Book Review – Saigon Calling by Marcelino Truong (Arsenal Pulp Press 2017)

This is the second memoir/history of the Vietnam war in graphic novel form by Marcelino Truong, which has been translated by David Homel.  It covers the period 1963 to 1975 when the Truong family lived in London following a move from Saigon.

Marcelino is the son a Khanh, a Vietnamese diplomat and Yvette.  His family includes his sisters, Mireille and Anh-Noelle and his brother Dominique.

The book tells the story of the Truong’s life and struggles in London against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  The family are challenged by Yvette’s mental illness, which frequently led to angry outbursts against her husband Khanh, the constant concern about grandparents still living in Saigon and growing up in an alien (and alienating) London.

Whilst the music, fashions and recreational drug-habits of counter-culture ‘swinging’ London were alluring to the young Truong children, the dullness, constraints and casual racism they experienced in the suburbs were depressingly real.  Marcelino is very close to his older brother Dominique who is enthralled by the counter-culture and, ultimately, by Indian mysticism.

The story is told in chapter form where a particular event or anecdote from the family or Marcelino’s personal life is highlighted.  Interspersed are details of the intensifying Vietnam War and the ultimate victory of North Vietnam following the withdrawal of U.S. troops and support.

A lot of information concerning the war and the key political players in Vietnam and the U.S.  are provided.  Expository dumps are probably necessary to help the reader but it does appear like one of the old graphic ‘beginner’s guides’ in places and gives rise to some very stilted dialogue where characters have unlikely conversations explaining to each other political machinations or the progress of the war.  It can feel hard going at times which prevents the natural flow.

The artwork is nicely drawn and has lovely colour.  Explanatory pieces about the Vietnam war are coloured in more muted tones of sepia, grey and black.    Characters are quite angular and it would be hard to identify some of the more famous characters, such as Presidents Johnson and Ford, without text highlighting who they are.

Marcelino Truong repeatedly makes the important points that the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong carried out atrocities and were duplicitous as well as the fact that many people in South Vietnam were anti-communist.  These views were often overlooked or brushed aside by some liberals at the time who were enchanted by the promises of Communism.  Truong was obviously very irritated by the championing of the North Vietnamese regime by anti-imperialists and others but it does feel like fighting an old battle given the extensive examination of the Vietnam War in the years since it finished.

Ultimately this is an interesting, if not gripping, story.

Book Review: Killing & Dying – Adrian Tomine (Faber and Faber 2015)

Books like this make me wish I had interesting, creative and meaningful ideas and artistic talent.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous of Adrian Tomine.

The bookseller at Foyle’s in Birmingham told me how good this book was as I was paying for it.  It was a nice piece of decision reinforcement; a bit of a pat on the back and a cry of ‘good taste fella.’

Tomine’s graphic novel/comic contains six diverse stories with unusual plots or settings.  The book examines the relationships between fascinating and sometimes flawed characters.  It draws the reader in.

The first story, perhaps my favourite, is ‘A brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture.”  Gardener Harold combines the disparate world’s of horticulture and fine art to create some truly ugly living sculptures.  Harold meets resistance and derision from neighbours, friends, family and the existing clients of his gardening business.  His attempts to sell his idea and the various ways people attempt to avoid telling him that it is rubbish are highly comical. The comic is presented as a series of 6 ‘four frame’ stories in black and white followed by a nine frame colour piece.  It’s as if it was taken from the pages of a daily newspaper with the colour page featuring as a special in the Sunday edition.

Amber Sweet tells the awkward tale of a girl who receives unwanted attention due to the fact that she looks like a famous porn star (the Amber Sweet of the title).  The girl’s life and relationships with men and women are ruined by the misunderstanding. The girl gets little sympathy, even from her female friends, but a chance meeting with Amber Sweet allow her to make sense of things.  This is a thoughtful piece on pornography and the objectification of women.

‘Go Owls’ sees two baseball fans hook up after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  Dennis Barry is a prematurely aged minor drug dealer and general ‘waster’.  The lady in the story is not named but simply referred to by Dennis as ‘Babe’.  At an obvious low point in her life she perhaps sees the chance of support, companionship and love but suffers a series of blows, both mental and physical.  We can laugh at Dennis, who is one of life’s losers, but his treatment of his ‘Babe’ is creepy and wrong.  This is not a hard-boiled tale of domestic abuse by any means.  It is a contemplative account of a man’s manipulation of a woman.

