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There’s a point in the newest Hiroaki Samura comic Der Wergelder where a bunch of sour faced yakuza dudes are sitting at a bar lamenting having their ass kicked by a women who was both a superior fighter, and physically superior as well, that kind of points to what was the strength and weakness in Samura’s older work Blade of the Immortal.  In Blade of the Immortal, the most compelling figure is Mackie, and the dramatic arc of the whole thing is driven by Rin–but because of how Samura structured Blade of the Immortal in the beginning, both of these women were shackled to Manji and Anotsu early on, and because of that were never really put on center stage–this was something of a misstep, because as an artist what Samura is best, and his art best explores is violence to and by women.  It’s why Mackie is his most compelling character, and why Brute Love is his most complex statement as an artist.

I bring this up because Der Wergelder represents a correction, because Der Wergerlder, amongst the many things that it is(and it is an absolute soup of Pinky Violence/Exploitation genre archetypes)–the first and foremost thing it is, is a center of focus on the women driving the narrative.  While the men in Der Wergelder are largely interchangeable ineffectual goofs–the women are lightning wielding valkyries hellbent on undermining the whole system built by said ineffectual goofs.

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It’s interesting that Blade of the Immortal was fundamentally a rape revenge tale, and Der Wergelder is that as well. As with Blade of the Immortal the focus of the rape revenge is slightly diffused because our point of focus is actually the character of Shinobu who hasn’t really been violated, but she’s flanked by Träne(pictured above), and Soli Kil–both of whom have.  I suspect it’s because since both are such deranged characters, that falling into either of them would have completely imbalanced the narrative.  But it’s interesting because it’s an inversion on the Manji-Rin relationship, where Rin was the poor fighting victim, and Manji was the tough–here Träne marries Manji’s acumen in battle, with Rin’s trauma–and then that leaves the sort of wide eyed wonder all expelled into Shinobu–who isn’t as naive as everyone around her kind of thinks.  We’re also given a fourth woman, the gun-nunchaku Jie Mao, of whom not much has been said yet.

This all serves as a great platform for Samura to focus on his strengths of violence, women, and sex.  There’s tinges of things like Bradherley’s Coach and Brute Love floating around here that weren’t as present in Blade of the Immortal.  You could actually conceive of a world where Der Wergelder and Brute Love are happening concurrently, and for the same reasons.

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The sense of Der Wergelder as an unhinged soup of elements feeds into its overall grindhouse feel.  You’ve got lightning wielding one eyed germanic figures dressed like Meiko Kaji shooting everything in sight, nunchuku weidling chinese dress women diving out of helicopters with no parachute–cybernetic enhancements, Lupin looking dudes being led around on leashes and tortured with exercise equipment–there’s a part where a dude has sex with a woman who has been modified to be a mermaid…just kind of in there.  It’s crazy when you think about it out loud, but it works in the same way 70s exploitation always works.  Craziness glued together by over the top sex and violence–you’ll accept just about anything.

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Even aesthetically Samura is throwing the whole bag at these pages.  One of the most remarkable things in Der Wergelder is Samura’s usage of Zipatone:

It’s like an artistic guitar flange that he drops in several times throughout the book.  All of these weird textures on top of the normal Samura styles:

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It’s really funky, because I’m so used to seeing Samura’s figures over a particular thing, but they’re popped out over and over here with sometimes completely ridiculous textures–and it speaks to this notion he writes about in the afterword of the book, that he wanted to make a “manga without dignity” the wild freewheeling Samura puts on display in Der Wergelder is really fascinating, because I’m always interested in how artists use texture and the way that playing with the foreground and background through texture is a key component for keeping a comic dynamic even when nothing is really happening in terms of action.  It introduces a play to the book that allows itself to be about its own image.  As I’ve written about before, trash largely lives or dies on whether it can through its wild fuckness –whether it can give you the image or not.

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This page is excellent, because not only do we get this dramatic zipatone reveal we also get this image of a buer demonsword(a demon you may remember from Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone comic) mixed with this sort of random image of a gagged Träne–which–is jammed in as a transition to the next scene–but here functions symbolically to speak to the horrors that Shinobu and Daisuke are speaking around.  There’s a created dissonance though in the shift, going from the zipatone to the heavier inky brushed drawing of Träne.

