When we talk about perversity what we’re talking about is not per se an observation by the subject about itself, but rather we are talking about a social recoil from a pattern of behavior.  Perverse behavior is a judgement about the tenuous nature of social codes which we believe create civilization, which separates our living from the dying of the animalistic.  Perversity is reacted to like a contagion.  A viral idea of behavior that threatens the sexual safety of the objective viewer.  Of course this recoil also creates it’s own eroticism, because when we talk about perversity we are talking about sexual inclinations that aren’t perceived to be for any purpose but their own.  There’s a foundational accusation of selfishness that accompanies the charge of perversity.  The pervert is a sub-human who in their inability to control their shameful urges, threatens our own sense of self and rightness.  And of course perversion also creates the system of codes and transgressions which make up romance and desire, which are important aspects of our denial of death.  Romance is fundamentally the set of behaviors that govern our ability to incarnate love, which is as close a mental state as we can create in ourselves to being outside of ourselves and built beyond ourselves toward the kind of ideals which perpetuate the desire to live.

Akira Hiramoto’s Prison School Vol. 1 is a comic book published by Yen Press.  Prison School is the story of an elite all-girls boarding school which has decided to become co-educational through the admittance of five young boys. These boys: our central protagonist Kiyoshi; Gakt; Joe; Shingo; and Andre joined the school upon the supposition that since they were the only five boys in an all-girls school with a ratio now of 200:1 girls to boys, that they stood a chance of accomplishing their boyish desires with the women of the school. It doesn’t really work out that way though, because for one, the girls at the school have no interest in them, and treat them largely as alien outsiders; and two there is a shadow student council that runs the school and has forbid their interaction. This initial stifling of the boys perversity, leads them to try and peep on the girl’s bath.  They are caught, and sentenced to a mysterious Prison School which exists adjacent to the boarding school where the boys are made to wear prison jumpsuits and exist under the perverse authority of their warden’s The Vice President of the Student Council: Meiko; and Secretary Hana–under the overall governorship of the President Mari, whose father has recently taken charge of the school as a whole, and whose idea, it was to admit the boys in the first place.

Hiramoto draws these characters with a kind of perverse paranoia. With malevolent stress lines around the eyes, sweating shifty glances the game Hiramoto is playing aesthetically is largely a comedy of textures with a dark erotic undertone played straight up.  This comes across through Hiramoto’s choice of composition. Characters don’t really pop out of frames like you would expect in these kind of comics.  There is very little winking to the camera.  And generally speaking, the art style mirrors Japanese slice of life comic rules.  This is interesting because the actual story is straight trash exploitation genre–but it’s done with a level of rigidity(which isn’t to say there aren’t jokes here, there are, there are a lot of prison movie references and visual quotes) that almost demands shock and recoil at some of its most perverse moments.

There’s one particular section in the book’s narrative that I think is a good place to see what I’m talking about.  To set it up, you first have to understand, that for the most part most of the up-skirt shots in this comic are tied around the character Meiko, the dominatrix prison guard vice president of the shadow council.  Meiko is an exhibitionist, and even though she is in charge of the punishment of the boys, and even though the boys initially enjoy their shame and punishment at her hands, there is a lot of indication that Meiko is aware of this, and that this is a game of which she is quite aware of the rules.  The President of the school observes what is happening and sends in the Secretary Hanna, who in difference to the Vice President, who is more than happy to sit on the boys faces till they pass out, Hanna wears sweatpants under her skirt, and basically kicks the shit out of them whenever she feels like it.  This is important in terms of distinction because she is not an exhibitionist, at least openly, in the way that Meiko is.  So where the up-skirt peeps that the boys get with Meiko are largely consensual.  This page with Hanna peeing is not.

Hanna ends up wanting reciprocation on her shame, and forces Kiyoshi, also without his consent, to pee in front of her.  Hiramoto actually shows the construction of a particular kind of perversion with Hanna.

The weight with which Hiramoto draws this page gives it a kind of horrific tension.  Hana is sexually assaulting Kiyoshi, and Hiramoto isn’t playing that light which is weird dynamic for a book like this, but it’s why it’s interesting.  Hanna’s assertion here is frightening but it also represents a dramatic reversal of the scene where she was exposed, which even that page is drawn with less rendering and is a “lighter” page overall.  Here we’re drenched in shadow and grayscale, and the bathroom feels cramped not only by its architecture, but by Kiyoshi’s panic and lack of control of the situation.  Kiyoshi in contrast to the other boys in the story is a “good boy” (which makes Hanna’s usage here dramatically ironic), where someone like Gakt welcomes violation from Meiko–Kiyoshi does not. He is debased here as much as Hanna.

Through her interactions with Kiyoshi, Hiramoto gives us something subtle in her expressions that is fairly subtle, but she becomes someone different when she is in private with Kiyoshi talking about their shared shame, and when she finally forces Kiyoshi to pee for her, he of course pees on her, but rather than be alarmed in the way that she did when Kiyoshi saw her pee, her expression is actually a satiated expression, she even jokes ludely(shown in a different font) to the vice president about her defilement.

What’s interesting in this moment for me is that the moment isn’t for Kiyoshi.  When Kiyoshi first sees Hanna we can’t see her face, we watch Kiyoshi’s reaction to her peeing.  But this arc isn’t really about Kiyoshi, what’s interesting about this whole arc is that it is about the construction of Hanna’s perversity.  If at the beginning Hanna is just this faceless butt–she ends up as a pervert of her own agency.  This debased Hanna is an expression of her reconciliation and ownership of her shame.  I think this point comes across most effectively because the art style Hiramoto employs doesn’t play this whole scenario for ridiculousness.  The situation is ridiculous, but the things that are occurring for Hanna as a character are layered and nuanced and a lot of this is because of the tone of Hiramoto’s style.

And in some respect that’s what Prison School Vol. 1 is about.  Even though the book focuses on the boys of the story the most time wise, much of the character growth, and overarching thematic decisions are made by the women of the book as they seek to reconcile their relationship to perversion.

