Friday, 30 January 2015

Katsuhiro Otomo wins Grand Prix award at Angoulême

Katsuhiro Otomo has been awarded the 42nd annual Grand Prix prize at French comics festival, Angouleme. He was nominated besides fellow finalists Alan Moore and Belgian artist, Hermann. The award, bestowed to an author for a body of work, functions as a life-time achievement/hall of fame of sorts, but is unique in that the winner is then given duties of president for next year's festival, in addition to their work being the subject of a large exhibition. Otomo, best known for his seminal manga and animated film of the same, Akira, is the first Japanese author to be awarded the Grand Prix (Akira Toriyama was awarded a special award for the 40th anniversary of the festival), and only the fifth non-European, so while his crowning may have a feeling of the inevitable -such is the undeniable nature of his work- it was by no means a sure thing. 

It's difficult to gauge how much of an arbiter for change Otomo's win may be- Angouleme's Grand Prix selection and voting system is notoriously convoluted, but the past few years have seen various adjustments and tinkering in order to facilitate a move away from the Franco-centric, establishment so that it may lead to the consideration of wider , more contemporary possibilities. Otomo, for example, is a figure very familiar to a younger generation of international comics readers in a way that say,  Hermann, isn't. And I think that's a facet that's instrumental in the positive feeling around his win, in addition to the deep and vast tradition of Japanese comics finally being recognised in some way. So it may be a popular win, it may be an unsurprising win, but only because it seems so deserved as to be overdue, like one of those unequivocal decisions that have you wondering if it might not already have taken place.

On my part, his work was the first in comics that I saw, and gawped at, with a feeling of 'so that's why he's held in the esteem he is.' Its' the kind of formidable talent that's instantly recognisable to any and all; regardless of how au fait one is with that particular medium. I'm not aware of what the English language rights situation is with Otomo's work, particularly Domu (previously published by Dark Horse), and his short story collection, Memories (Kodansha), both of which are out of print with pricey copies circulating the usual online repositories, but it'd be fantastic to see them given new editions and for them to reach a new and even younger audience.

But, as we all know, any piece on Otomo is also an excuse to post at least a few pieces of his brilliant art (see below). Otomo's also recorded a brief video message in acknowledgment of the prize- in Japanese with French subtitles here. Really great piece of news with which to end the week.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Corto Maltese: a hero with empathy -and legs

Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn by Hugo Pratt, translated by Dean Mullaney and Simone Castaldi, published by IDW

There are few matchable pleasures in literature as coming to the oeuvre of an author who's considered great, reading their work for the first time, and recognising it as such. It helps, I think,  if you know less; the more disinclined you are to make presumptions, to hold associations, to approach with an open-mind. Such was the case for me with Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese. Pratt is widely considered one of the masters of the medium, thanks largely to his most famous creation of a louche, intelligent, morally complex sailor, but those books have never received a comprehensive English language translation- until now. And what an experience it is. I've honestly not enjoyed a book as much as I have delighted and revelled in the sheer goodness and ability of Corto Maltese. After reading the first few pages with a degree of curiosity, I sat back and allowed myself to simply enjoy and savour the tale being woven in all its excellence.

To quantify it by genre, Corto Maltese is the highest quality of adventure stories -of the oceanic pirate strain- you will read; a possibly mutinous (Corto's past is left muddied at this point) ex-sailor turned man of fortune, embroiling himself on whim and deliberation; superbly written, beautifully drawn, with engaging, complex characters who you want to spend time with and see more of. Under the Sign of Capricorn sees Corto take up the cause of a young British orphan, Tristan Bantam,who comes to him for help after his father's death, with a clutch of mysterious maps and documents, regarding his inheritance and to search for his half-sister, Morgana, whom he has never met but is located somewhere in south America.

If books are going to be titled eponymously, there's an expectation that that character live up to the billing: they should be of significance, of interest, have weight, and strength and appeal ( it's worth noting that it's not important that any of those aspects be portrayed positively). For the very first panel of the comic you get this establishing image:

His name are the very first words of the text and Pratt goes on to declare him a 'man of destiny,' but more than any other quality, here he imbues cool. The closest iconography I'm reminded of is the coiled looseness of heroes in westerns- the hint of swagger but an assumed relaxed pose: quietness, cockiness, and surety all hinted at simultaneously. Take a look at the composition and body language here: head and torso positioned centrally in the panel, feet up, cigarette in hand, cap and hair shielding his eyes. He's watchful perhaps lost in thought. The immediate next panel is a close-up side profile, and the narration is semi-admiring, semi-mocking him as he lights up 'as if he were performing for an invisible audience.'  In fact for the whole first page he doesn't say anything -until he's interrupted by a drunken brawl-, an interaction that involves the reader just looking at Corto, feeling the atmosphere, the presence of the man,  serving to set him up as this strong and silent type, in the know, someone cool, someone to be admired, someone to beware of.

Pratt renders that physical presence of Corto in really fun, characterful ways: he's tall -very tall- and louche, whenever he's standing he's loosely casual but ready, not slouched, but not fully straight either: there's a sense of him being able to manipulate his presence to fit the situation. It's when he's fighting you realise he's a little too tall for really fast, easy movement and his style of hand to hand combat looks awkward and funny (and all the more real for it) but it does the job. Part of this has to do with the manner in which Pratt's able to convey movement: his is a less dynamic, more break-down style, more feel for action than pace.

