Comic books were an enormous influence on me as a young boy. I was a Marvel Comic's kid and right at the time I needed to understand how to deal with the world around me Peter Parker and Ben Grimm were dealing with the same issues. Since my narcissitic parents paid little attention to their responsibilites of raising a child, I was left to find my answers in the pages of Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange and Spider Man (to name a few). My feelings of guilt, anger and confusion were what Marvel comics characters were dealing with as well. They were my daily companions and advisors. Plus, they got to save the world, which was a wonderful fantasy for me. Even Stan Lee's "nuff said" gruff style became my personal tick that probably annoyed the hell out of my schoolmates. Comic characters were my friends in ways that real people couldn't be. The entrance of Galactus in the Fantastic Four made me worry for the safety of the Silver Surfer for days. It was like my own father intruding on the pages of my private world. This was my first inkling of something called the "Epic" style. And like the great poet and essayist, W.H. Auden, who had no distinction between "high" and "low" art, I am still influenced today by those brilliant images and stories. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby are as much a part of my imagination as Dore and Edward Hopper.
All of this is by way of introducing what has taken the place of comics for me now that I am fifty: graphic novels. As I grew older, college and theater became my obsessions and I was content to pick up the occasional comic, but I just couldn't find them as interesting now that I was an adult. Chekov and Kafka had edged out Thor and the Dread Dormammu. All of that changed when I read an excerpt from "Maus" in Raw Magazine. I was so impresseed that I went right out and bought this new "graphic novel" and spent the rest of the day immersed in this strange and beautiful world. I didn't know it at the time, but "Maus" was the first masterpiece of a form I have come to love in the same way as I did comics: the graphic novel. And I have been reading them with hunger for the last 10 years. We are in a renaissance of sorts for the graphic novel. I'd like to review two recent examples of the form that I think are wonderful.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the grandfather of Japanese underground comics. He started writing and drawing more adult themed stores as far back as the 1950's when most of the manga art of the time was garish and overblown. According to the excellent introduction by Adrian Tomine (himself a great graphic novelist), Mr. Tatsumi is a prolific artist who currently runs a bookstore and continues to create short illustrated stories that reflect his ambivalence about people and modern life. Amazingly, "The Push Man and Other Stories" is the first official English language collection to appear in the States. The 16 stories that make up this brilliant collection were all composed around 1969, but you wouldn't know it from this simplicity of his writing. Instead of aliens and monsters fighting high school kids, we have everyday people trying to make sense of their dead-end jobs and their philandering lovers. The "Push Man" of the title story is a young man who "pushes" the crowd into a packed subway car. His sexual fantasies of "pushing" young women are realized by a woman who, after getting drunk and having sex with the young man, invites her girlfriends over to "push back". In the end the young man is pushed into his own subway car and can't get out. The slightly cartoonish characters set against a highly realistic background are mesmerizing. Each panel is a small work of art that pulls you in to a world of hope and despair; boredom and violence.
Reading "Projectionist" is stomach-turning, but not because of anything that is shown on the page, but for what the story suggests is being seen. The projectionist of the story charges high class businessmen and their call-girls for an evening of "special" pornography that both disgust and arouse the viewers, but leave the projectionist unmoved. His loneliness and despair are depicted in the brilliant panels of him walking through cities in the cold wind with his briefcase full of hellsex in hand. The careful detail in creating the man's facial expressions lend pathos to the suprise and ironic ending. In fact, in reading the stories I'm struck over and over again with the variety and beauty of Mr. Tatsumi's characters. They behave in suprising and shocking ways; sudden violence or cruelty coming from repressed rage and desire; quiet desperation and an endless desire for some sort of connection to another human being. Sex is a major element in all of his stories. But it doesn't seem to appease the deeper longing inside of his characters. These are urban horror stories are told with the simplicity of Raymond Carver, but with the twist of a writer like David Lynch or Jonathan Carroll. The art of the graphic novel has never been more obvious than with this collection of stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a writer I hope you will read. Fortunately, Mr. Toumine is hoping to bring out a whole series of this writer's works beginning with he present volume. Drawn & Quarterly, a Canadian publisher distributed in the U.S. by Farrar, Strauss, is to be contragulated for publishing this wonderful book and for desiging and edition that the author would be proud of. Let's hope this book is successful enough to continue the series.
Thomas Ott is another amazing cartoonist that has caught my eye recently. "Cinema Panopticum" is a completely wordless collection of stories all organized around a young girl who visits the Carnival, but doesn't have enough money to enjoy the rides or any of the booths. She is very sad as she starts to leave the park, but tucked away in the corner is a small tent with the words "Panopticum" on a sign over the entrance. She enters and finds 5 old-fashioned movie viewers with titles like "The Experiment" and "The Hotel" written above them. To her delight, she finds that she has just enough money to use all of the "panopticum viewers". Each movie she views is told as a seperate story in Ott's book. The little girls view becomes ours.
While Thomas Ott is not as subtle an artist as Tatsumi, his visual style and attention to detail is superb. Using a high contrast Black & White palette, carefully scratches each sliver of his characters so exactly that it is a marvel to behold. And this almost overly detailed style matches pefectly with the strange, supernatural themes of his stories. The detail makes the gruesome morbidness of his world seem real and believable. His characters are unusual and, at times, grotesque. Much like the garish world of the Carnival itself. In one panopticum story, "The Champion", a mexican wrestler has to wrestle with death himself when there is a prophecy of death in his family. Of course, there is a twist ending which the young girl in the Panopticum tent finds astonishing (and so do we). Antother story features a homeless man who discovers that the "end is near" and attempts to tell everyone. But no one listens and the world is destroyed. My favorite story is the last one called "The Little Girl". You can imagine how our young girl responds to it. The last panel of this wonderful graphic novel is of the young girls leg disappearing as she runs in terror fromt he tent.
There is certainly a good deal of horror fiction in Thomas Ott's writing, along with Twilight Zone and Stephen King, but Ott's style is so uniquely his own that he gives new life to old themes. Mr. Ott is Swiss and is the lead singer in the band called "The Playboys". Fantagraphics is publishing his work in America in beautiful hardcover editions with illustrated boards. This publisher seems to be at the fore-front of the graphic novel movement. A quick look at their website and you'll see many outstanding artists represented. I've begun to collect Thomas Ott. He's a remarkable artist who, in addition to his graphic novels and stories, also does political cartoons and cartoons for several newspapers.
If you have never read a graphic novel, now is the time to go out and buy one. We are in a highly creative era of this art form. Along with the two artists I have reviewed here, let me suggest a few others for you to consider.
The Black Hole by Charles Burns (The single best graphic novel I have ever read!)
The Watchmen by Alan Miller
Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District by Ben Katchor (and you thought "Death of a Salesman" was a good story? This graphic novel kicks it's ass)