comics


Tricksy move: write a whole book about a single day of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. That’s the one pulled by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden in How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (2017). The bulk of the book is devoted to the strip for August 8, 1959, shown below.

nancy

I’ve purposely shown a view of the strip among other strips, on faded newsprint, rather than the big clean black & white version, in order to help make the authors’ point: Nancy survives poor sizing and reproduction intact. It’s a fast strip to grasp: bam, bam, gag. Bushmiller is a master of minimalism; the drawing and the text are just enough to carry the gag and no more.

The book reprints the strip 43 times, highlighting something different each time. The gimmick is a little misleading— e.g. one highlight is on the character of Nancy, which really covers her personality and appearance over the life of the strip. Another is devoted to the copyright notice and date, as a digression into the business of comic strip creation. (Like most strips of the time, Nancy was owned by the syndicate; Bushmiller was technically just an employee.)

The book is a pretty good primer on Nancy; as a bonus it includes about 200 full strips, plus a retrospective of Bushmiller’s career. Fun fact: he started out as a copyboy at the New York World at the age of 15, hung out with the cartoonists and started doing graphic odd jobs, such as drawing the lines for crossword puzzles; he was publishing a strip by the age of 19. When he was just 20, in 1925, he took over Larry Whittington’s Fritzi Ritz, a comic about a ditzy flapper, itself an imitation of the similar Tillie the Toiler. Fritzi was quite successful, though even then Bushmiller preferred single-strip gags to any sort of ongoing story.

Occasionally a kid cousin or nephew or niece would show up and invariably be smart-alecky— always flustering Aunt Fritzi— and in 1933 one of these was Nancy. There was something about her that outshone the other kids; she stuck around, and in 1938 the strip was rechristened Nancy. And so it went till Bushmiller’s death in 1982.

Now, Nancy used to be the comic strip sophisticates cordially hated. The 1976 World Encyclopedia of Comics complained that it seemed to be made by “some guy with Joe Miller’s Joke Book and a set of Nancy and Sluggo stamps”, and dismissed it as “the last thing the Lawrence Welk generation read and liked in the comics.” Well, 1970s hipsters, the joke’s on you: the next generation of hipsters developed a deep appreciation for Nancy. 

There’s something to be said for it, especially with Karasik and Newgarden’s help. Nancy is above all honest. It’s a half-century-long paean to the gag and nothing but the gag. It has no satirical import, no story, no pretensions to be a Graphic Novel. Based on the comics reproduced in the book, the gags are rarely LOL funny, but they’re amusing and harmless, and not tiresome in the way of Beetle Bailey or Marmaduke. (Ha ha, Sarge is beating up Beetle again.) There’s even an appealing dash of surrealism, such as a strip where Nancy and Sluggo exchange heads. (Though it’s kind of ruined by Bushmiller lampshading that it’s April Fool’s Day.)

If you value clear and direct cartooning, there’s much to learn from Nancy. Simple writing isn’t as easy as it looks, and neither is simple cartooning. As Wally Wood put it, “By the time you decided not to read it, you already had.”

The strip is still going on, and ironically, 2010s hipsters actually like the current incarnation, by Olivia Jaimes. We’ll probably be able to celebrate the strip’s centennial in just four years.

I think both the dismissal and the adulation can go too far. Bushmiller’s Nancy is workmanlike and reliable, but it achieves its effects because it sets a very low bar. It’s hard not to compare it with Peanuts, which matches it in minimalism but far exceeds it in variety, perceptiveness, and draftsmanship. Bushmiller’s cartooning is highly competent— and this goes double for today when almost all the nicely drawn adventure strips are gone, and almost the whole comics page is devoted to sketchily drawn gag strips. But his line is stiff, his facial expressions are stereotyped, and the characters barely attempt to be human. And though Nancy might make you smile more than you expected, it’ll never wow you or challenge you or inform you or shock you.

Karasik and Newgarden do great work in pointing out Bushmiller’s skill and simplicity, and pulling out lessons for cartoonists; but I think they could have gone much farther in recognizing that alternative approaches are OK too. You can go for better drawing, you can go for sketchier drawing; you can tell stories, you can be satirical or serious, you can draw five rocks instead of three.

