Regards From Serbia

Susan Tomaselli on 3AM has a feature on Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards From Serbia, published earlier this year by Top Shelf (link via Marko at Neorama). I’ve been reading Regards myself recently and found it fascinating – the strife in the Balkans is quite recent history of course and it gave me a peculiar feeling as I read it because I remember following the events on the news throughout the 90s, while many friends would also watch and comment sadly how they had just been on holiday to that part of what had been Yugoslavia only a year or two before those events.

regards from serbia zograf small.jpg

As I read on that peculiar feeling increased; half-remembered events from the BBC news resurfacing in my memory contrasted against Zograf’s first-hand accounts from ‘the other side’ (as he tells an American during a trip abroad, he’s from Serbia, the ‘bad guys’!) – it isn’t just that he describes the surreal nature of living under threat of bombings and the ranting and spin of politicians (in the West as much as in Serbia, all full of justifications for their actions, all ignoring the harm to civilians they caused), it’s seeing events from the news reports we saw in the UK but from the perspective of someone who lived there. While NATO commanders and US and UK politicians cheerfully told us that we were using precision weapons to surgically strike only specific targets, the reality of being at the other end of a ‘precision’ raid is somewhat different. Precision is a very flexible term, especially when presented a military campaign to a cynical public sensitive to civilian suffering (although Zograf still manages to inject humour into this grim situation).

Zograf smart bomb.jpg

Of course when you read Regards From Serbia it puts you in mind of other works, notably Joe Sacco’s comics war reporting, but I think Regards stands on its own – the fact that Zograf is describing his own home adds much to the impact of the book; how would we feel if the place we had lived all our lives suddenly became a war zone? Not something that would happen to us? Well, I seem to recall before the struggle in the Balkans most of us assumed we’d never see large-scale armed conflict in Europe again… The surreal nature of trying to lead as normal a life as he can during abnormal events lends the whole thing a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, something Zograf exploits openly, taking the darker dreams he has during the war as raw material for the comic strip. In some ways the surreal and often absurd nature of wartime events and the humour used to deal with them reminded me a bit of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. On the art front there’s a lot of heavy, black ink which seems appropriate to the subject matter in the same way black and white film seems more suited for serious documentaries. Zograf’s characters are often seen from a side-on perspective, only one, large, oval eye visible in profile, reminiscent slightly of classical Egyptian art but also very much (to me at least) of Pablo Picasso and several times I found his scenes reminding me of Picasso’s powerful and terrifying nightmare vision of war in Guernica.

Regards From Serbia panel.jpg

A large section has been included by Top Shelf reproducing many emails back and forth from Zograf to friends and fellow comics creators in the rest of the world (when the power was on and when the net access wasn’t being blocked by the West); I know some thought this distracted from the comics, but personally I thought it was a good idea, adding to the very personal perspective on the events (I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Terry Jone’s contribution). And that personal perspective is the heart of Regards From Serbia; Zograf never pretends to be a reporter or historian – he presents the events that went on around him and his family and friends, their thoughts, feelings, hope and fears, from a very personal and emotional place, presenting us with an insight a more impartial news report of history text never could.

It Was the War of the Trenches: Jacques Tardi’s WWI masterpiece

It Was the War of the Trenches

By Jacques Tardi

Published by Fantagraphics

I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.

Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.

(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.

And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…

(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.

(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).

(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog

New 5th Doctor figures

Just been released, new version of Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor along with the same era’s Master incarnation (as played so well by the late Anthony Ainley). I really want these for my desk to go next to my Tom Baker figure; Baker then Davison were the main two Doctors when I was growing up, so they’re always going to be ‘my’ Docs.

