Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chris Ware's The Acme Novelty Library #18

In his panel presentation "A Socio-semiotic Approach to Underground Comix" at ICAF (International Comic Arts Forum: '98 Alvizze Mattozzi wrote the following: "mainstream comics belong to what A. J. Greimas [Greimas, 1976], the french-lithuanian linguist and semiotician, called socio-literature, that is the mass culture version of ethno-literature like myths and legends. Greimas thinks that socio, as ethno-, literature is characterized by three features: - non interference of the narrator; the narrator or any relation with the enunciation level is hidden, so that facts, events, look as they are narrating themselves [;] - lack of, what Greimas called, "semantic codes"; that is the absence of instruction[s] about the use of the text [;] - fixed forms and genres."
Mattozzi compares socio-literary comics to underground comics which, according to him: "tend to give relevance to the enunciation, whereas mainstream comics tend to give relevance to the enunciate." Mass art tends to "be transparent" (hiding its style). The narrator is impersonal (it's the third-person omniscient narrator if one exists at all) and the action is underlined. There's no place for the first-person subjective narrator and, obviously, an intimate confessional mode is totally unacceptable and immediately labeled as "boring" (yes, you may use an Homer Simpson tone while reading the word).
I don't agree with everything of the above (Jack Kirby didn't hid his graphic style, not to mention the "in your face," "rock star" attitude of Image comics). Héctor Germán Oesterheld (see P. S. below, please) used a first-person narrator (Caleb Lee) in "Ticonderoga" (a series of connected short stories beginning in Frontera mensual [frontier monthly] # 1, April, 1957, with drawings by Hugo Pratt at first, Pratt and Gisela Dester, later, and Dester alone at the end: Frontera Extra # 39, February, 1962). The problem of generalizations such as these is that they may not be totally wrong (I, for one, think that this one isn't...), but what happens when we stumble on mass art that doesn't fit the theory? Maybe we prefer to say that it isn't mass art at all rather than to acknowledge that our theory is simply wrong? (Here's the instructive example of critics Lawrence Langer and Elisabeth Hess in denial, as cited by Robert Witek on Imagetext vol 1, # 1, Spring, 2004:
In one of my last posts I wrote: "the best visual artist isn't someone who just has technical abilities (that's a virtuoso), a great visual artist is someone who uses visual thinking in a remarkable way." By "remarkable" I not only mean "intelligent," I also mean "relevant."
Chris Ware's The ACME Novelty Library # 18 (The ACME Novelty Library, 2007) uses a first-person subjective narrator, the tone of his stories is diaristic, his layouts are very innovative and bold, his narratives belong to no recognizable genre (maybe we could try "Confessionalism," I guess...).
In conclusion: Chris Ware's comics in The ACME Novelty Library # 18 are not mass art. We'll take a closer look at why in our next coda...

The ACME Novelty Library # 18's cover by Chris Ware. His sobering, austere graphic style seems almost ironic if we put it in the context of the childish, garish, unfortunate, history of comics covers...

PS I must apologize to all the regular followers of The Crib for this long gap. It happened because I dedicated myself lately to file my comics in a database. I started with Editorial Frontera and that's why it hasn't been easy to detach myself from Héctor Germán Oesterheld's (Hugo Pratt's, Arturo del Castillo's, Carlos Roume's, etc...) great creations.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Héctor Germán Oesterheld's and Carlos Roume's Nahuel Barros' Last Story - Coda










