Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
This week’s insane almost-banning of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis by some dingbat school principal in Chicago once again put into spotlight the banal efforts of the prudish class of officials who have threatened the arts. And rightly so. The short-sighted, narrow-minded policy against exposure to the arts is not only stupid, it’s counter-productive. Now every kid will want to read Persepolis if only to read Marji’s tirade of naughty words hurled against the rotten people of her life. This is a good vehicle to raise the profile of comics in America and brings to mind a wave of works we have seen over the last decade which cover the seemingly endless conflicts in the Islamic world. While this notion almost always conjures up visions of “East vs. West” or religious war, the more honest truth is a look at nations and peoples struggling internally against one another to define what they want their part of the world to be. And fortunately, comics are providing some of the greatest windows into these lives.
The aforementioned Persepolis is a great place to start. The uber-popular autobiographical work follows Satrapi’s life from a decent middle class lifestyle as a big city gal living in Tehran, sharing how her family and friends nervously watched their international metropolis degrade into the seat of a theocratic power. Watching otherwise normal modern cosmopolitan urban dwellers having to morph into purveyors of secret liquor parties and veiled second class citizens was disheartening enough, but following Marji’s journey as an expat in Europe, where her parents send her as a teenager to escape oppression in the land they love is simply devastating. Satrapi’s style is simple and expressive, falling easily into a traditional cartooning style, yet always delivers explosive moments which border between scary and absurd. Far from fitting the almost uniform stereotype of the jihad-crazy suicide bomber, Persepolis offers a window into the far more unsettling reality: most people in Iran feel as trapped by madness as anyone fearing a terrorist attack might be.
More recently, the less known Zahra’s Paradise, originally a webcomic, offered a fictional account via real-life composite of the recent 2009 “Green Revolution” uprising in Iran, where a true grass roots popular democratic movement rose and fell with a stunning and brutal crash. Co-creators Amir & Khalil tell the harrowing stories of a cross-section of Iranians trying to find friends and family caught up in the arrests, jailing, tortures and disappearance of a multitude of activists during that time. Harrowing and sometimes incredibly harsh, the story is a no-holds-barred look at a despotic oppressive regime whose very bureaucracies seem engineered to chew the population up (one stunning image of the Ayatollah literally being fed Iranians directly into his mouth via conveyor belt totally captures it). Evoking elements of Carol Lay, Nate Powell and even Art Spiegleman, the line between realism and artistic license is balanced in such a way to make for a grueling and rewarding read.
Meanwhile, over in Lebanon, things aren’t going much better for the characters in Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return. This lovingly-told tale of how life in the 15-year civil war dominating Beirut somehow became “normal” for the young author becomes a testament to the human spirit. Caught in the carnage of bombs, snipers and demilitarized zones – defined literally block by block in this former “Paris of the Middle East” – the cohesion of the family and neighbors evoke the deepest sense of humanity as they struggle to survive the most uncertain of futures. Abirached’s heavily inked whimsical images push the mind into giving the characters a degree of animation which seems to pull the reader closer in. Then there are the powerful early panels where a schematic of the neighborhood is laid out like a perverse board game, showing the different places you have to run, jump, hide and duck in order to make it down a few blocks without being shot, bombed, or otherwise killed or wounded. But even the idea of a whole apartment building combining resources to keep a single refrigerator running becomes an epic triumph of the spirit. It’s really quite eye-opening.
Finally, there’s The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, the posthumous fumetti/graphic novel by the late photographer Didier Lefevre and artist Emmanuel Guibert. Working in the 1980’s in post-war Afghanistan, Lefevre had joined Doctors Without Borders to chronicle their efforts to bring medical aid to the poor rural victims of war deep in the heart of that nation. His personal written account, combined with his photos of the events as they happened, are cleverly paired as panels alongside Guibert’s original art to help graphically fill in the gaps of the photographer’s story which he was unable to capture on film. The final work provides a gripping chronicle of conflict made all the harder to feel detached from because you actually see the faces of the injured, the sick, the dying. The juxtaposition of the artist’s drawings telling an emotional tale against the stark images of impossible moments in time create a uniquely haunting picture of what it means to live ever under the threat of violence and death.