Disclosure: On the plus side, I’ve become friends with most of the artists I like, on the downside, being friends with your favorite artists starts to limit just what you can really write about in comics.  I’ve refrained from writing about some of my favorite comics this year because it feels weird.  But I feel like for the most part, I’m not really the type of critic rolling out telling you to buy this or buy that–so maybe I am worrying too much about it.  So what I’m going to start doing is writing about whatever I want to write about, and if I happen to be pals with the people I’m writing about, I’ll just mention it and you can factor that into any kind of hyperbole I might accidentally slip into.  In this case, Simon is one of my now yearly roommates for Emerald City Comic Con; and Jason Wordie colored my friend Alison Sampson’s book Genesis.

Simon is interesting because his work is super detailed and researched, and the depth of thought he puts into the worlds he creates is pretty astounding.  And then you meet him, and he looks like Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, is super funny and nice.  It’s a really wonderful dissonance I think.  At any rate.  That’s my ethical disclosure.  So I think we’re good.  We good?

Tiger Lung is an adventure comic created by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie, published by Dark Horse, which explores the fantastical world of modern humans in the Upper Paleolithich through the heroic cycles of its shaman protagonist Tiger Lung.  It is segmented into three short stories, the longest of which is “Beneath the Ice”(Story by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie; Art by Roy; Colors by Wordie).  This story was originally a three part series appearing in Dark Horse Presents.  The notable aspects of the book, however, are contained in its two new entrants to the Tiger Lung saga: “The Hyena’s Daughter” (story and art by Simon Roy); and “Song for the Dead” (story and art by Simon Roy; colors by Jason Wordie).

I double-featured my reading of Tiger Lung with the Jean-Jacques Annaud’s exceptional film Quest for Fire (1981) (shot by Claude Agostini); both the film and the Tiger Lung book take place in roughly the same paleolithic time period, and both excel in the areas of their narrative where they are able to transport us past our own biases into the fantastical world of our “primitive” ancestors.  For example, when you see fire for the first time in Quest for Fire, it is contained in this shrouded bone lantern, that is carried by the clan like an ark of the covenant like holy object.  The artifact and the way it is treated, bestow a kind of magical fantasy on the world; so that later in the film when you see fire finally be made, it feels very much like Prometheus himself handing it down.  Where our modern biases may view these peoples as primitive–considering the scope of their invention and cleverness–it might be best to instead view these people as some of the most imaginative in our history.  I think we typically try to view ourselves as a species on a trajectory–but what if there is no trajectory of consciousness–and we are the same flame responding to different winds, and taking new ever shifting forms–but always remaining fundamentally flame?  What if the consideration of our being isn’t one of technological hierarchies of development–but rather one of aesthetic shape and fantasy?  In this way, how is an iPhone a better sight than a shape-shifting hyena-woman?  They are different spectacles.  Like different genres on the same bookshelf.

Roy pivots directly into these matters with his story “The Hyena’s Daughter”.  Where Annaud’s film caked on makeup and prosthetics to create a kind of alienation between the audience and the people within the world of the film; Roy works the opposite angle.  He downplays the aesthetic differences of our bodies and language to try and show how this story is our human story–he’s trying to bring you closer POV wise to the miracle of the moment.

The story itself is told in a flickering shadow of greytones which gives the form of Roy’s figures a kind of cave painting impermanence that ends up being very effective for evoking the kind of fire light these stories might have been told beside.  This aesthetic also allows for a muddiness which amplifies the transmorgraphic climax of the story, allowing for woman to shift horrifically into giant hyena monster.  Her transformation speaks to the the mystical heights that Tiger Lung at its peak seems built around ascending.

This gets back to what I was saying before about the complexity of imagination that these people had.  That they could perceive a three tiered world of spirits and demons, and magic–this wasn’t a detriment–it was a biological advantage.  It was these worlds which allowed their imagination to leap by bounds, and this directly feeds into the kind of abstract creativity needed to create tools, fire, and art.

The strengths of “The Hyena’s Daughter”, and “Song for the Dead”, are that these stories place Tiger Lung between different paleolithic cultures, allowing for him to be a kind of heroic interloper–both within the world of the book, and without the worlds that are being elucidated–he is both subject and object.  Tiger Lung makes the strange both fantastic and mundane.  His presence is the guidepoint for dramatic tension and understanding.  Beneath the Ice suffers because it is an origin story, and Tiger Lung is largely contained within a singular world unable to branch out.  It is only when he leaves this singular world that things get interesting and strange.  You see this in Quest for Fire as well, with Naoh really only coming into his own, and the movie itself, really only hitting it’s stride, once Naoh and his group leave their clan and have to venture out between cultures.  This is also how Conan the Barbarian functions at its best as well.  It’s something of a heroic archetype or something.

The last story of the book, “Song for the Dead” brings Jason Wordie back for his best work in the series.  Wordie expands on the shifty textural moves made by Roy in Hyena’s Daughter, and (actually these stories could have totally been made in reverse order–so it could very well have just been that Roy adapted what Wordie did in this story–at any rate: they are related) adds in a more expansive color palette.  The palette elaborates further the notion of the book sitting just outside a fire within a cave with colors bleeding and emanating off of their different sources and figures.  This works especially well for “Song for the Dead” because much of it takes place in a magical spiritual plane just outside of physical reality.  The way Roy and Wordie are able to depict Tiger Lung as a translucent sack of organs being carried by the shadowy crow through the spiritual forest, is one of the more affecting images of the story.

