Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons
Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989
Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and Digital Chameleon introduced lens flares and motion blur with their colors, thereby ensuring these maverick titles looked completely different from the regular superhero fare, the future of the industry was sealed.
At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, One–Piece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.
But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.
A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.
By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.
The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.
It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?
Alan Moore – From Hell
The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.
I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.
Nine years ago, (freeze-frame, record scratch, “wait, nine years ago?!” “Oh yes, it has indeed been that long”) nine long fucking years ago, one fine day in June (May?), I torrented a bunch of comics off of Demonoid. For those who came in late, Demonoid was a sort-of elite bit-torrent hub that guaranteed quality content. Umm, quality pirated content, back in those Dark Ages when the internet was a mud-pit you needed to dive in to and swirl around in for a bit before you grabbed onto something that might be good but you wouldn’t really know until you got the dang thing on your hard drive and clicked on it, but then oh no, all your file extensions would change and you could not click on anything anymore and the only way to do anything was to set the computer on fire and move to another city and start over with your life…. Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but close. Things were not synchronous — you could not press a button and have movies, music, or books streamed to you with zero delay. There was work involved in consumption.
But Demonoid was a safe space, in the sense that the torrents were vetted properly, and uploaders were particular about what sort of files they put up. My deal with Demonoid was that every night, I would scroll past the comics section, checking for new uploads that looked interesting. From the descriptions and an accompanying Google search, of course. Most of it was filled with random superhero trash, most of which I already read and owned, or random underground trash that I did not like, or porno comics that barely fit the constraints of “porno” or “comic”.
Except that night, I came across this series called Dungeon, and a creator named Lewis Trondheim. Searching for him led me to French blogs and websites. The cover artwork looked great, cartoon figures done in a minimalist way, and with just the kind of signals that tell you the content within is not for kids. And turned out the American publishers were an outfit called NBM, who were bringing in, among other things, works by Hugo Pratt, reprints of classic Terry and the Pirates. Cool. I downloaded the set, and read the first two arcs. The reading order was included in the description, because apparently the series had been published as collections of stories that jump through time and various characters. Even the choice of artists was different, except of course, for the common elements — creators Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar.
I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved it so much that I sat down and wrote a long review of the first arc, Dungeon Zenith, for my ongoing Rolling Stone column. It is still online, bad formatting and all. (Not my fault, I believe their website mangled some encoding characters) I stand by nearly everything I wrote, and that’s a kinda-sorta miracle considering how much my tastes have changed in the last decade. Except I cringe about the fact that I say Joann Sfar is the artist. I am wrong, Trondheim did the art. Sfar is an artist as well, and you can read his incredible work in The Rabbi’s Cat, but the distinctive look of Herbert the Duck and Malvin the Dragon is all Trondheim. And as I found out later, Trondheim has a thing for anthropomorphic animals.
The problem with reading Dungeon back then, and with writing the review, was that I ended up getting inundated with questions about where one could buy the books. To close friends, I told the truth, and even passed on a DVD burnt with the set of downloaded Demonoid files. (On an aside, isn’t it strange that the phrase “burn a DVD” will cease to exist in a few years? If it hasn’t already). To others, I pointed them to the NBM site, because at that time, their books weren’t even stocked on Amazon. It was obscure beyond belief.
A year and a half later, I traveled to Spain for the first time in my life, and ended up meeting a whole new universe of comic art friends with whom I had corresponded online for the better part of a decade. They in turn took me to meet various creators, in their studios, and to the homes of their friends. And funnily enough, every shelf I glanced at (and drooled over, because the Spanish publishing houses did not skimp on their deluxe editions. This was the time when Preacher did not even have a hardcover release in America, while Spain had them published in oversized editions with faux-leather covers, designed to look like family Bibles) had a couple of series in common. There was the ever-popular Tintin and Asterix, and Franquin’s Spirou and Pratt’s Corto Maltese. And there was, surprise surprise, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series.