And at the same time there’s a new figure of Davison’s Doctor as he first appeared right after the regeneration scene at the end of Baker’s swansong in Logopolis/start of Davison’s first story, Castrovalva (since the former lead directly into the latter), the Doctor now regenerated into his new form but still clad in the previous incarnation’s clothes (Baker’s later period costume of the long, burgundy coat and matching scarf):

Emotional tales. Human tales. Psychiatric Tales

Psychiatric Tales

By Darryl Cunningham

Published Blank Slate Books

The brain. It’s the single, most complicated creation we know of in the entire universe. And that’s before we even consider the mind (because they’re not always the same thing). Somewhere in that gray mass that looks like it was sculpted from leftover, used chewing gum, in a mixed bath of electric jolts and chemicals, a mind forms inside that brain. Complexity within complexity; a level of complexity, in fact, far beyond anything we’ve built, no matter how clever, how intricate our design and engineering ingenuity. It isn’t surprising that something so complex can also be disrupted or damaged in so many different ways. What is surprising, perhaps, given that we all share the same biology, the same basic neural architecture, similar sensory input, emotional needs and desires, is that very often we, as a society, are reluctant to talk about what happens when those mental processes in that remarkable construct we call the brain go wrong. Darryl’s compelling graphic novel does something simple but remarkable – it talks about mental health problems. Moreover it talks about them in a quiet and yet consistent voice, not insisting, not judging, always in a clear and accessible way.

Regular readers will know about Darryl already – he was our first cartoonist in virtual residence here on the blog with his Super Sam and John of the Night strip and we’ve been following his work since then, including the development of Psychiatric Tales, as he posted up previews of the work as he progressed through the book. To say I’ve been anticipating reading the finished, printed work is an understatement. Not just because the subject matter was interesting – and it is – but also because it is another fine example of the topics that can be addressed (and addressed very successfully) using the comics medium.

The book itself may almost come as a surprise to those who watched the increasingly confident growth of Darryl’s style during his Super Sam run here on the blog, a developmental style which was marked not only by finer drawing but by some notable and impressive use of colouring techniques later in the run. Psychiatric Tales, though, is simple, stripped back, black and white (the art, the subjects, however, have many shades); the cover is fairly plain and clean – it doesn’t need to shout out to the browser – and the small, hardback design is pleasingly reminiscent of the sort of quality independent press work I’d expect from the likes of D&Q or Top Shelf. Despite the more stripped back, monochromatic approach (which feels quite appropriate, giving something of a documentary feel) there are still some lovely visual tricks Darryl works into the pages, sometimes the sort of device that works almost subconsciously, such as rain throughout pages on depression, giving way to sunlight coming out from behind the clouds in the background as Darryl talks of genuine hope for sufferers.

The book itself is arranged into several rough chapters dealing with various mental illnesses, from dementia and depression to schizophrenia and suicide, although of course, as Darryl suggest himself in the book, there’s often no clean line of distinction between illnesses and symptoms. Some, such as dementia, elicit both sympathy and fear; sympathy for someone struck by an affliction which isn’t their fault, fear at the thought that perhaps for some of us that’s what waits hidden in our own future, being slowly robbed of the aspects of the personality it took a lifetime to make until we’re not ourselves anymore, or, equally terrifying, of seeing it happened to someone we love.

Other mental illnesses, such as self harming or depression, are, perhaps, harder to understand; it is all to easy to dismiss sufferers of such afflictions as being ‘weak minded’ and simply needing to ‘pull themselves together’ and Darryl discusses patients he saw in his time working in the care home, some of whom had to deal with just those kinds of reactions from people around them, even from the people closest to them, the people they should have looked to for support. In fact, the reactions of those around a person are, in many ways, what is at the core of Psychiatric Tales. The reactions and actions of a sufferer’s family and friends are, demonstrably, of huge importance in helping them through their illness, exactly as such support would with a more physical ailment.