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Then you have a few panels like this, drawn with this super clean line style and much smaller zipatones, that look almost like a completely different artist–jammed in between two panels of older style Samura, but focused by the light and cleanliness.  It’s all pretty cool, Samura is at that point as an artist where he feels very confident in his techniques, and switches freely between them both on a whim, and for page compositional/dramatic reasons.  It gives the book this underpinning of really strange vibe.  The art choices largely keep the book campy in a way that allows for all of the discordant elements to fit, and allows for Samura to slide in horror story that is essentially about baby harvesting rape farms–in a way that is awkward and crass in the most glorious ways.  It’s staying power in its present form, and going forward I think will largely depend on how well it is able to stay in this space without being extracted into the predictable routine and modes that Blade of the Immortal could be mired in.  I think one of the disjunctions in Samura’s work, is that at times Blade of the Immortal was a thin veneer over the monstrous abyss lurking in the back of Samura’s predilictions as an artist–and the extent to which he is removed from that darkness is the degree to which his work loses its beauty.  My hope going forward with Der Wergelder is that it moves closer to Brute Love and Bradherley’s Coach but mixed with his bad bitches kicking ass characters–the roots of that kind of work are here in these initial volumes–if so, this could end up being a pivotal piece of work in Samura’s canon.  If not it could herald a decline into bleh.

Oh yeah.  Also:

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Katie Skelly’s My Pretty Vampire

Katie is my co-host on Trash Twins, and one of the few people kind of on the same wavelength as me in terms of what to do with comics, so it’s not really a surprise that she made one of my favorite books.  Her Vampire book is everything I love.  Big format, colorful comics that aren’t afraid to explore eroticism as something that refers both to sex and death.  Katie draws in this really iconic style, which is why that t-shirt of bon-bon is so popular. When we first started talking about her comics, one of the first things I ever said about her comics was that I wanted them as big as possible with all the colors.  These books along with Agent 9 and 10 and 8 are all that.  Also the progression in Skelly’s style just from Margarine to this–and before that from Nurse Nurse to Margarine is terrifying.  And really inspiring as well.  Even if we weren’t friends, she’s someone making me want to work harder on my own comics.  I wrote a lot this year about how comics handles trash genres–particularly in my pieces on Prison School, Terror Assaulter, and Bitch Planet–the subtext of all of those criticisms is that Skelly handles genre how I best believe it works.  She uses the rules to create iconic imagery that expresses her own poetic truth.  There’s no step back in her game, where it’s like “oh look at this thing that is like this dumb thing I like”–the thing is the thing in her comics, pretense doesn’t even come into it.  Katie doesn’t make comics that are about her trying to make some other thing, they’re about her using these tools to say the images that she thinks in and has conviction about.  Which you can see a lot of these things when I wrote about Operation Margarine which was from before we were really friends.

Tiger Lung by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie

What I love reading any Simon Roy comic is how thoroughly his worlds come together.  You can backwards engineer just about everything on the page and it’s fun to think about the things that are being said in that backwards space of those worlds.  It’s not just like “oh wow these are some weird creatures” it’s more “oh huh, that creature exists because of an elaborate history through the ages” and there’s speculation within that thought process that is really fascinating.  Tiger Lung specifically I liked because I find trying to imagine the lives and culture of our ancestors in the Upper Paleolithic really fascinating.  Our inclination is to view ourselves as more advanced and that history is this long forward arrow through time–but when you consider the imagination it takes to conceive of tools or fire, and how all of this information would be stored and passed down through culture–the complexity makes a mockery of our modern mind.  It is beyond conception really.  But Tiger Lung does a great job of trying.  I loved the sort of cave shadow rendering of the art that allowed supernatural shapeshifting to make sense for our modern eyes and within the world it exists in there.  It’s this fascinating sliver of a comic, that isn’t exactly the type of comic world that has been very thoroughly explored.  I wrote about it extensively here.

●●●● Vol. I by Morgan Jeske

Besides being beautiful, what I loved with this comic starts at the beginning with this girl riding a whale into space, which is such like…a chariot of the gods type of moment, and got back to the stuff I liked in Tiger Lung in terms of mixing up our ideas of what primitive actually is or means.  But past that, there’s a way that this comic is about the way that an environment is both the pollutant of the body, and the self is the pollutant of the environment.  The relationship between the interior and exterior is wonderfully conceptualized.  The walls postulize with sickness and corruption, the body changes shape under the pressure of gravity.  Space is psychomotionally conveyed on every page, and it creates this space of exploration that is both outward into the unknown, and inward into the mirroring void.  It’s a comic that stretches itself in two directions at once.  It’s a comic given over to the image, which is something I always enjoy.  I dig the colors too.  You rarely get a comic with such a strong POV that is executed in this kind of style.  At least in America.  This comic would win an ignatz if Morgan had less talent.  I kind of wonder where stuff like this and Emma Rios ID comic fit in American comics, because they’re not kind of firmly in the boy adventure thing where people like good looking art more, and they’re not ugly so they aren’t appreciated by alt-comix people.