To my surprise, these were large, album-sized volumes. It was jarring to realize that Twilight was actually six volumes when I had read three, but flipping through them, I realized that the American editions were 2-in-1 editions. My friends told me about how the rotating crop of artists were fan favorites, names like Christoph Blain, Manu Larcenet, and Boulet, whose works I would go on to explore later. It transpired that this series that I had thought of as an adorable, little-known whimsy was actually quite the cultural cornerstone. In France and Spain, Donjon or Mazmora was a phenomenon among fans and creators alike.
In 2017, Trondheim visited San Diego Comic Con, along with his wife Bridget Findakly, as part of the release of Bridget’s graphic memoir Poppies of Iraq. That was a year when my SDCC plans had fallen through, but I got a pass for a single day just so I could go meet them (and a few other creators, like Marjorie Liu, Adam Warren, and Nate Powell). It was a pleasure meeting them, and Lewis did a beautiful sketch in my copy of Ralph Azam and another in Poppies, which Bridget colored beautifully.
But it was San Diego, so there was not much in terms of interaction other than a thank-you and the hurried drawing. There were other fans waiting behind me, and there were signing schedules to queue up for. I felt lucky to have met them — and Findakly’s book was an excellent read during my train ride back. The little sketch they drew almost looked like it was printed on the paper, and brought a smile to my face every time I saw it.
* * *
At SDCC 2018, I saw an ad for a comics festival due to be held in May 2019 at Huntington Beach. The guest list for the festival was awe-inspiring. Sergio Aragones, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, usual SDCC stalwarts. Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips would be there, Sean’s first Stateside appearance in more than a decade. And a treasure trove of French creators, including Lewis Trondheim and Boulet, another Dungeon artist. I marked the dates on the calendar, eager for a chance to meet Trondheim again.
Last September, I visited Rose City Comic Con, as part of an attempt to visit more conventions outside California. It was held in the heart of Portland, and the experience made me eager to continue my non-California con trips. Talking about this convention experience will take a whole post of its own, but what was important about Rose City was that at one particular booth, Cosmic Monkey Comics, I found a near-complete set of Dungeon, and Trondheim’s autobiographical Little Nothings for a price that made me want to go around shrieking with joy. I had tried, without much success, to look for Dungeon in bargain bins, but NBM did not run discounts. Their books were on Amazon, but at full price.
So last weekend, when NCSFest was due to happen, I decided to go overboard with my signing plans, and took every single one of those books with me. The worst that could happen was that I would get one or two signed, and I didn’t even want to think of the best-case scenario. Which was that I would get all the books signed by Lewis Trondheim.
(That is a conscious thought I have at the moment, dear reader. To have every book on my shelf be signed. It just makes the pleasure of owning a thing also be tied in to the experience of meeting a creator, and it somehow adds a meta-story to the physical object. Anybody can buy a book, but it’s an honor to create a story around something you have bought. Is that hubris?)
The thing about NCSFest was that they were trying to emulate the European model of having the town be involved in the convention. Everything was free. Parking was free at City Hall, and shuttle buses carried you over to the pier, where all of Huntington Beach Main Street was cordoned off to traffic in favor of streetside booths. Events were held at the Huntington Beach library and the Arts Center. There were live drawing sessions organized right on the pier. The best part was everything looked so laid-back. The crowd was a mix of comic-book fans and casual tourists who were curious about what was going on. A lot of children and parents together. My favorite retailers Stuart Ng was set up, in association with Comics BD, who were hosting a bunch of signings.
Lewis Trondheim was due to arrive at the ComicsBD booth from 11:00 AM, and I was there, with my Dungeon: Zenith books. Boulet, the artist on Vol 3 (vols 5 and 6 in the European versions) was sitting next to him, and he grabbed my copy. Apparently he had never seen the English version before, and for a few nervous minutes, I thought he was making good on his claim that he wanted to keep the book. He didn’t. Instead, I got a breath-taking sketch inside.
Since this was a very informal event, the amount of people making their way to the creators could only be described as a trickle, especially that early in the morning. The majority of visitors who came up were French expats. I chatted a bit with Boulet as he was sketching, asking him what he thought of the show. “The lines in France are crazy”, he said. “I am kind of a big deal there with the blog.” He sketched a copy of his English release for me as well. Trondheim sketched on my two books, and then refilled his pen. He had some free time, and I put the Little Nothings books in front of him, saying that he did not have to sketch in them, just a signature would be enough. “I have all the time in the world”, he said. “I am here for you.”
