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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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

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.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski.jpg

(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.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski beating.jpg

(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…

Animation at the Film Festival

Among the movies I was eager to see during my annual week off at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival were two animated features which we’ve mentioned on here before (regular readers will know of my fascination for all forms of animation) – the Australian stop-motion film Mary and Max (that rare thing, a feature length, independent  animated movie aimed at an older audience) and a more traditionally animated 2D offering from Ireland’s Cartoon Salon, The Secret of Kells, which was created primarily for a younger audience.

The Secret of Kells

Aisling Brendan Secret of Kells.jpg

(an illuminated text version of Aisling and Brendan)

Regular readers will probably remember me mentioning this rather beautiful Irish animation a few times before on the blog – artist Cliodhna Lyons (Irish 24 hour comics day) first put me on to it last year as she had been involved with the Cartoon Salon in Kilkenny and the descriptions and artwork I saw had me hooked. It is an Irish-French-Belgian production and this and the graphic novel based on the film meant Kells also had a presence at this year’s prestigious Angouleme Festival, which Wim covered back in January. Drawing (no pun intended) inspiration from the fabled Book of Kells, one of the incomparably beautiful books in the history of world literature, The Secret of Kells offers up the tale of a young monk, Brendan, a novice at the monastery of Kells where his uncle is the stern, towering, grim-face abbot.

It is an evil time for many – Rome is but a distant memory and the Dark Ages have fallen across much of Europe. One of the lights in the long, dark night comes from the early church and most especially in the monastery’s preservation and dissemination of learning and the dim, early days before nations like Ireland and Scotland were actually nations, but were slowly being forged in a cauldron of oral myth, the unique Celtic brand of Christianity, small kingdoms becoming larger kingdoms and the testing by fire of brutal events like the seemingly endless invasions of the Norsemen – the Vikings. Off the Western coast of Scotland, among the many islands which scatter there though the seas lies the spiritual home of early Scottish Christianity and it is from here that Brother Aidan must flee as the Viking raiders sack this sacred site and slaughter or enslave the holy men who live there, destroying or ransacking everything within. Aidan flees with a remarkable book, the Book of Iona, still to be completed after many long decades of patient illumination by many gifted, scholarly monks. Bringing it to Kells he hopes to complete it with the help of brothers in the scriptorium there, but the abbot has lost patience with such things, being totally obsessed with building walls and defences against the inevitable Norse assault he knows will come on Kells and the monks and many villagers who have fled there for protection. He actively discourages his young nephew from helping Aidan, who, now finding his old hands to unsteady for the job, seeks a gifted replacement to finish the book.

Disobeying his uncle Brendan steals into the forest, a dark place, home to strange creatures from Irish folklore, dark wolves, standing stones, strange caves, home to mythical beings. And a forest sprite in the form of a young girl (Aisling), who is suspicious at first but soon warms to Brendan until the two become close friends.

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The film is beautifully animated – the artwork is often simply gorgeous, as befits a work inspired by one of the most beautiful cultural treasures in the world. Sometimes the characters appear to be walking in an odd way compared to the background and it felt to me that this was a deliberate style adopted by the animators; its as if the characters are flat and walking across a flat background, which seems appropriate to the art style of the period, long before the more normal (to us) adoption of perspective in Renaissance art much later. Some scenes are also broken into split screens, little triptychs which recall the lovely, large header illustrations common in many illuminated books of the period, while other scenes again draw directly for their design on the unique form of illuminated texts which the Celtic school of Christianity created, people, animals, beautiful plants, flowing script and twisting, interwoven lines and knots combining into something so beautiful it almost makes you cry (so beautiful its mere sight is supposed to blind sinners as Brendan says), while other touches are small and subtle, such as the way the dappled light sparkles in the forest as the sun comes through the leaves.