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I was excited to hear that Luc Besson was making a movie of Valérian, the French BD. And I finally got to see it!

valnlaur

The top image is from the movie

Briefly: it’s pretty good, with caveats.  (JWZ hated it, though.) Pluses:

  • It’s visually stunning, far outdoing Fifth Element.
  • It’s a surprisingly close adaptation of the 1975 Valérian comic Ambassador of the Shadows.
  • It’s also faithful to the anti-colonialist spirit of the comics.
  • Laureline.

Minuses:

  • Besson lays it on pretty thick at times.
  • Nowhere near as compelling a villain as in Fifth Element.
  • Valerian.
  • Not enough Laureline.

It wasn’t very successful in the US, for about the same reason as Fifth Element: American sdon’t read French comics, so they just don’t know what to make of this sort of material. We expect our heroes to be rock-jawed and earnest, or maybe disturbed and grimdark.  And when it comes to satire, we have no subtlety: everything either has to be cynically absurdist (The Simpsons) or over-the-top dystopia (pretty much every recent sf movie).

The comic started in 1967, drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières and written by Pierre Christin, and continued to 2010. French comics are often gorgeous, and Mézières did amazing work bringing aliens, space vistas, and 28th century technology to life. Valérian and Laureline  are “spatio-temporal agents”— their missions cross both space and time, protecting the future Earth state, “Galaxity”— but there’s a strong humanistic and anti-establishment tone to the stories, and often they have to disobey orders and do what’s right instead.

In the comics, Valérian is kind of a big lug— good enough at executing his missions, but not very imaginative. Laureline is always depicted as smarter, more empathetic, and more versatile. (She also has the more interesting background: she’s from the 10th century; she met Valérian on one of his missions and, discovering his time travel ability, had to go back to the future with him, whereupon Galaxity trained her as his partner.)

Watching the movie, you can kind of see that that’s what Besson was going for— only he spoiled it by making Valerian an asshole. I’ve heard people complaining about the casting, or the chemistry between the actors, but I think Cara Delevingne does fine, and Dane DeHaan does what he can with his terrible part. The problem is the script: Valerian talks like a bad pick-up artist, and doesn’t really have much to say when Laureline points out that he loses all interest in a woman after seducing her.  The script suggests that going through an adventure together and saving each other’s lives a few times might change all that.  Maybe, but more likely it’d seem like a huge mistake in a month’s time.

The movie at least starts with strong source material: it adapts Ambassador, including the mega-space station, the primitive-seeming alien race, the converter creature, the shape-shifting aliens, the information-dealing little aliens, the sea monsters with telepathic jellyfish on top, the ambivalent and arrogant Earth government, the attack and kidnaping of the Earth official. But Ambassador was also virtually a solo adventure for Laureline: Valérian was kidnaped as well and spends most of the comic offscreen. Although it might be a weird introduction to the series, I’d much rather have called the movie Laureline, focused on her, and lost the ham-fisted bro-romance angle.

Still, if you look at Fifth Element too closely, it falls apart too.  Too corny; over-the-top excess; Ruby Rhod. And yet, it’s spectacular and eccentric, and Besson knows how to make a movie move. It’s really well put together, and very enjoyable if you just accept that the characters are caricatures.

And Valerian is pretty similar. It’s really beautiful, and the first bit of plot— the dimension-crossing Big Market— is crazy and amazing. It’s always beautiful and never boring. And though Valerian himself is kind of excruciating, he’s also, I think, meant to be that way.

In 1944— a time when the war lowered a lot of barriers— Chu Hing became one of the first Asian-Americans to work in comics. He created a superhero named the Green Turtle, who fought the Japanese who were attempting to conquer China. Rather strangely, the comic never shows Green Turtle’s face; the supposition is that the publisher refused to allow an Asian face, and in return Hing refused to draw a white one.  Another oddity is that the Turtle’s shadow is drawn (without explanation) as a big black turtle, with yellow eyes and a red mouth.

Now Gene Luen Yang (Asian-American) and Sonny Liew (Malaysian-Singaporean) have teamed up to revive and explain the character.

Liew

His origin story: he’s Hank, a Chinese-American boy whose only goal is to help his father run a grocery store, and run it himself after him.  But after his mother meets a superhero, she gets it into her head that Hank should be one too. She takes him for martial arts training, arranges accidents with industrial waste, and even knits him a costume… with a big 金 and the helpful legend GOLDEN MAN OF BRAVERY.