The next story, ‘Translated from the Japanese’ is a short but beautiful example of Adrian Tomine’s artwork.  We never see the lady who narrates the story.  Instead we see a journey she takes through her eyes.  Casual observations of everyday surroundings are impeccably rendered.  The story is short and enigmatic; definitely one to ponder over.  

‘Killing and Dying’ refers to two things that a comedian can experience on stage.  This is the tale of a teenage girl who wants to be a standup comedian and her relationship with her parents who want to be supportive but struggle somewhat to see comedy as a great career path.  The story is told in pages of 20 frames and each is a stamp-sized study of expression and emotion.  

The final tale, called ‘Intruders’ follows a US war veteran struggling to reintegrate on his return home.  By a strange coincidence he has the opportunity to hang out in his old family home during the day when the current owners are out at work.  It’s a peculiar set-up but quite an effective piece on alienation.  

This is a brilliant book – one to read, enjoy and think about again and again.  Highly recommended. 

Book Review – Drawn & Quarterly 25 years (Drawn & Quarterly – 2015)

This celebration of the first 25 years of ‘contemporary cartooning, comics, and graphic novels from Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly (edited by Tom Devlin) is something of a leviathan.  At over 770 pages and weighing around 4lb 10oz (or 2.1kg if you work in metric) it’s not something you could snuggle down with in bed unless you have wrists of iron or a bed lectern.   

The book is crammed with cartoons, art work, photos, history, memoirs and written ‘appreciations’ of the many artists and cartoonists who have been associated with D&Q since it was started by Chris Oliveros in 1989.  D&Q has been likened to the comic equivalent of the New Yorker and many of the contributors to this book have achieved critical acclaim such as Julie Doucet, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and many others.

In the early days D&Q struggled to get serious comic books taken, well ‘seriously.’ Amongst the reproduced ephemera is a leaflet entitled “Selling Graphic Novels in the book trade”, which is a charming pamphlet and something that booksellers could still learn from.

The work of the artists and cartoonists is preceded by an appreciation, which helps to set the work in context.  One that stood out was an appreciation of the cartoonist James Sturm by Noel Murray.  I’d not heard of Sturm before but the essay by Noel Murray made me want to read his work straight away.   This was followed by a story by Sturm about a comic artist who feels he is falling behind and about those he abandons in pursuing his aims.  Sturm adopts a variety of cartooning styles and the story ends in a neat punchline.

Naomi Fry describes the profound affect that the work of Daniel Clowes had on her:

If you weren’t consistently humiliated by life, you wouldn’t recall every stupid moment of it in such intense detail.

This is a feeling a lot of people can identify with and the autobiographical work of some of the artists linked to D&Q can be so open and honest, in the way that very personal and possibly embarrassing memories are bought to life, that the reader feels their pain and shame. 

Rather than just being lots of boring words to be endured between the cartoons, the written appreciations of the artists are genuinely interesting, illuminating and add to the enjoyment of the work.  

The D&Q artists enthuse about great cartoons from the past and the enduring impact that it has had on them.  Chris Ware writes fondly about Walt and Skeezix by Frank King, a strip where the characters aged in real time and ordinary things happen.  The strips reproduced in the book revealed a lovely, engrossing story of real life.

Seth writes at length about Doug Wright and argues he was every bit as important to comics and cartoons as Charles Schulz.  In capturing the texture of the 1960’s, Seth notes that Wright achieved it 

…thought work that was focuses on quite, tiny little moments.’

Wrights influence can be seen in the work of Seth which often has a quiet Zen like quality about it.  

Many of the cartoons are beautiful artworks in their own right and demand to be studied and appreciated, a couple of cases in point being the works of Denys Wortman and Shigeru Mizuki.

In a tome of this size with an amazing variety of contributors, not everything hits the mark but this would be true of any publisher who tried to put together a collection involving their entire roster of authors. 

This is a great collection and serves as a great introduction to D&Q and a celebration of its achievements over 25 years. 


Book Review: Paying For It – Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly – 2013)

The subtitle for Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s graphic novel is ‘a comic-strip memoir about being a john’, which it is.  But it is also much more than this.  It’s a psychological study of attitudes towards sex-workers and people who pay for sex.  It’s a deeply contemplative argument for decriminalising prostitution , a call to reassess the value of ‘possessive monogamy’ in traditional relationships and an insight into the lives of prostitutes.  It is also very funny in places.

