Thursday, 31 January 2013

Food Comics: In the Kitchen with Alain Passard & Christophe Blain and Relish by Lucy Knisley

I was going through the Chronicle catalogue the other day and came across the upcoming English language release of Alain Passard's (a renowned thrice Michellin-starred chef) In the Kitchen. Which is excellent news, as it reminded me of its existence- I sort of remember vaguely hearing about it last year and then promptly forgot about it. It's illustrated and also to some extent, written, I would assume, by none other than my current favourite, French maestro Christophe Blain. More from the catalogue synopsis:
'Available in English for the very first time, In the Kitchen with Alain Passard is the first graphic novel to enter the kitchen of a master chef. Over the course of three years, illustrator Christophe Blain trailed acclaimed chef Alain Passard through his kitchens and gardens. With simple yet sublime drawings and thousands of colorful panels, this book gives the reader an inside, uncensored look at the world of Passard, who shocked the food universe in 2001 by removing meat from the menu at his celebrated Paris restaurant, L''Arpege, and dedicating himself to serving vegetables from his own organic farms. This irresistible hardcover combines a portrait of an amazing chef, an inside look at his creative process, and a humorous riff on fine dining culture - plus fifteen recipes for the home kitchen - in one haute cuisine comic book for foodies.'

Is there a greater zenith to be achieved above the combination of food and comics?  I'm really appreciating them at the moment: yesterday saw the arrival of Lucy Knisley's much-anticipated Relish (another food comic/memoir) from First Second and I only had the opportunity for a quick flick-through before going to bed, but it looks fantastic. Here's the offiicial line:
'Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe - many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy's original inventions. A welcome read for anyone who ever felt more passion for a sandwich than is strictly speaking proper, Relish is a book for our time: it invites the reader to celebrate food as a connection to our bodies and a connection to the earth, rather than an enemy, a compulsion, or a consumer product.'
 And a quick look at a couple of pages (look- so pretty!) You can see more at Lucy's site:

Do you feel hungry yet? Buy these books- they're guaranteed awesome.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Nate Bulmer's Batman Head strips

Batman, is like Gary Oldman, or William Fichtner, a percentage person: add him to anything and that thing will become at least 4% more awesome. When the thing in question is pretty good to start with, like Nate Bulmer's Eat More Bikes strips, this is what you get: a body-less Batman head trying valiantly to soldier on, mini-cape attached to the back of his cowl as Alfred totes him around in a wooden wheelie cart. There are lots of people doing weird, starnge, often slightly gross-out humour strips, but the reason Bulmer's work so well is his singularity of vision. Taste is subjective enough and humour even more so, but he comes up with ideas that are truly original, or puts his own unique spin on things. Of course it doesn't always hit the spot, but he's on mark a good 92% of the time, getting the balance of weirdness, story and actual funny just right. You can find the rest of the Batman head strips, and more, at Nate's tumblr.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Street Fighter nostalgia

Is it a sign of age when you start getting nostalgic about things? I must admit to being rather dismissive of the whole recapturing your youth via the popular culture of the time: often you remember things a certain way, and returning to it can ruin your perception or memory of the original.The replication of the experience, or the emotion associated with the experience, is rarely achieved. Comics folk are perhaps more susceptible to this than others- many start reading them when young and the OCD/collecting fan aspect of the business makes it that much easier, I guess.

When I was a kid I was never into video games- the only two I would enjoy playing even though I was rubbish at both were Sonic and Street Fighter. I either liked cartoony, adventure games or the ones that had a solid amount of story and world-building going on (at the time, I thought  Street Fighter possessed the latter). My favourite character to play was always E Honda, and much to my friends and family's despair I would never change players even as my life force slowly drained away. There was something reassuring and inscrutable about E Honda: even when he lost, he didn't seem to care, he just silently toppled over.