While Darryl discusses the obvious importance of clinical support and treatments and the advances in the understanding of the brain and how to use drugs and other therapies to treat problems, it is the quest for understanding and acceptance and support that seem foremost throughout the book. Empathy is woven throughout the pages and in the chapter on anti-social behaviour disorder that empathy is contrasted sharply against those with more psychotic traits who are unable to empathise with other people – and as Darryl points out only some of those with such behavioural problems are classified as mentally ill, some seem to labour in the misapprehension that actually being so cold and uncaring is actually a form of strength, rather than a weakness and think it is a positive benefit in pursuing ruthless, mercenary careers and this seems to be acceptable behaviour for them.

Given the subject matter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Psychiatric Tales is a bit of – ironically – a downer, with depressing material, but actually it’s nothing of the kind. And while obviously some of the cases (drawn from his experiences working in the mental health care system) are very upsetting (having to deal with a suicide… there aren’t really any words to adequately articulate the horror of such a situation) for the most part Darryl gently leads us to some positive aspects of his tales, from a woman, given breathing space and support, coming out from an abusive relationship and finding value in her own life again to a whole chapter on famous people who showed symptoms of mental illness but who enriched the lives of others, from Winston Churchill to one of my own personal heroes, the late, great Spike Milligan (fighting depression, stress and the after effects of shell shock from the war but still reworking the entire comedy map brilliantly).

Among the many awful things about any serious, long-term illness, be it mental or physiological, is that it can cut away at a person’s being, their identity, and so their individuality and humanity. What Darryl does, in a very gentle, caring way, is to remind us that behind these illnesses, drugs with odd names and medical terms and cases are people, with thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears. They’re the people around us, people we know (and most of us will know someone who matters to us who has had to deal with mental health problems, I know I have); in fact some of them may well be us. We may have come a long way since the days of Bedlam (or even the vast Victorian asylums) but there’s still too much stigma attached to mental illness in our society.

Darryl concludes the book by showing not only could it be any of us who find ourselves needing this help and empathy, he shows exactly how he himself needed it as he found himself moving from carer to sufferer. It’s immensely touching, very emotional, very human, very honest work, shining a light on a subject which too often we shy away from (and yet as with most problems, the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes to understand and so deal with – just look at the good Terry Pratchett has done recently). It’s also one of those rare books which not only tells a strong, emotional tale, but which may also do some good in our society by raising the profile and increasing understanding of mental illness. I can see this easily taking its place alongside respected works like David B’s Epileptic. It’s a book you really should be reading. It’s a book you should be telling others to read. And you should talk about it.

This review orginally appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog

Monsters on the Mexican border, comics vigilantes in York, lonesome cowboys in the West and George Lucas

After reporting on Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist earlier this week, here’s a round-up of some of the other genre-related, geek-friendly footage I managed to cram into my annual bash at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (it wasn’t all poncing around in a beret watching black and white films about human tragedy from Hungary, you know), with Indy flicks from North America, the UK (taking in alien monsters on the rampage, comics style vigilantes in York and an exploration of Star Wars fandom) and the live action version of the classic Lucky Luke comics from France

Crimefighters is a cracking wee comics-inspired black and white movie set in York, from Miles Watt (who is also involved in Zomblogalypse online), made on a shoestring budget and shot in a really nice, crisp, luminous black and white which makes the most of the small resources available to the film-makers. A trio of friends are attempting one of the most difficult endeavours of modern life – trying to avoid drinking for a month. Sipping soft drinks in the pub they start to notice that things in the fair city of York are getting worse – is anti-social behaviour (that great bugbear of modern Brit society that politicians so love to rant on about) really on the rise in the city or is it just because they’ve stopped drinking they’re getting a little paranoid?