Both “The Hyena’s Daughter” and “Song for the Dead” traffic in the weaknesses inherent in Tiger Lung’s interloper role.  he knows alot in both stories, but he doesn’t know everything–he is fundamentally on unsteady ground, and has to constantly trust his instincts that what he is doing is the right thing–his chief strength as a hero isn’t his innate abilities as a shaman, but his ability to listen to the moment and make clear decisions, even as he is shitting his pants at the possibilities.  Which compares very well to Naoh in Quest for Fire.  Both have to balance between bravery and the kind of cowardice that defines survival in a harsh world.  And what’s more both need an insatiable desire to learn and experience.  When Naoh goes back for Rae Dawn Chong’s character, part of it is his romantic inclinations, but a larger part is his constant curiosity and questioning of the world around him.  He is willing to take the leap and see what happens because of it.  He’s ready to run away too.  But fundamentally both he and Naoh are characters who have to explore.  Who have to push on deeper down the cave.  It is the journey of the shaman, the explorer, the artist, the inventor.  These are stories of creativity explored, and the thesis that these impulses must necessarily define our survival as a species.  Because even though we may not be on a trajectory–it is important that we try to be.  That is how we create a richness to our lived experience.  That is how we create stories.  It is significant that the end of Quest for Fire is both fire AND story.  Naoh is telling his adventures to his clan.  The fire is both there for warmth, and for company.  And will be until it isn’t, and we aren’t.

-Sarah

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Milo Manara is someone whose place in comics has become increasingly under attack, ever since he had the temerity to draw Spider-woman’s butt.  Suddenly interviews of his were being google translated to an outraged internet, and people were demanding the removal of the offensive art from the cover of their hallowed Marvel superhero comics.

The defense for him wasn’t much better.  It generally oriented around “hey, Milo gonna do, what Milo gonna do”—and he was positioned even by his ardent defenders as “merely” a pornographic comic artist(as if there is some kind of difference in whether a comic is good or bad on the basis of whether it is porn or not—this on the heels of what…several years of hipster indie comic zines that were all about making “cool” porn comics).  Suddenly, even if you were saying that Manara was one of the greats, you had to slide in, “but he has problems”.  And those problems are generally speaking the problem of his rapey porn comics.

And on the one hand, I like using art to draw attention to problematic aspects in our society.  If you can break down a Manara comic and illustrate to someone the insidious nature of rape culture—then I think that’s great, and you should.  But where it gets problematic for me is when we start moralizing porn.  We start telling people what they should and should not be turned on by, as if that is any kind of way of actually addressing anything.  The difference between porn comics and reality is that porn comics are just lines on a page, and reality is well, reality.  Porn SHOULD explore taboo.  The crazy fucked up things that turn us on should see their release somehow somewhere—it’s worthwhile for those spaces to exist.

And Manara, if we are to contextualize him at all, comes of age as a comic artist around the same time as great directors like Jess Franco and Walerian Borowczyk were kicking it in film—making these artsy euro-trash erotica films—of which Manara’s work fits quite easily within.  I think Borowczyk is a decent enough comparison for Manara’s erotic work, because both are capable of images and sequences that are among the best their medium has to offer—but both are channeling that genius talent for the express purpose of trying to get off.

I recently read the first of Manara’s Click! stories in the Dark Horse library collection, and it’s really interesting beyond just the technical aspects of Manara’s craft, to examine the complete sexual anarchy that he’s trying to play across his pages.  The first volume of Click!  follows a woman,  Claudia, who has a chip implanted in her against her will by her psychiatrist, Dr. Fez—that causes her to lose all inhibitions and basically try to fuck whatever is nearest to her in that moment.  Of course you find out later that chip is a sham, and this is all an elaborate sexual game between Fez and Claudia to try and cure her of her self-hatred.  But in the meantime, we see Claudia attack all levels of society—she starts by debasing herself in front of a young salesman at the mall, to the shock and horror of her polite society friend, she then causes an obviously aroused Priest to run in terror from her sexuality, before concluding a series of outrageous episodes by crashing a super rich girl’s sweet 16 party—and there’s a hilarious scene where she has crammed the girl’s diamond birthday present up her ass and all of these rich elite stooges are falling all over themselves to try and get it out.  It is pretty good comedy, and it reminds you a little bit of something you might see Bunuel do in one of his films.

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Dark Horse apparently didn’t have good digital copies of this book in color either, which is interesting, because Manara tends to be stunning in color—but seeing him this way, with just his line, on pages that are fairly bereft of spotted ink because of their intention for color is really quite something.   Manara has that spacial quality here that also draws me to Moebius.  His forms seem perfectly weighted and effortless.  As with Moebius, Manara is a master of knowing what moment to pick out of a sequence to show.  He always seems to capture his characters in these really electric poses—so his panels have the feel of animation, even when they are just singular cells.  There’s a great scene where Claudia tries to seduce the one-eyed detective sent to protect her from Dr. Fez where Manara captures this just perfect full bodied gesture Claudia makes with her hands and hips.  His characters aren’t just symbols on the page, they have real pathos in behind their lines.  Even if it is “only” sex that is on Claudia and the men around her’s mind—Manara knows how to convey that from tiptoe to fingernail.

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One of the things that is interesting with Manara is how rarely he will draw penetration in sex.  He’s not really interested in sex per se, with these comics—so much as he is interested in the joy of sex, the emotion of sex—so he doesn’t focus on the bodily functions of sex, so much as he focuses on faces.  It also keeps things farely tame for what Click! is.  Some of what it at play too is that Manara’s audience is also people who are largely not looking to see  a penis on the page, or much of a look at a vagina.  I always sort of think of these things as half-measures that show the limitations of how far the artist is willing to go, even if the effect is that the story overall isn’t supposed to be inhibited.  But I view it the same way as a slasher film that cuts away right at the moment where the blade would hit the skin.  You compare this to Guido Crepax, another Italian, who though doesn’t draw as sexy as Manara, also doesn’t blink when it comes to depicting the bodily aspects of sex.  I don’t think one approach is more valid than the other—but personally, I like to see when artists just go for it.

A good example of this as well, is the recent comic by Sean T. Collins and Julia Gförer’s Poe adaption, the Hideous Dropping off of the Veil(available here)— in that comic there’s this really great panel showing this crying dude’s dick going into this girl’s vagina—but the perspective is from her vantage point looking across her stomach to the penis that is going inside of her—I really loved that.  In some ways that panel is like anti-Manara—and I think it kind of illustrates the space that Manara won’t go with his comics—and that doesn’t make them bad.  But it does make them a particular sort of something.