Last year, a friend and I visited the National Media Museum in Bradford, who were having a video game retrospective, and there in all its glory was a Street Fighter arcade game console. There was E Honda, unchanged by time, inscrutable as ever, bouncing and shifting oh-so-slightly, ready to go as if the only thing he had been waiting for was for me to pick up those controls again. I won that game. (I them proceeded to lose all the others, but it didn't matter a jot). I've always been slightly bemused by the permeation of nostalgia in our society over recent times, but I understood it fully that day. It was such a small thing, not one I would consider a large or significant part of my childhood, but returning to it in that moment bought such genuine joy. Coincidentally, Udun are releasing a new hardback Street Fighter comic at the end of this month -you can see a preview here.
Oh, and here's what prompted that ramble: last weekend Dan Berry drew and posted his brilliant watercolour recollections of the game's characters. You can see more at his site. If you could also badger him to produce a Street Fighter comic, that would fantastic too.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Sumo by Thien Pham: review

‘Whatever you want to do in life you just have to do it. There are a lot of people in the world I think that have all these ideas about what they want and what they would do but they never do it’- Thien Pham

Thien Pham’s Sumo is an ode to simplicity. A simple story illustrated with a simple (in appearance, at least) art style. But if you can draw like Pham and you’re clear and honest in allowing that story to tell itself, you can end up with something like Sumo, something special. Pham first printed and distributed Sumo in mini-comic form and luckily for you and I, First Second have now given it the collected version it truly does deserve. So many times we talk of the art’s contribution to a comic: it can help carry weakness in a story, it can work perfectly in conjunction with the accompanying words, it can enhance what’s being said. Sumo is all about the art: all clarity and lines- the furrow or upturn of a brow, the casting throw of a fishing line, it all works to tell the story. It’s sumptuous and impressive in its vision.

The story follows Scott, who having been dumped by his girlfriend after failing to make the football league (a course of events his friends insist are not unrelated), decides to leave for Japan to join a sumo training camp. At first Scott thinks he’s leaving because there’s nothing and no-one left to make him stay, but after his -now ex- girlfriend tells him she wants him back, he realises he has to leave anyway, although he’s not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s just time to move on. And yet, still, there’s a mixture of feelings as to what exactly it is he’s doing and what he hopes to achieve.

Pham never makes Scott’s intentions or reasons overt; even at the end there’s no grand denouement, big win or epiphany, it’s more a growth and slow realisation that he allows to build over the course of the story. He uses 3 colour-ways throughout the book: blue/black (flashback of Scott in the US and the decisions that led to leaving), orange/black (present day sumo training in Japan) and green/black (more recent past in Japan, thoughtful fishing sessions with Asami, who works at the camp). As well as indicating change of time and place, these are reflective of the lens Scott is viewing life through, representative also, perhaps of the associated colour psychology: blue= down, green= nature, growth etc.

I was totally taken by this book, and it wasn’t just me- working a late night at work with my colleague Andy, I showed it to him (as you’re want to do when you really love something) and he read it all then and there in one sitting, admiring Pham’s linework. We both agreed it had a calming zen-like thrall that enveloped and soothed you. Sumo is a bit like a poem: it has a rhythm and a beat, the quiet scenes where Scott’s pounding bags or people, the more, upbeat reflective tone of when he’s with fishing and the running undercurrent of his past. It was just such a joy to read, a quiet, refreshing and immersive experience.

I eagerly await whatever project Pham chooses to do next, but in the meantime, buy this book: you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Fantagraphics give Julia Gfrorer's Black is the Colour print release

I think I may have extolled the virtues of Julia Gfrorer's excellent webcomic, Black is the Colour, a few times previously on here. Originally syndicated on the Study Group Comics website, the tale of two sailors who get put overboard in a lifeboat without any food or provisions in order to ease the demands of looking after and feeding a large crew quickly takes a turn into more familiar Gfrorer territory: mythic, sexual and the melancholialy visceral. Grforer sold some copies of the first issue in her Etsy shop and then stopped producing them and this is probably why- Fantagraphics will be publishing the full comic in book form this September. I'm a big fan of Julia's work, so this is brilliant news, but I also think she really made a huge leap in her comics development with Black is the Colour- the pacing, the absolutely beautiful art- all of it combined perfectly and to a different level than that in her previous work. Very much looking forward to owning a copy of this.
The push and pull, ebb and flow of the water calls out to all men. In this harrowing new graphic novella, Black Is the Color, Julia Gfrörer delicately hatches away this sailor-at-sea story until the reader drowns in imminent destruction. Gfrörer states, “Black Is the Color is my most ambitious single story comic to date, and I’m thrilled that Fantagraphics will be publishing it in a format that matches my vision for the work.”

