Tag Archives: comic

Graphic Novels: Comix or Lit?

Its fans number in the millions, and both the publishing industry and Hollywood have fallen in love with it. Despite seeming to be on the forefront of popular culture, however, there are grounds to dispute its very existence–or, if it does exist, exactly when it was born. This omnipresent but elusive creature is the graphic novel, and some people think it is 30 years old this month.

The puzzle ostensibly began in October, 1978, when Baronet, a small publishing house in New York, brought out a book entitled A Contract with God. Although the volume had the general feel of a comic book, it featured no superheroes or monsters. Instead, there were four fictional accounts of ordinary people coping with the burdens of life. More interesting yet was the cover of the book, which proclaimed it to be “a graphic novel by Will Eisner.”

Although Eisner had been more or less out of the comics business for years as of 1978, he still would have been revered had he never returned. His finest achievement had been the 1940-52 run of The Spirit. That series, depicting the adventures of a non-super-powered crimefighter, was famous for its superb composition. Bizarre angles, heavy use of shadows and a playful way with the opening titles were its hallmarks.

Despite the great success of The Spirit, Eisner drifted into other areas of commercial art during the 1950s and 1960s. When he returned to comics in the 1970s, he was no longer interested in straightforward tales of heroes and villains — he wasn’t even comfortable with the term “comic book.”

While searching for a publisher willing to accept A Contract With God, he portrayed the project as a “graphic novel.” (He later joked, “It didn’t work. I sent it to them, and they said, ‘It’s a comic book.'”) Eventually, he found Baronet, and history was made.

Or not.

Today, the concept that Eisner reputedly invented back in 1978 seems to be a resounding success. Often packaged as trade paperbacks featuring contents that integrate words and pictures for an audience not necessarily interested in Batman or Superman, graphic novels have won considerable recognition. Art Spiegelman, the elder statesman of the field since Eisner’s death in 2005, won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for his Maus books, which dealt with the Holocaust. Serialized during the first half of the 1980s, and printed as an initial volume in 1986, the various editions of Maus had sold 1.8 million copies by mid-2004. Movie studios have been receptive to the graphic-novel phenomenon, and recent acclaimed films based on graphic novels include Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Ghost World and Sin City.

Yet there is a worm in this apple — if there is even any apple at all. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born, French-based creator of the widely praised Persepolis books, snootily (and inaccurately) told The Wall Street Journal last year, “I don’t like ‘graphic novel.’ It’s a word that publishers created for the bourgeois to read comics.”

More surprising, Art Spiegelman has discounted Eisner’s impact on his own books. In a Nov. 14, 2003, column, Andrew D. Arnold of Time.com quoted Spiegelman saying the following about A Contract With God: “I liked one of the stories very much, but it didn’t register with me as having anything to do with what I had climbed on my isolated tower to try to make, which was a long comic book that would need a bookmark.” Eisner himself had doubts about terminology in his last years and was advocating several alternatives to “graphic novel,” including “graphic literature,” “graphic narrative” and the clunky “sequential art.” The British comics writer Alan Moore has offered a scornful suggestion: “big, expensive comic books.”

Even if one discounts all of the above and insists that the graphic novel emerged immaculately in the 1970s, alternate versions of its birth still abound. In 1971,Gil Kane brought out Blackmark, a 130-page fantasy tale in pocketbook form that billed itself as “the next step forward in pictorial fiction.” In 1975, a group of French writers and artists founded Metal Hurlant, which soon spawned a U. S. version, Heavy Metal. These two magazines highlighted numerous creators, including Guido Crepax.

In 1976, Jim Steranko and Byron Preiss collaborated on Chandler, a private-eye story printed as a trade paperback and touted as a “visual novel.” In the same year, writer Harvey Pekar started his autobiographical American Splendor series. In 1977, Canada’s Dave Sim started what would turn out to be an eccentric, 300-issue epic about a talking aardvark named Cerebus. In October, 1978 — the same month as A Contract with God was released — Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy brought out the adventure book Sabre, which the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide has called “the first direct-sale graphic novel.”

