José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, Alack Sinner

[This post combines my Goodreads reviews of both volumes of Alack Sinner, The Age of Innocence and The Age of Disenchantment.]

Alack Sinner: The Age of InnocenceAlack Sinner: The Age of Innocence by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Innocence is the first of two American omnibus collections of the noir graphic novels by Argentine writer Sampayo and artist Muñoz, originally published in Europe from 1975 to 1982.

Set in a phantasmagorically corrupt New York City, its grotesquery somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Chester Gould, and focused on the titular hard-drinking but fundamentally decent ex-cop P.I., Alack Sinner is an outsider’s jaded perspective on American society, pictured as a fever dream of rape, murder, police corruption, racism, right-wing fanaticism, and greed at every level. In a wittily metafictional chapter, Sampayo and Muñoz themselves inform Sinner that even good white yanqui liberals like him will not be spared on the day of red revolution.

Aside from the metafiction and the hard-edged Marxism, though, Sampayo adds little, literarily, to the likes of Chandler. It is Muñoz’s art that earned this series its fame, justly so, a style that has influenced a very wide range of Anglo-American comics artists from Miller to McKean. The globular black shapes and shadows that are Muñoz’s medium seem viscous and mobile, ink flowing from page to page and panel to panel. His distorting perspective works against the narrative’s humanism: it reduces all to nightmare caricature.

The most successful synthesis of literary and artistic vision comes in my favorite episode, about a Spanish boxer caught in a scheme by a promoter and his murderous right-wing henchmen. The boxer’s grandfather, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, takes protective measures, dealing anti-fascist death under a Guernica montage: Muñoz meets Picasso.

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Alack Sinner: The Age of DiscontentmentAlack Sinner: The Age of Disenchantment by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Disenchantment collects the Alack Sinner stories published from the 1980s through the early 2000s. In the narrative the authors, politically radical Argentines exiled to Europe by their country’s 1970s right-wing dictatorship, keep time politically.

The first Sinner story in this volume of avowed disenchantment is set against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua as the titular detective tries to keep visiting Nicaraguan leftists safe in the atmosphere of the Reagan ’80s, all the while falling in unrequited love with one of them, a woman named Delia. As the series progresses, Muñoz and Sampayo’s storytelling style, never very linear to begin with, becomes even more dream-like and uncertain: the centerpiece of “Nicaragua” is a hallucinatory puppet show the white Sinner attends with his young black daughter, Cheryl, a horrifying pageant that displays the history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. “My mom said that Nicaragua is like…black people…” Cheryl hesitantly muses on the spectacle, a phrase that compresses a unified theory of white western dominance.

Sinner’s relationship with Cheryl and the other women in his life, including Cheryl’s mother Enfer, his on-again-off-again lover Sophie, and his sister Toni dominate the middle stories in the book, one of which is aptly titled “Private Stories.” While Sinner’s inner monologue refers to “my women,” the series begins to dwell more consciously on gender, especially in the long story where Sinner struggles to save first his daughter and then his sister from various forms of imprisonment. Politics-with-a-capital-P is also touched on here, as the “private story” of Cheryl’s false accusation of murder involves her extrication in Haiti’s long oppression by the west.

The politics return in full in the final story, titled “The U.S.A. Case,” as if to signal Muñoz and Sampayo’s own object of criminal investigation: a country they do not live in but whose global dominance has shaped their lives nevertheless. “The U.S.A. Case” takes place a month before September 11, 2001, a month in which Cheryl, now pregnant, is threatened again, this time by a shady arms deal whose implication is U.S. intelligence services’ foreknowledge of the coming terrorist attacks. As one ghoulish old agency man puts it on the book’s final page, “Security? […] That’s the investment of the future, as long as the Bin Ladens and company are around.” Too paranoid? Alack Sinner is about nothing other than the corruptions of power, global, economic, racial, and otherwise; in this world, as in its noir forerunners, you can’t be too paranoid.