Long story short: I bought a few more of his books from the ComicsBD store. He sketched in all of them. He drew sketches in every single one of my Dungeon books. “I am a huge fan”, I said, and with a glint in his eye, he deadpanned: “I see it”. Which made Boulet crack up.
Later, I went and found a bottle of wine at a store, and came back to the booth to hand it over to Trondheim, who was by himself. He graciously accepted, and we talked a bit about art collecting and what kind of books he read. Joann Sfar was his favorite collaborator, and he hadn’t read any American comics in ages. I told him that Dungeon Monstres vol 1 was the only volume I did not own, because it was out of print. “I can ask my publisher if they have it”, he offered. I said that I had already spoken to them in Toronto, and they apparently were sold out and did not have plans to bring it back into print. He shook his head. Apparently, there were a couple of new volumes of Dungeon he was working on, but he wasn’t sure if NBM would publish them in English.
Finally, just before I was due to leave, I asked him if he sold any art. “Yes, but it’s very expensive”, he said, laughing. “You may look on my website”. He was right, the two pages up were indeed in the five-figures, but he had a surprise for me. He took out a small portfolio filled with watercolor sketches of La Lapinot, his character that hasn’t yet been translated into English. They were all superb, and I picked one immediately, because the price was perfect too!
The word ‘Gaiman’ here is an abbreviation of “Gaikoku no manga’, literally, ‘foreign comics’. This refers to comics translated from foreign work and published in Japan. For those of you who fret over what is comics and what is manga and bug-eyed-styles and all that, here you go: ‘Civil War’ translated into Japanese and published in Japan becomes manga, and can even get nominated for a manga award. You can keep your Western biases to yourself, thank you.
The list of comics nominated since the award was instituted in 2011 shows a curious mash-up of titles, including the aforementioned Marvel title; Superman: Red Son rubs shoulders with the likes of Nicholas de Crecy’s Celestial Bibendum (French), Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités Obscures (Belgium),Lat’s Town Boy and Kampung Boy (Malaysia),Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. All of which make for great, solid reading — though the jury’s still out on The New 52: Shazam, which managed to make an appearance on the 2015 nomination list. (The previous sentence is vague hyperbole, the prize went to Sweden’s Sayonara September, by Åsa Ekström)
One thing to note: the titles nominated are based on translation date, and not on publication date. This causes similar confusion as the ‘Best US Edition of International Material (Asia)’ Eisner award, where classic material ends up being nominated alongside newer ones, just because they were translated the last year. In 2016, a work by Shigeru Mizuki from the 80s (Showa: A History of Japan) beat the contemporary Master Keaton and Assassination Classroom in the Eisners.Doesn’t that make it overly confusing to judge something that is fresh along with another that has been coated with the patina of time and generational acceptance?
“Your blog is dead, man”, a friend says to me this morning. I respond with an emoticon, the most antiseptic response I can venture at this observation. He’s right, and he’s wrong.
So what really has been going on this year?
It’s not like I don’t feel like writing about things in my life. But it’s so hard to start talking without, I dunno, a pivot. An Archimedean place to stand on when I move a world of words out from my head onto the page. When I switched from Live-journal to this blog, after a similar extended hiatus in 2007, I wrote down a hundred points about myself. That exercise in vanity got my brain – well, at least the part that refused to get away from the gluttonous lifestyle of single-minded consumption – out on the metaphorical blog treadmill. That post and the ones that followed in the first few weeks were it gasping but limping along bravely, heedless of its lizard sibling’s screams of dismay. And after a while, obviously, it took on momentum, finding typing fodder in the most innocuous of life-events. It got to the point where I was on the brink of – gasp – actually writing something about my feelings and not just Things and Stuff and AwesomeCoolMindbendingActsOfMaterialism.