This part of the book is a lot of fun— Hank’s mom is both adorable and annoying, and Yang recognizes that the whole superhero thing is a little ridiculous.

It gets more serious later on, as Hank confronts the tongs that control Chinatown. As part of this, he meets the tortoise spirit, one of four ancient spirits that safeguard the Chinese Empire, and are a little lost when the Empire disappears.  So now he has real superpowers— though he has to learn how to use them to do some good. Also he can finally choose a better superhero name, the Green Turtle. (Which happens to be close to the name of his father’s shop, 玉龜 ‘jade tortoise’.)

(Pedantic note: the book gives this as Yu Quai, but the family is Cantonese so the first character should really be Yuk. Possibly a little interference from Mandarin ?)

The story is set in the 1940s, and deals realistically with the casual anti-Chinese racism of the time. The viewpoint however is always with Hank and his family, who have little interaction with whites; even the villains are other Asian-Americans.

I have to say that Sonny Liew’s art takes some getting used to. He’s great with cityscapes and shadow creatures and Hank and his father.  Everyone else is caricatured in a weird ugly way… if a white guy drew Chinese people like that it would come off as racist. Still, I’d love to see a Volume 2.

As a bonus, the book provides one of the original Chu Hing Green Turtle comics from 1944. Even at the time, it was surely a bit odd that you never saw Green Turtle’s face. For a modern reader, there’s another peculiarity: the Chinese in the story are drawn nicely, but the Japanese are monstrous.

I also recently read a graphic novel of Liew’s: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.  It’s an odd meta thing: a mock retrospective of a not-very-successful imaginary cartoonist. This gives Liew the opportunity to parody all sorts of historical styles (e.g. there’s a nice tribute to Pogo), and also to recount the dramatic history of Singapore: British rule, the Japanese invasion, independence, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian rule. The mockumentary format is well suited for wandering through history, and for pastiching cartoonists he admires; perhaps less so for maintaining narrative momentum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best Catwoman comic may not be a Catwoman comic at all.  Of the ones I’ve read, I liked Darwyn Cooke’s the best. But I found a book that is just what I think Catwoman should be: Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette. It started as a webcomic, but it’s now available in two hardbound volumes.

bandette rembrandt

Bandette is a Parisian teen girl thief.  (Her real name is Maxime Plouffe.)  The first two chapters set the tone: she breaks into a mansion, steals some Rembrandt minatures, gets seen, escapes, helps out her police friend with the aid of her teen irregulars, talks to her rival (whose nom de vol is Monsieur), flirts with her friend Daniel, and earns a death sentence from a villain named Absinthe.

It’s fun, it’s well done, and it’s completely weightless.  No grimdark at all, at least in volume 1– Absinthe seems no more dangerous than Mr. Rastapopoulos in Tintin. Can you tell I’m sick of grimdark?  Not long ago in the DC universe, Joker apparently cut his face off.  And then his face became a McGuffin for awhile, and then he got it back again.  Back on his face, that is.  I guess that’s pretty crazy, but a) it’s a steal from another media property; and b) it’s really pretty dumb. It’s grimdark as the camp body horror other half of Batman 1966.

I’m guessing Tobin has read some French BDs… the fact that the police inspector’s name is BD may be a clue; also the Tintin-level mixture of humor and adventure. Bandette also owes something to Irma Vep, classic catsuited French thief.  Tobin has everyone talk as if poorly translated from French:

Daniel: But what is this list?

Bandette: Is it not obvious, Daniel?  It is a mischief list!

Daniel: A mischief list?

Bandette: Yes, it’s very exciting! It’s a listing of items owned by Absinthe.  …It would be the height of folly to attempt to steal them.

Bandette aims to do just that, of course– she has a very high opinion of herself. Which in a real person is not a very attractive quality, but she somehow pulls it off, perhaps because the fun she’s having is so contagious.  (When she visits Monsieur, to propose a mutual challenge, she starts off by asking if he has any cookies.)

I picked it up on the strength of Coover’s name– I loved her Small Favors, and few artists are so good at drawing cute girls. But she can draw much more: big-nosed Parisian cops, middle-aged master thieves, Parisian rooftops, etc.  It’s stylized but beautifully drawn; it fits the story perfectly.

