Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 58, October 8, 1958.

Héctor Germán Oesterheld's and Francisco Solano López's "Enterradores" (gravediggers)

A curious thing happened when Argentinian scriptwriter Héctor Germán Oesterheld found his own comics publishing house, Editorial Frontera. For a brief period of time, 1957 - 1963, mainstream adolescent comics raised much above the business as usual, pervasive formulaic dreck. Oesterheld proved to me a very simple and often forgotten truth: it's easy to dismiss a whole category if we base our judgment on the worst examples (usually those are the only ones that the judges know about). It's easy to debase something when the judge is socially much above the subject of her/his scorn; in these circumstances s/he can only be applauded by her/his peers while all outraged reactions can't be heard outside of the attacked subculture.
I don't defend adolescent comics, mind you, I'm just saying that when the best comics writer ever decided do try a hand at this particular genre (if we can call it that) the inevitable happened. Here's what he had to say in Hora Cero Suplemento semanal (zero hour weekly supplement) # 1 (September 4, 1957):
There are bad comics when they're badly done only. Denying comics all together, condemning them as a whole, is as irrational as denying cinema all together because there are bad films. Or condemning literature because there are bad books. There are, unfortunately in a huge ratio, lots of bad comics. But these don't disqualify the good ones. On the contrary, by comparison, they should underline their quality. [...]
Oesterheld is a German family name and Héctor inherited a German tradition which, according to Christian Gasser (in the Lisbon comics convention catalog, 2003) dates from the enlightenment:
This didactic interpretation of literature is a product of the 18th century. At that time, the qualities of literature and art were used to educate and morally elevate the common people. Meanwhile, these efforts became obsolete in literature, but not in the restricted domain of children's literature where people continue to ask: "Very well, what can a child learn from this book?" The pedagogic function continues to be overrated.
Oesterheld viewed the, then, popular medium of comics as an opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents. At a certain point he felt the need to put the following warning on the cover of Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal: "Historietas para mayores de 14 años" (comics for those who are older than 14). The anti-comics crusade was still on and he didn't want any trouble. Anyway, he wanted to both educate and entertain. What he meant by "educate" wasn't exactly what may be on our minds today though...
He aimed at four goals: (1) to be accurate with his data (pedagogic texts about warfare punctuated his comics; he wrote stories in a lot of genres - Western, Science-Fiction, Historical, Noir –, but War - WW2, to be exact - remained the bulk of his magazines' content); (2) he didn't want to edulcorate reality or bowdlerize his stories; (3) he wanted to convey moral values of self-sacrifice, unselfishness, team work (he strongly opposed the individual macho hero as he - it's usually a "he" - is seen by North American mass artists; ditto the glorification of violence... besides, the main character is usually someone socially "invisible" who reacts unexpectedly in a stressful situation); (4) linked to (2): Oesterheld didn't want to hide what's darker in the human condition, but, at his best (he produced hundreds of stories, so, lots and lots of them aren't that good) he was never Manichean.
Four great draftsmen drew Oesterheld's stories at Editorial Frontera before working (immigrating even) exclusively for the UK. After these artists disbanded the graphic quality of Frontera's stories dwindled dramatically. Not even a young José Muñoz could equal them:

Hugo Pratt:

Hora Cero Extra! # 4 October, 1958.

Hugo Pratt did very rare unprejudiced portraits of black people in the 50s. In this Hora Cero Extra! cover he illustrated a story by Oesterheld about Senegalese soldiers fighting for France during WW2.

Arturo del Castillo:

Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 58, October 8, 1958.

An impressive Western scene from "Randall." Castillo would do for the UK the best The Man in the Iron Mask comics illustrations ever.

Carlos Roume:

Frontera Extra # 7, May 1959.

Roume was a great animal artist. In this Frontera Extra cover he drew Pichi, the Pampa dog. A story scripted by Héctor's brother, Jorge.

Alberto Breccia:

Misterix # 749, March 22, 1963.

