An aura of mystery pervades Kuns by Return, a black and white comic with almost no written language, and a title that leaves readers guessing on both its content and author/s. The first few pages show a masked and cloaked figure digging holes in a barren landscape, unearthing bones and ancient statues that echo the pictographic languages of the Maya and other Pre-Columbian civilizations. Eventually, faces of flesh and sinew emerge from the deep, gazing intently at the viewer. Are these faces from the past or from the present? The comic gives no easy answer but instead sends readers, and its masked protagonist, on a road trip from a desert to a bustling metropolis.
Kunsby Return has an organic, dream-like quality, with stark lines that resemble color pencil and charcoal that give texture to the comic’s images. The story features multiple characters whose actions and intentions are not always clear. Yet, beneath the enigma something more profound shines through, like a landscape glimpsed beneath opaque waters. It is a story about transformation, about alienation and the possibility of togetherness, told with a raw energy that carries readers through the book’s twists and tangles.
Kuns by Return was drawn by three artists, Waysatta, DiegoTeo and Jazael from the Mexican collective Cráter Invertido. Self-published in the framework of the art exhibition documenta fifteen, it is an intriguing read, and another reason to dive deeper into Mexican comics.
This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting members of Cráter Invertido in person in the framework of the lumbung of Publishers during the art exhibition documenta fifteen in Kassel. Stay tuned for an interview with the artists!
Recently, I stumbled across a quote by the philosopher Hannah Arendt: “People can be free only in relation to one another.” This sentence encapsulates my view of the past two years, the time of the pandemic and all its restrictions but also of the aggravated effects of the climate crisis in Europe. In my opinion, our present moment demands a radical rethinking of personal freedom. So what better topic for the latest issue of the bilingual* feminist comics anthology Spring, which come out late last year.
Through varied artistic approaches, the artists of the anthology delve into different facets of the subject ‘freedom’. Some entries are as abstract as the comic The Wall by Doris Freigofas, of which the surprising conclusion left me astounded. Other comics are more concrete like Nothing Happened Anyway by Stephanie Wunderlich which takes us back to a summer of the author’s adolescence which greatly impacted her life. Spring is void of any comic-typical panel layouts and instead utilizes page-filling images which blur the boundary between comic and illustration. The anthology, which was founded 2004 in Hamburg, features both fresh artistic experiments and an appealing visual coherence. Clear recommendation!
*Spring is published in German with English subtitles.
Spring Nr. 18 – „Freiheit“ Comicanthologie (GER) 2021 Marisch Verlag (new issue annualy)
Trigger warning: this text contains mentions of suicide.
There are few topics that confront me with the limits of language as drastically as grief. How should I face a person who has lost a family member or a friend? In our society, grief is often veiled with platitudes, covered with sayings found on postcards that are above all signs of a certain speechlessness.
In their new comic Fürchtetal (German: ‘fear valley’), the siblings Markus and Christine Färber search for words and images to express their personal grief. The plot centers around the death of their father who in 2019 unexpectedly took his life. Through an artistic dialogue, brother and sister return to the landscapes of their childhood, to a forest near the rural village in which they grew up. Like a winding path, the words of Christine Färber guide readers through the book and form a sequence of singular moments, thoughts, and memories regarding her father’s death. Her words seamlessly intertwine with the drawings of Markus Färber who, with broad brushstrokes and grey watercolors, finds melancholy and sometimes fantastical images for the siblings’ experiences.
Because of its narration, Fürchtetal feels meandering and searching in the best sense. Many passages almost associatively delve into childhood memories of the artist duo, only to return again and again to certain experiences. One of these strains is the last meeting between the siblings and their father when he was in treatment at a clinic due to his mental health. In passages such as these, Markus Färber’s drawings resort to bold abstraction: his father is reduced to the simplified drawing of a head which sits on the bed. What may initially appear like a puzzling artistic choice later enables a certain poetic ambiguity. At its core, Fürchtetal is about the emotional state of the artists who each struggle with the loss of their father in their own way. These multifaceted images, which harness the power of comics in creative ways, make Fürchtetal an engaging read.
Fürchtetal Markus & Christine Färber (GER) 2021 Rotopol
I will admit, there have not been all that many reasons for laughter in the past couple weeks. Unless you have been on the moon or in some parallel dimension, you will have been affected by the Corona-pandemic which has killed thousands and put public life on standby in Europe and beyond. If you need a break from the news-cycle and are looking for a book to take your mind off things, I have a recommendation: War and Peas by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich.
War and Peas is originally an English-language webcomic that was launched in 2011 and is being published in weekly episodes on the net and Instagram. The minds behind the strip, which has accumulated thousands of fans, are the German artists Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich. The short gag strips of the duo are seldom longer than four panels and always confidently steer towards the next punchline. The humor can best be described as a fusion of the absurd and morbid, mocking everything as implied by the title, a parody of the Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. In War and Peas, office workers contemplate suicide but are saved in the last moment by the promise of pizza. At the same time, the mischievous “Slutty Witch“ abandons her date in favor of her vibrating magic broom. Visually, the comic is quite minimalist, reminiscent of the art of Tom Gauld in its lack of facial expressions. But this style clearly suits the sharp, dialogue driven humor.