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Madeleine Flores' Great Warrior: a new kind of hero

It has happened. In these times of mire and hardships, of adversity and struggle, a hero has emerged from that dodgy, smoky, plumy place you always thought was bit shady and never ventured near. A bow sitting at an appropriate dainty yet rakish angle on her head, heart-shaped shield ever ready, conqueror of horrors too terrible to name, devourer of pizza, this is... Great Warrior! Cometh the hour, cometh the, um, bean-shaped being: Great Warrior is here to slay your dragons (as long as it's at a reasonable hour in the afternoon), lift your curses, deliver choice kicks and track down the latest word in footwear. Finally, we have a hero truly of our times: one we can relate to, one who reflects our problems and understands our needs- and then puts hers before them. Great Warrior may not be the hero we deserve, but she's the one we need right now. Follow her reluctant derring do and escapades here.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Artist spotlight: Edward Cheverton

I recently came across Edward Cheverton's work and was instantly struck by his aesthetic and his use of colour, shape and composition. Cheverton is an illustration student in his final year at Brighton University, where he studies along with  the fantastic Nick Edwards, but his work is already being noticed- he's been featured on art and design compendium It's Nice That and many other sites. He dabbles confidently in various mediums- comics, animation, model/figure-making and collage amongst others, producing quality output in each. His comics and illustration in particular are reminiscent in style of Luke Pearson and Ivan Brunetti, but it's his love of jazz that is apparent in much of his work- with the 50/60's era represented by bowler hats and natty suits and men pulling at saxophones, trumpets and trombones a frequent feature in his illustration. It's evidenced in the excellent video below where Cheverton's animated 'jazz factory' pumps and blows in time to Miles Davis' Teo.

You can find more of his work at

Can you introduce yourself a little and tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in the beautiful yet lethargic city of Bath. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some description but it wasn't until the end of school that I came across Illustration as it's own subject (through discussions with a teacher I think) and knew that it was what I wanted to do. I did my foundation and then went to Brighton (a far more lively and fun place) to study it which is where I am now, currently in my final year.

You work encompasses a variety of mediums and styles: animation, comics, collage etc. Which do you most like working with?

I honestly can't choose! It really depends on the day and whatever i'm working on as to what I work with. It often plays out that I will choose to do some drawing just to relax and have a break from collage, and visa versa.

What are you currently working on?

I've just written a list of about 30 or so projects and ideas that I want to explore over the next few months, ranging from a zine about Sausages to some sort of a tribute to the late Gerry Anderson.

Favourite comics and what you're currently reading?

My favourite comics are Seth's It's a Good Life if you Dont Weaken (which got me drawing again after two years of collage), Brian Wood's DMZ and anything by Michael DeForge. I've just started Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library (the big red one), which is so far exquisite.

Who/what are your major influences?

I've always been and always will be fascinated with Jazz. It's such a huge source of inspiration to my work, and a lot of my work is about it. The music, the musicians, the styles, the atmosphere, the energy, it's all so good! I'm trying to broaden my tastes these days however and so i've been looking at the world of Steam Trains, a shared love with my Father. Also, I've always loved really naff, cheesy, vintage sci-fi and so I'm going to do something about that soon too (on my list of 30 mentioned above). In terms of people I find inspiring, top of the list are Jonny Hannah and Sara Fanelli. I also love the work of Jim Flora, David Stone Martin, Seth (as mentioned), Luke Best, Jangojim, Chris Harnan, Nick Edwards, Wai Wai Pang......the list could never end.

What would your dream project be?

I think I would love to design and Illustrate a huge album collection for one of the Jazz greats; John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock etc. It would be a massive package with full sleeve art for each album and loads of goodies and extras. Thinking about it.....i might just do that for myself anyway!