1. Tintin teaches Congolese children all about their homeland: Belgium, of course (Tintin au Congo [Tintin in the Congo] by Hergé, Editions du Petit «Vingtième» [the little «20th Century» publishing house], 1931; the "wonders" of colonialism!); in the Portuguese edition published in O Papagaio [the parrot] # 230 (1939), the story was titled "Tim-Tim em Angola" [Tintin in Angola]; Tintin teaches Angolan kids all about their homeland: Portugal, of course (as an aside: O Papagaio was the first mag in the world, Belgium included, to publish "Tintin" in color);
2. African women were "naturally" servants to their colonial mistresses (panel from Tim Tyler's Luck newspaper comic strip by Lyman Young, 1933);
3. panels from the Tarzan newspaper comic strip by Burne Hogarth (page 445, September, 17, 1939; as published in Tarzan in Color Vol. 9, NBM, 1994): after my detection of Lavater's physiognomy theory in the series Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond (cf. my April, 19, post) and Tarzan (cf. above), I must conclude that it was important as a visual short cut to newspaper (and comic book, I'm sure) comics artists (I also detected it in the Asterix albums, by the way); to see how it works we just need to compare the good guy's appearance (athletic and handsome, even if approaching middle age) with the baddies' mugs (the African baddie is a mean looking "savage;" the Caucasian baddie isn't in very good physical shape and looks like a rat: baddies rarely shave); the captive woman is young and attractive and, in the first panel, has the pose of a Christian martyr;
4. more panels from the Tarzan series by Burne Hogarth (page 356, January, 2, 1938; as published in Tarzan in Color Vol. 7, NBM, 1994): the word "savages" (and "horde") is actually used to define the African attackers (the name "Ishtak" sounds like a whip cracking); they're depicted as an ugly bloodthirsty lot while the colonists are "pious folk" (the Christian iconography couldn't be absent; there's even a Moses figure); the colonial popaganda can't get more obvious than this; forget slavery, forget the exploitation of Africa's natural resources by the colonial powers, forget reality: when Francis Lacassin compared Burne Hogarth with Michelangelo (in a cliché that became famous: "Tarzan rencontre Michel-Ange" [Tarzan meets Michelangelo], Giff-Wiff # 13, first quarter of 1965) he could only be kidding!;
5. panel from "The Tall Man," Cowboy Comics # 144 Buck Jones, September, 1955, Charles Roylance (a), writer unknown; American Indians are seen as superstitious children that are easily deceived by the Caucasian hero;
6. page from the "Nahuel Barros" series (Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 95, June, 24, 1959); Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Carlos Roume depict this peaceful meeting of two different worlds beautifully (Pedro becomes friends with Chonki; this one and the following quotes, my translation): "...[Pedro] didn't know it at the time, but there, near the thick blackness of the grazing, something was happening. Something big. The birth of a friendship.";
7. another page from the "Nahuel Barros" series (Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 96, July, 1, 1959); Chonki answers Pedro's question "Why do you, the Pampas, attack the Christians' settlements?": "the huincas, the Christians, taught us... [...] we still own the desert! But we don't own ourselves anymore... [...] The huinca says that we are savages, that we're beasts... the Pampas, it's true, aren't the same [as the Christians], we aren't better or worse than the huincas..."; (to those who defend that comics are primarily a visual medium this page may seem too wordy; I don't understand such a logophobia though: why be against words if they're greatly written?; are mediocre drawings better than great words?; besides: the best visual artist isn't someone who just has technical abilities (that's a virtuoso), a great visual artist is someone who uses visual thinking in a remarkable way; in this page Carlos Roume delivers his own messages: he uses the thistle as a symbol of the Pampa: the plant's thorns are a reminder of how hard life in the desert is; the bird (an howl) represents freedom and knowledge; the moon (the circle: Pedro) represents perfection (the unity) and change (because of the moon's phases);
8. Sgt. Kirk sez (Héctor Germán Oesterheld - w -, Jorge Moliterni - a -, Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 101, August, 5, 1959): "Do you know doctor, what I've just learned?... / That there are no palefaces, or indians... there are just men... just men [...]";
9. Nahuel Barros says that he also wants to explore Patagonia (Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 101): "That's how Pedro, Chonki and Nahuel Barros began travelling southbound. Their backs turned to civilization, facing the unknown..."; Carlos Roume repeats the symbolism of the thistles (Nahuel, Chonki) and the moon (Pedro) between them.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Héctor Germán Oesterheld's and Carlos Roume's Nahuel Barros' Last Story