The passage of time makes these stories more affecting than those in the first volume, as we watch Sinner and his friends and lovers go from middle age to the brink of old age, and as we watch his daughter grow from child to mother. Muñoz’s inkily fluid, shadow-laden pages remain the best thing about the work, even if his style ages, along with its hero, into sometimes illegible forms of looseness and abstraction. I don’t know if Alack Sinner is one of the best comics I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly among the best I’ve ever seen.

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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Leaning Girl

The Leaning Girl (Les Cités Obscures, #6)The Leaning Girl by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My fourth visit to artist Schuiten and writer Peeters’s Cités obscures; I have previously reviewed The Theory of the Grain of Sand and Brüsel at some length and Samaris more briefly.

I will keep this one brief: The Leaning Girl is the story of Mary von Rathen, daughter of the ruling family of Mylos, who begins mysteriously to lean after a strangely cosmic roller-coaster ride in an amusement park in the city of Alaxis. Her leaning leads this child of privilege to find herself an outcast, first at the cruel boarding school to which her family exiles her, and then professionally, with a crass circus she joins after desperate wandering through the snowbound city of Sodrovni. Eventually, she hears of a scientist named Wappendorf and seeks him out to cure her leaning; Wappendorf, in the meantime, has been trying to persuade his fellow scientists to help him in his quest to discover an invisible anti-planet. Running parallel to these two stories is the tale of Desombres, a fin de siècle painter from our own reality who takes to the High Plains of Aubrac to work in solitude and finds an abandoned mansion where is compelled to paint pictures that resemble the world of the obscure cities.

This is the most formally interesting and beautiful of Schuiten and Peeters’s collaborations that I’ve read: Schuiten’s art combines intricacy and grandeur so immersively that it’s no wonder comics librarian Karen Green, in her introduction, begins by comparing him to Winsor McCay but eventually likens him to Gustave Doré. This is some of the most finely rendered and also imaginative art I’ve ever seen in the comics medium. Added to Schuiten’s work is the experiment of giving Desombres story in the form of a photographic narrative, with pictures by Marie-Françoise Lisart, to make vivid the narrative’s insistence on different but porous levels of reality, a gesture that widens the scope of serious comics art even further beyond the cartooniness so in favor in American literary graphic novels today.

Speaking of literature, however, the story of The Leaning Girl is not nearly as fascinating as the art, as it relies on a mix of conventions and bafflements that do not add up to the feeling of Borgesian mystery I imagine the authors were seeking. Two climactic elements are Jules Verne as part of a strange deus ex machina and the teenaged heroine’s sexual ensorcellment and initiation by the middle-aged Desombres: I could have done without both developments.

Still, for students of comics art qua art, The Leaning Girl should not be missed.

leaninggirl

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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel

Brüsel (Les Cités obscures, #5)Brüsel by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my third visit to Franco-Belgian creators Schuiten and Peeters’s Cités obscures. The series of graphic novels is currently difficult or impossible to read completely in English, as it has passed between several different publishers, leaving many of the volumes out of print and prohibitively expensive. (Only my rather scattered academic employment and my urban living situation, which together give me access to three good library systems, has allowed me to get this far into the series!)

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Brüsel is the volume that introduces both the character of Constant Abeels, a genial and quietly romantic florist, and the titular Brussels-like city, both of which will later feature in The Theory of the Grain of Sand, my favorite entry in the series so far (I also wrote a very brief review of the first volume, Samaris, at Goodreads). This volume is a fantastical polemic against the modernization of urban centers, an activity it depicts as driven by crass profiteers, on the one hand, and starry-eyed speculators who have lost touch with human needs, on the other.

As the old Brüsel is demolished and replaced with ultra-modern skyscrapers, the city begins to sink under the weight of this misguided utopia. Meanwhile, Constant hopes to join the modernization process by turning his business to the sale of plastic rather than organic flowers on the principle that the former will not decay and die. But, harassed by unreliable municipal services and suffering from a tuberculosis-like illness, he goes on the journey that structures the novel through the bureaucratic and medical apparatuses of both the old and new Brüsel.