While the politics behind the events these books all touch upon are obviously part of the story, what really binds them is the humanity behind what all-too-often is treated in an abstract way by those of us living a world away from these conflicts. I can easily see how in another dimension not far removed from our own, these could easily be tales from New York, Miami, and Kansas. Reading these works, I often forgot all the religious and political issues driving the conflicts, and just thought – man! That could be my family. That could be my street. These people were not Arabs, or Persians, or folks of the rugged Asiatic steps. They were people. It is a testament to each of the artists that their books have brought to the reader the reminder that there is a universality to the human story. I hope these wonderful works help bring that sort of understanding to us all.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
New Comics! For You!
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff coming out today that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Disclaimer: Having not read these yet, I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, they just might appeal to you.
Part action-adventure, SciFi and Romance, Johnny Hiro tells the story of an everyman and the challenges he faces. Challenges like the revenge of a big lizard, the quest for a lobster, or what can happen when 47 ronin go to the opera. See why the comic was nominated for FOUR Eisner Awards and one Russ Manning Award.
Looks like it doesn’t ship to book stores or from Amazon until June, but comic specialty shops should have it this week! Now there’s an incentive!
This silly comic is tons of fun while still maintaining heart. This is a good’un.
Femme Noir: The Dark City Diaries – $19.95
By Christopher Mills and Joe Staton
148 pages; published by Ape Entertainment
On the mean streets of Port Nocturne, justice is blonde! This volume collects all 4 issues of the critically acclaimed crime fiction mini-series about a mysterious, gun-toting dame fighting for justice in a dark city drowning in violence and corruption. This volume also includes 2 complete bonus stories, conceptual artwork by Eisner Award-winning artist Joe Staton, and an introduction by the Shamus Award-winning author of Road To Perdition, Max Allan Collins.
Here’s a Femme Noir mini-site that has plenty of previews, web-comics and other bonus material. Joe Staton has been working in comics since the 1970s and he hasn’t lost any of his skills. Good buy for the Sin City and/or film noir fans in your life.
Kazuhiko is a young, but already deeply wounded black ops agent of a baroque, retro-tech future-pulled out of retirement to escort Sue, a mysterious waif, to a destination she alone knows. Sue and Kazuhiko have never met… yet she knows him, having grown up since the age of four with her only human contact two distant voices: that of her elderly “grandma,” General Ko, and of Kazuhiko’s dead girlfriend, Ora. And Sue has been kept in that cage all these years because of what she is, and what the Clover Leaf Project found her to be — a military top secret, and the most dangerous person in the world.
* Clover is a long-out-of-print classic from Japan’s shojo artist supergroup CLAMP!
* Never before available in its original Japanese right-to-left reading orientation, Dark Horse not only brings Clover into English for the first time, but also collects all four of the original volumes into one reasonably priced omnibus, with a brand-new cover design especially for this edition!
Look, I know next to nothing about manga, but this is supposed to be a good one. It was originally published in the late 1990s. It’s got a dystopian steam-punk vibe and stark visualization unique to other work put out by the quartet of artists that collectively use the name CLAMP.
You’ll Never Know is the first graphic novel from C. Tyler (Late Bloomer) and sure to be one of the most acclaimed books of the year. It tells the story of the 50-something author’s relationship with her World War II veteran father, and how his war experience shaped her childhood and affected her relationships in adulthood. “You’ll Never Know” refers not only to the title of her parents’ courtship song from that era, but also to the many challenges the author encountered in uncovering the difficult and painful truths about her Dad’s service — challenges exacerbated by her own tumultuous family life.
You’ll Never Know is Tyler’s first first full-fledged graphic novel (after two volumes of short stories). Unlike many other graphic memoirs which have opted for simple, stylized drawings and limited color or black and white, You’ll Never Know makes full use of Tyler’s virtuosity as a cartoonist: stunningly rendered in detailed inks and subtle watercolors, it plunges the reader headlong into the diverse locales: her father’s wartime experiences and courtship, her own childhood and adolescence, and contemporary life. The unique landscape format, and the lush variety of design choices and rendering techniques, make perusing You’ll Never Know like reading a family album — but one with a strong, compelling, sharply told story.
You’ll Never Know’s release schedule and format emulate those of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library: three beautifully designed, large-format hardcover volumes released annually to complete a trilogy of astonishing breadth, depth, and sensitivity.