Children's adventure comics in the 20th century were frequently colonial popaganda. The examples are quite numerous, but I'll just cite the American newspaper comic strips "Tarzan" (1929 - c. 2000) and "Tim Tyler's Luck" (1928 - 1996) or the Belgian album Tintin au Congo (Editions du Petit «Vingtième», 1931; British edition: Tintin in the Congo, Sundancer, 1991).
In the formulaic and manichean children's western comics genre the indians were "the savages" whom the white hero needed to defeat in order to save the good guys from some barbarous torture and death. (See:
I knew all of the above when I recently read the "Nahuel Barros" series (nine stories in Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal: # 7, October, 16, 1957 - # 101, August, 5, 1959; two stories in Hora Cero Extra!: # 6, February, 1959, # 7, March, 1959) by the greats Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w) and Carlos Roume (a).
Roume is one of those graphic artists that are enormously underrated. His loose brush depicted faces with great Naturalism. He was more of a portraitist than a landscape artist though. His landscape views of the Pampa were always evocative, but a bit sketchy for this scribe's taste...
On the other hand I stressed admiration for Héctor Oesterheld on this blog already, but I also know that he was a workaholic. He wrote almost all of the stories that his Editorial Frontera (frontier publishing house) put in print. Some of them undoubtedly suffer because of that: they're either rushed, or formulaic. The point is: when he was good, he was very good, and even in his less inspired moments we can find some phrase that's the mark of a genius.
"Nahuel Barros" is kind of an Argentinian western set in the Pampa region. It isn't exactly revolutionary when we compare it with its northern cousin. The Pampa indians are presented more as an abstraction against which the white guys have to fight than anything else, good or evil (to Carlos Roume's credit, some of the lower class "white guys," soldiers and settlers, of course, look more like the Indians they are fighting against than they look European - whatever that means). Nahuel is uneducated, but he has a great practical intelligence and a great knowledge of the Pampa (he is a "baqueano," a quiet expert on everything related to the region). Also: in a typically Oesterheldian way he's very modest: he just believes in doing his job, he doesn't embark in the hero mythology.
So, I was disappointed... until the untitled last story, that is...
I wrote about the absent hero before on The Crib. I referred at the time to another Argentinian comics character, Alack Sinner. Here's what I said: "Alack Sinner is part of that meagre gallery of what I called elsewhere "the absent hero." Against North American inspired mass art hero mythology, the true anti-hero that is Alack Sinner disappears gradually to show the world around him. This is an Argentinian tradition that goes back to the often lauded Oesterheldian "collective hero" (what we have here is the anonymous collective anti-hero)."
I can't say the same thing in Nahuel Barros' case, but it's true that he's just dead weight in his last story. Writing in a commercial medium for children Oesterheld knew that he had to follow some genre rules. Even if he couldn't forget his hero completely, in order to go beyond those rules he could, and did, tone down his actions...
On the other hand it seems to me that Oesterheld wanted to surpass manicheism jumping to the "wrong" side. In this story we (the readers and main characters) aren't hunters (Nahuel and friends are the pursuers), we are the hunted.
Is this story worthy of the best Oesterheld? Maybe not... In the end it's just a simple story about a boy growing up, that's all... Why is it here as part of my canon, then? In the same issue in which the story ends Sgt. Kirk (drawn by Jorge Moliterni) says, while being delirious (my translation): "...there are no palefaces, or indians... there are just men... just men..." Such a clear anti-racist statement put in the context of the late fifties' commercial comics culture is amazing. And it deserves to be remembered.
Who were the Pampa Indians? I found the following on a www site ( "The designation of "pampas"; to the aborigines who were populating the pampas was not [...] self-imposed, but came imposed by the Spanish. The word isn't even from their own language, but Quechuan, and means "plain". So, all the Indians who were living in this geographical territory known as pampas were called pampas, in spite of the fact that they belonged to different cultures." The same site mentions a substitution of Puelches-Guenaken for Mapuche and Araucanians: "(it is good to remember that this phenomenon of ethnic substitution here in our country was called Araucanizacion of the Pampas and Patagonia)."
Nahuel Barros' last story narrates the discovery of the Pampas by a boy from Buenos Aires and his friendship with Chonki, a Pampa Indian. In the end both characters go South to explore the mysteries of Patagonia. Meanwhile, where's Nahuel Barros? Instead of bringing the boy, Pedro Quiroga, back to "civilization" and his family, he accompanies both friends in their exploration trip... An unrealistic turn of events, no doubt, but a telling one, nonetheless: in a surprising escapist ending they turn their backs to the ugly reality (the huincas - new Incas, meaning: "invaders" - and their shock against the "Pampas)"; but a "savage" goes with them this time... Even more telling: it was Chonki's idea in the first place...

Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal [zero hour's weekly supplement]'s covers by Carlos Roume: # 73 (January, 21, 1959), # 87 (April, 29, 1959).