Alberto Breccia and Héctor Germán Oesterheld's Mort Cinder (a series that, in my view, isn't as good as Ernie Pike) remains one of the most famous of Oesterheld's creations (along with Argentinian cultural icon: El Eternauta - the eternaut). This doesn't surprise me because of comics fans' bent for fantasy. Even so the story to which the above page belongs, "En la penitenciaria: Marlin" (in the penitentiary: Marlin), is one of the series' best ones.
I immersed myself in Oesterheld's oeuvre for the last year. Reading hundreds of his stories I can safely say that he could have been one of those world famous South American writers like Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and Oesterheld knew each other and used to take walks together. Oesterheld was an inventive plotter and a purveyor of ideas and great phrases. Even when the story is no good at all (as I said, he produced too much) a phrase sparkles suddenly making the reading worthwhile.
I stumbled upon lots of Oesterheld's great stories, but I had to choose one for this Stumbling. I chose "Enterradores." In it a German major freshly arrived from Berlin to the Stalingrad front is shocked when he discovers that two German soldiers (Wesser and Hofe) of the disciplinary battalion (whose mission is to bury corpses) are burying Russians and Germans together:

Hora Cero Extra! # 1, April 1958.

The drawings are by Francisco Solano López. To be honest I don't like Solano's drawings as much as I like the work of those four artists above. I find his understanding of the human figure a bit strange and his lines a bit heavy and formless sometimes. Even so it seems to me that he captured the facial expressions of the veterans well in contrast with the major's. The overall darkness of the atmosphere is more than adequate to convey the theme of the story.

[The captain explains to the major how desperate the situation is (he wants to excuse the two men's lack of discipline). Here's what Oeserheld wrote in the last two strips: "It was in the Steppe, near the Don. / There stayed a shared grave different from all the others. A grave in which Russians and Germans mixed. / That grave was the revenge of soldiers Wesser and Hofe of the disciplinarian battalion." Equally impressive are the eerie shadows walking into oblivion at the end...
Can you imagine such a story in a children's comic today? It wasn't even suitable for a children's comic back in the 1950s. And yet, Argentinian kids bought Hora Cero and Frontera in their various incarnations. Judging from Oesterheld's example, maybe I'm not against children's comics... maybe I'm against children's comics that insult their readers' intelligence, that's all...

[PS After my post on July 25, 2010 at The Hooded Utilitarian I had the great joy and honor of receiving the below comment by José Muñoz. Moments like this are priceless, and make all the effort of writing pro bono more than worthwhile!

Fifty years ago we were already there, another five years passed by… and Los Enterradores, Amapola Negra (I’ve worked there with my brush plenty of water with black ink doing clouds, mechanical interiors of the B 17, Messerschmitts and lots and lots of used leather jackets…to search the right light on them was, is, a giant pleasure) El Eternauta, El Cuaderno Rojo, are part of my central memories.
I’m so touched by your interest, respect and conmotion around the superbly well done works of my masters.
Roume camina con Del Castillo
por las calles de mis barrios,
el polvo de las Pampas y del Painted Desert
entra en la ciudad,
Solano, Pratt y Breccia los esperan
en el Bar La Comedia, Corrientes esquina Paranà,
Oesterheld està llegando con su tìmida sonrisa.]

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Lighten Up


How is the daughter of a Mexican Father and an African-American mother light skinned? The answer: if she's in a comic and the editor is, er... (I don't want to throw the r word, so...) impervious to darker skin tones...

Monday, September 10, 2018

Monthly Stumblings # 2: Frans Masereel

Frans Masereel’s Route des hommes (men’s path)

In my humble opinion the best Belgian comics artist is not Hergé… The best Belgian comics artist is Frans Masereel…
I vaguely remember mentioning this to a couple of Masereel’s fellow countrymen and I’ve got two different answers (I must add that, in my view, of course, I chose my collocutors well): (1) a nod of approval; (2) something like: In Belgium we don’t view Frans Masereel as a comics artist.
(Needless to say that, besides some puzzled expressions asking “who are those?,” most of my possible Belgian interlocutors would react in a third way calling me a lunatic, or worse, depending on the person’s degree of Tintinophily.)
The first reaction was understandable because said person is an artist himself and what he does is akin to Masereeel’s work. The latter one is more interesting to me at this particular moment because it permits me to enter one of the muddiest territories in comics scholarship once again (when will I learn, right?…), the old conundrum: what is a comic?…
I’m not going to answer that question because it can’t be done. All the answers that one can come up with are rigged because they depend on a previous particular view of what’s essential in a comic (and that’s not only prescriptive, that’s also arbitrary). To Bill Blackbeard, for instance, speech balloons and image sequences are essential so (even if there are older examples, namely, here or even, here) comics started with Richard Felton Outcault’s Yellow Kid in 1896.
Saying this though, doesn’t get us very far (my thoughts on the subject, are here, by the way). What interests me right now are two related points: (1) the sociological side of the problem; (2) anachronism. (1) Words have a (social) commonly agreed meaning. The dictionary tries to stabilize it, but significations aren’t fixed. There’s a reason why we call Maus a “comic.” The sense evolved to include serious work while the signifier stood still. Even so I accept that “comics,” to most people, don’t include Frans Masereel’s oeuvre. Perhaps it will, someday… (2) Frans Masereel didn’t view himself as a comics artist. As far as he was concerned he did wood engravings, that’s all… To call his cycles “comics” is an anachronism. Maybe so, but it seems to me that we are guilty of anachronism all the time and nobody cares. To go back to Tintin, the expression “bande dessinée” didn’t exist when Hergé started doing comics. Why do we continue to say that he did comics, then?… Did the Lascaux painters call what they did “painting?” Is that important? How logocentric can we get?…