I.D. by Emma Rios

I’ve probably said before that for myself, and what I’m interested in doing with my comics, I problem solve a lot off Emma Rios comics.  A lot of what she does in terms of balancing her pages, and handling a huge weight of images per page, she’s pretty much the best at.  With I.D. Emma held a masterclass on how to handle dialog heavy stories and still make them just as dynamic as a full on action comic.  She threads these pages with constant foreground and backgrounding tensions that shift back and forth over the course of conversations before culminating in a kind of climax.  It’s similar to what you see Rainer Fassbinder do with depth in his films, but it’s really interesting to see it balanced in a comic, and show how you can balance dramatic and visual tension playing to the strengths of comics as information pages.  Emma and Kelly Sue Deconnick also dropped a new Pretty Deadly issue this year, and even though it was also good, mostly along the ways in which they create these rich weird amalgm genre spaces, and how Emma is able to keep it all coherent in the costume design–and I think Jordie Bellaire’s color on this new issue points to a much much much greater understanding of how Emma’s artwork works-so there’s greater concert there–but man…it’s so basic compared to what Emma did on her own.  Reading I.D. where Emma is both writing for her own page, and drawing from her own writing, it becomes very clear that the complexity she has as a storyteller is much greater than any of the stories she’s drawn so far in collaboration.  It makes sense because these I.D. pages are so balanced and constructed, it would be hard for a writer to really think in all of those planes at once, without being an asshole with the script(Alan Moore).  The story itself goes hard sci-fi on what our bodies mean both to us and others, and in a year where transgender stories were largely either dumb as hell, or offensively dumb as hell–it was nice to read one that wasn’t fixated on that point, and just let the story be, and in the process said some interesting things organically through the story.  But yeah.  Mainly, if you want to see how to handle dialog in comics without being boring, this is the comic to study.

Sea Witch by Tessa Black

It’s amazing how horrifying beautiful is.  I dug this comic because again it was one of those comics that was actually drawn well, but more than that there are body things that happen in it that I still cringe looking at, but the experience of not looking away as this body is pulled apart and reshaped is truly sublime.  It’s sort of an inverse Little Mermaid story or like…an Origin tale for Ursula.  Her comic has that quality that has me following Shintaro Kago on twitter everyday, for every iteration of crazy spaghetti guts.  There’s just ways of drawing viscera for the body that always really affects me.  In this case it’s mirrored against the sea and a lot of organs are metamorphosed by their sea ocean counterparts.  Both Sea Witch and I.D. are from the Island anthology, which I have also contributed to.  But as a reader, I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of that magazine.  Not every story has been great for me, but it’s been a nice source of the kind of comics that I kinda look for.

Anyways.  Those were the comics from 2015 that I liked the most.  I mostly re-read comics or read older Pat Mills written 2000AD comics(because they had crazy artists), Kyoko Okazaki comics, Prison School, Dark Knight Strikes Again and Holy Terror, The Collector by Toppi, Idyll by Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Blade of the Immortal, Crepax comics, Children of the Sea, Daisuke Igarashi comics, Julia Gfrörer comics.

The book I read that I liked the least in 2015 was Wytches from Image comics.  That comic was stupid and a waste of time.  But maybe you’ll like if you like like…The Conjuring type of shit.  The coloring was good on it.  Everything else…the writing was very precious, the line art was visibly disinterested in most of the pages, as the story seemed a complete mismatch from the artist’s strengths.  The reason the book is even at all coherent as a singular unit, and worth looking at is the coloring techniques that largely dictate and keep everything kinda together.  But yeah.  Compared to everything else I read this year, pretty shit.

One of the things I think a lot about, and frankly, write a lot about, is this idea of chasing the sublime image.  Whether in my own art, or in the art that I am viewing, what I’m looking for is those images which transcend translation, and speak to an experience beyond text.  Images that link up with the poetic truth of an extrastential experience.  I think that, even though our culture is largely subsumed in images, those images are largely unimportant images.  They are the images of commerce, but not the images of the holy.  If that makes sense.  I think looking for, and creating beauty are two of the more worthwhile things that you can do to pass the time while living.  Tarkvosky writes about this in his book Sculpting in Time:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example.  The aim of art is to to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

As I have said in the past, when I talk about the pursuit of the sublime, I am talking about the pursuit of death.  The thing which is outside of life, and that stops us in our tracks; the thing that if we were to gaze upon it would destroy all desire for further image.  All life builds to this final image, and art is, at it best function, an iconographic representation placing itself between the artist and the viewer, and uniting the audience not with the ideas of the artist, but the ideas of beauty which already exist within that said audience.