At first sight, War and Peas reminded me strongly of the German Comic Nichtlustig (English version here) by Joscha Sauer. But it sets itself apart with its own humoristic edge and a sprinkle of millennial zeitgeist. Particularly refreshing is how the comic comically handles issues of feminism and queerness. The book to which this review refers was published in March by the US publisher Andrews McMeel and is a great introduction to the webcomic. It a selection of strips on 150 pages which can be read individually but also chronologically and form a neatly ongoing narrative. All things considered, this is a charming humor strip and I recommend it to anyone seeking a diversion from current events.
War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers
Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich
The year 2021 is slowly coming to a close and with it a time of fascinating comics. Among my favorite (re-)discoveries is without a doubt the work of Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan. This award-winning artist has been on my radar for a while now, but it took the emphatic recommendation by several friends for me to start reading. I began with Tunnels, Modan’s latest graphic novel which skillfully combines elements of an adventure story à la Tintin with a satire of Israeli settler politics. The colorful cast of characters that revolves around the protagonist and archaeologist Nili is vibrant and the plot is full of surprising twists.
As much as Tunnels appealed to me, I must admit I was more touched by Modan’s English-language debut Exit Wounds which was originally published in 2007. Exit Wounds is perhaps a bit ‘quieter’ than Tunnels – but no less moving. The plot centers on Kobi Franko, a taxi driver in Tel-Aviv who one day is contacted by a young Israeli soldier who is convinced that Kobi’s father died during a recent suicide bombing at a suburban bus terminal. Indeed, Kobi has not heard from his father in a while – the two have lost contact after an intense argument. But how probable is it that the yet unidentified body from the site of the bombing is that of his father? And what was his relation to the young female soldier? Rutu Modan uses these questions as starting points for a moving family drama which brushes different social strata of country in which violence and terror form the background noise of daily life.
Like in Tunnels, Rutu Modan showcases her skills as a prolific cartoonist with a firm grasp for tempo and dynamic of the narrative. The drawings, which are reduced in a way that is reminiscent of the ligne claire style of famous Belgian artist Hergé, convey gestures and facial expressions in a way that give them a high degree of personality. Additionally, the comic makes an atmospheric use of colors and a multiplicity of subtly poetic image compositions. Exit Wounds is a moving tragicomedy about the loss of loved ones, about coping with physical and emotional wounds. All readers who wonder whether the book will offer a sliver of hope that the wounded can be healed will be left breathless until the very end – but not without some glimmers of light.
Do you know that feeling when a book or another piece of art is valued so highly by a certain group of people that one is almost hesitant to pick it up? It’s as if all the expectations or assumptions create a barrier to the work itself, at least that’s how it feels to me sometimes. This winter, I tried to leap over some of those gaps, first by reading the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and, more recently, Blankets by Craig Thompson.
Blankets, which was originally published in 2003 by Top Shelf Productions to much critical acclaim is an autographic (an autobiographical graphic novel) about the artist’s childhood and adolescence in rural Wisconsin. The plot begins with the early years of Thompson and his younger brother Phil in the Christian community of their hometown, then gradually transforms into a romantic account of Thompson’s relationship with Raina, a girl he meets as a teenager at a ski camp. This relationship takes up most of the space of book and casts a warm light on the otherwise grim portrayal of the artist’s childhood, which is filled with bullying, depravity and religious doubt. In many ways, Blankets is a comic-turned-love-letter as it relates the meeting of the two misfits, Thompson and Raina, at a pivotal time in their lives, and how their relationship shifted their perspectives.
What struck me the most about Blankets is how it captures the intensity of falling in love for the first time. Romantic love as the subject of fiction is a tricky affair because it threatens to dissolve into cliché, into an emotional language that everyone knows, and no one really believes in. And while Blankets can get quite sentimental at times (perhaps even kitschy), it mostly feels like a highly personal story and reminded me of similar experiences I made as a teenager. The book somehow captures the force of those feelings, the proximity and long conversations that feel special precisely because they are experienced for the first time. It’s like stumbling upon a secret too big for words, like a written note from a crush that you kept tight in your sweaty palm when you were a kid.
As an autographic, Blankets lacks the complex meta-narrative of, say, the work of Alison Bechdel or Art Spiegelman. But that’s okay because the book brings the reader closer to the memories themselves instead of weaving them into a broader life story. Blankets zooms in on momentary feelings that constitute Thompson’s memories, from the way a kiss or a piece of fabric felt, to the view of a snowy sky from below.