Many thanks to Ed for taking the time to answer some questions.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Drawn & Quarterly to publish Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts

Coincidence is a funny thing. Last week I finally managed to order a copy of Sarah Glidden's 2011, Ignatz award-winning book 'How to understand Israel in 60 days or less,' Glidden's recounting of her 'Birthright Israel' tour, an Israeli government-sponsored trip through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Masada and other locations and the subsequent thoughts, feelings and reactions it provoked. After being on the scour for it ever since somebody recommended it to me a while back, it had been out of print, with copies going for £100+ on Amazon, but is now happily available once more. Hot on the heels of my recent acquirement comes the news that Drawn & Quarterly have acquired the world rights to publish Glidden’s next book, Rolling Blackouts, another comics journalism effort, this time focusing on the Iraq war. Here's the official synopsis from D&Q:

'To be released in Fall 2014, ROLLING BLACKOUTS follows Glidden to the Middle East with friends from a journalist collective, travelling to Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Glidden draws the portrait of a relationship between two childhood friends; one who is a journalist staunchly opposed to the Iraq war and the other a Marine who fought in the war. In doing so, Glidden explores the legacy of the war in Iraq and how it has changed people's lives, throughout the region and back at home.'
D&Q, of course, have a long and excellent publishing pedigree, but what has been extra pleasing and encouraging is the amount of coverage this- as a work of comics journalism-  has received from various large comics sites: obviously I'm not the only one to appreciate and anticipate Glidden's work! If you want a look and feel for Glidden's work, you can read her 20-page comic, The Waiting Room, about Iraqi refugees in Syria  here

Friday, 18 January 2013

Spring releases from Koyama Press

Koyama Press have released details of the books they’ll be offering in Spring, and as one has come to expect from them, all are high quality publications. Most notably there’s a double dose from comics man-of-the moment, Michael DeForge, in the form of a new issue of Lose and a collection of some of his earlier work, both of which I think will be much anticipated. Rounding out the batch are Victor Kerlow’s surreal watercolour comics and a first English translation of Julia Deloprte’s auto-bio work, Journal. It makes for a varied and interesting mix of books. Here’s a quick glance at the covers and synopsis for each title:

'Lose #5 is the latest issue in Michael DeForge’s one-man anthology series. This issue houses three self-contained stories: “Living Outdoors” tracks two high school students as they explore a zoo and experiment with hallucinogens. “Muskoka” is the story of a cowboy on the road home to see his family. “Recent Hires” follows a young author’s descent into the criminal underworld in order to win the affections of a girl.’

‘Culled from mini comics, online comics and anthology contributions, Very Casual collects notable short stories from DeForge’s prolific oeuvre. Included are stories about litter gangs, meat-filled snowmen, righteous cops, beagle/human hybrids, and forest-bound drag queens. Very Casual also collects Spotting Deer, which won the Pigskin Peters Award for best non-traditional, non-narrative or avant-garde work at the 2011 Doug Wright Awards.'

‘Victor Kerlow’s Everything Takes Forever: a collection of the cartoonist and illustrator’s ink-and-wash comics that blur the quotidian with the absurd. In Kerlow’s world tacos and toast have bodies and smoke, tiny men who can no longer copulate or consume sandwiches deal with existential angst, and dream logic pervades. Kerlow draws weekly illustrations for The Metro Diary in The New York Times.’

The final book will be a ‘translation of Montreal-based artist Julie Delporte’s autobiographical comics called Journal. Delporte is a fellow of the renowned Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, Vermont. Journal displays Delporte’s organic and immediate drawings that utilize an uncanny sense of colour and composition to illustrate their intimate, diarist narratives. Cataloguing an emotional breakup, an artist’s residency at CCS and the anxieties and joys of everyday life between February 2011 and October 2012, Delporte’s elegant illuminated diary is a private life made public and poetic.’

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Comics Resolutions

Here, have a comic by the lovely and talented JangoJim before I start my waffling:

1) Do more interviews this year. By more, I actually mean DO interviews this year. I did my first interview with Sonny Liew towards the end of last year (it's not published yet) and he was the most gracious and loveliest guy ever. I now expect everyone to at least meet that standard. I think interviewing's a very specific skill set and one I'd like to have and hone: asking interesting questions and picking up on what people say and instigating riots. Transcribing and editing is hugely time-consuming though.
2) Read more of the comics canon: I really want to start with Love and Rockets, Ware and all that stuff. I have to be sacrilegiously honest and admit the bits I've dipped into don't appeal to me, but I view it as akin to reading the classics: it's important in that it gives you a larger understanding and grasp of the medium as a whole.
3) Attend and be more outgoing at cons: Between work and university, I don't get the time to go to many cons but I think a renewed effort is due. I'm also pretty awful at introducing myself: 'Oh hey, yeah, so I write for this thing, TALK TO ME.' I would find that person weird. It's pretty rare that you go up to a table and natural conversation ensues- mostly you're uncomfortable, the cartoonist's uncomfortable, everybody moves on and is relieved. This shall be the year of foisting. You have been warned.
4) Try to acheive a balance between writing objectively and having an honest critical voice. I've been thinking about this a lot recently and whilst I'm all for positivity, I think when you take out the other half of that discussion, it beomes dis-honest, or at least disingenuous, by omission. I'm not talking about looking at things solely for the purpose of picking holes in them, but to be able to provide an open dialogue that recognises subjectivity as a constructive thing. That may all have been rubbish, sorry.
5) Get paid writing work. Hah.


Being the technological dinosaur I am, I didn't realise the problems Blogger's been having uploading pictures from my computer could be fixed by switiching browser- hey, I LIKE Internet Explorer ok? Anyway, frustration led me to investigate the problem and I now use Chrome to upload my pictures and then switch back to IE again. Your long-winded explanation for the lack of posts concludeth here. Here's stuff I've been reading recently:

Jonathan Cape sent me The Making Of by Belgian artist Brecht Evens and it's a many-paged watercolour masterpiece, and that's just from a cursory look through the pages. I'm hoping to sit down with it and give it the attention it needs, which will hopefully be some time soon, as yesterday I submitted my last assignment for at least a month- wahey! Tom Kaczynski, cartoonist and founder of Uncivilised Books, was kind enough to send me The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell and Jon Lewis' True Swamp collection, which Lewis has described as 'a comic about animals in the wild experiencing psychological problems, strange adventures'. You can read more about the book in a great interview he did over at CBR, where he discusses it in depth. Everybody has heard of Gabrielle Bell's diary comics by now, haven't they? If not, go here. Hoping to review both these soon, so I won't go on about them.

Epigram sent me the comics they've put out so far and they are truly impressive. The production values are high quality and the books a nifty just-larger than A5 size. It's really exciting for me to see this kind of comics venture being birthed, with a recognised publishing house producing their first ever comics line. On the basis of these books, I really hope they get to continue, but that will obviously depend on how well these do, and other factors. I'm doing a week-long feature on these comics in the first week of Feb (fingers crossed), where they'll all be reviewed. It's been lovely interviewing Sonny Liew and getting in touch with all the creators to do pieces- introductions, commentaries on the books etc. It's been a really cool thing to do. Now if only I could get paid to do it...

On an aside, interviewing people is great but transcribing and editing long pieces is HELL. 

The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman. This is so good. Forsman's producing these stapled together issues of his comic in 12 pages apiece for the princely sum of a $1 each. I got the first 7 shipped to the UK at a cost of about £8. The next 7 issues in the series arrived yesterday. His story follows 2 young  aimless teenagers who leave home and get involved in things like murder, as you do. That's a shit summary, but it's sort of a road trip of quiet teenage Americana gone wrong but not in a big dramatic statementy way. It works because there's not a shedload of characters and he manges to make his protagonists sympathetic despite their apathy. Fantagraphics are releasing the whole story in a collection later this year, but you should buy it now. Polite suggestion.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Tyson Hesse's Sonic/Knuckles comic

I'm still on the lookout for a copy of the SPX Sonic comic fanzine, Speed Hog, as I missed out on buying it online last year. I know there are plans to re-print it soon over at TopatoCo, but if anyone knows of how I can get my hands on a copy before that, please do let me know. In the meanwhile, a lot of the artists who contributed to the publication are posting their strips online, which makes me want to own it in print even more. This Knuckles strip is by Tyson Hesse, creator of web-comic Boxer Hockey and sci-fi/fantasy comic, Diesel. I'm not always a fan of silliness, too often people forget to add the humour, but this is great and made me smile. Click through to Tyson's tumblr for larger pages (Blogger's ill at the moment and won't post high res large images).