Legs, legs, legs: this looks at once ungainly and slow and like it absolutely shouldn't be effective:

One may justifiably wonder how many tough guys with questionable deeds but strong moral cores we need. But there's more to Corto than a rakish air and an earring. In contrast to the current rash of contemporary omnipotent, unfeeling, sociopathic geniuses, one of his defining characteristics is his empathy. He listens to people and does what he can to facilitate their needs and emotions -interestingly not much of these stories are even really about Corto, until the final third-, whilst often working angles in his own interest. He's romantic to an extent- believing in  good and bad and right and wrong, although he's more than aware of how grey all these areas are (because he's like that too, you see); but still has faith in people despite being all too conscious of how utterly shit, corrupt and greedy they can be. He has a set of values that include looking out for himself as a priority, coupled with a subset of morality that requires him not to always act in self-interest: 'I am not serious enough to give advice and too serious to accept it.' His heroism begins with himself but doesn't end at other people.

Corto is cool because of the way he talks and dresses and stands and sits, but he is cool mainly because he cares, and also because he does: he acts on what he perceives needs changing or doing, it's not just lip-service. Corto takes on waifs and strays and those he feels subjected to injustice and tries to help them. For example, that drunken brawl mentioned earlier sees him ostensibly adopting the disgraced, alcoholic professor involved, giving him a place to sleep, befriending him and taking him along on his travels. Their dry, witty, odd couple partnership is another highlight of the book.

That empathy is central to Corto but is derived from Pratt who writes about people with the same respect and open-mindedness of his hero: incorporating people's cultures, traditions, and ways of living without exoticising or demeaning them, without pointing out how weird/quaint/curious/different/primitive they are. Corto's viewpoint is one of equality and respect, not condescending, but simply borne from experience, from knowing people, from travel. Tristian is amazed at an Indian speaking English- 'extraordinary!' but Corto is not: 'He's a clever guy who probably studied in some missionary school.' A normal thing. Pratt presents each culture and people as different and distinct but there is no explanation, no discussion: they just are, they exist and are valid; their legitimacy and existence never questioned.

This leads into Pratt writing some great, memorable characters: the gentle, steely, intelligent Morgana, Gold Mouth the wise and bodacious, and my personal favourite: SureShot. Morgana and Gold Mouth are instrumental in the orchestration of the narrative that's running parallel to Corto's and Tristian's, that of the revolution. For all the lovely flirtation that goes down here, both ladies have the measure of Corto and what he's able to offer, and utilise it perfectly. For his part, he respects them both, taking on board and deferring to their knowledge of the situation. As much as he thinks he has a handle on events, when he finds out he's actually the one being manipulated somewhat for the use of their cause, he can only admire their smart maneuvering, giving a rueful smile and tip of the hat, and acknowledging he would have done the exact same thing himself. SureShot's unforgettable short story has to be read to be felt: tragic and triumphant, a man so aware of his limits, of the world's caprice, and yet prepared to sacrifice all for the freedom of his people.  

Pratt's art is beautiful; combining traditional, conventional beauty and drawing with capability and technique. Often with technique you get the sense of deliberation, a careful studying to produce a certain illustration and effect, but Pratt's work is effortless, it flows and glides; like its protagonist its inherently pleasing nature is complemented by learnt attributes. There's a seamless synchronicity between the writing, atmosphere, tone and art that allows for superior storytelling of the finest kind. Pratt's lines are largely fine: he draws the sea and horizons in swooping, sweeping arcs, creased detail; then alternating between thick brushes to convey base impressions of a thing. 

The page below is a prime example in illustrating both those styles: in the second panel you have those very simple, thickly rendered smoke clouds, in the third lots of inks for shadow and depth, and that final middle panel of Corto running in panic: again very rough, one-touch strokes and squiggles. The effect it has here is to demonstrate the heat of the fire and moment and Corto's emotions, while the policemen remain meticulously turned out and ambivalent. There is a lot of this: stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, and suddenly you have a boat full of people sailing lazily on. You can see the individual components in addition to the collective image it conjures. It's all gorgeously done.

That unfortunate cover aside, IDW have done a  good job with the presentation- I know previous translations have had trouble with cutting out panels and sections and the placement of them, but this reads absolutely fine, the covers are nice and stiff and french-flapped, the pages are big and wide, and like Corto's legs, I just wanted it to go on and on.

Festival notes: ELCAF expands to 2-days, Linework announces special guests, Thought Bubble sets dates

- Comics festival news has started to stream in as the year gets underway aproper, and first up: ELCAF (East London Comics and Arts Festival) have announced that they'll be expanding to a 2-day event over the weekend of 20-21st June- the show has taken place on a Saturday since its inception in 2012. ELCAF's success was evident last year in the long queues of people waiting to get in throughout much of the day. Growth was an issue ELCAF co-founder Sam Arthur discussed at the time, in addressing the questions of space and demand:

'The Oval Space offered us more space when all of the separate areas were taken into account, however the main area was slightly smaller than York Hall. We based our estimate for space requirements on last year's numbers and hoped for more people with extra interest generated by Chris Ware and Seth's involvement. It is extremely hard to predict exact numbers and also when people will arrive at the venue, which we can only judge based on past experience. In terms of this year's event, we were constrained by the cost of a venue and also those venues that are actually available. Many of the exhibitors might not have been able to attend if we shared the costs of a larger venue with them; likewise we try to keep entrance fees down so people can spend their money inside the venue with the exhibitors. It's important for us to get the business side of the event right as it needs to be sustainable and (as this is an event arranged at our own financial risk) it needs to grow organically. If we overextend we risk not being able to continue the event in the future.
Improvements can clearly be made, perhaps we need to make the event two days long, perhaps we need to sell tickets for sessions rather than full days and perhaps we have to charge a higher entrance fee and higher exhibitors fees.'