Chester Brown shows how his relationship came to an end when his girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else.  The new boyfriend eventually moves in and Brown seem remarkably unperturbed by this turn of events.  It is this attitude of non-possessiveness that sets Brown apart, an attitude he wishes more people would cultivate.

Brown takes the decision to pay for sex and we follow his experiences in very graphic detail.  The is one of the most revealing and honest autobiographical books I have read.  Sometimes it is painfully honest and I think it is incredibly courageous for Chester Brown to share this with the world.  Most of us could not be this honest, even with ourselves.

Throughout the book we see Chester’s discussions and conversations with his ex-girlfriend, his brother and his fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth (looking suspiciously like Clark Kent in his trademark vintage clothing and hat).  As you would imagine, Chester meets a variety of responses including disapproval, concern and mockery.  We see Chester justifying his actions and arguing in a Socratic way, which often undermines prejudices and persuades his friends to alter their views.

The artwork is quite minimalistic and static.  One thing that struck me was how little expression is given to the faces of the people depicted.  We have to determine what they are feeling by their words alone.  For the most part Chester’s face is a mask.

Most pages have small equal-sized frames in 2 columns by 4 rows. For me, they were a little small and I wondered if the may have been bigger in the hardback (my copy is the paperback edition).

Almost the last quarter of the book is taken up with handwritten appendices and notes, which are very interesting in themselves.  In the appendices, Chester largely reviews the prejudices and arguments against prostitution together with his own thoughts, opinion and rebuttals of commonly held views.  It’s thought-provoking and well argued.

Whilst reading the book, I did think about the impact on marriage and children.  Chester deals with both of these subjects briefly in appendix 18, but not satisfactorily to my mind.  He views marriage as an ‘evil institution’ and suggests that if the institution of marriage did not exist then ‘new social and legal structures will arise.’  He posits a ‘child-raising contract’ as a substitute for marriage that parents may be willing to enter.  In some ways, this made me think of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ where sexual relationships are constantly changing (and the drugs are free!).

Chester is realistic enough to see that his views on marriage, child-rearing and possessive monogamy are only likely to change at a speed commensurate with continental drift, but I think even that may be wishful thinking in the case of marriage and family life.  However, Chester has thought about this subject in more depth than I ever have and so may have further arguments that could sway my opinion.

This is a serious, revealing, funny and profound book.  Strongly recommended.

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists – Seth (Drawn & Quarterly 2011)

This is very much a companion piece to Seth’s excellent Wimbledon Green (the greatest comic book collector in the world). In his introduction Seth notes that if “Wimbledon Green was created on a lark, then this book should likely be filed under the category of an indulgence.”

An indulgence suggests a work that is primarily in the interest of the creator and few others. In the case of Seth. The result of his indulgence is likely to be appreciated by existing fans and new readers.

Seth, as narrator of the book, takes us on a tour of one of the four branches of the GNBCC based in the fictional Canadian town of Dominion. The other three are supposedly located in non-fictional Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto. The guided tour of the Dominion branch of the GNBCC takes various detours into the lives of the members and their cartoon creations.

Members of the club have their own blazers, handed to them on entering the building, which is itself resplendent with stone-carved cartoon characters above the door, murals, photos of past members, trophy cabinets and a bar (which has copper plated supporting pillars in the shape of trees). There is also a Mountie acting as a doorman, which we later learn was made up by the narrator (a fiction within a fiction).

The golden days of the GNBCC are long behind it and we feel the wistful nostalgia of the narrator as he takes us around the faded building. It is a nostalgia for something that has never been and in many respects appears as a yearning for greater recognition, respect and even financial reward on the part of Seth for all cartoonists.

As with other works by Seth, there is a quiet melancholy throughout the book, a regret over what has passed and what might have been.

During a recollection early in the book, the narrator comments that the 20th century was a high watermark for Canadian cartoonists, a time they were treated with great respect, quoted extensively in the press and winners of important cultural awards. It’s droll but also shows a wish for cartoonists to be afforded the same recognition as other branches of the arts.

Almost every page is split into nine cartoon frames. Some pictures take up two or more of these frames; the blank space between them making the scene more noticeable. I found myself looking at some of these split scenes for much longer than I would have looked at a larger single picture. The artwork is quite simple and cartoony, befitting the subject, and all is in black,white and grey. Seth’s use of light and shade with this limited palette is very effective.