I don’t know what Click! would have read like with those elements included.  It probably would have seemed more crass and lewd—whereas rape and child molestation aside, it’s a pretty delirious sexual comedy.  Which is a weird sentiment to express.  The child molestation is kind of this weird awkward moment where you’re like “hmmm, did they just not know what that was back then?”  because the joke is that this unruly boy acts out against his mother, until she jerks him off, then he goes right to sleep—which is played off as a super racey joke—except the punchline is more, well this is what young boys would want—that since it’s a young boy, getting a handjob from an attractive woman(his mother!) that it’s fucked up, but it’s what he really wants.  Pretty much all editions of Click! including the Dark Horse one, remove the pages where this actually was drawn, and Manara himself called his decision to draw it “youthful folly”—apparently it wasn’t illegal at that time to draw those kinds of things in comics.  Which kind of brings us back to my opening sentiment that porn should be free to go where it needs to—and that here were are confronted with the singular exception in the west.  I don’t know how I feel about that in the end.  I do think the inclusion of that scene would really darken what is a really light-hearted comic, so I don’t think tonally that would have helped—I mean keeping the mention of it is weird enough in the story.  But it’s interesting that the bestiality in the book was kept in.  It’s difficult to know what the thoughts back then were on whether boys could be molested by attractive women.  Obviously now, it’s a major major thing that we’re all hopefully aware of.  It’s also interesting because as I mentioned this is a mother and her son—it’s a pretty fucked up offstage moment in Click! and you can’t just act like that’s not there.

It’s interesting to think about Click! vol. 1 in it’s totality pivoting around these dark horrors of rape, and molestation while maintaining a really light vibe.  It gives the work a weird underbelly, that I’m not entirely sure was Manara’s intention.  It seems like what Manara was going for was just a no rules, bachanalia, thumbing of the nose at society’s fear of sex.  But in the process we trip into some really dark shit that isn’t really dealt with in the book—nor are there strictures within the book to deal with them.  If Click! stopped and paused to consider it’s fucked-uppedness—it would completely lose it’s comedic overtone, which is what makes the book memorable.  So yeah I dunno.  I’m glad those things are in there though.  I think the complication is interesting.

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I find World War I fascinating.  Where World War II is largely this clear delineation between the holocaust, and not the holocaust–where for one of the few times after the fact, the white hats and black hats of war seem particularly stark and defined.  It is the war that brought us the banality of evil and the end of modernism.  World War I is less defined.  It stands like a spectre of war, pointless and shadowy.  It was less a war of sides, than of a continual procession celebrating the joyless unimportance of life.  It was this terrifying morass of a meatgrinder consuming flesh and bone.  It was a war where men passed on indistinguishable from the next, living in dug out mounds of earth, that could easily be confused from air with mass graves.  It was the atrocity of geography meeting the existential madness of the abject.  Men who cried out in no-man’s land for their mothers, unrescuable from their terrible end.  It was a war for the rats.  It was a war that ushered in the end of the age of the cavalryman, and instead met him comedically mid stride with the horrors of mechanical steel that stood beyond his comprehension.

It was because of this that I picked up Jacques Tardi’s It Was the War of the Trenches.  I have to admit I’ve fought reading Tardi for ages, and this is actually my introduction to his work.  I’m not exactly sure how to explain my reticence with Tardi, except to perhaps lay the blame at the kind of resentments that one might find reasonable under the weight of a comic’s canon that I feel little relation to, and oftentimes find unfolds like the world’s most disappointing paper fortune teller.  And not that you should care, or I should care, or you should care whether I care–but what is a review of comics, without some sort of ancillary observation attributed to larger inconsequential concerns.

With Trenches, Tardi captures the bleak hilarity of this horrible first world war.  The stories here are bathed in a bitter irony that constantly seeks to undermine any notion of traditional heroism and humanity.  This is not your younger sibling’s American Sniper.  This is a book about madness.  This is a book that beautifully captures a nihilistic psalm dedicated to the total absurd inconsequentialness of our being.  These good men, these bad men, these petty men…all united here in the mud to die like dumb cows in the slaughterhouse of war.  Sometimes they are cognizant of dying, sometimes they just die, and other times they escape only to become boxed in by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of war; executed for crimes beyond their understanding or conviction.  More bodies for the ravenous pire.

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Tardi depicts men swallowed up by war.  Their bodies disappeared, consumed, under their heavy too large coats.  Coats that make them look like children playing war, as much as anything else.  Their faces, once fresh and clean, become masked with the lines of trauma.  Their smiles covered up by their unkept grooming.  They become defined by their relation to the earth they are destined to die in, to recede into.  This mud-covered encroachment of hellish barbed wire guarded by demonic machine gun sentries underscore a kind of bleakness that Tardi juxtaposes against the cleaner, mudless, people of fashion back behind the lines, outside of the war–in a separate world entirely–their identities still in tact, not swallowed up yet by the duty of country.

It is in this dull weight of the trenches, that happiness contorts to a kind of dumb bovine delusion.  The best example of this is the story of Bouvreuil, the artist.  Bouvreuil is known to his fellow soldiers for his craftsmanship with metal.  He can turn any kind of metal into all manner of trinkets which he then sells for money to send to his wife back home, while they plan their lives after the war.  He is depicted by Tardi with tiny stupid eyes, a tiny stupid hat, all framing a stupid bucktoothed grind.  It is only at the moment of his death that Tardi draws him with any real humanity.  The horror in his face as he yells out to his wife, who cannot hear him; framed with a newly depicted gruff shadow of a beard, his eyes morphing into these larger fear stricken globes, his mouth agape in horror.  It is only now that he realizes the situation he has been thrust into.  The whole of his stupid life, and his stupid arrogant plans, all laid to waste before the god of steel now dancing through his bloodied groin.

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This bending of the cartoonish and the realistic by Tardi, is most apparent in his depiction of tanks and artillery guns; their gleaming hyper-realism jutting out in stark contrast from the lumpy cartoons to the men they consume, creates a kind of metallic monstrosity that is beyond the capabilities of the established world of Tardi’s page to encapsulate.   Tardi through this slight visual tension is able to give us something of the idea of what it must have felt like to see the first tanks appear on a battlefield.  They must have appeared as from another world.  Their straight lined edges, and rigid geometries beyond the lumpen understanding of the the flesh and the soul they obliterated.