But these impulses have been perverted.  Beauty has been changed from something that allows us to understand that which is outside of life, into something that makes us desire life itself.  It creates a need, not for death, but a need for life in all of its turmoil, pain, and exploitation.  The image has changed from that which removes us from the pain of living, to that which entrenches us further within it.  It does this for purposes of exploitation and control.  You are made to desire a false image of beauty so that the company can sell you and control you.  It is the removal of your own interior beauty, for the sake of an exterior master class who through money, can most ably jump you through whatever hoops they need to, because you think that you need their message, their product.  The image goes from a thing that is beyond text, to the thing which follows text around limply and pathetic.  It becomes the thing we have to go through to get to the message which makes us feel a controlled way with a predictable set of outcomes.  Artists are then trained out of their ability to listen, in favor of their ability to speak.  But art is not speaking, it is listening.  And I should note here, when I say things like “art is this or art is that” I’m not saying it as a concrete declaration.  I’m saying it as “I think that this is the state in which things can be the most powerful, and this is my reasoning why”.  Anyone can do anything, but for me, I am interested in these things which induce extreme feelings in me, and linger for decades versus the things which I can’t remember a week after I saw them.

This brings us to Bitch Planet.  A comic book published by Image, co-created by Valentine De Landro and Kelly Sue Deconnick; with lettering by Clayton Cowles, Colors by Cris Peter, and additional line art for issue #3 by Robert Wilson IV.  Bitch Planet is a thick brushed textural dystopian science fiction comic about women who have been cast out of society to an auxiliary outpost facility on a planet far away to live out the remainder of their lives away from earth societies.  These women labeled as “non-compliant” for reasons ranging from murder and assault to disrespect and adultery.  The first five issues largely serve to introduce a group of these women and the larger society that exists around the construction of this facility, and then move the story into some inter-gender kind of future rugby death sport, though we only glimpse this in the final issue with a practice match against the prison guards.

The book is something of an ensemble cast, but only in the sense that the character who makes all of the meaningful decisions in the book for the women (Kamau Kogo) is not the character that the artist has the most interest and fidelity in drawing on the page (Penelope Rolle).  This is complicated further by the fact that 1/5th of the book is given over to Rolle’s origin story, which is strangely drawn NOT by the artist (De Landro) who draws the character the best, but rather by Robert Wilson IV, whose Rolle is significantly less interesting(and smaller, even as an adult).  It’s also strange that none of this backstory comes organically from interacting with the rest of the cast, but just as a flashback that Rolle has while some random prison thing is done to her over the course of a single issue.

But then given how little meaningful interaction there actually is between the women in this comic, it makes sense why you’d HAVE to just force in a flashback.

To that end, there is no real complication within the women of Bitch Planet.  Right off the bat they pretty much trust each other, and start working together toward larger goals–which is useful in terms of speeding the book into the gladiator matches(which still don’t even really take place in full force by issue 5), but because of this decision, you never really get to grips with who these women are and how their different identities operate together, and then before you know it, one of them is dead, and three more have been added.

Artistically the book is drowning to depict its script.  Bitch Planet takes place in the future, but all of the fashion is pretty much what you would expect from a comic set in the present day.  Men mostly wear the same suits they’ve worn in comics for 50 years.  Women have no real clear sense of style rooted in any kind of attempt to create an era.  Guards wear the same kind of standard comic book body armor you’ve seen a million times.  Hands sometimes get drawn.  Faces often don’t.  Large crowds become blobby masses of faceless heads taking up space so that the backgrounds can remain mostly empty and unrefined.  Which is fine because comics don’t really need backgrounds.  But because you never once see the surface of Bitch Planet, or an establishing shot of the prison, or exteriors of where people are on earth you completely lose your sense of scale and place.  Even though we’re made to believe that women can easily be sent to Bitch Planet, and so…you’d think there would be like millions of women on the planet and overcrowding a real issue(I mean they send women there just because guys want out of their marriages, or just for like…looking at men wrong!) because of the lack of a sense of space or scale, and the blobular nature of crowds–it really does feel like there’s less than 50 people on the planet.  Which again, doesn’t make very much sense.  Unless you are saying that the women who are there are the worst of the worst–but if that were the case, then why do they work together so well?  I mean everyone at Bitch Planet seems pretty well adjusted.  And I mean, the only reason you start thinking about these dissonances is because the actual style of the book is fairly realist, it doesn’t really ask you to put logic aside at many points visually.  And there’s so much emphasis on explaining and setting up in the book, that when those things don’t add up, it is kind of jarring.