Sunday in the Park with Boys by Jane Mai

If you amble over to Jane Mai’s website, you will be met with the sight of an apparently dead Mickey Mouse flat on his back. So far, so dead representative childhood icon. The cheery, animated, bright blue background rains constant white tears, and on closer inspection Mickey’s open mouth reveals sharp, shark-like teeth. You can’t see his eyes. Mai’s Sunday in the Park with Boys comes wrapped in similarly deceptive packaging: that breezy title recalling summer, the smell of grass, the thrill of crushes. A cute girl in a sailor outfit adorns the cover against that same cheery bright blue background, complete with a little signature love heart. Like me, it may take you a few glances before you notice the large insect wrapped around her head, cutting off her vision. You can’t ‘see’ Jane and Jane can’t see you.

There are times when we all feel misunderstood, out-of-place, uncertain- for some it’s a passing feeling now and then, others less fortunate suffer from depression. For Jane, these instances occur with episodic regularity, creeping up on her slowly, depicted here by a sinister, crawling centipede-like insect that appears when the feeling starts up. It petrifies her into place as it wraps around her head, her whole body, cutting her off from all else and enveloping her completely. As a reader, you begin to dread the appearance of that foul thing; Mai’s effectiveness as a cartoonist making you feel similarly claustrophobic and closed in.

Mai’s art is simple, often sparse, her world bereft of people- people who don’t understand. She works at the help desk in a library, and there are signifiers as to her state of mind even unto her environment. ‘It’s been quiet and comfortable’ Mai declares as the cursive ‘Help’ on her desk offers a different opinion. She goes out to lunch, comes back, returns to her desk. ‘Help’ says the desk. She likes to reassure herself that she doesn’t mind the things she minds: ‘I like being alone, I like being by myself’ she repeats constantly as if she’s trying to convince herself. The opposite, you suspect, is true. She attempts to explain what she’s feeling to fleetingly to a bedfellow, but you can tell by his smile he doesn’t understand. The centipede crawls up over her and engulfs her again.

Despite this, Mai’s character/persona is difficult to grasp, stifled as she struggles not to be defined by this thing she has no control over. And the thing she has no control over she finds, in turn, is in itself hard to define and convey- ‘why don’t you understand?’ is another repeated plea. She’s not looking to be cured particularly or even after acceptance, she just wants reassurance that someone -at least one person- understands her and what she’s going through; that she isn’t alone and there isn’t something spectacularly wrong with her uniquely. It’s by no means an easy read, often harrowing, but Mai is a strong cartoonist, pinpointing the way in which her demon has taken over her: the dread of these episodes, the waiting, the compliance, and the quiet, desperate, frustration of the situation.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A Ladydrawer's History of Women's Rights

One of my favourite cartoonists, the fabulous Corinne Mucha, has joined forces with award-winning author and scholar, Anne Elizabeth Moore, to bring some fantastic comics journalism your way. The new miniseries for Ladydrawers charts the history of women’s rights, with the first edition ‘Earnings and Yearnings’ depicting the birth of the women’s rights movement and the differences in the wage gap. The series will also ’look at some of the ways that the historic lack of women’s participation has led to inequities in legislative policy that have damaged everyone’. Really pleased to see this issue being addressed in this format. Read the first edition here, and bookmark it to follow the rest.

Thierry Martin's Moebius homage sketches

Just discovered artist Thierry Martin via David O'Connell's blog and have spent a lovely hour or so scrolling through his art and cursing my lack of language ability. I was really taken with these sketches he did back in April (bringing you all the latest news here) as an tribute to Moebius, I'm a bit of a sucker for anything pared down, sketchy and effortless looking, and I like that they riff off Moebius' own  work in Vaimor so well. Right, off to see if I can find anything he's drawn that's been translated into English; meanwhile head over to Martin's blog if you have a moment, his illustrations are just beautiful.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Tintin au Congo conundrum

It seems every year we get a debate over the status of Tintin in the Congo: whether it should be accessible to children, which section it should be shelved in in bookstores and libraries, or if it should be available at all. I think it's important to begin with the assertion that the book is both racist and offensive. You'd be hard pressed to argue that page after page of grotesquely caricatured thick-lipped, 'savage' black people supplicating -quite literally- to a white man is anything other than immense stereotyping. The main and popular counter-argument against this is that the book is 'a product of its time' and reflective of the views of that time. This does not make the book less racist: essentially what's being said there is racism was more outwardly rife and acceptable in the 1920s and as the book permeates those ideologies (which we would hope no longer exist), all is well. That contextual distinction is perhaps fine for adults who are able to make it, but Tintin is a series aimed at children.