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These elements are lensed through a fairly rigid three horizontal panel structure that Tardi S’s through with compositional force.  The wider format allows for the focus and stretching of faces in closeup, as well as the landscaped horror of the worlds those faces disappear into.  The panels themselves are balanced in grayscale between the heavy inky death shadow of Tardi’s brushwork, and the grey moral textural hopelessness of whatever few rigid structures find themselves trapped in the mud.  Tardi juggles these forces to vacillate between moments of clarity and their bled into moments of horror and death.

It Was The War of The Trenches is less a cry for peace than it is a howl of horror across the terrible battlefield of the first world war.  It speaks bluntly to our capacity for inconceivable self-annihilation.  Tardi offers less a warning than, a cold observation.  There is no morality, only insanity.  Nothing is justified.  Everything is cruel.  And whatever might pass for a candle in the darkness, it too shall pass.

It was the War of the Trenches is available now from Fantagraphics as part of a box set which also includes another of Tardi’s works on WWI: Goddamn this War.  It is available wherever fine comic books are sold, presumably.

My friend and fellow critic David Brothers wrote a worthwhile piece for you to read over on comicsandcola today, and it’s worth your time if only to see just what the hell is happening right now online in terms of comic criticism and activism.  It’s a companion piece to the more condescending article that showed up on TCJ this week by Ken Parille.

Both articles orbit around what videogame nerds have decided to coin “social justice warriors”.  Sometimes abbreviated as SJW…because of course.  But basically what is being talked about is a kind of post-structuralist critical theory married to social media based calls to action.  What that means basically, is a strand of critical theory that not only believes that the reader’s reaction is more important than the author’s intent, but further more that the author is culpable for that reaction.  So to break that down even further, Batgirl comic has a transmisogynist character, therefore the author may very well be transphobic, and furthermore, the author is then called to atone for this mistake(through many thinkpieces, retweets, reblogs, shares, faves, and direct messages) through an apology and a promise to do better.

For me personally, I have always enjoyed reading post-structuralist critical theory, even when I was a young idiot, I have always had a curiosity for viewpoints that are outside of myself, and I have always enjoyed discussions of art as a vehicle to get a greater understanding of those perspectives.  And indeed, as a queer transwoman, I have at times used art as a vehicle to share my experience.  It’s like…through this movie we both dig, I can make you see the world for a second through my viewpoint, and maybe that humanizes queer transwomen for you just a little bit?

But where I start to fall away is when we go from simply identifying the flawed expression of our identities in art, to deciding that the art is dangerous, or that the artist is a rotten villain, or that because of this flawed expression that my criticism needs to exist as a call to action to “do better”.  And on the flip side of that, I also don’t get down with people who are incapable of accepting that these expressions may be flawed in some way–or when we say flawed–what we mean is in-analogous.  So Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs is a flawed transmisogynist character, who functionally through the text of the film, presents trans-issues in a horrifyingly dehumanized way that is not accurate–and not that it needs to be, but it can be useful to write the article that explains to people who have never met a transperson before, that certain embellishments have occurred for the purposes of the work as a whole, and we can discuss how those function within the work as a whole.  So I mean, the character is inarguably flawed in his presentation of transgender face.  But for some people, they are so invested in the work as a whole, that any identification of this ilk, makes them shutdown, because hey, Silence of the Lambs is perfect–so therefore they try and “actually” you to death.

This denial of post-structuralist readings out of hand because of some need for pristine perfect works of art, which because we like them, must not have anything ever wrong with them, or ever be used to express ways in which the world hurts or is painful.  This is something that David gets at really well in his article when he talks about how people completely shut down when something is called racist.  If you say something is racist in a work, then it’s assumed that you are also calling the artist a racist, and “fans” racist–when really you’re just talking about a specific element within the work as a whole.  A work can contain racist elements and not be racist as a whole, or it may be racist as a whole, but maybe the artist is racist, maybe they aren’t–maybe people who like it are racist, maybe they aren’t–the only thing though that is really being talked about though is this particular element in the work and how it affects a particular read experience.  That can’t be treated as the end to a conversation.  It should be a PART of a healthy critical discussion of art in which all perspectives are valid and can help us through art learn more about ourselves and the community around us.  I mean this is one of the things art is principally for!  Art doesn’t exist for you to just go be a fan of it.  It exists to reflect back to you the projection of yourself funneled through a controlled artifice.  Art allows you to understand yourself and your place in the world better, and experience awe at the elasticity of the human experience you enjoy.  It is a magic of lines and sequences that allow you to attain an altered state of being, and evolve your experience.

Enter the third wheel of this crazy trycycle.  Zak Smith wrote an excellent essay about the worst critic in the history of the world.  In it, he explores critic Max Nordau, who is something of a cautionary tale for this current incarnation of activist post-structuralist theory.  While Nordau himself, never directly tried to censor work, his histrionics about the potential danger of corrupting work of the time, which he believed to exist as a threat to social norms–did directly influence the destruction of art, and murder of artists.

This begins to get at how I feel about my own criticism, and some of my concerns with this popular strain of critical activism.  Because on the one hand, while I strongly identify with using to identify flawed expressions of personal identity–I also strongly reject the idea that upon identifying these expressions, that the next course of action is to call for a particular action against the art or artist.

