Category Archives: Comics/Graphic Novels

It was a sweet setup, with a ninety thousand payoff

Richard Stark’s Parker, by Darwyn Cooke

I don’t review many comics or graphic novels here. That’s not because I don’t read them; it’s just a question of focus. Graphic novels aren’t novels with art, and it’s a mistake to review them as if they are. It’s also why when I do talk about them I prefer just to talk about comics. It’s obvious when you talk about a comic that the art matters just as much as the writing. The phrase Graphic novel though, that implies to me it’s an illustrated novel and that’s not really what a comic is.

Except of course when that’s exactly what it is. Darwyn Cooke’s Richard Stark’s Parker is a dazzling adaptation of the original Richard Stark (a pseudoynm for Donald E Westlake) novel The Hunter. It’s beautifully drawn with a well-chosen bluish-gray colour palette and every page drips with early ’60′s cool. Although Westlake personally approved the project he sadly didn’t live to see the finally finished work. That’s a great shame, but Cooke did him proud.

photo

That image should really be in landscape of course, but then it wouldn’t fit properly into the space I have. So it goes. Buy the comic.

The plot is simple enough. Parker has been wronged; robbed and left for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get even. He doesn’t care who he hurts along the way. Parker’s only weapons are his charisma, his wits, his sheer physical presence and the strength of his hands. He won’t need more.

Here’s the third page (not counting title sequences and so on), with Parker striding into town. Anyone familiar with how the novel opens will immediately be able to see how without using a single word Cooke captures Westlake/Stark’s prose.

photo 5

Parker soon tracks down his ex-wife, and it’s then that we see quite how much of a bastard he is. Parker isn’t a hero, he’s not even really an anti-hero, but he is a a protagonist. Parker drives the story at breakneck pace and it’s never less than exciting, but equally Parker is never anything better than brutal scum.

photo 4

It’s important to say (for a Guardian reader like me anyway) that I don’t think this is glorifying violence against women. We’re not supposed to like Parker. Rather this shows how Parker solves problems – with his fists. Parker doesn’t care whether the person on the other end is man or woman, powerful or weak, he just cares about what he wants and about getting even with anyone he thinks has wronged him. Unfortunately for his ex, however good her reasons may have been at the time she definitely wronged him.

The two pages above though do help illustrate one potential problem with this comic. The female characters tend to be quite similarly drawn and simply aren’t as developed as the males. Mostly the women are pretty blondes with snub noses; the visual range for the men is much wider. I’ve not seen enough of Cooke’s other work to know whether this is just an idiosyncrasy of his particular style or whether it reflects a lack of female character differentiation in the underlying novel. It certainly feels authentically early ’60s, but not perhaps in a good way – this is a story in which men drive the action, and in which women are essentially passive.

Adapting a novel presents some challenges, not least how to deal with situations where it’s hard to avoid including solid chunks of text. The backstory to what happened to Parker, to why he wants revenge so badly, takes a little while to tell and telling it all through images could detract from the main thrust of the tale. Cooke comes up with an elegant solution, and I’ve excerpted a page below which I think neatly demonstrates it.

photo 1

Firstly I think that’s a beautifully evocative piece of art in terms of illustrating the planning stage of a heist. It’s also though an elegant way to insert a fairly large chunk of text without having to use multiple pages in which there’d be relatively little actually happening. Cooke adapts his art to the needs of the narrative, but still maintains a consistent style. The result is a comic which is a consistent winner at the level of the individual page, but which is even better as a cohesive work.

One last example. If you’re a fan of classic noir cinema this should hopefully stir your heart a little. If you’re not, well, Guy Savage can recommend some films for you that will almost certainly change your mind.

photo 2

I opened by talking about how I don’t review comics here much. I made an exception for this one because I thought this such a success. This is a comic which pulses with ’60s hardboiled cool. It’s one to read with some hard bop playing in the background and a whisky on the table (well, really a bourbon but I’m an Islay fan, so whisky it is). If you don’t like comics I’m not saying this will convert you, but if you do or if you’re a Richard Stark fan and are interested in seeing a fresh adaptation of this much adapted novel (at least three movie treatments so far), then it’s a definite win.