“If you want to find out what happened to Willie and Joe after they got home from World War II, You’ll Never Know is the perfect place to start. C. Tyler’s graphic novel, passionately conceived and brilliantly drawn, extends the range of Bill Mauldin to cover the aftershock of the Last Good War on the warriors who fought it and the collateral damage to their families. Not since Catch-22 has anyone probed the secret heart of the Greatest Generation with this kind of raw, icon busting courage.” – Tom Mathews (Our Fathers’ War: Growing Up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation)
“Her work has the extremely rare quality of genuine, authentic heart.” – R. Crumb
“She understands people with an acuity that is tender, wise and devastating.” – Jim Woodring
I’m really looking forward to this: a graphic memoir and family drama exploring the person we try to present to the world, and reality.
In 1986, Afghanistan was torn apart by a war with the Soviet Union. This graphic novel/photo-journal is a record of one reporter’s arduous and dangerous journey through Afghanistan, accompanying the Doctors Without Borders. Didier Lefevre’s photography, paired with the art of Emmanuel Guibert, tells the powerful story of a mission undertaken by men and women dedicated to mending the wounds of war.
I really love the idea of this. Using Didier Lefevre’s actual photographs from the time, Emmanuel Guibert weaves in his own artwork to tell the story of the photographer’s journey through Afghanistan. As that country steps into the headlines again, it’s good to look at such an intimate and personal level of its history. Great for fans of history and photography. If you find yourself watching shows on The History Channel or Discovery Channel, you should love this.
Flinch is a collection of engaging stories by established and emerging creators, all playing on their interpretation of ‘flinch’. From facing the ‘other’ within ourselves, to the tale of a prison inmate discovering what keeps him going, to a handful of stories exploring traditional (and non-traditional) hauntings alike.
With cover art by World Fantasy Award winning Shaun Tan, Flinch features stories from creative collaborations including: UK fantasy author James Barclay & Chris Bolton, Ray Fawkes & Anton McKay, Justin Randall & Chris Bones, International Horror Guild Award winner Terry Dowling & Skye Ogden and many more!
This looks fantastic, and thanks to the contracting comic shop market, this almost didn’t get distributed. Lucky for us, the oversight was corrected. Here’s a trailer with tons of peaks at what’s inside (and cool music).
By Victoria Frances
80 pages; published by NBM Publishing
The fantasy artist famous for the FAVOLE series of books is back with a metaphor for hope in the shape of a fable where child-like fantasy contrasts with the feeling of isolation and alienation which invades our every day life. Lyrically and suggestively painted, a visual poem of fascinating sensuous gothic beauty. For mature readers.
This eerie fantasy might be a bit abstract and/or racy for some, but others should really dig it.
Meet Barry Ween, the smartest living human. What does a ten-year-old boy do with a 350 I.Q.? Anything he wants. Cranky, egotistical, arrogant and foul-mouthed, Barry in general wants to conduct his experiments and be left alone, but it never seems to work out. Hurdles that Barry must outmaneuver range from time warps, to art thieves, to accidentally turning his best friend into a dinosaur.
This massive volume collects all 12 issues of hit series, The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius.
This looks like a kid-friendly comic similar in concept to Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory” or Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and I suppose it is except for the fact that there’s a whole heck of a lot of profanity and more adult humor. Not for kids, but a kick nevertheless.
Special All-Ages Attic! - There are a couple of releases suitable for all-ages this week, which is tragically so rare in modern comics that I thought they deserved their own section. These are great for kids, but all-ages really does mean ALL ages. You’re an age, aren’t you?
(I was going to call this Kids Korner, but I don’t want anyone to think they can’t read either of these because they are legally considered an adult.)
Thirteen-year-old Judy is so sick of boys and their immature ways. One night… Judy meets a boy unlike any she’s ever seen. A real live pirate! But Gary isn’t after girls… he’s after treasure. Judy offers to help this hapless pirate and they embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
Scott Christian Sava has a series of graphic novels targeted for younger readers. This one is specifically meant for younger girls (age 8-12) but this looks to be a cute story for anyone. Here’s a mini-site from Sava’s Blue Dream Studios, which includes a look at some of the pages.
From the creator of the sold-out MINI-MARVELS digests comes the first G-MAN digest! Writer/artist CHRIS GIARRUSSO continues his signature Mini Marvels brand of comics with G-Man and his pals, the next wave of all-new kid super-heroes!
Collects the sold-out G-Man one-shot, the G-Man Christmas story, an extensive collection of COMIC BITS comic strips and more!
I have the G-Man one-shot and it’s a lot of fun. Really funny and clever cartooning. Don’t worry about the Mini-Marvels and all other references in the blurb, all you need to know is in the book – a kid becomes a super-hero in a world full of kid super-heroes, and hijinks ensue.