What usually happens then is that someone I know in real life makes a reference to my writing, interpreting the content in a way that tells me that they think they know more about me than I am letting on. Then I stop, because fuck you, you don’t know me just because I blogged about something. This perilous slip into self-consciousness affects the blatheriness of my blather, know what I mean? I think I like writing better when no one’s looking. I would keep a diary but, ugh, paper.
AND ALSO. This is what happens when I want to write – I find out it’s been done. For example: I bought an Alphonse Mucha print from a thrift shop in San Jose recently. (Isn’t it great that all my conversation-starters are about buying things? I mean, 12 years of this blog and my schtick hasn’t changed, though many other things about me have. I see those hundred things I wrote about and stifle a hollow laugh.) We had a great breakfast, two of my friends and I, after visiting a comic shop they knew about in the area. We decided to take a walk in Downtown San Jose, mostly to window-shop around the book and antique stores that I had noticed when parking the car. So I saw this gigantic framed Mucha print in the store window. It said “$100” next to it, and I was tempted. The frame itself was a work of art, and the piece in question – which I later found out was called ‘La Trappistine’ – had everything one might want in a Mucha print. A gorgeous woman, a great Q-design (I will get to that in a bit), wonderful iconography, curlicue lettering – the works.
Except the shop was closed.
I tend to look at the brighter side of things in situations like this. “Ha, I saved myself $100”, I said. My friends offered to come pick it up later, but I knew that I would start giving myself a lot of reasons not to spend money. So I passed by, walked them toward their place, and doubled back to my car. Longingly glanced at the Mucha again when I saw movement inside the store. Someone was inside! I waved, she waved back, and brought up a sign that she was writing on. It said “50% off all items”.
Long story short, 15 minutes later (because of the walk to an ATM nearby), I was hauling a rather heavy frame back to my car. I had no idea of when it was printed – pretty sure it was not an original late 19th century print, but it was just what I wanted.
And obviously it went up on the wall.
So that got me to thinking about why I had stumbled onto Mucha’s art in the first place, and I realized that it was – obviously – comics. I believe I had read an interview by Adam Hughes about his art nouveau influences way back when, and got around to looking up the Czech artist’s work and realized that his influence on the comic-book/illustration world was formidable. Everyone from Terry Moore to Tony Harris, JH Williams to JM Linsner, Joe Quesada to Michael Kaluta have done their share of cover and interior designs inspired by Mucha’s distinctive flora-based border patterns and soft color palette.
So I thought of doing a post on Mucha’s influence on comics, talking about how his work is the right kind of eye-candy to be appropriated in comics. On how the commercial aspect of his work is echoed by the (somewhat) assembly-line driven work done in comics, where the intent of the cover is to grab the reader’s attention by pushing just the right aesthetic buttons.
But of course, I did some looking around, and found out that someone beat me to it. Link to a paper called Alphonse Marie Mucha: Posters, Panels … and Comic Books? by Brandon Bollom and Shawn McKinney of the University of Texas, which talks about all of the above and in much greater detail than I would have, obviously.
The first Mucha I owned is this image on tin, from a flea market in Amsterdam. It now hangs in a friend’s living room.
This was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2009. Dusted and put up here because I plan to do a mega-reread of the series in the next few days.
Writer/Artist: Tohru Fujisawa
Rating: Four and a half stars
Meet Eikichi Onizuka, a bottom-rung university graduate (barely), whose primary interests are peering up girls’ skirts at local malls and getting into trouble – not mutually exclusive activities, those two. But fate has different plans in store for virginity-challenged young Eikichi – circumstance makes him leave his delinquence behind him and opt for a new career, that of an educator. Eikichi Onizuka, 22 years old, sets out to become Great Teacher Onizuka, the greatest sensei in Japan. His mission: to make school fun again. His secondary mission – getting to fourth base with someone. Anyone.