I've attended the last two festivals ELCAF have held and both shows have been excellent. The second certainly highlighted the need to grow, and I'd imagine this means they're looking at a much larger venue this time around, too (that's yet to be announced). Applications to exhibit/table are now open, with a deadline of 9th March. There's also the Facebook page for people wanting to keep abreast of comings and goings.    

- Sticking to superb UK festivals, Thought Bubble has announced its dates for 2015: events will run from the 9th to 15th November, with the culminating weekend convention taking place on the 14th and 15th at Leeds' Royal Armouries as per usual. Table registration applications will open in February, with con tickets going on sale in the spring, and further  news and a programme to follow. Thought Bubble are currently hosting their annual charity art auction, in which they sell off exclusively created original art from a range of last year's festival guests for children's charity, Barnados. Artworks are auctioned on Ebay, and this year include pieces by Boulet, Emily Carroll, Babs Tarr, Cliff Chiang, Natasha Allegri, Jason Latour and more. For further details go here.

- Portland festival, Linework, only launched last year but already looks to be a very high quality show; last year's guests included Jim Woodring and Michael DeForge, and this year's show, taking place on April 18th -19th Portland will see a mix of artists from various mediums in the form of Daniel Clowes, Lisa Congdon, Lisa Hanawalt, and Jay Howell. Clowes will be debuting The Complete Eightball collection, published by Fantagraphics. 1–18 at our festival. I love Jay Howell's work; his Peanuts and Snoopies series was amazing- so fun and lively, and he works on one of my favourite shows: Bob's Burgers. Those are all the kind of great guests that you'd attend a show specifically to see.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Comics Shelfie: Celine Loup

The first comics shelfie of 2015, and it's a great one, courtesy of the incredibly talented Celine Loup. I first came across Loup's work via Tumblr; someone had re-blogged some pages from Honey #1 prior to its release, and I immediately started following her with the view to buying it once it was published. Loup is French-born, and cites French comic books as one of her main aesthetic influences, and as an appreciator of same, I think her work is one of the few amongst North American and Canadian comic artists that is easily comparable in quality to the very beautiful and organic nature of  a large segment of French bande dessinee. She is currently working on Honey #2 and Mother, a separate comic set in the same world. One of the pleasures of the blog is that I get to ask some of my favourite artists about the books they read, what impacted and shaped them or their work, and Celine's shelfie is probably the one that's provided me with a list of books I want to immediately look into further. You can find her website here, and her Tumblr (which is a must-follow) here.

'So, I live in a 3 bedroom rowhouse in Baltimore, MD. The 3 big antique bookcases in the dining room house most of my books. It's a bit of a mess right now as we had to re-arrange the downstairs, which meant taking everything off the shelves and putting them back. The case on the left in the pic below has most of my comics. On top of it I keep some of my single issues and zines in those red magazine holders, but that's probably 1/4 of my loose collection, the rest of which I stack between the other books.

This little shelf we found in the trash behind our old house, and is reserved for manga.

The top most shelf with the parasite plushies is for illustration anthologies and art books; below are my French language BDs and my larger american comics. I've already written about Kerascoet's "Beaute" trilogy here, suffice it to say they are the pride of my collection at the moment. Closeups below:

Below, my smaller, American comics:

Take 3 panels, a covers edition- Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City

Looking around my room, flicking through books to see what might catch my eye for the next 'Take 3 Panels' and nothing really striking or interesting commanding the attention. Instead, I sit down to type up a little piece on some Batman trades DC are putting together of Blink and Dark Knight, Dark City, and I see the poor, distastefully recoloured version of Mike Mignola's cover (more of which at the end of this piece) and think to myself a) what folly, what shame it is to ruin it, and b) what a grouchy atypical comics fan I'm becoming. Because I'm diligent *cough cough* I have the 3 issues comprising Peter Milligan, Kieron Dwyer and Dennis Janke's run next to me at the time of writing, and I look at the Mignola covers, sift them apart, admire them, and take a moment to despair a little inside once more. I also realise there's 3 of them, so here we are with a covers edition of take 3 panels, where I'll be deconstructing and discussing covers in lieu of panels for a change.

The comic: 'Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City' by Peter Milligan, Kieron Dwyer and Dennis Janke. Covers by Mike Mignola. Batman #452-#454, 1990.
The story: A Riddler story, and a weird one... 'Batman is led through a labyrinthine urban maze by his old nemesis the Riddler, who seems to have changed into an abominable monster with one purpose: to drive Batman insane! In his quest, the Riddler is working with an occultist who has summoned a demon to stop Batman - but in the process, the Riddler himself is slowly changing into a nightmarish beast!'