I think what goes wrong in most of the Catwoman books I’ve seen is precisely the lack of lightness.  It’s fine if things go wrong– that’s what makes stories.  But I want her to be smart, witty, resourceful, a little cocky, and graceful and admirable as a thief– like Bandette.  There’s no need to give her the same traumas as Batman.

(I was at the library today and volume two was unavailable.  So these remarks are based on volume one.  If she runs into Joker in the next book, it’s not my fault.)

The one DC book that captures some of this lightness is Amanda Conner’s Harley Quinn. A recent episode had Power Girl hit by a space alien and lose her memory.  She wakes up in Harley’s back yard, and Harley convinces her that she is actually her loyal sidekick.  Wacky is hard to pull off, but Conner gets just the right balance, I think.

Which is of course Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, by Julie Maroh. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, and the library had it (unfortunately only in English).

maroh

It’s the story of Clem (for Clémentine), a high school student who, to her surprise, falls head over heels for another girl, an art student with blue hair named Emma.

Clem is also dead. This isn’t a spoiler, as we find out on page 1. The framing device has Emma coming to Clem’s house and reading her diaries for the first time— learning all the bits of Clem’s life and mind that, she says, she was unable to tell Emma while she was alive.

The power of the book is that it’s all emotion. Everything hits Clem hard: confusion over her first feelings of love (and why she doesn’t feel anything for her first boyfriend); shame and loneliness; the joys of her immediate infatuation with Emma and her frustration that Emma has a girlfriend, Sabine; the anger and bitterness of her best friend turning out to be a raging homophobe; withdrawal and depression; the ecstasy of her first time in bed with Emma.

Emma is centered and solid, at peace with her sexuality; Clem is all teenage all the time, a storm of hormones, completely given to her passion for Emma, yet perfectly capable of punishing her for a month for not paying enough attention to her. It doesn’t help that not only her schoolmates but her family is homophobic. (She does have one steadfast friend, her gay pal Valentin.)

Toward the end of the book, Clem grows up— in two pages.  But we only see a few images from a 13-year relationship. Admittedly this fits the conceit of the book— Emma is reading Clem’s words, filling in what she didn’t know about her; plus perhaps a transition to a very different kind of story— something that recorded 13 years of togetherness— would have been jarring.  Instead of that, tragedy strikes, and then a few pages later, tragedy strikes again. This is perhaps the one flaw in the book: to maintain the emotional roller coaster, the book becomes melodrama.

On the other hand, at least based on the book, France is not as evolved on LGBT issues as one might imagine. Same-sex marriage didn’t come until 2013, three years after the book was published; one of the worst cruelties depicted in the book is that the hospital where Emma takes Clem when she falls sick won’t tell her what happened, because she’s not “family”. Julie Maroh has written that she was not writing for lesbians or even for allies; she was writing for those who “have no doubts, who have false ideas without knowing anything, who detest us/me”.  So an extra dose of pathos may have been what was needed to get through to people’s hard hearts.

Maroh’s art fits the book: melancholy, evocative, almost all of it in sepia tones with blue highlights. It’s mostly realistic, but there’s a manga-like willingness to stretch the drawing to communicate more emotion.

There are extra hurdles for Clem because her great love is lesbian; but Maroh easily reaches the universal as well. We don’t actually learn that much about Emma— what kind of art she makes, what she thinks about Sarkozy, why she has blue hair, what exactly she sees in “the little brunette from the main square”, as she calls Clem. But in a sense it doesn’t matter; all that matters is that the coup de foudre hit Clem, she’s in love for the first time, she is miserable when she’s apart from Emma, she feels she would do anything for her. First love makes us feel like angels and act like crazy people and goes a long way to making us lovable (and sometimes the opposite).

I haven’t seen the  movie, but from what I’ve read it’s been substantially changed— starting with Clémentine herself, who’s been morphed into Adèle, after the name of the actress who plays her.  Maroh (from the above link) isn’t bothered by the adaptation, but she was bothered by the inauthenticity of the sex scene, which she called “a brutal and surgical display”. Ouch!  Maybe it would have helped if at least one of the actresses was lesbian, as in Room in Rome.