That is the premise behind this beloved shonen manga series, that traces Onizuka’s explosive – and often ludicrous – adventures in teaching. At first glance, it seems humanly impossible for a man of his calibre to really do much with his career choice. He cheated his way through his own academic career, seemingly has an IQ of 50, and the only legitimate qualification on his misspelled resume is that he has secured a second dan black belt in karate. He is perverted, being more than a little obsessed with young girls and their underwear. And he lets his fists do the talking most of the time. The first arc of the series establishes how Onizuka, beating all these odds, manages to get through a teacher training course at a public school and becomes a temporary teacher in the Holy Forest Academy, a prestigious private institute. He is put in charge of Class 3-4, whose students have terrorized the previous three home-room teachers into ending their careers – one committed suicide, another developed an eating disorder. It would take a very foolhardy, or a very determined educator to take up the responsibility of cleaning the school’s Augean stables.
But determination is what Onizuka has in spades. “You are a cockroach”, one of his students shrieks at him with disgust, right after the would-be teacher pops up where he wasn’t really supposed to. This analogy echoes throughout the series. Like a cockroach, Onizuka wiggles himself into his students’ lives even as they hurl expletives at him and threaten (and often perpetrate) violence against his self. Just as a cockroach skitters away from all attempts to stomp it out, our hero manages to best all the traps his devilish students cook up – from publishing morphed porno pictures of Onizuka to having him framed for embezzling money from student funds. And slowly, one by one, our hero wins them over using a combination of his perversely inappropriate world-view and his incredible physical prowess.
All long-running series by single creators run into similar teething issues – an initial rush of heady ideas that slowly slides into a predictable graph of highs and lows, where the creator struggles not only to find the voice, but to etch out a character’s life-story in a way that builds on its premise, instead of stagnating into repetitive cliche. Maintaining the momentum of a series, without over-stretching a story-line is a tough call. It would have been very easy for writer/artist Tohru Fujisawa to stumble. The second arc, that of the students being set straight by the teacher, resolutely avoids falling into the trap. Sure, it is long, but there are two aspects in which Fujisawa scores top of the manga-ka class (if you will pardon the school-based metaphor) – the delineation of the individual characters that make up the Onizukaverse. Every student in the class has a unique personality, a standalone voice which makes the reader identify with them. Partly because they are there in every classroom in any school in the world – the quiet, shy video-game-playing geek who is bullied at every turn; the computer whiz who knows more than he lets on; the headstrong yet confused loud-mouth who takes offence at minor quips; a girl whose parents are influential bureaucrats, a fact that she uses to her advantage; another with a dark secret involving a previous teacher. Sure, they are all genre archetypes, but it is Fujisawa’s genius that breathes new, fresh life into them.
The second thing that elevates the series to greatness is the sheer unpredictability of the central character. Eikichi Onizuka is a man of hidden surprises, whose heart of gold is matched only by his complete irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Early on in his career, Onizuka figures out that he really loves teaching, and he takes it on himself to be the kind of teacher that his generation did not have. At the crux of every decision Onizuka makes, however frivolous and played-for-laughs it seems to be, there is an important life-lesson that he imparts to his students. But Onizuka being the way he is, any attempt to take him seriously usually backfires, with hilarious results.
In addition to changing the way his students feel towards school, Onizuka also takes on the strict authoritarians that make up the faculty of Holy Forest Academy. His primary whipping-dog being the perennially grumpy Vice-Principal Uchiyamada – a running gag involves the Vice-Principal’s Toyota Cresta. The third arc of the series, in particular, involves a final stand against a new Principal who ousts the support of Chairman Sakurai, whose tacit approval had made a large part of Onizuka’s brushes with authority seem minor in the past.
Great Teacher Onizuka made me laugh, it had me gasping with incredulity, it made me come up with excuses to avoid work just so I could tear through the twenty-five volumes as soon as I could. It is not without its faults – a great deal of fan-service persists throughout the story, and let’s face it – if you have seen To Sir With Love and Munnabhai MBBS, you realize that the premise of GTO is hardly original. But even with all its over-the-top antics, it’s not just a fine comedy series, but also a drama that’s an indictment of the pettiness that afflicts today’s education system. It’s a scathing denouncement of self-serving, vainglorious modern-day teachers for whom teaching is nothing more than a way to make money, rather than the life-altering position it is meant to be. Hey, it made me want to go back to school, and that’s quite something!