason for such an approach is, however, that the artist is telling the story of a war veteran without every actually having experienced war. This lack of information about the appearance of streets, vehicles, clothing and the countryside in those days could otherwise possibly be compensated by extensive research, but in this case it would mean that the project would have lasted significantly longer (considering it already is a 304 page long tome), while the result may not even have been that much better. As for the drawing, we should also mention the very interesting technique of ‘water drawing’, mastered by Guibert. In principle, he first quickly draws the motif with water, then trickles ink on it, which then gets somewhat arbitrarily distributed across the soaked surface. The result is excellent, the only shame is that the English edition, published by First Second, completely destroyed the effect by its minuscule formatting (the same was done with the inadequately sized books by Gipi), so I recommend you read the French edition.
However, the essence of Alan’s War is not in the drawing, but rather in its narration. The comic book pivots around Alan Cope, an American veteran of World War II, introducing us to a completely different perspective on that terrible period in our history. This is due to the fact that Cope joined the war towards its end and, except in limited outbreaks of conflict, did not experience how incredibly abhorrent it was. When patrolling in the liberated areas, he was greeted by people who were full of new hope and boundless gratitude; the comic book is therefore is not only the story of Cope, it is just as much a story about these people. A truly amazing testimony of a Man with a capital letter, clearly aware of the remarks that I have always been tending to make about autobiographical comics. In order to achieve a feeling of honesty in one’s comic book, it is not necessary that every intimate detail of a man’s life be disclosed to the reader. Cope talks about his romantic relationships, but also comments on problems of hygiene in intimate areas with such maturity and humanity that it makes the writing of some Joe Matt seem almost like a criminal act. Indeed, if you want to read the biography of a man who could no longer exist in the present day, La Guerre d’Alan is the right choice. Definitely one of the best comics I’ve ever read.
Let us return to film documentaries. The second film is, as already stated, about Art Spiegelman. In this film, the father of modern comics is continually stating how he is trying to prevent Maus from becoming a cash cow, to be milked indefinitely for all it is worth. But it seems clear that that’s just what it will become. At the time of issue of the copy of Stripburger which you are reading at the moment, his new book, bearing the title Metamaus, will already be on the shelves. So far very little is known about this project, nor do we know if it is going to be a comic strip or not, but in any case the book will contain a DVD containing the original recordings of conversations with his father, which could be quite interesting.
The Slovenian newspapers have recently published two longer writings on the topic of comic strips. Pogledi published an article entitled Kako je rasel strip na Slovenskem (How Comics Grew in Slovenia) from the keyboard of Žiga Valetič. The second is a text entitled Če boste brali stripe, se vam ne bodo trajno okvarili možgani (If You Read Comics, Your Brain Will Not Be Permanently Damaged) by Uroš Zupan in Dnevnik’s supplement Objektiv .
Despite the fact that Valetič holds a very different view from mine on the subject of Slovenian comics, he approaches writing in a constructive, reflective and visionary manner, which I certainly count in his favour. In the text he states that some of the main problems regarding comic books stem in the first place from the lack of a comic strip umbrella organisation, the absence of a Slovenian award for comics, the ambiguity of the economic category of the comic strip, the lack of comics in daily newspapers, and so forth. All this is true, but it seems that any such initiatives are doomed in advance to fail. Most of them had even become a reality in the past, but due to some reason or other that reality failed. The reason lies, of course, in the narrowness of the market and in the small number of comic authors and afficionados. Here we can easily forget about the multitude of Slovenian authors published in the Slovenski klasiki (Slovenian Classics) or the occasional reviewers, because we must take into consideration only those dealing with the ninth art at least on a semi-professional and continuous basis, thus shaping the Slovenian comic scene that could be the only one competent for the creation of the necessary conditions for an award ceremony, organising festivals and the establishment of an association. Thus, the comics festival (at the time of writing SCD3 yet to be held) is organised by the municipality of Ljubljana, which apparently is in no way able to prepare a decent programme. This latter, currently published, is absolutely inappropriate, since it mostly consists of projection of films based on comics. It is true that, as Valetič stated, a fraction of the fault lies with the authors themselves, who often lack in self-initiative when launching such projects, but this is actually not even their task. Their task is to draw comics and Slovenes are drawing more and more of them! We need someone – this can also be a comics artist – who has sufficient organisational and entrepreneurial skills. I mention entrepreneurial skills because I believe that every entrepreneur soon finds that comics are a risky business, or rather: swims against the tide of current trends in consumer preferences. Comics authors, particularly in Slovenia, are excellent swimmers against the tide (except for Lavrič, of course). Truth be told, it is always known in advance, at least approximately, which comics will sell well, but it is each individual artist’s decision whether to draw such comics or to rather express his/her ‘original’ comic strip story.