To begin with some composition and elements that are repeated on each cover, in the top left corner you have the price and renumeration tab-strip with the old DC logo (remember that? So easy to see the hold of nostalgia in some cases) and a little figure of Batman below it. The vertical column lining up of those is nicely balanced: circular logo, followed by a space for price and issue number and then the Batman icon; both the logo and Batman are in relative proportion to the strip- the circle acts like a stamp/seal placed on top, covering it (making it fit exactly would look odd, and if it were sized within the strip it would leave an outline band of pale colour which would look poor and throw off composition), while Batman's contained mostly within it, only his feet and the edges of his cape moving beyond the strip, and gain to fill and provide contrast between the dark and lighter colours. The tab on the whole works well as a neat anchor: publisher, title connoted by Batman, pertinent details for purchase. It's an equally effective and aesthetically pleasing alternative to horizontally running mastheads such as the one seen on Tintin and so forth. Comics Code Authority stamp in top right corner, author accreditation in bottom right.

On the one hand, this looks like pretty standard fare for a Batman cover. After hours Gotham city-scape, those famous gargoyles, Batman swinging through the night, but when you look at placing, it takes on more curious meaning. The two aspects here that the eye is drawn are the two largest: Batman and the gargoyle. The gargoyle is curiously positioned prominently in the foreground, and coupled with the fact that Batman appears to be jumping at it in attack- arms and hands outstretched teeth bared- rather than swinging to it, makes you wonder as to its significance, of which a hint is perhaps indicated via the orange light of the eyes (it may be alive). A base conclusion to draw from the wings and horns suggests a demonic being of some kind. That orange is picked up from the lights of the buildings around them, cleverly arranged so the skyline lowers conveniently where Batman is poised in the air on the right, while taller buildings are placed on the left in the background behind the gargoyle, freely jutting upwards. The two other colours of note here are the pink sky, and the light hitting the blue tips on Batman's costume, both of which tie together with the use of orange; the colour palette is warm, the scene almost idyllic, really, within context, even the gargoyle seems benign- as usual it's Batman who's providing the movement and drama and pushing at further possible meaning.

This is sort of a classic gothic horror mis-en-scene: the zombie/skeleton/undead hoardes rising from the grave in a cemetery to embrace the protagonist in their lumbering, yet fatal clutches. Both Batman and the horned/winged demon are positioned immediately centrally, and it's still difficult to tell whether the demon is a live entity here or a large and foreboding choice of headstone or statue. Either way, he's larger, placed behind and above Batman so in a dominant pose of power, while the white of his gaze appears to be staring unnervingly straight out at the reader. The whole thing plays out as an inverse, twisted pieta of sorts: you have the dead grabbing (cradling) the alive: Batman, and wanting him dead, where traditionally in a pieta you would think Mary is wishing Jesus back to life. That image is compounded somewhat by the the zombie figure behind Batman who has him arms thrown out wide, his head back and seems to be wailing in distress or howling in glee; it's hard to tell.  It's framed by the overhanging arch of the tree branches coming in from the left which cross all the way over to the other side of the page, which also serves to provide a filler for that top third space overhead. Mignola's in his sandbox doing all these spindly, shadowy bits.

The colour scheme changes to more ominous: there's some area of the pink sky of the first cover here, on the left side, but it's being taken over by the darker blue hues- you can get a grasp of where it's headed by taking your cue from the title lettering: the 'Batman' switches from orange to blue and then green in the final and third cover. Interestingly, the colour scheme of each cover leads into the next, so where blue was previously indicated and is now present, here the animated corpses take on greenish hues. That green is reinforced in the other element that's repeated on all three covers: the title banner. It's the only feature that doesn't really sit as harmoniously as all else; you have the Batman across the top, which is fine, then 'Dark Knight' to the left below that in a thin architectural font, and 'Dark City' on the right in a painted brush style- an attempt at graffiti? The block of backdrop colour behind this title is torn like a paper, the 'Dark City' bafflingly painted on this... absence of paper, in what I'm guessing is a parallel to the Riddler leaving clues, but it doesn't quite work. The font is poor, and the execution nonsensical- it's a slightly jarring note in otherwise beautifully rendered pieces. 

Another facet I like about these covers is that they're a narrative triptych in of themselves: you have the first acting as a point of cataclysm, then the middle finds Batman in trouble, and here it's the final showdown with his foe. By now, the demon's been established as a real, full-blown malevolent presence and his gigantic form looms here behind the Riddler, his head tilted close towards him- he's on his side, or controlling him in the least. His empty white gaze is directed at Batman and the mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth now clearly visible- he's a threat and an enemy. Riddler's autonomy is bought into question (a riddle, you see): his face is in shadow so we can't see if he's himself, his white, fixed eyes mirror the demon's, and his stance appears to be rigid and static. Over on the left, Batman is posing up a storm; right leg bent forward, weight on the left, turning at the waist to point his chest at the reader, but eyes on the prize. His right hand is all ready for punching and fisted up, but his left is open- the stance and the hands suggest Batman's uncertainty at how best to proceed, or to what exactly he's dealing with. He's placed in the spotlight as the hero, as an opposite to the Riddler literally under the wing of the beast, whose clawed hand lays outstretched, ready to intervene.