For one, I do not agree that the art and the artist are a singular face.  I believe that a work of art exists between both the artist and the audience–and is it’s own third thing through which these two roads never actually meet.  Even if you think you totally get a piece of art, and even if your reading of the art is 100 percent with what an artist says in an interview–it does not mean that either your reading, or the artist reading of the work is completely accurate.  An artist can create things that are beyond their knowledge and beyond their understanding.  There are things we do just as people, that we don’t have any cognizance of, but another person may see, and it may be an insightful thing for them.  And because I don’t believe the art and the artist are linked, I can accept the fact that great art often times comes from terribly flawed people.  There is a modern notion that if you produce great art, because the art is great, you must be somehow special and deserving of our adulation and attention.  The artist-celebrity, the artist-priest–this notion that the artist because of their skills at expressing the ineffable, they are some kind of superhuman who we must uphold as some kind of paragon.  It’s complete and utter bullshit.  And we see it play out everyday now that everyone is connected, and there are no more secrets.  Artists say and do some fucked up shit sometimes–just like you do.  You know why?  Because they’re just dumb flawed humans.  But that doesn’t meant they can produce something which allows you to approach the sublime.  So maybe an artist IS a great person.  But horrible art comes from great people, and vice versa.  In fact, currently a huge problem in comics are all the free passes “fans” are handing out for mediocre work based simply on the notion that the artist in question is an advocate for their cause.  So someone like Brian Wood can build a career as this feminist champion in comics, while kicking mediocre boring ass books, and harassing women at cons.  So because you view the artist as saint, not only can he get away with skullduggery, he also can start kicking subpar shit, but because your relationship is with the artist, not the art–you don’t care until it’s too late, and then you’re like outraged, because dude turns out ot be just like every other dumbass dude.

Secondly, I do not believe that art has societal power.  I believe art creates the sacred.  What I mean by that is that, for each individual that experience a piece of art, a space exists that only that person expereinces, that can be profound and moving, based upon what they have projected out as their perception, and how that filters back to them with this thing called art.  But that experience is not something you can translate to another person.  Two people can see the same piece of art, but the experience they have is never wholely translatable to the other.  You take that shit to your grave.  I know this because as a critic, I spend tons and tons of words trying to explain the power of my experience–but in the end, all I can convey is just that…the power of my experience.  But even if you think you experience something similar–it is still different.

So what that means is that art can be extremely powerful to the individual, but because it is not translatable to society as a whole, it’s power is isolated to each individual that perceives the work.

It’s popular to say that art is this super powerful thing.  This notion that a great work of art can crack the world in half.  It is a moronic idea, and I say that as an artist, who absolutely believes in the creation of the sublime experience.  But if art was so powerful–then why couldn’t Godard stop Vietnam?  Why couldn’t Ralph Ellison end racism?  Was their art not powerful enough?  And if their art isn’t powerful enough–how can a bullshit issue of batman be that powerful?

The reason we say that art is powerful is because for US, for our individual experience, art IS profound.  It’s like touching the divine.  But we can’t extrapolate it.  And whatever we do pull out from the art to throw to others, is fundamentally not the art itself–but our reading of the art. And that point the art is immaterial.  You’re just writing an essay adovocating for something–and maybe it will be heard, maybe it won’t–it’s letter to the editor writing.

The danger is that in the power of your howl, you might actually wake a dragon up.  You see when you run around saying how art is dangerous, and how artists need to be responsible–the problem is that at some point, someone might actually take you seriously.  Because the logical societal response to dangers to said society is to exercise societal power against said danger, until it is minimized.  As Zak pointed out in his essay, quoting from Isiah Berlin:

“”…some, and by no means the least distinguished, tend to say that state control has its positive aspects as well. While it hems in creative artists to an extent unparalleled even in Russian history, it does, a distinguished children’s writer said to me, give the artist the feeling that the state and the community in general are, at any rate, greatly interested in his work, that the artist is regarded as an important person whose behavior matters a very great deal, that his development on the right lines is a crucial responsibility both of himself and of his ideological directors, and that this is, despite all the terror and slavery and humiliation, a far greater stimulus to him than the relative neglect of his brother artists in bourgeois countries.

A society where art is considered powerful is not a safe one for art to be created in.  And indeed it’s not even a great environment for good art to be produced.  Seen any of those Kim Jong Il movies?  Yeaaaah.

Which was what Zak was getting at with Nordau, that his criticism was irresponsible because it created an environment where art was dangerous, where artists had moral responsibilities to project in their work–and eventually powers came along and used his writing as the guide posts to some real fuckboy shit.  And I mean comics should know better.  Frederic Wertham set back American comics for who knows how fucking long, with his social advocacy about the dangers of art.  A medium dominated by dumbass superheroes is your reward.

And obviously, this brings us up to Charlie Hebod.  A group of violent fuckheads came along, said art was dangerous, art was powerful, that art was worthy of answering with violence if it was offensive enough–and then 12 people died because of it.  And I guess this week has been a frustrating walk between two sides.  One side, where they rightfully identify racist imagery, but wrongly attach a danger and power to these works of art, which calls for some kind of vague responsibility, of the type that Nordau asked for.  And then an other side, which flatly rejects that the images contain racist imagery at all.

And meanwhile between all of this 12 people are dead, because as powerful as art supposedly is, fuckboys with guns will always be more powerful.  And meanwhile, I still don’t know a fucking thing about any of the artists that died, or what the magazine was for them.  It’s really been quite the week for criticism to show it’s impotence in the face of true adversity.  Anyway.  I want to eat some buffalo wings now.

Julia Gfrörer’s “Phosphorous” opens with a crying young man arriving at a pond.  His first words, which appear before him are “fuck you, fuck you dad”.  And thus begins a short but dense unpacking and subversion of the traditional representations of masculinity in patriarchal society.  It is in this deconstruction where beautiful horror streams in, and Gfrörer is able to construct a piece of sublime weight.

Male tears are something of a rare bird in the dominant fiction of our culture, and so upon their materialization you do kind of have to lap them up with a particular fervent earnestness.  In Julia Gfrörer’s “Phosphorous”: our starting point is a man in the woods.  This stone chucking man, with his pack of things, cuts something of an archetype of the self-sufficient capable man under whose foot nature bends in hierarchical accordance.  But that image is mixed in with tears and volatile emotions.  His principle struggle between himself and his father, which he expresses through sexualized obscenities, is presented here as a kind of hysteria.  This is the son who cock in hand,  wishes to assert his virility over his father, and in so doing ascend into adult alpha-malehood.  It is a primordial struggle between father and son—and by mixing that with tears,  we are presented the image of masculinity as rooted in an emotional struggle and perhaps not entirely within control of its own faculties.  It is not without importance that he has left his father, to come to this pond to and meet his obscene repressed dark mother; and it is not without mirrored appropriateness that the interactions between the two will also be sexual in its nature.