According to comics historian Denis Gifford, the San Francisco comix scene of the 1960s and ’70s was heavily indebted — through inspiration or outright mentorship — to none other than Harvey Kurtzman, who founded Mad magazine in 1952. Spiegelman has confirmed that he was one of the many kids avidly devouring pocketbook reprints of Mad in the 1950s. In addition to the curious involvement of Mad, there is an argument that graphic novels already existed in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, U. S. publisher Albert L. Kanter defied the trend of superhero comics and created a line of graphic adaptations of famous novels aimed at young readers. This line soon became known as “Classics Illustrated,” and it ran new material right up to 1969, just nine years before the release of A Contract With God. European contributions to the children’s market are just as extensive. Belgium’s Georges Remi (alias “Herge”) brought out the first of his celebrated Tintin books in 1930, and these visual escapades — about 60 pages each, some of the narratives continued from volume to volume — appeared until 1976.

Let’s get over it, and just accept that there are a multitude of genres and approaches within the comic literary form.

Full story at National Post

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Laika: The Dog That Touched the Stars

Laika“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
~~ Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, 1998

There was really a dog named Laika, and she touched the stars 50 years ago. Laika was the abandoned Russian puppy who was destined to become Earth’s first space traveler.

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union made headlines and history when they launched Sputnik II into orbit around the earth. The satellite had a passenger: a brown and white mutt named Laika.

Nick Abadzis brings her story to life in a haunting and bittersweet graphic novel, Laika, published by First Second Books. In 200 pages, he manages to portray the Russian attitude toward space conquest at the time, the grueling schedule that the scientists were forced to follow, and the heartbreaking decisions that the trainers of the dogs in the program had to make.

Laika began her life as the unwanted offspring of a highborn lady’s dog. Given to a boy as an “attitude change,” she wais locked up and abused before being thrown away. A series of events led Kudryuvka (Laika’s original name) to Yelena Dubrovsky, the trainer with the Russian space program. Both Yelena and Dr. Gazenko began to understand the sacrifice that both the dogs and the people involved in the space program were asked to make during the Space Race between Russia and the US.

Laika in her cageThe graphic novel opens with scenes of the frozen Russian gulag and a man named Korolev. Eighteen years later, he is the Chief Designer of Sputnik. Buoyed by the success of the successful launch, Prime Minister Khrushchev demands that his space program launch a second orbital vehicle within a single month…this time, with a living creature on board.

Laika, one of many dogs at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, has been trained for flight travel. She bonds immediately with her caretaker Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky and endears herself to the other scientists as well. No dog is better suited for space travel, and Laika is slated to make a trip from which she will never return.

Laika in Sputnik

Laika dies five hours after she is launched on Sputnik II. Unlike later missions, no provision was made to ensure her safe return.

LaikaThe historical facts of Laika’s life and the characters that surround her were exhaustively researched. There’s Sergei Korolev, the head of the program, whom we meet as he is walking out of one of Stalin’s gulags, whence he had been banished in the great purges, and who becomes a driven monster, forever scarred by Siberia. There’s Yelena Dubrovksy, the space medicine program’s animal handler, who has a preternatural ability to connect with the space-dogs, but who is also a scientist and Party member who is clear-eyed in confronting their eventual fate.

For the most part Abadzis maintains a simplified cartoon style. At moments of great importance, however, he renders the figure of Laika more three-dimensional. As Laika sits in the red light of her capsule, mere moments before takeoff, she becomes highly realistic. Sometimes scenes are black and white, like stills from a movie. Other times they are two page spreads that drill home the wonder or the horror of a given moment. And in dreams, the lines that make up a panel grow soft and colourful.

Abadzis talks to Jeff Vandermeer at Amazon.com about making the graphic novel:

I’d known it was a good story since I was about six years old. It had always been at the back of my mind as a story to tell. In 2002, new information came to light about the Sputnik II mission and specifically Laika’s death. That was the spark. Why a graphic novel? Well, comics are my language. It’s the medium that I’m most familiar and comfortable…so it was first choice.

