A few comics from New Caledonia
by Tim Bollinger
Returning from a comic book forum in Noumea wonderfully hosted by the good people at CREIPAC , I have been exposed for the first time to a whole bunch of bande dessinee (French for comics) that I would otherwise never have known existed from the tiny Melanesian island and French colonial outpost that is practically our nearest Pacific neighbour – New Caledonia.
For its size, with a population of just 250,000 permanent inhabitants, comics are a far more celebrated part of the New Caledonian life and culture than in adjacent Anglophone New Zealand. BD are as big in Noumea as they are in Paris, although their comics have a laid back slant more typical of ‘small country’ humour, celebrating the little guy, with regular side-swipes at authority. As a result, the popularity of these local comics has not always translated into a similar success in continental France.
Drawing styles inherited from generations of great francophone BD artists like Albert Uderzo and Andre Franquin echo through many of the country’s most popular strips, like ‘Frimeurs des Iles’ by Niko and Solo. This long-running gag strip from Coco TV Magazine about two car-loving New Caledonian beach bums, reflects artist Niko’s own love of drawing cars and script writer Solo’s irreverent sense of slapstick humour: aptly captured here .
The tightly scripted humorous one-pager has also proved a successful format for veteran Caledonian cartoonist Bernard Berger, although his more recent work breaks into longer, more complex narratives. A born-and-bred Canoche (meaning something like Pakeha, sometimes pejoratively), Berger’s ‘La Brousse en Folie’ has parodied rural lifestyle and culture on the island for more than 25 years – one early volume has been translated in English as ‘Beating Around the Bush’).
Berger’s strips are on the surface, light, witty social satire, with occasional hints of a deeper, darker edge. This side comes more to the fore in his historically based tales of pioneer days on the island, ‘Le Sentier des Hommes’, that like his gag strips incorporate elements of both European and Kanak culture. These longer stories are beautifully rendered by artist Jar, himself a very funny cartoonist, in a dramatic style reminiscent of Jean Giraud.
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Along with Niko and Solo, Jar is a member of the Banana Studios animation team in Noumea who produce a range of : lively animated cartoons for local television :
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My absolute favourite comic at the moment
A Drifting Life by Yoshiro Tatsumi (Publisher : Drawn & Quarterly)
by Tim Bollinger
My favourite comic is always the one I’m reading now. This month’s selection is a new one from 2009, that I borrowed from the public library. The last ten years has seen a real upsurge in what many libraries now prefer to call a ‘graphic novels’ section. While I prefer the term comics (or manga, or bande desinee), if there’s any comic deserves this grand title, it’s A Drifting Life, at a whopping 800-plus pages.
It tells the story of author Yoshiro Tatsumi’s early comic-writing years when he helped found Gekiga – a comics art movement in 1950s Japan that consciously tried to develop a new style of ‘adult’ comic narrative out of humorous children’s Manga. Tatsumi is known to English language manga readers for his short story collections, like the ‘Push Man’ and ‘Good-bye’, drawn in the late 1960s and published most recently in America by Drawn &Quarterly, the publisher of this work, And, as with this one, published largely as a result of American comic writer and dedicated Tatsumi devotee, Adrian Tomine of ‘Optic Nerve’ fame.
While autobiographical, this volume does not document the years when Tatsumi wrote the work he is best known for in English, but his early years. Growing up in Osaka, the same comic book town as the great Osamu Tezuka, five or six years behind that pioneer, this is a story set at the birth of post-war manga, from the late 1940s through to the late 1950s.
Tezuka was an almost inapproachable mentor to Tatsumi and his peers, and his skill and demeanour take on quietly mystical proportions in his brief appearances in this story. His extraordinary drawing ability and insane productivity are only glancingly suggested, yet his shadow hangs over and frames the whole narrative.
The notion of a world in which young kids can walk in off the street with a folio of comics under their arm, up some crumbling stairs to an office in an old company warehouse…. where a couple of two-bit, hard-knuckled comics publishers sitting at their desks smoking fags, put their stories on the shelves of comic book lending libraries for a few bucks a month, is a romantic and attractive ideal. Especially for a 21st century comic writer stuck in a country without a strong comics tradition or industry.
The story documents the rise of comics with names like ‘Shadow’, ‘City’ and ‘Skyscaper’ that hailed in a new style of manga story-telling in the 1950s. Tatsumi and his friends (some names are disguised, including his own – as Hiroshi Katsumi) take their endeavour to reinvent manga seriously, despite the fact that much of their work was popular pulp crime ‘trash’ for teenagers. This was at a time when similar moral objections were being raised to comics as in the United States. Their creation of comics that progress in real time like scenes from a movie, laden with emotional poignancy and understatement has dominated the manga genre ever since.
However, as has often been the case with comics, their artistic endeavours were not readily recognised by the establishment, and Tatsumi’s ‘Gekiga workshop’ died in the wake of moral objection from the press, and subsequent boycotts by bookshops and lending libraries.
Tatsumi’s narrative is punctuated with scenes and events from popular culture and history during the ‘Showa’ era in Japan, back-dropping the rise of post-war manga. This included the release of American movies that had not been allowed to be screened during WWII and then, later, those movies that had not been allowed to be screened during the post-war U.S. occupation – in both cases, because they were considered to depict America in the ‘wrong’ light to the Japanese.Other reference points : the events of the Korean war, the departure of General MacArthur, the treaty of mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States and a wide range of Japanese and European cultural influences, especially in cinema and music.
Tatsumi’s interests characterise his position as one working in a popular entertainment genre with higher artistic aspirations for his medium, reflected in his simple, functional drawing style, full of poetic understatement, casual delivery and deceptively simple but carefully constructed pacing.