As you can see in this 1915 illustration above Frans Masereel was a naturalist. But working for the pacifist newspaper La feuille in Geneva as a political cartoonist during WWI Masereel needed a less detailed, more urgent, style. As Josef Herman put it:
Working for La Feuille posed two main problems for [Masereel], both of a technical nature. One was that the drawing had to be done quickly, leaving no time for the careful, detailed draughtsmanship he had practised until then. The other was how to achieve maximum effect using poor quality paper, on which thin lines were simply lost. He solved these two problems with the true instinct of a man of genius. He avoided drawing with a fine pen and took a thick brush, in the process giving up the search for tonal texture. He now used large planes of intense black, drawing lines wherever needed with a brush. The emotional effect he achieved was staggering.
Maybe the times weren’t right for nuanced views of the world (?). I love Frans Masereel’s verve and variety (he did manga in the original sense of roaming drawings), but his ideological views and Expressionist style push him into a less than complex view of the world sometimes (the fat, jeweled, cigar-chomping capitalist, for instance, is a regrettable stereotype). You can see one of Frans Masereel’s political cartoons as published in La feuille below:

Frans Masereel was 75 years old when he published Route des hommes (1964). He did “novels without words” all his life (more than 50, according to David Beronä). Route des hommes is far from being one of his best (that would be Passionate Journey – 1918 – and, my personal favorite, The City – 1925).
Route des hommes is about the horrible and great things that happen to humankind. We find in the book Masereel’s usual topics: war, famine, exploitation, but also progress, team work, joy, etc…
The greatest thing about this edition of the Musée des Arts Contemporains au Grand-Hornu and La Lettre volée (2006) is that it shows both Masereel’s prep drawings and his wood engravings. In this way we have access to the artist’s creative process as never before.

We can see above how Frans Masereel cites another Belgian painter, James Ensor (ditto Jacques Callot at some point). It’s interesting how what seems to be a tree in the foreground of the drawing becomes a sinister figure in the wood engraving (death waits us all at the end). His composition changes (increasing the two background figures’ size) greatly improve his work.

 Masereel used allegory a lot. In this drawing the cars represent careless rich people. The city lights aren’t just that, they connote poor people’s acceptance of the status quo: they’re hypnotized, alienated (as Marxists liked to say)…

…But, to tell you the truth, I prefer allegoryless Masereel. He could be very poetic, as we can see above…