An increase in fights and muggings does seem to be occurring and when the town’s CCTV cameras are deliberately targeted too it seems that it isn’t just random violent outbursts after closing time but part of someone’s diabolical plan. But why would someone want to cause more trouble in town? And with the authorities seemingly helpless isn’t it time to don the (home-made) masks and take the law into their own hands? Some of the dialogue and acting is a tad clunky; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but to be honest I got the impression that it was mostly by design, a nod to the often clichéd superhero comics which were part of the inspiration for the film and the foundation of the masked Crimefighters vigilantes. It may not be about to challenge Iron Man at the box office, but Crimefighters makes up for its minuscule budget with a good sense of fun, a knowing nod to its comics and movies inspirations and, more important than big budgets or sparkling dialogue re-writes, it’s got a lot of heart and I think that makes it a great Friday night movie for comics geeks. Crimefighters is getting a limited release this month and will be going around the UK via the Picturehouse chain of cinemas (starting in York today), so check their site for venue and screening date details and give them a bit of support if you can.

The People Versus George Lucas is Alexandre Philippe’s labour of love documentary, over two years in the making and involving a humongous amount of footage and then editing it down (apparently there are acres of scenes which didn’t make the final cut, including some famous contributors). Despite the adversarial title, this isn’t a Lucas-bashing movie; actually if anything it is a celebration of Star Wars and the huge part it’s played in the lives of legions of fans over the years. The film draws on archive footage, animations, photos, fan videos (and oh boy, has our Star Wars inspired a multitude of fan films!) and a slew of talking heads, from ordinary fans to some very famous ones, including David Brin, Francis Ford Coppola, Dave Prowse and Neil Gaiman among others (apparently Ray Harryhausen was also interviewed but didn’t make the final cut, which gives you an idea of the sheer amount of footage the film-makers had to try and edit in to the final cut).

The film dives into just why Star Wars, right from the start in ’77 (nostalgic sigh) became such a subject of passion for so many of us and how some aspects of the saga have had the opposite effect, infuriating fans – re-jigging the first trilogy years later and then not allowing the original cuts to be re-released for the many who want them (this was contrasted against a much younger Lucas who argues against the hideous 80s vogue for tinkering with classic movies), the still ongoing rumble over the ‘Han shot first’ in the reworked Episode IV and the contrast between the original trilogy and the later prequels. And oh yes, the Jar Jar thing (with due homage to Simon Pegg’s Spaced scene). Even when fans are venting their spleens about aspects of the series which annoy the hell out of them, though, it’s never mean – it’s the sort of emotion that can only be generated by people who really love the series. You can’t get that worked up if you don’t care, so even the criticism is a form of fan love. And before anyone outside of geekdom thinks typical geek behaviour to obsess over niggling points in something, it’s no different from the obsessive behaviour shown in any area where people have a passionate interest (take football for instance, where fans have memorised results from decades ago and still endlessly debate the minutiae of a play from 10 years back. It no different. Except we have cool lightsabres. And Slave Leias at conventions). Taking a balanced approach the film also discusses the creator’s right to make changes to their own works, whether it is what some fans want or not – Gaiman’s particularly good on this point, understanding both from the fan point of view but also from the successful creator perspective, where some fans really want you to continue doing what you did before.

The film also talks about how the enormous, unexpected success of Star Wars also, in a way, boxed in Lucas as a film-maker – as his friend and mentor Coppola put it, while he’s had huge success it also means he’s spent the rest of his life making Star Wars for the most part and we never got to see the other films that the man who made THX-1138 and American Graffiti might have made. I must confess I hadn’t considered that point before and I suppose it is the flipside of the cosmic level of success Star Wars enjoyed – it’s given Lucas fame, wealth and the love of millions, but did it also mean he never got to work on some of the other film projects the Lucas of the early 70s seemed eager to make? Overall though it’s a positive film about a series of amazing films that may drive us nuts sometimes but at the end of the day we still love deeply, laced with much affection (even when criticising) and often very, very funny. A great flick for Star Wars fans and indeed for any sort of fans – there’s a lot of ourselves to be recognised in the people in this film, because they’re us.