Finally, a short technical note. I read this comic on my ipad using an app called Comixology. The app works beautifully and is how I read most of my comics these days, though given how lovely this one turned out to be I did find myself slightly wishing I’d just got a hardcopy.

Cooke has adapted two more Parker novels after this one, and has plans to do a fourth. I fully expect to be reading all of them.

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Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels, Cooke, Darwyn, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Noir, Stark, Richard, Westlake, Donald E.

Assimilation as revolution

Incognegro, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece

Incognegro is a graphic novel written by Mat Johnson, inspired by the birth of his twin sons, one of whom looks white and the other black. In Johnson’s own words, taken from an interview here:

Incognegro is about a mixed race Negro journalist who looks white who investigates lynchings in the 1930s. The story is about when his own brother is framed for a murder, and he must go Incognegro to solve the crime and free him.

Carrying cover blurbs by Paul Theroux and George Pelecanos, Incognegro then is a number of things: it’s a detective story, an adventure story, a tale of daring exploits. But what it also is of course is a story about one of the uglier periods of American history, about the way in which concepts of race are constructed and about quite how artificial these distinctions can be – yet still real enough to get a person killed.

Incognegro opens with a flashback, it’s protagonist Zane Pinchback (the famed Incognegro) is recounting how he does his work. It’s the early 1930s and nobody’s interested in stories about lynchings anymore, so he makes it interesting by attending in person, masquerading as a white journalist and taking incriminating details of those involved. Zane can pass as white because, in the language of the time, he’s a high yellow – pale skinned – and when he’s dressed in a suit people assume he’s white because they can’t imagine he’d be black.

Put another way, he’s taken as white because his skin’s not so black as to make what he is obvious, and because he changes his own context by how he speaks and dresses. In this opening segment, when the lynch mob realise nobody knows who he came with, they suddenly understand that he’s a black man, the only thing that stopped them seeing it before was the impossibility of the concept of a black man in a suit at a lynching.

The opening scenes do something else, too, they show a lynching. They show what that term really means, the full horror. The victim is ritually humiliated, his body desecrated, men line up to have their photos taken with the corpse. It’s ugly stuff, and it’s clear if discovered that Zane will be tortured and killed.

After these opening scenes, the scene switches back to those he’s recounting the incident too – friends in Black Harlem, well dressed and sophisticated people, part of the Harlem Renaissance. Zane works for a black newspaper, his friends are black too, and in the main their concerns are the same as those of the whites. Zane struggles for promotion, too good at his current job for his own good, his best friend Carl is good looking and stylish, but has nothing of Zane’s seriousness – instead making his money with card games and rent parties. They drink cocktails, worry about settling down, and Carl being another high yellow sometimes they go to white hotels and enjoy the good life that they’d be denied if the whites knew what they were.

I’m not going to go into the plot too much, Zane heads South on one last lynching story, his brother potentially facing the mob, and Carl joins him hoping that when Zane gets promoted he can take his job and so impress his fiancée. When they reach his brother’s town, Zane poses as a senior member of the Klan visiting to check things are being done right, a ploy that soon gets undermined when a real senior Klansman turns up in town with the same purpose…

The story of Incognegro is a good one, and at times surprisingly brutal. Mat Johnson makes this an exciting read, but it’s also (and rightly) a disturbing one. When things go wrong, they go wrong in very nasty ways. The stakes couldn’t be higher, Zane’s brother’s life, his own, Carl’s. The whites in town are already willing to kill, what will they do to a black man they discover is pretending to be one of them? A man who by his existence subverts their beliefs?