Monday, August 27, 2018

Monthly Stumblings # 1: Pierre Duba

Racines (roots) by Pierre Duba

Sometimes I mumble an inner “Wow!”… It happens when I stumble upon a book that I find great. It’s quite possible too that, upon rereading, months or years later, I also say to myself: “How could I like this stuff so much?!”
The thing is that we need the right mood, the right brain wave connection to the work in order to truly like it. That, needless to say, is highly subjective and unconveyable. If our past selves can’t agree with our present selves, how can we (the journalist critics and reviewers) agree with people (the readers) whom we have never met?
There’s only one answer for that rhetorical question: the critics are always preaching to the already converted. Critics explain, analyse, synthesize, extrapolate, digress, etc… These are intellectual operations that have nothing whatsoever to do with love. Critics dissect and people (them included, I suppose, even if opinion is divided on the subject) enjoy living, breathing things, not corpses, as it were…
That being said criticism may also be very enjoyable. Conversely to the proof at hand (namely, this foreign’s poor attempt at writing in English) it can be very well written. It can also give the readers some food for thought after their consumers’ experience. (I don’t really like the word “consumer,” but it was too awkward to write: reader/viewer/listener… etc… you get the picture…)
In fact, the critic begins by simply enjoying the work, I suppose… What twisted mind picks up the scalpel after love? That’s what we do folks, but don’t be too harsh passing judgment on the judges: we do it because we are a curious lot (we are like children opening up their favorite toy); plus, we may unbury hidden treasures: discover highly ingenious mechanisms, work with the artist to reflect on the human condition, etc…
The title of this monthly column is too ambitious? Am I expecting to stumble on a comics masterpiece every month? Not really, true greatness (even if perceived in a subjective way) is rare. I will write about some “Hmmms…” instead of some “Wows!” most of the time, I guess… (I will also use the title to excuse myself: what do you expect? I’m stumbling here!)
For my first column I chose an author that I feel, since my TCJ’s messboard days, I’ve unwarrantedly neglected: UK born, French comics artist Pierre Duba. Here’s what I said in my blog’s first post:
It was February 24, 2004, 08:27 AM, on the Comics Journal Messboard. I’m not sure if this was the first time that I listed these comics there (probably not), but that’s what I did in that particular occasion. If I remember correctly (unfortunately I didn’t write a crib sheet at the time) I did previously post what I now call “my canon” because I was fed up with the accusation of not liking comics at all because I found children’s comics (and I do like Carl Barks’ oeuvre) somewhat wanting (melodrama and manichaeism in particular bother me plenty).”
A list followed, but I vaguely remember saying something like: I could add a couple more names and, then, I cited Pierre Duba.
Duba’s last book is titled Racines (6 pieds sous terre, 2010), but instead of trying an interpretation I will follow Susan Sontag’s advice and I will try what I say above is impossible to do (“unconveyable”). As Sontag advices in Against Interpretation I’ll try an erotics of art instead of a hermeneutics.

To truly experience the above page we need it to be just that: the original paper page (material aspects are the basis for a sensuous experience). Here, on a screen, it lacks the glossiness of the paper (and it is glossy). Even touch and smell are an important part of the process (I wonder if the internet and ebooks are going to establish the same relation with books as repros in art books established with real paintings and sculptures: it all comes down to a reduction of experience, substitutions of the real things by simulacra). This page is very appealing because it achieves the feeling which psychoanalyst Marion Milner called a close relationship with objects. It does that using three devices: 1) the black gutters (I miss Chester Brown’s stories, but I also miss his black, large, gutters) which “compress” space and unite as much, if not more, as they divide; 2) the panels lack a clear distinction between background and foreground giving us a closeness with whatever is represented (blood, methinks); 3) moduled forms that tend to be viewed as texture (en masse) rather than as individual shapes. The visual rhythm is also very appealing: we’re going along with the hypnotic movement marvelously and smoothly flowing from panel to panel. The colors’ muted contrast is also an important part of the whole effect.

In this page a certain creepiness appears (Racines is a bit creepy, to tell you the truth). The hands morph into the roots of the title. We’re still close, and I don’t need to repeat what I said above, but closeness isn’t always a good feeling.

This page is here because of the black and blue contrast. The foreground has holes that let us see a few steps, the doll, and a rabbit. (What’s the deal with Pierre Duba and rabbits, anyway?) But I’m falling into interpretation again. I told you this was an impossible task…

Pierre Duba’s pages function better as double-page spreads, as you can see here.

Duba explains himself.

Pierre Duba’s site.

Monday, August 20, 2018

What’s Missing From This Picture?

[If my piece about Contempt is my only film criticism, today I give you my only TV criticism. If I remember correctly it was written during a serious writer's block. I loved the series and I wanted to give my contribution to the round table about it, but the muse didn't show up that day and the crib sheet didn't help much either. I remember ending up with a sort of bad taste in my mouth... Even so, upon rereading the post below now I don't dislike it. It's right on the mark of what capitalism is doing to us all.]