Contrasted against this the Norsemen are depicted mostly in shadows, dark black and blood red outlines of hulking figures, swords and horns, recalling the demon from Fantasia (for which the great Bela Lugosi posed for the Disney animators, long before motion capture). Their acts, while never shown in detail, are brutal, dark, terrifying – for a film aimed primarily at younger viewers possibly a bit scary, but then they should be and I think its good that the animators don’t hide the horrible brutality of the period, especially as it makes the book stand out all the more. Too late the abbot will realise that his endless obsession with defences will still not halt the tide of Viking onslaught and that while they are all transient beings the book is more important then any of them or the abbey itself; the book is a symbol of the light, a beacon to shine a path out of the Dark Ages and to touch the souls of men and women for eternity (as it still does to this day). But only if Brendan and Aidan, with help from Aisling and a rather smart cat can save this remarkable work of art.

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(the demonic Norsemen attack)

Its an utterly beautiful film – there’s a lovely adventure and a tale of friendship, of learned responsibilities, of what is most important, of coming of age, of saving what you can against the ages, served with a helping of folklore and fantasy, some humour and some wonderful moments of wonder that will have the eyes of child audiences open wide and the eyes of the adults too, all served up with some beautiful, traditional animation, which moves from the reasonably simple to the gorgeously elaborate scenes directly inspired by the Book of Kells. And as a bonus hopefully it will inspire kids to learn more about our history and our shared culture. Sadly there is still no news on a general UK release as yet, so at the moment you will need to watch out for it at film festivals. Which is a huge hint to any film distributors out there – this is beautiful, enchanting adventure with soul and culture and it needs to be seen by more people (and parents its a perfect one to take your kids to). And its not just animation lovers like me – Secret of Kells took the much vaunted Standard Life Audience Choice Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival – that’s an award cast by actual audience members as they leave the cinema, not an award given by critics, so obviously the audiences here loved it too; you can find out more on the official movie site here and director Tomm Moore’s blog.

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(director Tomm Moore – pictured centre – at the UK premiere during the Edinburgh Film Festival, from my Flickr stream)

Mary and Max

Also at the Film Festival I was lucky enough to catch another animated film I have been eager to see for months, Mary and Max. The first Australian film every picked to open the prestigious Sundance Festival and also the first animated film to do so (which is a strong indicator of how good it is, as is its award at Annecy), its one of those movies which has been gathering impressive word of mouth on the international festival circuit, although like all indy films that is only half the struggle – getting general releases in various countries is another matter and good showings at film festivals is part of that hard slog of getting the film seen by a wider audience (a task made harder by the fact its an animated movie made for adults – most film companies won‘t know how to market such a thing). And does Mary and Max deserve to be seen by that wider audience? Oh yes, without a doubt yes.

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(Max Jerry Horowitz from Mary and Max)

This lovely, stop-motion tale is essentially a story of two damaged, lonely souls who find a remarkable connection across the world. Young Mary is a little girl in suburban Australia, with no friends at school, a funny looking face that gets made fun of, a father who spends most of his time on his hobby of taxidermy (using roadkill for subject matter) and a mother in hair rollers, hideous glasses and constant alcoholic and smoking fugue. It’s a lonely upbringing and Mary escapes into imagination and her love of chocolate and the animated show Nibblets. One day while her mother shoplifts items from the local post office Mary leafs through an international phone book, wondering at the ‘strange’ names in an American directory. On an impulse she decides to take down the details of one random name and write him a letter to ask about life in America.

Max is a middle-aged, obese Jewish man living in 70s New York, also a lonely, damaged soul (as we find out later, he has Asperger’s, which is one reason he has difficulty in relating to people until Mary writes to him), flitting between a succession of jobs, a number of fish (which keep dying and being replaced) and trips to Overeater’s Anonymous which are rather defeated by his love of chocolate. He is quite surprised to receive Mary’s letter, complete with some samples of chocolates from Australia and very soon they are swapping letters, chocolates and little bits of their isolated lives to something neither had before – a friend. It’s at this point that the situation could be seen as straying into potential landmine territory – lonely young girl corresponding with isolated, lonely older man? You can almost imagine a red-top tabloid screaming headline now. But it isn’t like that. Somehow these two damaged souls have found what they needed, a friend, and an unlikely relationship blossoms before, inevitably, hitting some more stormy seas, not least when a more grown up Mary, now at college, studies psychology and uses Max as her main subject.