Ultimately, this is a book about comics as much as it is a comic book – which is part of why I’m so attracted to it. Tatsumi writes as one who has witnessed his own art form rise to become the monster that is Manga today, influencing everything in modern popular entertainment from cinema to video games. It’s a wise yet world-weary work, that describes the spirit and energy of manga’s optimistic youth to an era where it is being sold to the international masses as something much less than that which Tatsumi might have wished for it. Like the most famous American comic artists, Crumb for example, he remains forever the outsider.
The climaxes of A Drifting Life tend to be things that don’t happen, rather than things that do. The book’s quieter, more reflective moments capture great emotional depth : nature and insects in particular feature as a recurring motif, with the fireflies depicted on the cover and the ringing of cicadas serving as a constant onomatopoeic effect that becomes so repetitive throughout the story that the reader begins to ignore and read over it, along with the characters.
Anyone familiar with Tatsumi’s earlier works like Good-Bye and The Push Man, will recognise similar themes of urban life, sex, seduction and social politics. Yet unlike the short story format which characterises those books, A Drifting Life paints an epic sprawling canvas, that in many ways represents the culmination of everything the young artist aspires to in the story – to write ‘reality’.
Local Comix Newz
By Tim Bollinger
Radio As Paper #1&2
Head Heart Stand (2009) Indira Neville Recent work from Oats Collective contributor and ‘girly’ cartoon stylist now living on Great Barrier Island. This crazy, lovelorn stream-of-consciousness is given life by its doily-inspired decorative artwork. Copies available for $3 online from Cherry Bomb Comics: http://www.cherrybombcomics.co.nz/shop/aotearoa-new-zealand-comics-c-22_25.html Or write to the artist at: Schooner Bay Rd. RD1, Great Barrier Island 0991
Roddy’s Film Companion (online) Robyn E. Kenealy Robyn E Kenealy’s Roddy McDowall bio-comic is now available on the web: www.wayfarergallery.net/roddysfilmcompanion.
More local reviews next time…
My absolute favourite comic at the moment
Rally Up, Mankind!
By Osamu Tezuka
There’s a little Japanese shop in an old building up some stairs in Courtenay Place where I rummage through book shelves of second hand manga to find the occasional gem for just a few dollars. The other week I dug out a copy of Rally Up, Mankind! Vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka – part one of a two-part series dating from the 1960s.
Naturally, I can’t read Japanese, and I doubt this story will be translated in a hurry (it’s been over forty years and no sign yet). But that’s the beauty of comics – you can ‘read’ them anyway regardless of literacy – you just need to look at the pictures. (Manga, of course you also have to read back wards, right to left). If anyone’s really interested, you may be able to buy it on amazon.co.jp or other Japanese book distribution site.
Tezuka is the so-called ‘God of Manga’ and the creator of better known comics like Astro Boy, Buddha and Black Jack. But he is also the creator of a vast body of work, with over 500 titles to his name written between 1946 and his death in 1989. This one came out in 1967 and breaks from the artist’s usual big-eyed-style with lush backgrounds and hard blacks to reveal a new sparse, quick, cartoon-y style with lots of white space and economy of line. The style is in keeping with much of his other ‘60s ‘adult’ work, such as the wonderful animated short film ‘Memory’ (view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzutuBbEiiE)
Published at the height of the Vietnam war, ‘Rally Up, Mankind!’ opens in a battle zone somewhere in South East Asia where the story’s hapless protagonist, Tanka Taihei, is found scrabbling to escape predatory helicopters in a field of decaying corpses. Dark ‘Apocalypse Now’-type themes contrast with their light irreverent treatment throughout.
The difference between Japanese and American comics is starkly observed in the fact that at this time in the United States such themes were reserved strictly for the underground and student protest movement with a tiny circulation. In Japan, Tezuka was a mainstream artist at the height of his fame – on a par with Walt Disney.
Taihei is then captured by ‘American’ soldiers and taken to a secret laboratory deep in the jungle where he is used in an elaborate sexual-scientific experiment. The gormless diminutive anti-hero is tossed from the boudoir of a buxom lover twice his size into the funnel of an anthropomorphic machine that rattles him around to extract his spermatozoa. Finally extracted, his sperm is revealed to belong to a new two-tailed variety that is subsequently nurtured to spawn a ‘third sex’.
From here the narrative progresses quickly, as Tahei and a doctor colleague who he meets during the war, team up with unscrupulous business minds to give birth to a new generation of identical blonde children – an ‘Aryan’ army of, neither male nor female, automatons. Over the course of the story, the hero’s features progressively evolve, until by the end of Part 1 he has developed a toothbrush moustache, a sideways lop of hair and a habit of waving his arms in a dictatorial fashion. In volume two, I am told that his new family of sexless infants revolt against humanity, take over the world and begin to castrate everybody in order to create a sexless society. You don’t get that in Walt Disney!
This is a grand political parody on the scale of Dr. Strangelove and just one of a myriad of varying and wondrous stories that its creator, Tezuka, who is said to have produced ten finished pages of comics every day of his short working life, has gifted to the world. A humanitarian, a pacifist, a Buddhist (non-strict), an entomologist, an animator, a pianist and a qualified surgeon, his work is only just now being ‘discovered’ by English language audiences. Naturally, being my absolute favourite comic at the moment, I have carried this book with me everywhere since the day I bought it, read it around food, tipped water on it and scuffed its beautiful pages. My comic library is a trove of such casually-collected, well-loved and yet zealously prized artefacts. Perhaps I’ll find another to talk about next full moon. – by Tim Bollinger