Both versions of the city are shown to be flawed, particularly through the depiction of two hospitals: the lazar-house-like Catholic hospital run on medieval principles of bloodletting and its modernist replacement staffed by bickering and absent-minded “projectors” out of Swift’s Lagado. The real principle of health, Schuiten and Peeters imply, is to be found in love and fellowship, embodied in Constant’s amorous encounters with the Luddite-like rebel, Tina (a character admittedly undeveloped, except for her rather flippantly-portrayed porn-scenario sexuality).

Comics has a privileged relationship to the modern city: it is an art form whose modern development, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America, grew in tandem with the urban masses the first newspaper strips and comic books were made to entertain. That makes it a thematically rich topic for graphic novels to explore, and Schuiten and Peeters’s ambivalence about urban development is ideal for the medium, whose own formal features often resemble architecture as much as any other form of art.

Artistically, Schuiten’s detailed work here is superb, especially when he transitions to more vertical page layouts with the transformation of the city; likewise, the two authors’ depiction of various social spaces is a droll use of near-fantasy or magical realism to revivify familiar urban experiences. But the characterization is very thin and the polemical point made a bit simplistically; the craft and artistry of the creators aside, I prefer the subtler mysteries of Samaris and The Theory of the Grain of Sand.

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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Theory of the Grain of Sand

The Theory of the Grain of SandThe Theory of the Grain of Sand by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.

As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of  universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.

These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.

Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.

While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.

Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.

Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.

But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.

Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.

peeters

We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.

A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.

Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.

In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, The Incal

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic 1980s science fiction graphic novel is the tale of John DiFool (i.e., the fool of the Tarot, representing humanity’s freedom and stupidity). DiFool journeys to save the cosmos in the company of his sometime lover Animah (i.e., his Jungian anima, or female aspect) and some other allegorical figures on behalf and with the aid of the titular Incal, a device that incarnates the animating spirit of the universe. Rising from the ruins of Jodorowsky’s abortive Dune adaptation, The Incal is both ludicrous and sublime as a half-satirical and all-visionary tour of variously cosmic locales, from dystopian noir pit-cities to sea planets patrolled by giant jellyfish.

Moebius’s art weaves intricate grounds with cartoonish figures into a dense texture that accomplishes for the novel what the sometimes thin writing cannot—the creation of a world, or, in this case, a universe. Moebius is a giant, and I would not disparage him casually, but I would say that he is perhaps—in contrast to someone like Eisner or Tezuka—a great comics artist without necessarily being a great comics storyteller; his layouts here are often more muddled than delirious, and he even once resorts to arrows to lead the reader’s eye across the confusingly arrayed panels.

The writing often has a similarly counterproductive effect. I actually appreciate Jodorowsky’s casually imaginative “never explain, never apologize” approach to his settings, which I prefer to elaborate expository “world building,” but the characters are just as sketchy, some of them not even rising to the level of caricature or symbol. Given the length and complexity of the saga, the indifference bred by his approach to the characters sometimes makes it difficult to want to pick the book up again for any other reason than Moebius’s delineation of the settings. Jodorowsky, like some other writers who want to communicate occult or magical beliefs (I would also point to Grant Morrison), too often substitutes archetypes for characters. But it easier to have a visionary experience with a work of fiction, in whatever medium, if we can inhabit the narrative by having a convincingly intersubjective relation to the fictional figures. We should come to care about the metaphysics because we care about the characters or narrative, not the other way around—as Dante understood. (My citation of Dante aside, Jodorowsky would no doubt regard my criticism as weak, bourgeois, American sentimentalism: “I shit on the United States of America!” he declares in the BBC Moebius documentary, referring in particular to American comics’s need for heroes and their pathos.)

Finally, I am puzzled by Jodorowsky’s metaphysics as such. Over and over again, the novel invokes the union of opposites—dark and light, masculine and feminine—yet at the conclusion we meet a great-bearded father God. (Perhaps no surprise, given this book’s treatment of sex and gender.) The possibility of progress and evolution is held out, but eventually we discern a bitter cycle in which The Fool cannot move forward. Finally, what are these characters’ journeys even worth intrinsically if they have been so aided and motivated by the deus ex machina of The Incal?