Where in the second cover you can't see the blue in Batman's costume at all, as he's overwhelmed by zombies, here his full regalia is once more apparent, symbolic of the restoration of hope and closing the colour circle by linking back to the blue swooshes in the first cover.

As I mentioned, this post was prompted by a browsing session on Amazon, which shows upcoming trade paperback collections of Dwyane McDuffie's, Val Semeiks' and Dan Green's 4-issue 'Blink' as well as 'Dark Knight, Dark City'; I believe this is the first time both are being collected in book format. I'm not sure whether they'll reproduce all 3 Mignola covers as part of the material within, but as you can see below, they're using a recoloured version for the main cover, which sucks all the atmosphere and actual art out of Mignola's work. In terms of story, I actually much prefer 'Blink,' a Legends of the Dark Knight story about a blind man who  has the ability to see through the eyes of others, and is used by Batman to tap into the mind of a killer he's chasing around Gotham. That releases on March 3rd, and 'Dark Knight, Dark City' on February 24th.

Moyoco Ono's 'Ochibi' bids to become an innovative animation

One of the fantastic Moyoco Ono's (Insufficient Direction, In Clothes Called Fat) comics is being adapted into an animation, which is currently running a funding drive seeking support on IndieGogo. The short film is based on Ono's comic. The Diary of Ochibi, a delightful series set in a nostalgic Japanese town, somewhere in the ancient capital of Kamakura. It follows the everyday adventures of its main pint-sized character, Ochibi, a young boy who's curious about everything (easily vexed and easily happy), and his two talking canine companions: Nazeni, a smart dog who loves reading and knowledge and is never seen without a book, and Pankui, a gourmand dog who loves baking bread. Together they trundle through life making new discoveries and new friends and engaging in such tasks such as whipping around town trying to discover who's graffitied insults of Ochibi on the walls, wondering why people put the phone down just as you've rushed to answer it, attempting to outwit the rain with an umbrella, and so forth. It's cute, yes, but it also has that Ono edge of furious energy and forthright bit of bite that makes it special.

The IndieGogo drive is being run by Masashi Kawamura, a New York-based artist/director who is currently working on various film projects. Kawamura was invited to participate in the Japan Anima(tor)'s Exhibition (which begins this autumn), a project led by Hideaki Anno (director of the Evangelion film), whereby 25 young directors are selected to create short animations lasting from 4.5 to 6 minutes. Upon completion, the collection of films then launches online before travelling to exhibit at various film festivals. One of the scripts selected by Anno was Moyoco Onno's Ochibi, and now Kawamura is adapting the comic with Ono's blessing and collaboration, but needs $3000 to be able to  bring his vision of it to life, and his plans for it really do sound rather unique and innovative:

'I wanted to create something that uses a slightly different animation technique while still maintaining the atmosphere of “Ochibi”. I suggested to Moyoco that I wanted to animate the manga using “Fuubutsushi (objects that reminds you of a certain season) ”. In the manga, the beauty of Japan’s four seasons is used as a backdrop of each episode, so I decided to use objects that represent the 4 season as the materials to animate the story of the 4 seasons itself. For example, the story of spring is about a short story under the cherry tree, so I am animating it using food inside a picnic lunch box under the cherry blossom tree. Summer – Ochibi will be drawn on a Japanese fan, autumn- Ochibi will be made out of fallen leaves, winter- Ochibi will come to life as a painting on a tea cup.

For this project, we are planning to use the funding from everyone for the stop motion production cost. The video would have four sections representing each of the 4 seasons, and every season would be made out of completely different animation elements. Because of this, we would have to create a large amount of Ochibi parts in different materials. For example, in the Summer story, in order to create 1 minute of film, we need to draw 700 unique fans. As you can see, we will need to spend a lot of time and cost to create the film.'

I love the seasonal and food elements, but as with a lot of stop-motion work, it seems incredibly labour intensive. To date, the funding campaign has raised $1186 of the projected $3000, with 13 days remaining. You can pledge, see rewards, watch a video and generally read more about the whole project right here. This is one I'd very much like to see come to fruition.

The return of Milestone Media: a capturing of the zeitgeist?

One of the biggest stories in comics last week was the news of a newly-rejuvenated Milestone Media, poised for return. Announced in The Washington Post, Reggie Hudlin, Denys Cowan, and Derek Dingle discussed the relaunch of their company after having spent the last 2 years working to sort out the 'business' side of things. 'It’s going to be a company that will not just be doing comic books. [We’re] going to be working on a lot of different mediums. [We] will be working with a wide array of companies — both different publishers as well as other media companies,' Hudlin told the Post. Although light on details -a previously announced live-action Static Shock series with Warner Bros aside- the Post article reads as a statement of intent, a declaration that puts Milestone back into comics and the wider consciousness.

It's interesting, too, to see Cowan reiterate Christopher Priest's ideas on what currently passes for 'diversity' in comics and how that will play into what Milestone are planning: 'We’ve never just done black characters just to do black characters. It’s always come from a specific point of view, which is what made our books work. What we also didn’t do, which is the trend now, is [to] have characters that are, not blackface, but they’re the black versions of the already established white characters — as if it gives legitimacy to these black characters in some kind of way — [that] these characters are legitimate because now there’s a black Captain America. Having been a creator of these characters and a consumer, I always looked at it like, ‘Well, geez, couldn’t you give me an original character? Black Panther worked because he was original. Static Shock worked because it was an original concept. It’s a good time to come back and reintroduce original characters, as well as some new ones.'