The film doesn’t try to hide the shortcomings of the characters any more than it tries to wallow in sentiment – it simply presents them and the many little facets of growing up and life that everyone can identify with, from finding out the illicit pleasures as a child of sneaking a tin of sweetened condensed milk to the shattering implications of a dear friendship being damaged (and also presents Aspergers with some sensitive understanding). It’s often funny, sometimes quite sad, but even when sad it is that beautiful kind of sadness that draws you in. The animation is all done in stop-motion and looks wonderful. I have no problem with CG animation but there is something I always find fascinating about stop-motion, the fact that, as the producer (who did a Q&A after the screening) remarked, everything you see on the screen was there, it was all designed, built and then painstakingly moved by hand, frame by frame; its all real, every item you see on screen was touched by a person putting life into it.

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(Mary Daisy Dinkle wrapping up another package for her pen friend)

The voice talent boasts Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both agreeing to work for a fraction of their normal movie fees simply for the love of it (another indicator of how good this film is) and the narration comes from none other than the great Barry Humphries, who apparently they were huge fans of and terrified to meet, but he was charming and agreed to do it, even if he noticed Mary’s mother had a slight touch of the Dame Edna about her. It’s rare to see independent animation features and even rarer to see one aimed at an adult audience (although I think it’s also quite suitable for a YA audience too). There’s more than a touch of the Edward Gorey (or his modern heir, Tim Burton) to some of the style and humour, not so much Gothic but in the dark humour that life often throws up. What can I say except I absolutely loved it and, like the Secret of Kells, I hope that some film distributors pick it up and give it a proper general release here. Meantime, if you see it on the programme of a film festival near you, take my tip and go and see it.

I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Moon

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon

And if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too

I’ll see you on the Dark Side Of The Moon” (Pink Floyd, Brain Damage)

I’m currently enjoying my annual smorgasbord of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival where among the movies from around the world is a low budget, independent British film by Duncan Jones (previously known as Zowie Bowie – yes, David’s wee boy, but commendably he’s deliberately not playing on that, he wants folks to come on the film’s merits). Moon is a most unusual beast – it’s a British low-budget, indy movie that isn’t a social realism piece set in a housing estate. Not that I have any problems with those (some bloody good films come out of that field), but it often seems in the UK film industry today we either make small budgeted social realism dramas or larger budgeted (still small by US standards though) historical costume dramas for the most part. A low budget Brit indy science fiction film? Unusual. And one which uses story and intelligence in lieu of dazzling effects and big explosions? Remarkable.

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I was lucky enough to bag tickets to the UK premiere of Moon at the Film Fest here – both scheduled screenings sold out very quickly (although it has been added to next Sunday’s Best of the Fest, essentially a Second Chance Sunday for sold out flicks from the Festival, book now before they are gone). Right from the start I liked it. Sam Rockwell (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Frost/Nixon) takes on a pretty tough role as he is mostly the only actor in the main scenes, apart from a few small spots (mostly video ‘letters’), a technician manning a mining station on the far side of the moon on a three year stretch, his only company a computer called Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey (and with a screen showing emoticons as a ‘face’).