Johnson packs a lot into his 135 pages, including some still very relevant observations. I can’t reproduce the relevant panels, but here’s Zane reflecting on how he does what he does:

Race is a strategy.
The rest is just people acting. Playing roles.
That’s what white folks never get. They don’t think they have accents. They don’t think that they eat ethnic foods. Their music is classical.
They think they’re just normal. That they are the universal, and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form.
That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.

And if you think he exaggerates, I once had a flaming argument with a girlfriend who was highly offended when I commented on her accent one day – she said she didn’t have an accent, she was middle class English, I had an accent sure and other people did but her’s was the baseline. She was serious. And I suspect few white people think of a hamburger or steak frites as ethnic food.

A graphic novel of course isn’t just words and story, it’s just as much (often more) the art. Here Warren Pleece brings a clean and spare black and white style, and black and white in this context makes style part of the point. You can tell some characters are black by their facial structure and the use of shading, but some you just have to know what they are through the story, if you weren’t told then as a reader you couldn’t tell.

Pleece has an attractive and simple technique, bringing uncluttered imagery which complements Johnson’s words without distracting from them. Pleece is particularly good bringing out facial expressions with just a few strokes, and I’d be interested in following up his work with other writers. Here’s some examples, taken from Incognegro, that I was able to find online:

Overall then, this is an intelligent and thought provoking work, well written and drawn, and an excellent introduction if one is needed to the graphic novel as a form. This could have been done as a novel (Walter Mosley, who provides a back cover blurb, has addressed similar territory), but the art underlines the argument and is a pleasure in its own right. It also enjoys (if that’s the right word) a definite continuing relevance, because although while as I write this America has its first black president, it’s fair to say that the race people say you belong to still determines much of the life you can expect to have.

Incognegro

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Filed under African-American Literature, Comics/Graphic Novels, Johnson, Mat

Pyongyang

Guy Delisle is a Québécois animator, comic writer and artist. He is most famous for his graphic novels Shenzhen and Pyongyang, which illustrate his experiences managing animation teams in China and North Korea.

Guy Delisle came to my attention through the Just William blog, with this post here, I made a mistake about the order of Shenzhen and Pyongyang (2000 and 2003 respectively), and so started with Pyongyang thinking it was the first. It wasn’t, but it was excellent, and given it’s taken from real life getting them out of order doesn’t much matter (there’s no plot in real life, after all).

Pyongyang was originally written in French, and is translated by Helge Dascher. It’s a very natural translation, enough so that I didn’t actually realise for quite some time that this was a translated work.

Anyway, what’s it like and what’s it about? Very simply, it’s about Delisle’s experiences living and working for a period of a few months in Pyongyang, capital city of North Korea. As such, it’s a very rare insight into what life is like in that astonishingly isolated country. As you might expect, it’s not really a cheery read. North Korea comes across as being as terrible as you might imagine, a bizarre mix of poverty, empty spectacle and official deception.

Delisle has a very simple art style, uncluttered. He uses a range of grey shadings, but with a lot of variation in panel sizes – creating an effect where there are close-ups and long-shots and so a sense of movement in what might otherwise be a fairly static text. There’s a sly humour running through it, Delisle clearly at times became deeply frustrated with the constraints and absurdities of North Korean life, though he’s aware too of quite how much trouble a joke on his part might cause to the locals (perhaps not always aware enough though, I’m still not wholly sure it was wise or safe to lend one of his translators a copy of George Orwell’s 1984). I’ve attached three images below, the second is where Delisle slips out for a walk without his then translator to do some shopping one day.

North Korea itself is utterly surreal, on arrival Delisle is given a bunch of flowers, and is expected to leave them at the base of a huge statue of Kim Il-Sung (the statue visited under a pretext, as Delisle’s must appear a natural gesture). He stays in a vast and empty hotel, 50 storeys high, with all foreigners on the 15th floor – the only one that’s lit. There are two restaurants in the hotel, Restaurant Number 1 and Restaurant Number 2 (number 3 being under renovation), every morning at 7am his maid wakes him to replenish the water in his mini-fridge regardless of any do not disturb sign he may hang on his door. There are ideas of how things are done, but distorted, lacking any sense of why they are done, reduced to empty form.