I came to comics in the last seven years or so, so while I have a superficial name familiarity with Milestone (which is itself significant perhaps, in terms of their impact), it was informative to go back and investigate their place in comics history and see what they did, Founded by the late, hugely influential Dwayne McDuffie with Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek Dingle in 1993, Milestone Comics secured an unprecedented publishing and distribution deal with DC that allowed them to retain creative control, retain the copyright and have the final say on all licensing and merchandise deals. The aim of Milestone Media was to create properties, characters and stories that better represented minorities, the lives of a range of different people. Instead of having one character represent blackness or a specific race, class, religion or sexuality, Milestone offered various points of view within demographics; 'different socio-economics, different backgrounds, different ages,' reflecting actual and usually unseen diversity within groups, showing people as people. In publishing Icon, Hardware, Static, Blood Syndicate, and others, Milestone weren't only ethnically representative as David Brothers writes in a typically concise and excellent piece, but committed to showing under-represented people from all walks of life: Donner and Blitzen were an inter-racial, openly lesbian couple, Wise-Son was a Muslim hero, and several other comics featured gay and transgender characters.

Milestone published over 300 titles, and helped launch the careers of John Paul Leon, Christopher Sotomayor, Christopher Williams, Tommy Lee Edwards, Jason Scott Jones, Prentis Rollins, J.H. Williams III, Humberto Ramos, John Rozum, Eric Battle, Joseph Illidge, Madeleine Blaustein, Jamal Igle, Chris Batista and Harvey Richards among others. However, the comics market was already beginning to experience the big slump and subsequent collapse of the 90's, and as a result Milestone's sales declined and they ceased publishing their comic lines in 1997.

Their success wasn't without its problems. Unsurprisingly, their revolutionary remit of creating a space that told the stories of black people and minorities led to their labeling as the 'black comics' company, producing political comics  to be read by black people only (where a white person is obviosuly a social default and representative of anyone at all). There was a significant number of retailers and readers that perceived the Milestone books in this way and shunned them for that reason, as William A. Foster re-tells: 'we don't carry it because we don't know how to market it: we don't get a lot of black people in here'. Likewise, coverage in the comics press was close to non-existent, which meant that the books received limited exposure beyond those comics fans already aware of who Milestone were. The crux of the issue -and one which remains today- is the telling of stories from black people and minorities, stories which are going to be different from the white default, stories which will see everyday issues presented from new angles because they're not depicted from a familiar, white point of view, thus making people uncomfortable with the unknown. Essentially, audiences -retailers, customers, even DC to an extent- had a problem first with pre-conception: concepts of universality and empathy, and then with the notion of representing minorities beyond the realm of 'acceptability:' safe, superficial, conforming to what they perceived 'blackness' to be.

These issues were  encapsulated in DC's objection to the anniversary cover of Static Shock, Milestone's most popular creation. It featured the hero and his girlfriend kissing on a sofa, both clothed but on their way to having sex. DC were deeply uncomfortable with cover, citing overt sexualisation as a reason, which is simply laughable when considering the covers they put out. As McDuffie pointed out, the issue wasn't of sexualisation, but of the portrayal of black sexuality, i.e. the depiction of black people as normal human beings engaging in normal human acts. Milestone and DC reached a compromise whereby the cover was used, but behind a heart cut-out page, so all that could be seen of it prior to opening was a close-up of Static and his girlfriend kissing and nothing else. Diversity within the boundaries of white perception. 

I don't know what Milestone have planned. One comics, two, three, more. And it may be an unfair burden to place upon them, but I can't help but hope. My first reaction to the news of their impending return to publishing was 'yeah, this is a better, more receptive time for them to make a comeback; to continue and evolve their ethos,' and my second was to question the validity of that statement. Have we progressed; have things changed to the point where we can read a black character and not hold them up as a monolith for all black people ever? Can we read minority characters and have their ethnicity as an integral part of their make-up but not the defining point of their identity? Can we see two people of colour kiss and embrace and not have it be a political, incendiary statement but a gesture of human affection? Can we acknowledge and accept the validity of experiences that differ from our own, or the prevalence of which we are so used to seeing, regardless of how uncomfortable they make us? I see so much lip-service paid to 'diversity,' that oft and incorrectly used term, but are comics audiences, press, creators and retailers ready to support these comics in a tangible way, other than as a credibility-building exercise. If Milestone do come out with a slate of books, it will certainly be interesting to see how they're received.  In a time that seems more rich with comics talent than ever, I hope they're able to harness creators of colour others ignore. I hope they can garner the support of large multitude of comics fans from a multitude of backgrounds who are eager to see themselves represented as something more than a one-dimensional stereotype by creators who share and understand their experiences to some degree. It might be too early to tell, but it's never too early to hope.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Thursday, 22 January 2015

John Allison brings 'Giant Days' to Boom! with Lissa Reiman [preview]