Valetič also tackles this issue with the words:
“The insecurity of the economic category of comics is perhaps the main culprit for the fact that in Slovenia there are virtually no graphic novels (but rather original comic books inspired – again, not always successfully – by the French tradition), which has been holding the highest reputation among all comic book industries for quite some time now in the world.”
Slovenians could easily classify most of their works as graphic novels (comic strip novels), since it is only a western and rather inappropriate term for comic books. This might, if we consider the examples from abroad, increase sales. But again I stress that this is not the responsibility of authors, but of publishers, entrepreneurs, who could impose such a category if they wished. Most of them, unfortunately, only deal with such ‘trifles’ with a delay of many years. For example, a vendor of the publishing house Sanje was eagerly explaining to me just last August that the greatest novelty in the comic strip world were graphic novels, which were apparently a big current worldwide hit. No kidding?!?
Žiga Valenčič in his article thus presents the many shortcomings of the comics scene and promotes a much-needed debate; the same cannot be said for Uroš Zupan. The latter recycled the story, already written at least a hundred times before, about growing up with Bonelli’s comics and Muster from the times of the deceased Yugoslavia. Similar to the salesman of the publishing house Sanje, he is noting in the year 2011 that everything is different than it used to be. A dated and uninteresting read.
Those of you who already passed this stage of surprise at the changes that have taken place in the world of comics a long time ago, may quickly grab the latest album by Chester Brown entitled Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John (Drawn and Quarterly, 2011). At first glance, the comic is an autobiographical story, which recounts the story of an introverted comic strip artist, who in his late thirties decides to change his sex life forever: to stop having the usual relationships and instead only pay for sex. Old news, say those who know that cartoonists all too readily describe themselves as introverts and are capable of similar experiments. Well, but the comic is anything but just a story about a consumer of prostitution.
In the first instance, it is an incredibly good reflection about the meaningfulness of these and other relationships, about the tabooisation of prostitution, while at the same time a complete departure from the representations of sex workers typical of Hollywood or European film. No pimps, violence, blond Eastern-european girls or heavy real-life stories. It’s purely about sex and money, the provision of a service and the payment for this service, with a follow-up of discussions within the group of three authors, statements by prostitutes, friends, and, as befits the pioneer of the autobiographical comic book, a large number of monologues. From the very beginning, with the prologue, as well as through the various discussions, the author literally pushes the message of the comic onto the reader. This, thankfully, is not an attempt to remove the taboo from prostitution, but rather a reflection on the relationships that we build, thoughts about how society affects us, questions as to whether there is anything besides pure habit in the love that we construct with our partners...
The comic is therefore an excellent catalyst for thinking with one’s own head and does not in any way act as a kind of promotional material for some non-governmental organisation, with which the author certainly hit the jackpot, since he showed precisely to these non-governmental organisations, as well as many other smart alecs, how to make the best advertisement for free society. Not by a permanent loud expression of one’s arguments, but with a skilful use of a medium that has been mastered, through honesty and a good reading experience. Sasha, the sex workers rights activist also agrees with me. In her review of the comic book, she states that the comic is the greatest possible advocate of prostitution, and on top of everything, a good customer.
The reader may often find him or herself disagreeing with the author, since it should be noted that this is a seriously introverted individual who perceives social life quite differently from the majority of the population. There is also the factor that the situation of prostitution in Montreal is certainly different than in St. Petersburg, but, as already stated, the author only gives his opinion and encourages a kind of discourse.