I had no idea there were so few Soviet engineers and scientists involved in the nascent space program — not to trivialize their incredible achievement but, in many senses, they just winged it, borne along in great part by Korolev’s force of will and political manoeuvering. Also it was interesting to find out how much the Soviet scientists cared for their cosmodogs. Events conspired to make Laika a sacrificial passenger on board Sputnik II, but they really did honour their canine cosmonauts. There’s even a statue of Laika in Moscow. Perhaps this book will go some small way to re-establishing her position in history: whatever the circumstances, and whether you agree with what they did or not, she was the first earthling in orbit around this planet.

I could have done with another hundred pages. But I’d taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it and when that stage was finished, the publisher and I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches was fast approaching. When I first pitched the idea to Mark Siegel at First Second, neither of us realized that it was so close. It felt like we needed to be a part of that, so I drew it extremely fast–two hundred pages in a little over eight months. It’s an understatement to say that it was extremely hard work. What got left out was a longer explication of Laika’s origins; the scenes with Mikhail, her first owner were much longer…. Originally, I did have an idea of doing three books: Laika would be the first, Gagarin the second, and a full-on comic strip biography of Korolev would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day.

I suppose it would have been easy to make it another overly saccharine dead-dog story but that wouldn’t have been true either to my taste or to the socio-political system and culture I was attempting to portray. Laika — the real Laika — was a cute dog, as photographs attest. I didn’t want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech and thought balloons like Tintin’s Snowy. It’d be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their owners (even if they happen to be scientists in a Soviet cosmodog program), there wouldn’t be a bit of emotion. There’s plenty (and I hope the reader feels it). But there’s also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space.

When Comrade Yelena visits Laika for one last time she can hear the dog saying her name with every bark, even when Yelena is too far away to hear them. She dreams that Laika is calling out to her for help.

No one can walk away from this book untouched.

Laika’s final transmission

Excerpt at First Second Books

Review at Readaboutcomics

Interview with Abadzis at Comics Reporter

Aaron George Bailey’s Laika website

BBC News: What Happened to Laika

Interviews at BBC News: The World

Persepolis: A Graphic Look at Iran

PersepolisPersepolis is the story of author Marjane Satrapi’s childhood. It’s an experience few readers will be familiar with; although certain aspects of youth are universal, she grew up in Iran, the child of protesters with a grandfather who was once the son of the emperor.

Originally published to wide critical acclaim in France, where it elicited comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Persepolis is a bittersweet memoir about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq.

“Unfortunately, it happened in a country where people were very traditional, and other countries only saw the religious fanatics who made their response public.” In her graphic novel, Satrapi shows readers that these images do not make up the whole story about Iran.

An illustrator, Satrapi chose to tell her story in a graphic novel.

Punk is not ded

“Images are a way of writing. We learn about the world through images all the time. In the cinema we do it, but to make a film you need sponsors and money and 10,000 people to work with you. With a graphic novel, all you need is yourself and your editor.”

Persepolis paints a portrait of daily life in Iran: of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life and of the enormous toll repressive regimes exact on the individual spirit. Satrapi’s child’s-eye-view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own family.

The Veil

The book starts right into a challenging subject, especially to Western readers: the veil that all women were told they must wear. The ten-year-old Satrapi complains of the rule not out of politics or social concerns, but because it’s too hot and other girls steal them to play with. The girl’s logic isn’t predictable, and the deviation from the expected can be amusing. She’s interested in her uncle’s stay in prison, where he was tortured, because she wants to brag about it to her friends. Events become stories instead of memories, even as she loses her dreams and her relatives to fundamentalists.

Her follow-up volume, Persepolis 2, won the Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Scenario in Angoulême, France, for its script and in Vitoria, Spain, for its commitment against totalitarianism.

Marjane Satrapi'Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran. She grew up in Tehran, where she studied at the Lycée Français before leaving for Vienna and then going to Strasbourg to study illustration. She currently lives in Paris, where her illustrations appear regularly in newspapers and magazines. She is also the author of several children’s books.

An animated film version of the book won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007.

Brat’s Eye View

Salon.com commentary