By Lissa Reiman

Announced in December, this March will see Boom publish a new, six-issue run of John Allison's Giant Days comic. Allison, best known for his Bad Machinery comics, published in print by Oni Press, originally ran Giant Days as one of his online comics at his Scary Go Round website. The series followed Esther De Groot and a rag-tag group of friends and hanger ons as they negotiated first Freshers Week and then university life aproper (with a bit of spookiness thrown in, from what I remember). Written and drawn by Allison it featured his signature humour, sharp characterisation and ear for dialogue. I'm happy to see anything from Allison, and this is an interesting move for him (he previously announced he'd be wrapping up Bad machinery soon and has new projects in the works), as he'll be undertaking writing duties only, with artist Lissa Reiman illustrating the book. A large portion of what makes Allison's comics tick, and well, his, is the fact that he draws them, with a unifying expression and speech woven from word to tone to page. Reiman's art looks a little less lively but still pretty good great none-the-less; I'm intrigued to see how it'll read as a whole. As much as I love Bad Machinery and hose pesky kids, I liked Giant Das that much more for being a bit more adult and featuring female characters around my own age.

This looks to be a great, short new series that will be smart and fun, for readers with an eye out for well-written, entertaining comics; something a bit fresh (I can't think of another university set or 'normal' 20-something, female-led comic, but there might be one out there). Esther, Daisy and Susan all start university at the same time and three weeks in have become fast friends thanks to their dorm rooms being located next to each other. Away from home for the first time, all three decide this is the opportunity to reinvent themselves. However, it seems they're destined to thwarted by a range of obstacles: hand-wringing boys, personal experimentation, flu, mystery mold, nuchauvinism, and actual university assignments, all of which cast doubt on whether they'll even survive the term. I'm so glad they decided to keep it all British- it's set up north, in the University of Sheffield, that horrible (somehow allegedly voted best university in the UK) place at which I did my Masters...

(via Robot 6)

Alison Bechdel, Lewis Trondehim, Jacques Tardi, Jamie Hernandez, Kate Beaton, and more, protest SodaStream's sponsorship of Angoulême comics festival

Lewis Trondheim, Jamie Hernandez, Jose Munoz, Igort, Alison Bechdel, Kate Beaton, Ben Katchor, Gabby Shulz, Eleanor Davis, Warren Ellis, Dylan Horrocks, Jacques Tardi, and more are among over 80 signatories who  have put their names to an open letter to Franck Bondoux, the head of French comics festival Angoulême -a show that is widely considered the medium's most prestigious event of its kind- asking him to end its association with Israeli drinks manufacturer, SodaStream. The letter is a follow up to a 2014 counterpart and in-person protests, and includes people invloved in the comics industry beyond cartoonists, among them writers and critics Jeet Heer, David Brothers, and Rob Clough, in addition to 10 Angoulême prize winners, two winners of the MacArthur 'Genius Grant,' many Eisner and Ignatz awardees, and a Palestinian cartoonist previously imprisoned for his work by the Israeli military.

SodaStream has been the subject of various international boycotts for locating its main plant in an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank, with the company subsequently announcing it would be closing the factory by late 2015 and moving the plant to Lehavim in Israel’s southern Negev region, a decision it stated was due to 'purely commercial' reasons. However, a statement made by the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, which has been garnering increasing international support in taking tougher action against Israel, makes clear that this does not signal the  end of the problem: 'Even if this announced closure goes ahead, SodaStream will remain implicated in the displacement of Palestinians. Its new Lehavim factory is close to Rahat, a planned township in the Naqab [Negev] desert, where Palestinian Bedouins are being forcefully transferred against their will. Sodastream, as a beneficiary of this plan, is complicit with this violation of human rights.'

Cartoonist Ethan Heitner, and writer Dror Warschawski, organisers of the open letter, also released an accompanying statement in the wake of the slaying of cartoonists Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous and Charb, among many others in Paris earlier this month, 'These horrific acts of violence compel artists of the world to act urgently for a world where the dignity, freedom, and equality of all people are respected and promoted. We affirm that the Palestinian boycott movement is one important step towards that vision, and we urge others to join us.'

Angoulême opens in France on January 29th. A full transcript of the letter is reproduced below:

"Open letter to:

          Monsieur Franck Bondoux

We, cartoonists, illustrators, writers, editors, distributors, translators, critics and workers in the comic book industry, alongside people of conscience from countries all over the world, re-affirm our February 2014 call for the Angoulême International Comics Festival to drop all ties with the Israeli company Sodastream. Furthermore, we urge the Angoulême Festival, and all festivals, conventions, and celebrations of comics and cartooning art in which we participate, to reject any partnership, funding, or co-operation with any Israeli company or institution that does not explicitly promote freedom and justice for Palestinians, as well as equal rights and equality for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, including the Israeli government and its local consulates, so long as Israel continues to deny Palestinians their rights.

Today, the Sodastream company proudly boasts of its factory’s location in the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which makes it complicit in the crime of military occupation. However, even if Sodastream, thanks in part to the pressure campaign launched last year, moved its manufacturing to the Negev (where Palestinian Bedouins are facing eviction from their ancestral lands by Israeli government’s Prawer Plan) it, and other Israeli companies and institutions, are part of a system built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination. It, and other Israeli companies, contribute to the economy of a state which conducted a brutal military assault against a civilian population in Gaza in the summer of 2014, resulting in over 2,100 deaths, including over 500 children.