The grandeur of this book makes all my carping and caviling look petty, though. The Incal has been enormously influential on the science fiction and fantasy of our time. Even if I am right that it is lacking in certain particulars (characterization, philosophy), its landscapes and seascapes and spacescapes and psychescapes are so indelible, its mingled tone of scabrous misanthropy and visionary hope so distinctive (this is the basis, I assume, for Pascal Ory’s comparison, in his afterword, of the book to Don Quixote), that The Incal will remain a classic.

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Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie, Aya: Life in Yop City

Aya: Life in Yop City (Aya #1-3)Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This French series of graphic novels by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie is a nostalgic and pleasant reflection on the problems of youth and age during the middle-class boom of the 1970s in the writer’s native country, Côte d’Ivoire. While the bookish and ambitious nineteen-year-old Aya is our title character and narrator—and likely the bookish and ambitious Abouet’s surrogate—the story is an ensemble piece, wending its way deftly through a number of believably realized characters, from the alienated rich-kid Moussa and the sweet teen mother Adjoua to the men and women of the older generation.

Abouet, a French citizen since the age of 12, has stated her intention to display a side of African life the Western media rarely portrays: middle-class modernity. Aya largely celebrates this modernity, which it identifies with the emancipation of women and sexual minorities; the graphic novel’s tone, while consistently light-hearted and comic, addresses serious social issues, such as divorce, bigamy, homophobia, and domestic violence, even as it portrays the difficulty of the older generation’s adjustment to their children’s new freedoms under an urban and bourgeois regime. Abouet is not merely dismissive of the traditional culture of the Ivory Coast, but she tends to relegate it to the aesthetic realm—e.g., this book concludes with pages of recipes and guides to Ivoirian traditional clothing and childcare. As a book apparently intended for younger Western readers, it communicates its cosmopolitan message very well, though an older reader might wish to see a greater acknowledgement of modernity’s price.

As for Oubrerie’s art, it is beautiful and immersive: his characters are more gestural or cartoonish even as they move through richly detailed backgrounds that make one feel the atmosphere of Abidjan quite persuasively; the coloring is especially exquisite, its palette going from bright yellows and pinks to the blue-black of night. The visual storytelling uses an understated six-panel grid, punctuated with tone- and scene-setting splashes and a few formalist flourishes. The lettering, however, might have been neater, given the book’s overall production quality. Also, I respect Oubrerie’s stylistic decision not to rule the panel borders, but some of them are so sloppy as to be an eyesore.

Overall, a wonderful graphic novel—even if I am not quite its target audience!

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Hergé, Tintin in the Congo

Tintin in the Congo (Tintin, #2)Tintin in the Congo by Hergé

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had no immediate plans to read this, but when I saw it in a library while looking for something else, I thought I should check it out. My general impressions of Tintin, based on the three albums subsequent to this one, can be found here. As other reviewers have argued, this notorious book lacks the complexity and interest to be found in the later material. Hergé’s anthropology in the other albums may be imperialist, but it is not nearly so simplistic, malicious, and self-congratulatory as it is in this text. The malice and arrogance renders the elementary deconstruction I undertook in my first Tintin review—to the effect that the comic’s flattening form, by calling attention to itself, works against the imperialist content—will not really work for Tintin in the Congo, which is simply and straightforwardly racist.

As for the recent controversy in Belgium over whether or not this book should be banned—perhaps I am the kind of simple-mindedly old-fashioned civil libertarian, of the type considered here in America dangerously radical during the Bush administration and sadly reactionary during the Obama administration, but I have no trouble holding these two thoughts in my mind: no government has any business banning any book; and this book has no business being placed, by booksellers or librarians or teachers or parents, within easy reach of children. (To put that in the language of the Times article: yes, the book is racist; no, it should not be banned by the state.)

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