The debate stems, I believe, from the acknowledgement that the book IS racist, and one of the most frequently challenged books in libraries and stores around the world, which puts librarians, teachers and booksellers in a quandary as to what they should do with it. The discussion surrounding it is angled more towards the issue of censorship; both libraries and bookshops have attempted to resolve the matter by shelving the book in the adult section. When I bought my copy, it came with a red paper band around it, with large bold letters pronouncing it a collector's volume. On the reverse of the band in much smaller text was that familiar refrain: 'This book is very much of its time. In his portrayal of the Belgian Congo, the young author reflects the colonial, paternalistic attitudes of his era. Some of today's readers may find his stereotypical portrayal of the African people offensive.'

Herge's regret over the book is fine, but generally pointed out so as to absolve the author of any negative connotations. Nor does Herge going back and editing a page here and there change anything: the book remains racist in its depictions. Tintin is practically an industry in Belgium and Herge one of the foremost comic figures in the world, so there's a vested interest in defending both. The issue, however, remains. There are two things I (and most people) am against: banning books and editing them in any way other than the author intended. So what, if anything, can be done with Tintin in the Congo?

In 2011 Professor Alan Gribben, a notable Twain scholar, released a revised edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. In the edited version, the word 'nigger' was substituted for 'slave' and the word 'injun' for 'Indian'. Gribben's reason for editing the book was well-intentioned: Twain's use of these terms had lead to a significant decrease in classroom use in the US, with teachers uncomfortable with teaching the book and parents frequently challenging its use. Huck Finn is perhaps a different kettle of fish though- Twain's satire is about racism and not racist in itself. The repetition of the word 'nigger' -and Twain uses it a good 200+ times in the book- is supposed to provoke certain reactions, ideas, thoughts, and in  censoring those words it removes Twain's intended language and diffuses the power of the book.  Arguments about creative integrity aside, once you alter a text in any way, however small, it becomes just that: a changed text from what the author originally intended. Ironically, the practice of textual intervention has been going on in an 'acceptable' manner for decades- most notably with literary classics, abridged versions, and I'm not sure that any students learn Shakespeare's plays in their original guise anymore.

But Tintin isn't a satire, nor does it feature archaic language. The option of 'editing' (whether you agree with it or not) isn't applicable here, as that would most likely constitute the whole book. The problem is the proposed audience of the book: young children.

The above panel from Tintin in the Congo originally had him teaching young African children about their colonial rulers in Belgium. When preparing the colour version of the book in 1946, Herge changed it to the panel below, where Tintin teaches them arithmetic instead.

The ruling by the Belgian courts in December last year that not only found the book not racist but exhibiting, apparently, 'a gentle and candid humour' was in response to a case bought in 2007 by Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, an immigrant from the Congo, and the Belgian Council of Black Associations. Their assertion was that “The negative stereotypes portrayed in this book are still read by a significant number of children. They have an impact on their behaviour.” So the matter becomes one of the permeation of ideology and its effect; is it alright to make accessible to young children a racist book, when they may not understand the context in which it was written? I didn't read Tintin in the Congo until a few years ago, so I can't say how it affected me as a child, or how aware I was of the representation of African people, but there's a case to be made, I think, for the potency and power in the visualisation of images exposed to children over words.

Context is the crucial factor. The book currently includes a short foreword that effectively repeats the 'preservation of history and social attitudes' line of the red band. It's not enough to simply softly say that the book and its representations are a product of their time: what's required is education. It should be made clear that that time was a less understanding, more intolerant and wrong time and that such views are unacceptable today, although how effective such a forwarding essay would be is anybody's guess. As for having the book available to children, my own view would be to shelve it in a designated 'parental guidance' section/shelf, so that parents can decide for themselves at what age they think their child would comprehend the context in which it was created. Until that time, Herge wrote 23 other Tintin books which children and adults all around the globe have treasured for over 80 years.