We cannot accept our art being used to whitewash these crimes, as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign affairs has explicitly stated it will attempt to do through its “Brand Israel” campaign. Angoulême, a center of appreciation for comics internationally, should not be used in this manner.

We again urge you to sever ties between the Festival and Sodastream, and we extend our call to directors and organizers, editors and associations of comics and illustration around the globe. No “business as usual” with lsrael!"

A full list of all signatories can be seen here. Anyone (involved in comics in some way) wishing to sign their name to the letter, or contribute graphics can email

Sophie Franz's gorgeous, rich sketchbook pages, & four-panel comics

I miss updating the blog on Fridays because it was close to the weekend and the excuse for art-heavy, pictorial pieces was ripe. But Thursdays are almost the weekend, right? So it's as good as time as any to remind you about Sophie Franz, her amazing work, and the indisputable fact that you should all be following her Tumblr. These smudgy sketchbook page pieces appear to be a combination of painting, crayon and marker pens, and are even more gorgeous than her usual inked work- they're cartoony and appealing and yet so life-like, incorporating detail and technique- they have so much to them.

I love Fran'z use of light and shadow to create shine and texture; there's always at least one element that demands the attention on the page: in the first page it's the girls shiny, bubble-esqe, bright orange hair contrasting with her striped green bathing suit, juxtaposed against the very tangible bristle and curl of the young boy's hair opposite. On the second page below, it's all that rich, soft colour fathered in the top right-hand corner: the green, black, red, purple and blue. some of it sharper and I love the way she fills a page. The third page, I'm hugely appreciative of anyone who pays attention to fashion and style right now, so I like the patterns on the dress and skirt, the designs of the outfits, but also catching the eye is the pale lady with the white bob and large eyes. The fine-lined black inked section at the bottom of that page again throws the rest of it into relief- there's another boobed hair lady her face obscured by shadow. And in the final page, you just have that central lady with the pensive, worried look downwards with this magnificently rendered hair flowing all around her shoulders.

Franz is able to draw different faces and characters so well; often with artists you can recognise their work by their people looking a particular way (either deliberately or unintentionally) but Franz's faces you can see she's interested in observing people and capturing nuances and individuality- the're distinct- characters you could take off the page and build stories around. She's got a really good use of colour, too: unafraid and arresting, as if she doesn't feel like she has to use it for the sake of it, but where it's needed, or as an experiment to gauge an effect. I like that she plays around with lettering too. She honestly just leaves me in awe. She can take on so many styles- sometimes I'm reminded of Kyle Baker, sometimes Joesph Lambert, but ultimately she has a huge, versatile talent and ability that upon seeing her work, nothing makes me quite as excited about art and comics. Franz is publishing a comic with Retrofit Comics this year, and it's one of my most anticipated books- I can't wait to see what she comes up. I've caught some anthology work she's done here and there, but this will be her first significant print work, and I'm eager to get my hands on it. Go follow her Tumblr.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Coco Moodysson's teenage punk memoir 'Aldrig Godnatt' (Never Goodnight) comes to English

A film I saw garnering warm praise last year was Lukas Mooysson's We Are The Best! about 3 young girls growing up in 1980's Sweden and their mission to form a punk band. Mooysoon's acclaimed film (the trailer for which you can view here), a special selection at Toronto International Film Festival, is based on his wife, writer and graphic novelist, Coco Mooysson's comic book Aldrig Godnatt [Never Goodnight], published in 2008, which recounts her own autobiographical experiences of growing up in Stockholm. Thanks to the success of the film, Mooysson's 200-page book will be getting an English language release in April this year from  The Friday Project- the experimental imprint of Harper Collins.

'Coco, Klara and Mathilda have known each other since primary school where they met in Folk Dancing class. But now they’re almost teenagers and their anarchist ideals set them apart from the other girls at school. Despite the constant declaration from all that punk is dead they dream of starting a punk band and being as big as The Clash. The only problem is they can’t play any instruments and mainly practice with pillows and pans. Never Goodnight is a dark and witty depiction of growing up in a dysfunctional family, when music, friends and boys offer up all the possibilities in the world.'

I like the look of this; the style is very familiar in that spindly, neat alt comix way, similar to both Corrine Muccha and Yumi Sakugagwa to a lesser degree and the subject matter is an affirming, female-centric one that I can see appealing to a lot of people. Mooysson recently discussed the book and the film her husband was inspired to make from it with the New York Times, and the impetuous behind the girls desire to start their own band: 'There were no role models around that time. There were Swedish girl bands, but they were older, and their songs were about having sex and we thought that was disgusting.' She also spoke with Female First about the origins of the book:

'I remember I was writing a short piece for a comic magazine in Sweden, it was called ‘I Remember My Mother’s Lovers And How They Use To Touch Her.’ It took place in 1982-83, but there was something about this time in my life that I wanted to work with. I liked the tone that I had found in this and wanted to continue. There is something very interesting about the age of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, when you are not a child anymore and you are curious. At the same time, you are not afraid because you have not gone through hard times that come after... I think that the comic is a little bit darker than the film.' 

Never Goodnight will be published by The Friday Project in April.