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is another Indy movie and one where I didn’t know much more about it other than the blurb in the Film Fest programme – reporter is told by his boss to get his daughter back over the Mexican-US border. Problem being several years before a space probe sent to retrieve proof of organic life samples beyond Earth crash landed in northern Mexico and the lifeforms got free, mutated rapidly and spread, leaving the Zone, a quarantined area of alien monsters between most of Mexico and its border with America. Starting with some shaky night vision footage of an enormous monster attacking a city and being repelled by troops (in a scene that looks like CNN footage of combat from Baghdad, but with giant, tentacled aliens) Monsters straight away establishes an atmosphere of unease – talking to their taxi driver our protagonists ask how he can stay here when an attack like that can happen so randomly out of the Zone. Where else would I go, he asks. His life, his job, his family are all there. It’s another obvious echo of the problems faced by ordinary folks who happen to live in a city that’s become a trouble hotspot, be it insurgents in Iraq or Kabul or aliens in Mexico.

Photojournalist Kaulder is not happy at effectively being ordered to escort rich kid Samantha Wyden back over the border after her dad decides the attacks are getting too close. He’s there to cover them and looking for the one great shot that will make his name, seemingly less concerned with the human cost of what is happening than with how it will look in a news photo. But since Sam’s father owns his newspaper he doesn’t have much choice and as the infection leads to increasing disruption of transport links they have to take an increasingly off the beaten track route back home to the US, imbuing the monster flick with some of the road movie genre along the way. There are elements of other movies, from District 9 to Apocalypse Now in this belting, lo-fi movie (much of which was semi improvised along the way as they shot, for instance some of the armed troops you see aren’t all actors, some were the bodyguards provided for the crew by Mexican authorities, so they used them in their shots to work that small budget even further). Of course as they travel together Sam and Kaulder start to get to know one another more and the audience gets to know them right alongside. The effects are used sparingly – the budget would doubtless not stretch to too much of the monsters anyway but, like the much larger budgeted Cloverfield, Edwards knows that it is more about atmosphere and he deploys his monster shots sparsely but very effectively throughout (the director picked up the Moët New Directors Award at the Festival, in fact). Like District 9 this is a bit of a left field science fiction flick with a nice, Indy feel to it; one to watch for when it snags a general release.

(left to right: actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able with director Gareth Edwards and one of the Film Fest organisers on stage in the Filmhouse at the Edinburgh International Film Festival Q&A after Monsters, pic from my Flickr)

One of the last films I saw during my Festival break was the French live action movie of the classic European comic Lucky Luke, by Goscinny and Morris, which Wim talked about a few months back when it was released on the Continent. I remember a wee bit of the comics cowboy from my childhood reading, although he was never as big here as he was in France (although I am glad to say Cinebook are doing their best to make his books available again here in English), so I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since live action movies based on other European all-ages comics like Asterix have been less than stellar. Boy, was I in for a very pleasant surprise – it wasn’t just okay, it wasn’t just good, it was bloody brilliant. Seriously. The style is somewhere between the comics (the sets are fabulous – the town is all weirdly shaped buildings, as if they were made from plans drawn without a ruler), Sergio Leone’s Westerns and a less adult version of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (still one of the funniest movies ever in my book). And it’s funny. Oh god, but it’s funny. Three of us went to see it and we laughed pretty much throughout the entire film (and indeed on into the credits, which had some jokes – in French – peppered throughout the credits and an extra little scene that makes a nod to the fact that in this day and age the child-friendly cowboy hero can’t be seen to smoke, but does so with some panache).