As the film opens there’s a bit of a Dark Star vibe to the look and feel of it; like Dark Star, or the later Nostromo in Alien, this isn’t the gleaming future of mighty starships like Star Trek, this is space as workplace. Its grimy, its worn, its dirty in places. Rockwell’s Sam Bell at the start is a shaggy haired, straggly beared man talking to himself and his sickly looking plants or obsessively carving out his model of his small town home as he works alone on the Moon. The end of his three year tour of duty is approaching and Sam is counting the days until he can go home to his wife and little daughter. Rockwell does an admirable job of creating a convincing portrayal  of a man who has been as isolated as it is about as possible for any human to be (even the live communication link has been lost due to solar flares, he can only receive and send recorded messages via a relay, no real time communication). His twitches and habits are believable of a man in that situation and the emotional desperation as he watches a video letter from his wife with their wee girl on her lap saying “daddy is an astronaut” is incredibly touching, you can feel his desire to be with his family coming out of the screen, but Rockwell wisely plays it subtly, restrained, not over the top or hystrionic, which enhances the emotional resonance, I thought.

There are little hints that the constant isolation and lack of even real time communications are taking their psychological toll on Sam. Watching a video from his wife it looks as if there was a sudden blip – did something change there or his strained mind just imagining things? Making a cuppa he turns around to see a young, teenage girl sitting in his chair, accidentally scalding himself in shock. He looks again and of course there is no-one there, how could there be? His sleep and dreams are equally disturbed. Returning to work he takes a lunar rover out onto the Moon’s surface and approaches one of the huge, automated mining machines, making its way across the surface on its tracks, spewing out chunks of regolith from the back as it moves.  When an accident occurs and the rover crashes into the mining machine, Sam blacks out, only to wake up in the base’s medical bay with a concerned Gerty tending to him. How exactly did he return to the base, considering there was no-one else around to rescue him from his crashed rover? Confined to the base ‘for his own safety’ until he is recovered Sam suspects there is more going on than he’s been told and engineers a method to get outside and investigate. What he finds will shake him to the core – assuming its real and not the product of a mind collapsing under years of isolation syndrome.

And on the plot I shall say no more because to do otherwise would mean revealing potential spoilers, which I’d rather not do (I will also warn you that a BBC article on the film here, while interesting, does, in my opinion, blow a major plot point, which is damned careless, so be warned if you follow that link). On the production side, as I noted Rockwell does extremely well with a challenging role, the feeling of desperation and tension are palpable and the effects have a suitably dirty, grungy look to them. I had the impression that the exteriors were model shots – not because they were poor, I hasten to add, but they had that lovely physical feel that CGI sometimes just can’t manage (especially for dirtier, grittier looks such as the mining machines), reminding me (pleasantly) of the brilliant Moon models used for the likes of Space 1999. Director Jones and several of his crew were present at the screening and confirmed that they did indeed use physical models for those effects – in fact the same effects man who created the Nostromo worked on their models, which, as I said, looked perfect in the context of the film (and added to the physicality of the film in my opinion).

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(director Duncan Jones talking to the audience in the Cameo Cinema after Moon’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on Saturday, larger version on my Flickr)

When asked about the budget (around £2.5 million – yes, really) Jones said that doing an SF flick for that money wasn’t too hard, but convincing the financiers that they could make this movie within that budget was much more difficult, they all assumed they would need a much bigger budget to achieve what they were planning (we should have asked for more money, quipped the producer). But through ingenuity they made it work – as their visual effects/designer guy pointed out its amazing the sets you can make with duct tape, paint and a bunch of Ikea flat pack furniture items (not that you can tell, it all looked very convincing). Jones told the packed (and very supportive) Edinburgh audience that they loved the SF genre and they wanted to veer away from effects-reliant ‘tentpole’ blockbusters and make ‘smart SF’. I’d say they’ve done so. Its a hugely admirable effort (especially for his first feature), Rockwell is convincing as the central character Sam, the look and feel of the film is suitably grimy, its quite a while before we can really tell if Sam is cracking up and hallucinating it all or if something sinister really is going on and from the look of it you’d never believe it was made for such a small budget.

Its British, its Indy and its bloody good science fiction. Moon gets its general release in the UK on the 17th of July (appropriately close to the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing) and is well deserving of your attention and support. I’m guessing with that sort of budget they won’t have a mighty studio marketing machine, so if you like it, spread the word and give the guys some much deserved support for creating some bloody good Brit movie SF.