What is interesting with the man’s relationship to the woman in the pond is that rather than following the mold of the dominant patriarchal cultural representations, wherein it is the woman who is regressed by sex—here we see the man turned into the cooing monosyllabic child face of ecstasy.  While the former is not a truth, but a cliche, Gfrörer has inverted it al the same—and even though the woman in the pond is constantly shown beneath the man, she is in complete control of him from that position.  She has him by the balls.  This is still a depiction of masculinity—but there is a recontextualization from father-daughter imagery to mother-son imagery.  We see this repeatedly in the comic as the woman cradles and comforts the man throughout the entire sexual experience, even going as far as to recreate the Pieta on the shores of the pond.  Which now is a beautiful blasphemy of the dead white Christ and the black Virgin Mother now post incestual coitus. The transformation of the woman in the swamp from monstrous other to woman to virgin death mother encompasses a cycle that recalls very easily the xenomorphs of the Alien films.

It wouldn’t be inappropriate to introduce Alien(1979) here into the conversation because a lot of the dramatic forces which made that one of the great works of horror of the 20th century, are also at play here.  In Alien it is the notion that men can be overpowered, violated, and impregnated by the monstrous feminine that baselines a lot of the squeamishness of both Giger’s designs and Scott’s atmosphere of overriding dread.  As well, we also deal with the irrationality of men in Alien; Over and over again, the men of the movie make emotionally charged and altogether disastrous decisions(the most prominent of which is to bring Kane into the ship against strict quarantine guidelines, and Ripley’s stern direction not to).  In this way there are two mothers at play in Alien, Ripley, and the xenomorph—and both are disregarded by men to the peril of all of those around them.  So there’s a resonance in terms of the forces at play between  Alien and “Phosphorous”, and while these themes are in more places than Alien—I think that’s probably the clearest, best example of what we’re talking about here—and I bring it up, because the monster at the bottom of the pond in “Phosphorous” is operationally very similar to Giger and Scott’s xenomorph.

There is a mirror here between the young man approaching the strange glow in the pond, and Kane in Alien approaching the egg which contains the facehugger.  In both instances, male bravado and curiosity has led it into the clutches of a female trap.  The other main comparison here is obviously that the xenomorph represents both sex and death.  The woman in the pond operates along a similar axis, and though she doesn’t kill the young man, she is as interested in his life’s breath as she is his semen.

Shifting focus onto the woman in the pond: we see that even though, as mentioned previously, she is shown below the man at almost all times (there are in fact, only three panels where she is compositionally drawn above the man), the way that she touches and talks to the man is never subservient.  I think one of the most interesting sequences in “Phosphorous” is when she grabs the man’s penis and begins manipulating it curiously.  Even though fundamentally we can recognize this as a hand job—the way that it has been contextualized is with the penis as a foreign object—the penis is objectified here; both by being the disembodied focus of the hands in the panel, but also in the way that it supersedes the man in terms of the importance it takes in their interaction.  She orders him to show her how it works, and he immediately complies to her authority, and begins, tears in eyes, to masturbate.


As she pulls him under water the imagery turns from that of purely sex, to also that of death as we see both semen and life breath being extracted from the boy.  This idea of the female extracting sex and then bringing death is all through nature (and for what it’s worth it is also how the xenomorph functions).  It is an intensely erotic idea because it plays with our ideas of sex as something of a life force that is done to reproduce ourselves continuously through time in opposition to the finality of death; so to present sex also as the cessation of one’s life, and rather instead, present it as a reminder of death creates taboo.  And through the transgression of the taboo, we get the energy of the obscenity from which we feel the push and pull of our gaze throughout this work.

There is something else happening here and that is sex as connection.  The young man in his disconnect from his father, is here, whether explicit to his knowledge or not, to connect with both his mother and his repressed childhood.  He is having this experience to break down the walls between his present identity, and these separated refractions of self spread throughout his subconsciousness.  By introducing death play into the sex, those barriers are even further eroded, as identity weakens alongside life’s waning assertion.  This gap allows for the identity of the other, in this case the dark mother, to flood in and fill—In doing so, the man becomes the boy becomes the fetus becomes the mother. This regression becomes complete once he has died.  Two circles rotating in opposite directions, meeting at a singular incestual point joined through the mirror.

It is the culmination of these densely layered motions and counter motions which give “Phosphorous” the mesmerizing strength that it has.  It is only a six page comic nestled at the back of Gfrörer’s Black Light collection, but it follows you away from the page in a way that few comics being made currently by anyone else can claim to.  I actually showed this comic to someone at my day job, and they were completely transfixed.  It happens quickly, but it happens powerfully, and the work as a whole is quintessentially what I mean when I talk about my own interests in the horrible beautiful.  For me Gfrörer’s work is absolutely at the forefront of comics being made today, and however poorly they translate into my ability to write about them, these are the kinds of comics and creators which should be struggled with, not the regressive toy shit that dominates the weekly controversies.  You can put Julia’s work up against other top works in other mediums happening right now, and it can absolutely trump them.  It’s extremely exciting for comics.

Taiyo Matsumoto is tough for me to write about in any kind of formal fashion.  Not sure why.  I think maybe some of it may be that he’s such an old influence for me—like I came into his work before Nihei or Daisuke Igarashi—maybe even before Inio Asano-though Asano hasn’t really influenced me artistically—but I think how I got there was I was reading Stray Toasters because when I was first sort of starting to figure out how to draw, I practiced by redrawing Frazetta and BWS, but I was looking at like Sienkiewicz and Ashley Wood—anyways so I was reading Stray Toasters, and my wife of the time saw one of the panels in it, and was like “oh wow, that’s Klimt”—so I went and looked up Klimt and was like “whoa” which led me to Schiele which was a life changing moment.  As soon as I saw Schiele I knew there was something in there that I just FELT, and I wanted to explore that feeling through my own work and find my own expression through it.

