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

Dan Dare #2 and #3 reviewed

I’ve posted a joint review of the second and third issues of the new Dan Dare series from Virgin, written by Garth Ennis with art by Gary Erskine, now up on the Forbidden Planet blog.

Latest addition – Dan Dare issue #1

I’ve posted up a review of Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s first issue of the new Dan Dare comic published by Virgin on the Woolamaloo Gazette and on the Forbidden Planet Blog.

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