There are some great touches – the live action leans towards the real world but retains enough of a cartoons sensibility to make it recognisably Lucky Luke (the cowboy takes a bath but of course he keeps his cowboy boots on; the terrified locals of the town hide from the bad guys who run it by always hiding in barrels). A lot of the humour is visual and slapstick in nature, with plenty to make the younger audience members laugh, but there are plenty of lines there just for the adults too (after all, many who will watch this are adults who grew up reading the comics many years ago and they want – and get – a film that pleases the kid in them and the adult). For example Luke no longer smokes, as we know, so now he has a blade of grass in his mouth, which leads to Jesse James trying to smoke it and exclaiming that this grass is too strong to be smoking, a joke going past they kids in the audience but hitting the adults (and along the way paying homage to the scene in Blazing Saddles where our heroes get high); a scene in the president’s carriage if so full of powerful men smoking cigars that there is a cloud inside the train. I’m not going to go on too much about it – trying to explain how funny some scenes are to someone who hasn’t seen them yet rarely works and besides I don’t want to spoil it. I will say it is creative, incredibly funny and it is stuffed full of wonderful little details – when it gets its DVD release it’s a film that you can easily re-watch and spot even more that you missed first time around. No details on a UK release yet, but I’d imagine now it has subtitles added prints will make their way onto the arthouse circuit in due course, and if you want a great laugh you should saddle up when Lucky Luke comes to town.

An animated Edinburgh: Sylvain Chomet at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I’ve spent the last week and a bit attending to one of my annual traditions: enjoying the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Among the many movies I managed to fit in there were, unsurprisingly a number from the comics and SF influenced end of films – mostly from the independent end of the pool – and, of course, some great animation. And since Wim’s been talking about The Illusionist, which has just opened in Europe and since it was the opening night gala movie let’s start with that.

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge admirer of Sylvain Chomet, who brought us the brilliant Bellevile Rendezvous, with its Scarfe-influenced characters and that I’ve been following the progress of his new animated feature as it came together in an Edinburgh studio. Rather appropriately, since much of the film is set in the Scottish capital. Adapted from an unused script by the great Jacques Tati (truly one of world’s cinema’s greats, easily up there in my book with Keaton), we follow Tatichef (another Tati reference), a tall, ungainly stage magician, struggling in 1950s Paris, so he takes himself off to London, only to find even less success there – old theatrical acts are out of fashion, the hip, young crowds of the post-war world want screaming rock’n’roll (cue some brilliant pastiche of 50s rock acts). Looking around for another gig to pay the rent an encounter with a (naturally drunk) Scotsman at a party leads to a booking in a wee village out on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, where he meets a young lass who, convinced he is a real magician, follows him to Edinburgh, where again Tatichef goes through a variety of gigs to try and get past in a world where his kind of act is now old-fashioned and no longer in demand.

As with Belleville Rendezvous, however, the story is only part of the enjoyment – the visual aspect is another, from the OTT comedy of the pelvis-swinging rock bands who steal Tatichef’s audience to a wonderfully drawn array of secondary characters (most notably the short ventriloquist). And then there are the landscapes; when the film moves to Scotland the artwork for the scenery is simply gorgeous (as indeed it is in real life), from the steam train thundering northwards to the boat to the islands, where of course it, being Scotland, is raining. And as the boat approaches the island and castle, in a scene paying homage to Tintin’s Scottish visit (although with a bit more visible under the kilt!), the rain stops and sunlight filters through gaps in the clouds creating the shimmering, golden dappled light effect anyone who’s been to Scotland has no doubt seen and it’s beautifully done.

The arrival in 50s Edinburgh is similarly beautiful and romantic, the steam train pulling into Waverley Station in its deep cutting between Old and New Town, landmarks surrounding it. As with Paris and New York in Belleville it isn’t an exact replica of the city but an idealised version, easily recognisable as Edinburgh (the Castle, the Scott Monument, Jenner’s, Balmoral, the rearing bulk of Arthur’s Seat) but a sort of magical, fantasy version of the city and again Chomet recreates the constantly changing quality of light we enjoy in Edinburgh, to quite beautiful effect. Okay, obviously I am totally biased here – being both an admirer of Chomet’s work and since I’m lucky enough to have Edinburgh as a home. If you know the city you will love the depiction of it that Chomet and his artists have created. And if you don’t then you will probably fall in love with it – as he did with the city – and want to see it for yourself; he’s talked about the changing quality of light in Scotland and how it inspired him, how it changes everything (it does, the same scenes are endlessly refreshed and changed a little) and there are some scenic passages which are clearly a love letter to the city.