So in trying to figure out how to take Schiele into comics I ran into Taiyo Matsumoto’s work.  I think Tekkinkinkreet was the first work of his I read, then No. 5, then Gogo Monster, then Ping Pong, then Takemitsu Zamurai, and now Sunny.  Ping Pong and Takemitsu Zamurai are prolly my fave works by him, with Gogo Monster a close third.  But these works were huge to me, and I mean eventually I found Daisuke Igarashi—and I think Daisuke is even closer to my like platonic ideal of comics than even Taiyo is—but Taiyo was key.  Maybe THE key.  At least after Schiele.  So there’s a lot of emotional investment with Taiyo.

So I was really ready for Sunny when I first saw the scanulated pages and once I learned it was coming out officially in the US, I stopped reading those pages and just waited.  What excited me with Sunny was that in Takemitsu Zamurai Taiyo really found this incredible dynamic and expressive way to really sort of put his line in the forefront.  And he ditched a lot of the heavier rendering techniques that were kind of holding that line down, and just trusted his brush for textures and tones— and it was amazing.

So when I first saw Sunny, I was like—well this is the logical end point of this like 30 year progression of his style.  So I was crazy for this book.

But when I finally got it, that first volume was really brutal for me.  The dynamism that I expected, and the expressionism was really paired back, and I thought the first book really started to highlight for me Taiyo’s inadequacies as a writer compared to someone like Igarashi, or Inio Asano.

I thought that the over abundance of these water color inks with just a lot of heavy black—and less sort of body bending compared to previous works that it looked like a children’s book almost.  It had this “literary” stuffiness to it that really lacked the psychosis of Taiyo’s older work.  Which was a shame, because Sunny was meant to be such a painful personal story of Taiyo’s own upbringing—but it seemed even the story had a restraint—like the dark corners of what was really going on were very hemmed in and restrained—almost sanitized.  The whole thing had me really down on his work as a whole, and I was really considering how I thought about Taiyo’s work as a whole, and what role it would play for me going forward.

But out of trust I kept up with it, and…oof it was rough for awhile.  It took me four months to read the second volume just because it was so demoralizing to me how much  I didn’t like it—and I was just going to be done with the series there—but the last story of the second volume it finally hit me.  This is the story about Haruo visiting his mother in Tokyo.  And finally, FINALLY I had what I needed to hold on with the story.  Haruo is absolutely the star of this book, and it’s because he is in some ways the most unrestrained character in the book—even as he is the most kind of fucked up and emotional too.  He is a type of character that Taiyo has done really well in a lot of different books—he is kind of a combo of both black and white—because he has the coolness of black, even as he has the manic-ness of white.  And initially Junsuke is kind of set up as the white character of this book—but I don’t think it really works quite the same, and anyways—so this Haruo chapter largely works in the loud unsaid howl of Haruo’s whole way of being. And really after this chapter it feels like Taiyo has finally found his footing with these large cast of characters—because after that there’s the great Megumu chapter, the Makio chapter—he’s figured out that this book is kind of about this kind of emotional frailty of these children, even as they are intensely strong in their abilities to adapt—but that that adaptation has it’s cost, and for as much as the adults around the star kids do their best—the damage of being discarded by your parents is real.

I also think by the third volume the stylistic choices by Matsumoto are much more in balance.  After all of these styles he can approach a panel in any number of ways—and where the first volume I thought was quite rigid, and maybe it was just about nailing down the baseline style of for the book—there seems to be more of the sense by volume 3 of a master using his whole toolkit and knowing when to kick this kind of style in one panel vs. another.

I think fundamentally the strength of Taiyo’s work for his whole career is that he doesn’t just tell you here is a boy doing this thing—he gives you something more about the boy at that particular time just in the way his line jitters, or the way the shadow will cloud a face—and maybe the shadow will be these impressionistic brush strokes—or maybe it will be more traditional cross hatching techniques?  But the choice always was about communicating something beyond simply what is physically there in the scene.

The Makio chapter in vol. 3 is an excellent showcase for this versatility of skill, and the pointedness of Matsumoto’s choices.  We see this impressionistic jittering of styles that shift and change depending on the role that Makio is performing—so when he is more of an adult with his girlfriend at the restaurant—everything is very stable and adult, makio has his really heavily hatched sports coat which really restrains his form and constricts him.  But later when he is playing baseball with the star kids, the coat is gone, and his form is stretched and bending and has less weight.  That beautiful panel of Makio as a mountain climber.  His face rendered heavily, inside of just these really beautiful loose lines and brush strokes.  We don’t know exactly what he’s thinking in that moment—but it still is the climax of the chapter.  It is the most truthful expression of Makio as the man he has become.  It is his most honest portrayal so far in the book(though the earlier Makio chapter in Sunny is also pretty good).

It was interesting I started to watch the anime adaption of Ping Pong that Masaaki Yuasa is directing and while it is it’s own weird thing separate from the manga—it’s interesting to see other artists try to duplicate what Matsumoto does, and copy his lines—-and while I’m enjoying it all, and it is gorgeous—it isn’t Taiyo.  When you have a style so hinged on an almost signitory movement of the line—it is uncopyable in that way.  A line like that is so personal and so expressing and so singular.  And it’s different to see the comic where Taiyo is just expressing himself, vs. an anime where others are trying to express Taiyo to others—and the effect is really interesting and bizarre.  But it speaks to my own convictions about the line and how the line is everything.  To really get up close with an artist’s line, it’s like…a fingerprint.  And I love that with Taiyo that element is so up front.  These are stories and they come from a place inside of me and all of my experiences to this point.  That’s on the page.  You don’t need to bring anything outside to glean that.  You look at it and it tells you everything.  It’s the same thing I think that causes some people to not be able to look at Schiele’s work.  Because that line is so disturbing.  There’s a deep psychosis there that can make people really uncomfortable.  But it’s so beautiful to me.  So simple but so beautiful.  So yeah, I’ve come back around on Sunny.

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