Others have already pointed out that The Wire isn't as realistic as it seems. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), for instance, is the hero of the American Monomyth. Here's how the latter is summarized in the words of John Shelton Lawrence and  Robert Jewett:
A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.
The Wire revises the myth thus: a community in hell (Bubbles - Andre Royo: "it's a thin line between heaven and here.") is threatened by some of hell's inhabitants; normal institutions, paralyzed by red tape, political agendas, and business as usual, fail to contend with this threat; a self-aggrandizing supercop emerges to be afflicted by temptations and fails to carry out the redemptive task; bumping his head against the system the supercop recedes into obscurity.
That's quite good. It revises the myth until it lies there, almost unrecognizable. Here's my version though: in its mythology of being the only possible system (in the best of all possible worlds as Pangloss would say; at the end of history as Fukuyama would add), and in its sanctification of profit (the market will provide), global capitalism transferred labor to developing countries where the wages are low (Walden Bello):
The extreme international mobility of corporate capital coupled with the largely self-imposed national limits on labor organizing by the Northern labor unions (except when this served Washington's Cold War political objectives) was a deadly formula that brought organized labor to its knees as corporate capital, virtually unopposed, transferred manufacturing jobs from the North to cheap-labor sites in the Third World.
Under these conditions a parallel economy thrives (mimicking the mainstream economy with its power struggles, cut-throat wars and iron clad hierarchies); those who are unprepared and uneducated, the poor, have no other option than to go underground; everything becomes simulacra in order to keep up appearances.
Hostage to the worlds of finance and economics politics is reduced to being a sport (I love the scene in which Carcetti campaigns in an elderly home: we can hear the crickets chirping because the seniors in there couldn't care less for this kind of sport); the police are a political tool; the education system is a dead end (and the students know it - Howard "Bunny" Colvin - Robert Wisdom: "I mean, they're not fools these kids. [...] [T]hey see right through us."). That's why Marcia Donnelly (Tootsie Duvall), the Assistant Principal of Edward J. Tilghman Middle School says to Bubbles that Sherrod (Rashad Orange) is going to be "socially promoted" after missing school for three years. In the end, everybody knows that it doesn't matter (those who do matter aren't in that kind of school). Everybody has some reason to pretend that it does though. I'll give the last word to David Simon:
Baltimore's dying port unions, is a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy, that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.
My problem with this statement is that David Simon should be saying it about the series as a whole. Why just season two? I hope that there isn't a hint somewhere suggesting that, given the chance, black people would still prefer the world of the corners instead of being part of the mainstream economy.
Another instance where the creators of the series juggle dangerously with cliché is in season four (my favorite, pardon the personal note). The aforementioned season includes a kind of Teacher Movie. It's true that, again, the writers do a good job of transcending the pernicious genre (the teacher, Roland "Mr. Prezbo" Pryzbylewski - Jim True-Frost - doesn't win the trust of his most difficult students completely alone). But he also conveys what I call the flawed Sesame Street Syndrome (or SSS). That is, students can learn while playing. Nicholas Buglione, wrote:
Dr. Robert Helfenbein, an education professor at Indiana University who specializes in urban education issues, believes these films trivialize the learning process and present an erroneously simple solution to what’s really a far more complex problem: Closing the achievement gap in inner-city schools.
That goal can't be achieved by any superhero teacher or caped crusader. It can only be achieved by closing the parallel gap between the wealthy and the poor.
The image above shows Bubbles pushing his peripatetic business. The original is a print on a t-shirt. I chose it because it is semiotically fascinating. On one end it's the perfect symbol of the parallel economy I talked about above. On the other end it shows the absolute base of the social pyramid, the junkie that is everybody's victim (I'm aware that Bubbles is a fictional character, mind). And yet... it's in a t-shirt... for sale! Grammar mistakes and all!... Capitalism appropriates everything by selling everything.

What's missing above is the real one.

In conclusion, the use of parallel montage gives the impression of a kaleidoscopic and complex view of the city. That's not untrue, but it just gives us the street level (in today's world of virtual politics, even the temples of infotainment and city hall are at street level). What really affects these people's lives is happening elsewhere, in the hallways of the plutocracy.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Mickey Mouse The Racist

The theory that Mickey Mouse's design, by Ub Iwerks, was inspired by the racist show known as blackface minstrelsy appears here and there in texts about comics (and animation, I guess, but I don't read those...).You may think that it's just a theory lacking empirical proof. That may very well be... until now, that is.

You just need to look below, here's the smoking gun.

Left: gag by Floyd Gottfredson (Mickey Mouse daily, April 16, 1930); 
Right: Mammy, CD Compilation (1988) showing Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, 1927.