There’s a two-page spread of the prison interior early on, and in retrospect you can look at it and tell which characters had to be delineated and which ones did not.  Anyone who didn’t have to be drawn on those pages, became an inky ill-formed barf of a person.  Even the layouts are largely restricted because of how many words have to be fit into them.  You only really understand how much De Landro is holding back when you get to the largely wordless shower scene where suddenly the layouts become quite inventive, and the pages become much more dynamic.  There’s not much of a sense of play in the art of Bitch Planet.  It is very much art that is depicting a script, not complicating it through exploration.

The script itself is all over the place.  One minute Kogo is being tortured to get her to confess to a murder she didn’t commit, and then the next minute she’s being told to assembly a crack future-rugby team with little to no connection between the two sentiments.  I mean they say they tortured her for 18 days, but in the end, it’s just to ask her to start up this game?  And why did they accuse Kogo of the crime and not anyone else in the prison?  And why do they need someone to confess to a crime anyways?  She’s already IN jail, and the implication is that she’s there for life. If the goal of the prison is actually just to reform these women–why do they need to be on another planet for that?  All of the brainwashing is handled by technology anyways.  And then the torture itself is isolation, noise, starvation–which are all things that are really hard to depict visually in a few panels, and aren’t that interesting to look at.  It’s also a pretty sexless prison.  There’s one couple, but they can only make out in the shower because they let a guard watch, but they have to do it in the shower, because the guards can’t watch?  So in the distant future prisons have become really hostile toward homosexuality?  And then Kogo’s whole reason for not wanting to play the megaton game is because they’ll lose and get humiliated, but routinely we see her and Rolle beat up gangs of men like they are superheroes–so there’s no indication that the two of them are any less strong than men, and in fact, Kogo is shown to be superhumanly strong when she rips a showerhead out of the floor, flips, and then breaks down the wall with the pole.

There’s a constant sense of things in Bitch Planet  happening because they have to happen, not because they should happen–and they happen largely to the detriment of any kind of development of an emotional core of the book.  The book has some terrific depictions of some of the more sinister manifestations of patriarchal rule(particularly the scene with the waitresses in the gold dresses who are harassed and at once everywhere and nowhere)–but that’s all they are, is depictions.  They’re not really seated in anything.  And while the book’s decision to make the cast predominantly people of color, and mostly black women, is very good, and I think it’s nice just to see not only different races depicted in a comic, but also different body types–I mean on the whole that, the empowering marketing campaign, and the book’s politics are all things that I agree with and like–but the problem is that the message is just the message.  And I already agreed with the message.  The message doesn’t hit.  You don’t feel it.  You hear it. There’s no complication in Bitch Planet because all it is is the expression of a logical and sensible world view.  And that’s certainly a valid thing to do, and not insignificant in the current climate.  However, the difference between Ras Kass and Chuck D was that Ras Kass TOLD you the nature of the threat, Chuck D made you FEEL the nature of threat.  And if you just asked “who’s Ras Kass”? Exactly.

The book was originally marketed as a book owing to the exploitation cinema of the 60s and 70s, and the covers for the book still attest to that.  But what’s interesting with exploitation or trash cinema is that maybe a lot of things in those works were low budget–or poorly executed–but the works that we remember 50 years later, we remember them because it was complicated problematic troubled truth coming from the fringes.  It was the passion of the Image.  Like you don’t really remember the parts about Thriller(1973) that were just Christina Lindberg being drugged and raped and objectified by the camera–you remember her with an eye patch and a shotgun fucking dudes up–you feel those images, and they mean something beyond the sum of their parts.  The fucked up energy of the whole also created the same space for these weird things we’d never seen before, that could be extracted and taken with us for strength.  There’s nothing like that in Bitch Planet.  There’s no passion to it, there’s no rage in its pages.  There’s no danger.  And the thing is, we are in an era where women are becoming as dangerous as ever.  Where Nicki Minaj shakes her ass in a video, and half the internet sets itself on fire.  Where Beyonce calling herself a feminist in a music video pisses MRAs and white feminists off for totally opposite, and equally ridiculous reasons.  There is stuff going on right now.  Right now in 2015, people are wildly uncomfortable with dealing with women–but that fear isn’t really directly confronted here.  It’s certainly not meaningfully pushed back at.  I wish this book was its marketing, because I very much wish this book was a problem for people.  But it’s not.  It’s just another thing that’s the most important thing ever that you need to support because if you don’t then blah.  Just like everything else.  It will probably be a shitty movie in 5 years.  We’re selling people what they want, not giving them what they need.

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.

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