Berlin – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Jason Lutes’ first of his trilogy, Berlin – City of Stones is a brilliant effort.  If anything deserves the moniker of graphic novel, it is this.  He writes with the sensitivity and scope of a novelist, and tells the story panel by panel with a wonderful ligne claire style – think the “clear-line” style of Tin Tin. We follow several plots lines in the turbulent Berlin of the late 1920s:  some poor, Red workers struggling to survive, and sometimes dying in street fights; a bohemian but bourgeois couple who are trying to figure out what’s happening…what will happen;  and a hard-bitten policeman who did his time in the trenches and informs his partner, a young ‘un attracted to the Nazis, that “those Jews” fought and died like the rest of the soldiers, dying for Germany.

Lutes must have done a ton of pictorial research on Berlin at that time, because his images ring true, from street scenes, to the clothing in crowds, to parties, to interior decoration.  The terrifying chaos of the period is palapable:  poverty and urban decay are widespread; the moderate governing forces are weak, vacillating, and uncommitted to anything but their own perpetuation; and the extreme parties don’t shrink from, indeed, they embrace street violence.  At the time, the National Socialists were just one of a few contending for influence...who knew?  Better to throw in your lot with them in order to stop the Bolsheviks, eh?  After all, they can be controlled, they’re just thugs…

A powerful aspect of the multiple plot threads is Lutes’ skill at evoking the state of mind of the various characters in different social strata.  How did they perceive the chaos?  What did they fear, want, hope for?   Why on earth would a working class stiff be attracted to the street gangs of the National Socialists?

But it’s not all politics.  The love story between the older, nearly burned-out journalist, and the younger art student, struggling to find her way outside the sphere of her military father in “small town” Cologne is handled with tenderness and subtlety.

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Black & White Again

January 31, 2010

Comics are in color too, but I prefer the black and white variety.  Thomas Ott makes stories using scratchboard, rectangles of white material covered with India ink.  The artist scratches to reveal the white underneath – once a popular medium for newspapers since it is so easy to photograph and print.  The image above, from Ott’s Tales of Error, is a wonderful example of the way light can be made to shine out of pure black.

Ott’s stories in that book are full of little O’Henry plot twists and Twilight Zone effects, but I felt they fell flat more often than not.  His images, from what I have seen on the Internet, are all similarly focused on the bizarre, the grotesque, and the plain ugly.  His wordless “novel”, The Number, however, is very successful.

In a series of beautifully designed pages, the bizarre story of a prison executioner is unraveled as he is led on to his doom by a series of numbers on a slip of paper dropped by a murderer sent to death on the electric chair.  At first, the numbers, popping up in unpredictable ways in his life, give the man luck, but that’s gotta change!  Here the man, and his new girlfriend, return home after a successful go at the roulette wheel, using the numbers as a can’t-lose system.

The end of the tale isn’t surprising, but the way that the logic is worked out to its predestined conclusion is nice, and the drawings are wonderful.

Another favorite B&W scratchboard example is Peter Kuper’s comic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The expressionistic style of the stark black and white compositions works well with the story, and it is very true to the spirit and humor of the tale.  (Yes, Kafka is funny! )

Finally, a black and white image done with pen and ink, and reproduced in the newspapers of 1925 – a Sunday panel from Krazy and Ignatz, by George Herriman.  I have dipped into these before because they are celebrated widely as a high point of comics, a great 20th century achievement in art and satire, and a deep poetical statement about…well, lot’s of things.  At first, I was merely amused, but found them a bit tedious.  Now, however, having followed them a bit, as Sunday readers would have, I can say that the more I read, the more seduced I am.  They have a unique atmosphere and sensibility:  surreal, dadaist, poetic, satirical, slapstick, and always composed with sophistication and wit.  One never knows what will come next.

The plot line of the series is quite simple:  Ignatz Mouse lives for nothing but to throw bricks at the head of Krazy Kat.  Officer Pup tries to stop him, but usually fails.  Kat seems to take the endless attacks as a sign of true love, because when a brick hits someone else in one strip, he is very jealous.  I’ve not fathomed all the motives of Ignatz yet.

Sounds like a dada version of a Greek tragedy.  Here the Kat muses on the nature and source of time in a typically arid and otherworldly landscape.

Here Ignatz thinks he’s come upon a source of bricks to last him for a near eternity of head-smashing attacks on Kat.


Black and White

December 18, 2007

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The drawing above is by the artist Heinrich Kley, an academic painter who turned satirist. I owe my rediscovery of him – I’ve seen some of his images before – to Richard Sala, who like me, enjoys his drawings and mentioned them in an interview. (He also intimates that his heroine Peculia is inspired by Louise Brooks.)

Kley’s drawings can be grotesque, bizarre, and hilarious. (Here is a site with a nice gallery: The Art of Heinrich Kley). The tension and sinuosity of his line – so typical of Art Nouveau – is fascinating. Click on this thumbnail to see a short animated tribute to him that I created from some of his drawings, a sequence that may have inspired some animators at Disney.

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There’s no end to the wonders of black and white drawings, woodcuts, and engravings from this period, some of them a source of rich inspiration for comic artists today, as well as others of course. I find the work of Frans Masereel particularly arresting. Both he and the American Lynd Ward, created early forms of what some now call the “graphic novel.”

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