Of course, the book mostly radiates these feelings because of its drawings: Thompson’s lines fly boldly across the page, rending characters and their faces in a highly expressive way. Bodies and objects seem to stretch or shrink with emotions of the characters, and ornamental imaginings of heaven and hell accompany renderings of childhood fantasy worlds.
The dynamic nature of Thompson’s art also applies to the composition of panels on the page. In an interview, cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud elaborated on how Blankets was quite innovative for its time, and I can sense why. As with the drawings, the panels underline the characters’ emotions. Sometimes things seem to jump out of the images, sometimes they blend into each other as lovers embrace. Finally, the book is littered with skillfully placed blank spaces that act as pauses in the comic’s rhythm and say more than any image could. Thompson’s playful compositions still feel fresh 17 years later and it is not hard to see their influence on the work of other cartoonists. All in all, Blankets comic worthy of its renown and I will continue to recommend it to anyone who needs a story to get through the cold winter days.
Some time ago, I came into an argument with a friend. We were talking about life after university and the difficult choices that go along with it. “Well”, she said, “all things considered, control is definitely an illusion”. I asked her to elaborate and she replied that because our world is so very complex and we only have a limited set of information to work with, all our decisions are necessarily flawed. We may think we are being rational and in control, but we are more or less like kites in the wind, moved by the forces to which we are oblivious. While I did not necessarily agree with her line of argument, I was strongly reminded of it while reading Rusty Brown, the new comic by Chris Ware.
Throughout his work, and especially in his much-acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, US cartoonist Ware has exhibited an acute sensibility for the complexities of life. His comics trace the vast web of causalities in which we are entangled as individuals, including our family histories, upbringing and the mental idiosyncrasies of our times. This panoramic mode of storytelling is inseparably linked to Ware’s unique visual style: his drawings are ‘cartoony’ with clear, yet unadorned lines and flat colors that add up to an artificial, sometimes almost sterile appearance.
What makes the artwork so appealing, however, is the way in which Ware arranges his panels on the page. His work often features exhilarating compositional experiments with vast numbers of images sprawling into different directions. Ware’s groundbreaking Jimmy Corrigan from the year 2000 is exemplary for this as it featured complex tableaus that lapsed remarkably from conventional layouts. The book pointed to the fact that, yes, comics should be treated as a “visual language” of their own and that there is still much room for exploration.
Rusty Brown, the new comic by Ware, published in 2019 by Pantheon Press, is in many ways less experimental than Ware’s previous work, which makes for a different, but no less dazzling read. The book, which is around 350 pages in length, revolves around a snowy winter day in 1975 Ohio. In a style that parodies old soap opera TV series, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters. There’s the ginger-haired Rusty Brown, a painfully introverted boy who is convinced he has superpowers, his father, a melancholy schoolteacher, his new friend Chalky White who just arrived in town, Jordan Lint, a teenaged long-haired troublemaker, and many more.
At first, the lives of all these characters cross in a way reminiscent of high school dramas: there’s a dose of teenage angst, the fear of not belonging, heartbreak and half-hearted rebellion. But there are also adult characters stuck inside their own routines, caught in the daily drudgery. Just as one has gotten used to Rusty Brown’s mode of narration, the tone shifts again. The snowy day in Ohio is not so much as the setting of a scene but the starting point of a spiral into different characters’ lives.
Just as a snowstorm is comprised of countless individual flakes, the narrative of Rusty Brown dives into the lives of people first introduced in passing. Each episode features a distinct visual style which points both to the characters’ inner life and Ware’s development as an artist. While the stories span a variety of subjects and genres (including a pinch of science-fiction), they also share a particular flavor of melancholy and sadness. Like the perspective presented by my friend in the opening anecdote of this review, Ware’s characters often find themselves dazed by the complexity of life while at the same time dreaming of more.
At its most touching, Rusty Brown deals with forms of regret. The episode of Jason Lint in particular, is a devastating roller-coaster ride that sees its character going through a many-stage metamorphosis, from an angry teenage firecracker to family father. It is a character on the run, who trying to escape his own abusive past while involuntarily causing hurt in others. That Jason still feels like a coherent figure undergoing life changes and not a cluster of ideas on paper is evidence of Ware’s strength as a writer and cartoonist. It also matches his own views of seeing art as a medium of empathy.
Rusty Brown is an incredibly ambitious work because it achieves the balance of both relating entire lives of its characters while remaining attuned to the more ephemeral texture of experience, the seemingly mundane and trivial details that constitute our existence. Despite veering away from formal experiments, Ware still proves he is a master of composition and space by presenting unusual and appealing layouts. All in all, Rusty Brown feels highly atmospheric and emotionally charged. The colors are rich and underscore the shifting moods of the different stories and perspectives. Yes, the complexities of life may make any claim of control seem ludicrous. But thankfully, we are not alone and have artists like Ware who can trace our patterns in the void.
Rusty Brown Chris Ware 2019 Pantheon