Pyongyang itself is curiously, disturbingly, sterile. No one loiters, no one chats, people go about their business and do not linger. At Delisle’s own work, a Korean technician sits alongside him pointing at the screen whenever he pauses a moment so as to let him know what to do next. She sings along to the radio in Korean, naturally she speaks no English, so she is not able to provide any actual help to him. Everything is controlled, all the radio stations are tuned to the same station and when he tampers with his to tune in to other frequencies he finds there are broadcasts he was unable to listen to but they all play exactly the same thing. At night the streets are unlit, his animation team practice every morning with wooden rifles, it is a phenomenally joyless country.

Delisle does try to get to know the local culture, he hears about the philosophy of the country’s two leaders, he visits national museums, at times he even manages to go out for walks on his own into the streets, but in a very real sense there is no living local culture. There is mass culture, state approved, state disseminated, with any sign of individuality or independent thought clearly very dangerous indeed – the re-education camps are always waiting. As Delisle says “at a certain level of oppression, truth hardly matters, because the greater the lie, the greater the show of power.”

The indifference to humanity portrayed in this comic is extraordinary, the “volunteer” workers, the desperate poverty, the openly stated calculations of what percentage of the population need survive to allow society to continue (30%). For centuries people have dreamed of utopias, we must be thankful that most of us never have to experience them.

There is a question as to how appropriate this material is for a comic. Like many things, I think the answer to that lies in the execution. Here, Delisle shows us a city most of us will never visit, I learnt more from this comic than I have from anything else I’ve read or watched on the place, there’s an immediacy to this form that can make it a powerful tool for reportage of a sort that more conventional accounts can struggle with. It’s easily read, it’s often very funny, and it’s absolutely horrible because what it portrays is horrible. Delisle is not a journalist (unlike, say, Joe Sacco is in his comics about Gorazde and Palestine), but for all that he makes serious points and it doesn’t diminish their impact that he makes them in a comic.

Overall, I think this is a skilful portrait of a place that most of us know very little about, it’s well drawn and written and expertly translated. Having read it, I know more than I did, and I enjoyed learning it. That’s no small achievement, and I’m looking forward to reading his Shenzhen next.

As a final note, of all the things in this comic which I found ugly or depressing, perhaps the worst – among all the monumentalist architecture, cowed population, poverty and fear – comes when Delisle asks his translator why he has seen no handicapped people. He is told that there are none. The perfect society has no place for the infirm.

Pyongyang

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Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels, Delisle, Guy, Reportage

Comics/Graphic Novels

I’ve decided that going forward, on occasion, I’m going to post about comics/graphic novels that I think are particularly good and might appeal to people not normally interested in the form. I don’t remotely propose to turn this into a comics blog, nor do I intend to cover everything I read in that vein, but after reading about Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles on Just William’s Luck here, I think there can be value in discussing some of these works.

That doesn’t incidentally (in case any comics fans read this) suggest any negative view of those titles I read but don’t cover. This is a literary blog – I don’t cover films or tv series and with only a few exceptions I won’t be covering comics either, however excellent (and there’s some truly excellent stuff out there that I won’t be discussing). My interest here is only to shed light on some titles that might otherwise go unnoticed and that people with an interest in literary fiction might also find rewarding. At the moment, I’m expecting to write up over the next few months:

Berlin, by Jason Lutes;
Bluesman, by Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo;
Incognegro, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece;
Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, by Mike Mignola; and
Pyongyang, by Guy Delisle.

There’ll probably be a few others too, as the interest takes me, but only a few as this is still very much a books blog.

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Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels