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The Silent Artist, Musing
by Paul Buhle
othing in the world of comic art is quite so strange as what critics have begun to call “wordless novels.” The genre is far from new or unknown, however, and until a few years ago, it could have best been called one whose time had come—and gone. The mostly woodcut works of Belgian artist Frans Masereel and American artist Lynd Ward, at their most influential during the 1920s and ’30s, had sales in the hundreds of thousands, although it should be noted that their introductions by famous contemporary novelists surely attracted readers’ attention. On this side of the ocean, occasional American comic strip characters (“Henry,” a boy with a curiously bald head, occupied the funny pages for decades, with “The Little King” and a very few others) were likewise mute. Thus wordless comics remained, by and large, an insular art form. But one with recurring, powerful themes. Perhaps we readers only “see” the unspeaking figure as meek, or one associating himself or herself with the powerless, but the wordless character has often been an intuitive pacifist ensconced in a world of violence. Unable even to cry out, our character feels the pain of others keenly. The artist also inclines to register a kind of cosmic repose, not a detachment from suffering, but a way to see the human comedy that is mostly sadness, as if from afar. Again and again, we see men and women needing so little in material terms to be happy— friends, family, subsistence—and yet they are made unhappy by the greed and power of a minority, as well as by their own fears and weaknesses.
Wordless Worlds: World War 3 Illustrated #39
Wordless Worlds is so rife with varied artists and styles that no summary could begin to capture it all. There are delightfully oddball subfeatures, like Sabrina Jones’ “Bubel” that could more rightly be titled “The Tower of Bubel,” in which a protean creature collaborates in building an architectural empire only to find himself homeless beneath a crumbling speculative edifice. This is clearly a transhistorical folly, willing participation in our own undoing (and that of nature’s bounty as well). But sometimes they fight back in their own useful ways. One amazingly delightful two-pager is of a little girl’s asthmatic life in the city, probably New York, by Paula Hewitt Amram. Other pieces feature the fight against corporate greed in various Third World zones, notably Belize, a little country that seems off every map except eco-tourists’. Whimsy is slight in these pages, but artistic experimentation is rampant. No reader is likely to enjoy every contribution, but the process of artistic collection, mutual influences now increasingly global in World War 3, never becomes less intriguing. This wordless experiment is more than a success: it invents itself in plain sight.
Peter Kuper and Kevin Pyle, editors Top Shelf Productions, 978-1-60309-048-3 The artists in the venerable anthology series, World War 3 Illustrated, now approaching its third decade of more-or-less annual production, have been toying with this form longer than any other comic artists’ school in the US. They began mostly with their own situation in the gentrifying Lower East Side of New York, and soon enough found war in the neighborhood mirrored by war abroad, with occupations, violence, resistance, and poetry abundant. Eric Drooker, Seth Tobocman, and Peter Kuper especially worked the process of the wordless comic, deeply influenced by Masereel and Ward among others, but seeking their own path, politically and artistically, in their own time.
J uly /A ugust 2009
but this uprising is crushed with great violence and dozens of casualties. The wondrous character of the sketches is in no small part their color. One is tempted to say “All in Living Color”—but of course. drawings. while he sketches his own family’s daily lives. The insects represent the “jungle of freedom” of the surrealist world view. as well as when the city returns to its status as tourist center for foreigners seeking a warm. the occupying soldiers armed against an unarmed population. It just so happens that earth-shaking developments sweep through the city while he is there: the struggles of Oaxacans against a staggeringly corrupt government. a Graphic Adaptation. He came to Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-Ha-Ka) in 2006 with his wife and child to take a sabbatical from the Bush-administered Throughout. professional wrestlers. life. relaxing good time. this is an artisttraveler’s notebook to cherish and flip through almost endlessly. Kuper inherited the spy piece from another era of Mad. with equally heavy emphasis on natural surroundings. the colorful dress. Kuper might almost have been the Courbet of the modern Paris Commune. and (with Denis Kitchen) The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. not only the Monarch butterflies (whose breeding grounds are nearby) but also bugs of every variety. the proliferation of life forms absent in Western cities but so much a part of homo sapiens’ transhistorical experiences—that is. some of it reproduced here in drawings and photographs. 978-1-60486-071-9 Kuper’s hardcover opus Diario de Oaxaca. seeking decent wages for public service. turn into class and cultural warfare. pyramids. “Spy vs Spy” in Mad magazine.Diario De Oaxaca: a Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico Peter Kuper PM Press / Editorial Sexto Piso. the “Day of the Dead” makes a huge impression on the artist.forewordmagazine. and photos as they unfold. as it overflows with the sampling of Mexican art of everyday Unable even to cry out. J uly /A ugust 2009 www.com ForeWord 35 . of the species launched in the hot climates only gradually advancing to colder places. at least until this publication (in its second half-century and now reduced to quarterly appearance) goes out of business. Paul Buhle has edited ten comic art volumes. as well as to broaden a young daughter’s linguistic skills and sensibilities. and other highly assorted phenomena. the masks of assorted celebrations. With Diario. Each visit to its pages will bring the reader some new gift. is not as distant as it might appear at first glance. The artist also inclines to register a kind of cosmic repose. excerpted briefly in Wordless Worlds. During the interim. our character feels the pain of others keenly. his sketchbook journal from two years of living in Mexico. all kinds of rebellious art and artistic graffiti appears on city walls. He is not a tourist exactly. From stinging scorpions to corrupt politicians. endangered sea turtles. In any case. not a detachment from suffering but a way to see the human comedy that is mostly sadness. as if from afar. Understandably. including most recently The Beats. the Dead are among the most vivid inhabitants. but so do Aztec memories. United States. Kuper explored the wordless form throughout his career in graphic novels like The System and Sticks and Stones. the omnipresent dogs. he is the observer removed not by silence so much as a keen awareness of his personal status: as visitor. The author of arguably the only pantomime strip in widelydistributed comic art. including American journalist Brad Will. Studs Terkel’s Working. Kuper draws parallels between the natural beauty and the dangerous reality that Mexicans encounter every day. and it has been noticeably wordless all these decades (Kuper took over it over in 1997). close to archeological sites of lost civilizations. and the longdead civilizations as well. Kuper captures the dramatic events through his writing. Peter Kuper is probably stuck with his best known credit. Kuper demonstrates his fascination with insects.
cruelty.” “thunks. ironically. but it’s what ultimately allows him to make choices. The action begins when he’s six. and Small’s dad is a radiologist. “Mama had her little cough…” No. excess. Small’s personal story could easily have become another cramped circle of repeated viciousness. although the “shunks. my wrath did end.” and “crumps” defy borders.99 (160pp) 978-0-7636-4399-7 Softcover $11. The authors keep the pace lively with frequent meta interruptions and the use of color to denote period. In the end. finds himself mute. ninety. playing himself in this nerdy but engaging offering from Bloomsbury. and the first words in the book are. Pages of violence are yellow and orange. The ability to be of two minds also manifests in Small’s wonderfully expressive black and white illustrations. these people are painfully historied and complexly pictured. The cuts between Nottingham Castle (stone grey) and Sherwood Forest (leafy green) become breathtakingly emotional as the color saturates whole spreads. and Annie Di Donna Bloomsbury Softcover $22.” he writes.” but instead he describes the role of logic in his personal and professional life. But it doesn’t. she doesn’t have TB. well. says author Doxiadis. Alecos Papdatos. they were right inside the skin of young Small’s neck—a cebaceous cyst. the illustrations make up for it. He has won two Caldecott Medals and the Society of Illustrators’ Gold Medal.95 (352pp) 978-1-59691-452-0 This is the story of David Small from Detroit. (October) Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood Tony Lee Sam Hart. He is supposed to give a lecture called “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs. who’s not going to want to study this book—and the kiss at the end. three days after Hitler invaded Poland. and while the text doesn’t break any molds. and Small is a powerful teller of their stories. “They were soldiers of science. David Small has worked as an editorial artist for the New Yorker. the marriages. Norton Hardcover $23. Three and a half years of silent fury. Small is able to see both sides of a problem from the beginning—which is sometimes a curse. There’s not a boy between the ages of nine and. illustrator Artur Fujita. a whole lot of terrible stories revolving and radiating.com J uly /A ugust 2009 .S. Russell is in the U. sometimes a cure. It’s the 1950s. 978-0-7636-4400-0 It’s hard to get more classic comic book than Robin Hood. she has the condition William Blake describes in his poem “The Poison Tree. (September) 36 ForeWord www.forewordmagazine. in fact. This is not a two-dimensional caricature of an unhappy family. ignorance. eager to use technology to cure the world’s ills.99.” Three and a half years lapse between a diagnosis and operation. “is perfect for stories of heroes in search of great goals. was angry with my foe: told it not.95 (344pp) 978-0-393-06857-3 Logocomix: An Epic Search for Truth Apostolos Doxiadis. (September) The comic form. the use of color as an adjective is the outstanding quality of this remake. It really isn’t dry at all what with the ghosts in Bertie’s belfry. Playboy. colorist Candlewick Hardcover $21.” Ills were close to home also. the hero is philosopher Bertrand Russell.GRAPHIC NOVELS Stitches: A Memoir David Small W. and Esquire. Small. and the great minds. To be more precise. Christos Papadimitriou.W. evasion. 1939. This is a terrible story. resentment. my wrath did grow. a “growth. Michigan. This book would be at home in both middle and high school libraries and homes.” In the case of Logocomix. and the variations of unspoken but hardly silent angry language. It’s not as dry as it seems. “and their weapon was the x-ray. on September 4. In the book.” I I I I was angry with my friend: told my wrath.
Eli. But Umi is not a ghost. the Rabbi David Kahn. How much cooler than wolves is that! This is traditional fantasy. the youngest. a girl whose summer vacation is dashed when she’s kicked off the handball team for excessive and repeated violence. It’s also a story about belief and truth—in gods.com ForeWord 37 . in this case. The story revolves around Ruka. old forest near my house. (July) J uly /A ugust 2009 www. a manatee-like creature. “What are you going to eat if you didn’t have to keep kosher?” asks a friend. As I stood in this forest. my most important concern has been to show the beauty of this world. I was standing in a small. In an interview at Viz Signature. Too bad for the family that the outing happens publicly at Rabbi Kahn’s hesped. The Big Kahn is the story of a family that wakes up one morning and discovers that the man of the house.RECOMMENDED NEw gRAPHiC NOvELS The Big Kahn Neil Kleid Nicolas Cinquegrani. community. the book would be an interesting addition to all high school. gentle scenes. “My style originated from a certain experience I had. (September) A star in Japan. or funeral. and church libraries. as I draw quiet. Daisuke’s storytelling through images is anything but traditional. and daughter Lea carries on all the more unkosherly. but he wasn’t even Jewish.” Children of the Sea is a beautifully produced volume that will delight teenagers.99 (320pp) 978-1-4215-2914-1 Now here’s a tale that couldn’t possibly get further away from classic themes. This is a story about waking up a cockroach. mixed with some spiritual/ nature themes.forewordmagazine. Kahn’s wife is tormented by two-faced housewives. The second volume comes out in December 2009. was not only lacking in any formal rabbinical training. the power and meaning of the sea. also a rabbi. Daisuke makes his English language debut with volume one of Children of the Sea. When I draw Children of the Sea. Magical would be a better word. to lose his job. gets beaten up in stairwells. I suddenly noticed how beautiful this world is.95 (176pp) 978-1-56163-561-0 Children of the Sea Daisuke igarashi VIZ Media Softcover $14. with the sun filtering through the trees and the breeze blowing. Rather primly told and illustrated. Excellent for book clubs and study groups as well. he’s a kind of Mowgli of the sea. illustrator NMB Publishing Softcover $13. I try to be conscious of the rhythm of the waves. he says. or at the least waking up to find that you are not what you thought you were. and in fact was raised by dungos. Since then. The scandal causes Kahn’s son. I want the readers to feel as though they’re walking along the beach as the sun sets in a clear sky. marriages. For example. Footloose. she finds herself drawn to the aquarium where her father works—and where she once saw a ghost. and selves.
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