(Sylvain Chomet on stage at the Festival Theatre with the EIFF’s Hannah McGill at the opening night gala screening of The Illusionist at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

For all that beauty though and for the comedic elements – and they have given the cartoon Tatichef a wonderfully physical, very Jacques Tati feel – there is a strong melancholy running through The Illusionist. The young, naïve girl is lovely and obviously a little bit of company and sunshine in the older Tatichef’s life, but at the same time it serves to show that he is much older and that he has little to show for his lifetime of efforts but an act that no-one wants anymore, no home, no wife, no children. Her childlike belief that he actually is a real magician is touching, but it’s also an impossible image for Tatichef to live up to (and he tries so hard to make her happy) and something will have to give at some point. Throw in the complication of a young girl turning into a young woman and starting to notice boys (including a character who has more than a passing resemblance to a very young Sean Connery) and you begin to suspect that perhaps this won’t be as upbeat as Belleville. But over all that there’s the sheer beauty of the visuals – from the Flying Scotsman steaming in Waverley Station to a dizzying aerial spectacle of Edinburgh’s astonishing landmarks rotating below us. There’s laughter and sadness, often at the same time, some wonderful characters and above all some gorgeous artwork you can lose yourself in. You want to see it.

The Illusionist is out now in France and is expected in the autumn in the UK and winter in the US. Next from the Film Fest: geeking out with The People Versus George Lucas, the lonesome cowboy Lucky Luke delivers with both barrels, comics-style crime fighters in York, zombies in Athens and there are monsters on the Mexican border.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dr Jelyll Mr Hyde Klimowski Schejbal Self Made Hero.jpg

Adapted and illustrated by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal,
From the original tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Published: Self Made Hero

For years men have hired assassins to carry out their crimes – I was the first that ever did so for pleasure.

Jekyll and Hyde, one of a handful of stories which has become so embedded into our culture that more than a century after it was penned, more than a century since its gifted young author died on a Pacific island far from his Edinburgh home we still, to this day, use the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality as shorthand to describe a person who’s personality can vary between goodness and acts of vicious anger rapidly, as if two different people inhabited the one body. Its no coincidence that Stevenson’s original short tale was born in the same era that, among many other scientific advances, saw the beginnings of modern studies of the human nature and the intricacies of the most complex creation we know of: the human mind.

In fact this supposed familiarity with the concept is, I think, often a handicap to a real understanding of Stevenson’s magnificent work; it has been around for generations and has been endlessly adapted to each changing age since it (or should that be them?) was born in 1886 (a decade before Stoker would birth another enduring dark reflection of humanity’s desires and fears with Dracula). Within a year of publication stage adaptations were appearing; by the very early 20th century it was already being adapted to a new scientific wonder of the age, the moving pictures. It would be endlessly re-interpreted through the next century and on in more films, plays, books, games, music and, of course, comics. And this has given many people who haven’t read the original the idea that they don’t need to, that they know it already. In fact I recall some members of my own book group objecting to the book one month because they all knew it. Had they read it? No. Well, I’ll tell you what I told them – if you haven’t read it, you don’t know it. Most books, TV productions, plays and others rarely capture the essence; the story here isn’t just a simple tale of duality and good and evil, it never was. It’s about the eternal conflicting impulses each of us has and the complexities of human behaviour, not simple ‘saintly’ doctor and brutal hedonist; Hyde is Jekyll and those vulgar appetites for drink and warm flesh are Jekyll’s own and oh how he wants to indulge. And – at first anyway – how good it feels when he does indulge (we all know this feeling at some level, from simply breaking a diet to eat cake to something more involved). Klimowski and Schejbal understand this.