It is namely this promotion of discourse within the comic strip that constitutes a novelty provided by this medium. Usually, authors express a clear and unambiguous opinion about a subject, but in this case it seems more like he is preparing the readers for the conclusion of the book, which represents an additional fifty pages in non-comic-strip format, explaining the different events and offering some additional perspectives on some of the author’s reflections. That part acts completely independently; it does not even build upon the comic, but only represents the message of the entire book, which can be summarised in a famous saying: Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding.
But enough about the message itself. This is the main asset of the comic book, a fine example for contemporary art, which is steadily losing its ability to communicate its message, its meaning, and innovation and becoming a PR parade. Let me write a few words about the comic strip language: with Brown, we usually expect that the drawings are not his greatest strength, but already in Louis Riel he has developed them to such an extent that they act as a simple but convincing tool for presenting his stories, which are based more on the text.
But if for Louis Riel the comic strip form is almost unnecessary, and because of its extreme objectivity even boring at times, this time, Brown has clearly taken on board the criticism received and exhausted all the possibilities offered him by graphical language. In particular, he addresses with great skill the issue of the organisational structure of the comic book; it has an excellent system of chapters, which sometimes serve for dealing with individual topics, but mostly, a single chapter coincides with one particular experience with a prostitute. A bad experience with a prostitute usually results in a short chapter and a few sarcastic comments about her, which has a relaxing effect, as the ‘seances’ can sometimes be stressful and a break certainly loosens the reading experience.
It is precisely the decision that the comic should not be extremely objective and depressing that plays an important part in ensuring that the book does not act only as an advocate of prostitution, but is also an incredibly good comic book. The humour is extremely sophisticated; it is certainly Brown’s most humorous product.
The comic is conceived and carried out from beginning to end in an incredibly intelligent manner. Usually, I can be relied upon to find some drawback, but this time, at least regarding the technical side of the work, I find this task very difficult. Its only drawback is that it is thematically stereotypical. Those who do not enjoy reading about the bizarre fates of comic strip introverts will find little to relate to in many modern comic strips. Since I somehow still manage to digest such stories and am angered by forced activism of any kind; instead looking with a magnifying glass for art that has the aim to develop itself, art which puts design in the service of content, for all these reasons, for me, Chester Brown is the best reading of this year.
Paying For It arrived without a big fuss, as did Asterios Polyp, but represents a new milestone in comic strip art. I will be very happy to come across an author who represents new themes in contemporary comics with the same quality.
In this present SCD, which is already too long, I will just briefly mention a few issues worth reading. Nicolas Presl was a completely unknown author to me up to very recently, when I encountered two of his books in Liege, Belgium. The first was Le Fils de l’Ours père (The Hoochie Coochie, 2010), and the second L’Hydrie (Atrabile, 2011). In both books, the author in particular proves that he is the master of silent comics, which many consider to be the purest, but also the most demanding form of comic strip narration. Le Fils de l’Ours Père is a simple story about the peculiarities of individuals in their environment and about finding oneself, but, believe me, something so smooth and at the same time so convincing is rarely read! The same goes for L’Hydrie, which mimics classical Greek tragedies, but is slightly less readable due to its multiple-layered storyline, hard to grasp by the reader on the first reading. Only after a second, closer reading, I discovered what a well thought out and perfectly performed comic book it was. I heartily recommend both books.
In addition to Chester Brown, Gilbert Hernandez and Daniel Clowes have also issued new albums. The former drew Love From the Shadows (Fantagraphics Books, 2011), while the latter compiled extracts from a comic strip, which he periodically published in the New York Times into an album, entitling it Mister Wonderful (Pantheon, 2011). Unlike Paying For It, neither of these works are revolutionary products, but rather they are highly typical albums from the two authors. So if you generally enjoy comics by the mentioned authors, you will also enjoy these two.
You have enough good literature until the next Comics Delay! I wish you a pleasant reading and, like Valetič and Brown, discussion and thought process! (Mimo)