Linguistic note: The French title is the subtler Blue is a warm color. In Russian it became СИНИЙ – САМЫЙ ТЕПЛЫЙ ЦВЕТ; as Russian famously has two words for blue, it has to specify that Emma’s hair is dark blue. And the Japanese title is ブルーは熱い色 Burū wa atsui iro. I’d love to know why they used the French/English word… what’s wrong with aoi?

 

If you’re under, oh, 40 or 50, Roz Chast’s graphic novel will seem like a story from an alternative dimension… like a love story looks when you’re nine.  But this will all happen to you, pal.

It’s about the last years of Chast’s parents, and having lost both of mine in the last three years, I recognized everything.

rozchast

There’s kind of a secret fraternity of those who have taken care of elderly parents. You watch them tootling through their 80s, a little less vigorous, a little hard of hearing, but still happy and active. Then something happens.  They can do less and less.  They don’t take care of their home as well as they used to. They start getting weak and then positively fragile.  There are emergencies with falls and sudden hospital stays.

Step by step the old relationship reverses, till you are taking care of them. And making decisions nothing has prepared you for: are they insisting on driving when they can’t, do they need help in their home, do they need to move out, is anyone making sure they bathe, what if scammers call them on the phone…

Oh, scammers. One day my sister came to Dad’s house and he wasn’t there. This was extremely disconcerting as he used a walker and simply walking to the kitchen was a big thing for him. He had written a phone number on a piece of paper in the den; I Googled it and found it was a taxi company. We called the company and he had taken a taxi to Walgreens.

Well, he showed up back at the house soon enough, and my sister got the whole story. Someone had called and told him he’d won hundreds of thousands of dollars.  To get it, he just had to send a money card (available at Walgreens) to an address in Nevada, because reasons. They told him not to tell his kids— it should be a surprise!

Fortunately, the clerk at Walgreens was on the ball; he told my Dad it was a scam, and he came home. He was a little embarrassed, though not as much as when he dropped his cranberry juice and one of us had to clean it up.

Point is, you take care of them out of affection and need, yes, and death is horrible and tragic and pathetic, but they’re also exasperating, weird, and sometimes hilarious.

This is all in Chast. I don’t know what you might expect in a memoir about death— it’s occasionally sad or gruesome— but there’s plenty of humor and personal eccentricity. You get to know Chast’s parents, and learn exactly how they drive Roz bats.

When Chast’s cartoons started appearing in the New Yorker, I didn’t like them. They seemed weird and humorless. Eventually I came around. It might have been this cartoon that did it:

Untitled-1

 

Chast has a very dry sense of humor, with an occasional dash of surrealism. Her characters are typically urban, quotidian and a little neurotic, sitting around small living rooms on couches with antimacassars on top… after reading her memoir, I can see her parents and their Brooklyn apartment in her cartoons.

In form, her book is a mixture of comics, text, and a few photos. She’s managed something that many have tried with far less success: moving easily between cartoons and text. The key may be that the text is handwritten, and never too long. Blocks of typesetting are jarring in a comic. At the same time, many comics artists try to keep everything in comics, and that doesn’t work, because six or twenty panels of the same thing are boring.

If you’re young, with no elderly relatives around, I have no idea what the book will be like for you. So check it out to learn what this alternative dimension is like, or come back in ten years…

The people in charge of the Angoulême comics festival were recently completely unable to think of any female cartoonists, so I thought I’d help by contributing a list of more than 200.

If your favorites aren’t there… tell me!  Especially if they’re non-English.  I’m especially weak on manga.

As it happened, I was already reading Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence, which is about black female cartoonists.  It has a whole chapter about Catwoman, so I had to read it.  (Catwoman has been played on the screen by black actresses twice, going back to 1967, so it’s not surprising she has a special meaning for black comics fans.)

The most interesting chapter is on Jackie Ormes, who had several syndicated strips in black newspapers from the late ’30s till the ’50s.  I would love to see more of her work; it’d be a fascinating glimpse into those times.  What’s striking about her elegant, smart characters is simply that they look human, and sexy, at a time when white cartoonists were producing abominations like the Spirit’s Ebony.

Anyway, Whaley’s theorycrafting doesn’t turn me on much, but the introduction to a bunch of artists is worthwhile.  (I kept wanting to ask what she thought of Jaime Hernandez, or what she might think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther…)

 

 

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