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(the almost irresistible allure of indulgence, of playing the bad boy, but you must always remember these impulses don’t come from some mysterious creations, they come from Jekyll; its all drawn from Jekyll, however much he might protest or detest the idea)

This comics adaptation is quite lovely, right from the haunting cover (which hints at those early, silent film adaptations such at the 20s Barrymore version as well as reminding me of Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera’s dreadful visage with a hint of Munch’s Scream) to the interior art, which Klimowski and Schejbal have split between them, the former taking the first part of the story (told mostly by Jekyll’s lawyer friend Utterson) and Schejbal the second part, mostly Jekyll’s description of his vices, his desires and the fateful potion he concocts which allows him to indulge those more vulgar passions safely, in a different persona, with no risk to the reputation of the respectable doctor. In fact – and I realise this may sound odd – but while reading this I often had the feeling less of reading a traditional comic but of reading an illustrated book; by that I mean that the panels, most only two or perhaps three per page, felt more like they depicted an individual scene rather than a flowing sequence, little tableaux, illuminating key moments. I don’t mean that as a criticism, quite the reverse actually, I think it’s a style which works beautifully for this story.

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(the cityscape is elegantly depicted, an ordered world of fine architecture and well designed streets, but Stevenson knew from first hand experience that even in his refined, native Edinburgh the beautiful city showed one face but had another in the shadows and alleys and hidden places…)

The monochromatic art helps to evoke the feeling of the period (hints of old photographs, those first, flickering cinematic camera); even the use of black and white and the mix of greys is highly appropriate to the subject, while the art depicts a suitable mix of elegance (gracious Georgian and Victorian architecture, emblematic of the new, clean, ordered cities of progress) and the more horrific (the misshapen Hyde brutally beating a small girl for sheer animal delight). While both halves deal with the same story from different perspectives, the split between the artists also seems to create a literal contrast, with Schejbal’s latter half (again appropriately) appearing darker as Jekyll himself tells of his nocturnal inclinations and his shame at giving into such urges, his discovery of his formula, of Hyde and the descent into a hell of his own making, passing through a glass darkly.

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(Hyde’s brutal murder of an elderly MP, the crime which pushes him beyond the pale and leaves him a man marked for the gallows)

RLS’s story, as you can probably gather, is one of my personal favourites; its one of the classics of Western literature and a cornerstone of the horror genre (in his look at the genre Stephen King calls it the archetypal werewolf tale). And as I said, if you haven’t read the original tale, you really don’t know the story in its complex, fascinating beauty. Klimowski and Schejbal’s adaptation knows this and unlike some much more simplistic versions it eschews the good versus evil approach for the more satisfying entanglements of the original, while also revelling in the mystery – and you must remember that to most of us today, we know in advance Hyde and Jekyll are the same person, but the original audience didn’t – of who Hyde is and what his relationship is to the respectable Jekyll, events spiralling in a mix of violence, vice, indulgence, regret and half whispered secrets.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski Schejbel.jpg

(the hypocrisy of the fine Victorian gentlemen, suitably attired for the evening as befits a respectable member of society, upstanding, moral, but happy to indulge in vices and pleasures in darkened rooms while always worried about the ruin of reputation should the secret pleasures be revealed to the world)

It’s the best (and one of the most visually attractive) comics version of the story I’ve read since the Mattotti version years ago from NBM (which was more of an interpretation rather than adaptation as here, but very true to the feel of the story) and if you’ve read the tale you should enjoy it while if you haven’t then it should serve as a good introduction to the real story, after which you should then pick up the original text (after which I suggest Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, one of RLS’ literary inspirations). Moody, atmospheric, brooding, wading into the murky depths of the human psyche, it’s a tale that simply doesn’t ever lose its relevance; every time you read of a disgraced politician or religious figure its easy to think of Jekyll and Hyde. And uncomfortably easy to think how we all have parts of ourselves we wouldn’t necessarily want to be made public. Now if you will excuse me, I feel the urge to walk the misty streets and perhaps have a drink in Deacon Brodie’s, named for one of the real life inspirations for the story. Now where did I put my walking cane…

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