The book mixes fact with fiction, mentioning Doug Wright’s Family, which was a much loved Canadian strip. Doug Wright Awards are handed out annually and the GNBCC won the award for Best Book in 2012. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau makes a cameo appearance and there is mention of the first ever Canadian comic called General Fox by the Marquis of Townshend. The comic is a fiction but George Townshend, veteran of the Battle of Culloden and latterly commander of British Forces in the closing stages of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a skilled caricaturist and delighted his peers with barbed caricatures of General Wolfe, whom he held in contempt. These caricatures are often regarded as Canada’s first cartoons. Chester Brown, a contemporary of Seth, also receives an honourable mention.

There are humorous moments, such as when we learn that the GNBCC raised funds to build a massive and elaborate archive which, when built, was so remote that visitors must use several modes of transport, including dog-sled to get there. The idea of a profession that is now craving recognition making their archives so obscure and difficult to view is amusingly perverse.

Overall, there are few diversions to lighten the mood and detract from the general air of sadness, as there were in Wimbledon Green. At the end of the book, Seth looks out from the roof of the building and hopes for the return of the great days.


Palookaville Number Twenty One – Seth (Drawn & Quartely 2013)

I first came across Seth’s work when I picked up a copy of Wimbledon Green, a tale of the world’s greatest comic collector who would stop at nothing to get the an ultra-rare golden age comic. It’s a captivating story that makes me want to read it again every time I think about it. Naturally, I’ve wanted to read more of Seth’s comic books since then.

Seth likes the quiet dignity of the overlooked, the forgotten or the ignored space. A seemingly ordinary object or location can be a source of fascination. In the fly-leaves at the beginning of the book are two pictures of electricity pylons, both at dusk. One is a slightly closer view with the moon behind it. On looking at these I noticed that you can see a square-jawed super-hero within the steel structure, something that Seth has put there to show what observation is all about.

The book is split into three sections. Section one is part four (if that makes sense) of the Clyde Fans story, which shows the lives of brothers Abraham and Simon Matchcard as their business declines around them. Seth’s artwork looks deceptively simple, many pages contain 12 frames in a 3 x 4 grid pattern. His use of shade and dark, the sparse use of speech bubbles and the focus on the ordinary (door frames, bathroom, staircases, flies) creates the atmosphere, which is one of quiet desperation.

Section two contains sections of Seth’s ‘Rubber Stamp Diary’, a fantastic idea in which rather than writing a diary entry in long-form, he has had a set of rubber stamps made from which he can use to make an illustrated diary. It seems to be an idea that would catch on with a wider audience but perhaps most people are too far past using ink and paper on a daily basis now. The entries, which were produced between 2009 and 2011, illustrate quiet walks along little used railway tracks and the sense of peacefulness he feels whilst being completely alone, a feeling that is shattered when the world manages to break into the picture again. The passage of time and a sense of nostalgia pervade the mood. In an entry titled ‘The Dim Quiet’, the dropping of a pen causes some discomfort to Seth who says “I’m a boring person. I don’t want to go anywhere or see anyone.” Many of us can probably identify with the sentiment and I’m not sure it makes him boring.

The final section is entitled Nothing Lasts and is an autobiographical sketchbook of Seth’s early life. His parents moved house frequently and some of his earliest memories are unsurprisingly sketchy but some key recollections are etched in his memory and he is very frank and open about these. For example, his decision as a young boy to stop kissing his mother, which he learnt to regret as he got older. He also illustrates his behaviour in bullying others, mainly, it would seem, to deflect attention and potential bullying from himself. Of course a ‘confessional’ graphic novel is not unique but the fact that he has opened up these memories to the world is no less forceful. In this section he notes that his upbringing formed in him an association between joy and isolation, he says ” Even today, I find it necessary to spend most of my time alone.” This admission is something that the reader is likely to have worked out by reading the Rubber Stamp Diary in section 2 and perhaps it might have been more logical to change the order of the final two sections.

Interestingly he says he believes his “natural inclination was that of an extrovert…but circumstances taught me the value of introversion.” Clearly, Seth’s childhood is something he would prefer not to dwell on regularly so, again, we should be thankful that he has chosen to share these memories with the public.

Despite the fact that Clyde Fans leads off and is less ‘sketchy’ than the subsequent sections, it is the autobiographical elements that stand out and stay in the mind. Overall I was left with the impression of quiet stoicism and melancholy.