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Books To Read: Best Graphic Novels of 2014:

An International Perspective Part 2

Fasten your seatbelts as we traverse the planet for a second time and catch up with my amazing 1001 Comics correspondents who pick their favourite graphic novels created and published in their countries last year (cover below from Quiet little Melody by Sebastian Skrobol from Poland). Huge thanks once again to these international connoisseurs for their discrimination and insight. How could anyone ever get bored with comics, when there is this much diversity and creativity enriching the medium all around the world, just waiting to be discovered? All you need to do is stay curious…

AUSTRALIA - BELGIUM - FINLAND
ITALY - NEW ZEALAND - THE PHILIPPINES - POLAND - SPAIN

Australia

Selected by Philip Bentley
Philip Bentley is a writer and editor who produces Word Balloons, a journal on Australian comics. Over the years he has also written, edited, published and retailed them. His book A Life in Comics is a personal history of comics in Australia 1960-1990.

I had an unusual conversation last year which I recalled when contemplating my best works for this survey. Whilst selling a range of local comics at a street stall, a German gentleman approached and after studying the products for some time remarked that none of these Australian comics looked particularly Australian. Wary of being drawn into a debate about what may or may not constitute national identity, I did steer him to Bruce Mutard’s (Allen & Unwin, 2008, The Sacrifice which was set in a painstakingly researched Melbourne of the Second World War. After a cursory look he pronounced that this was exactly what he meant: “This could be anywhere”, he proclaimed. Well, anywhere that resembles wartime Melbourne it seems. But his curious views notwithstanding, it’s a fact that two of my favourite comics for 2014 ‘could be set anywhere’ and are none the worse for it.


Awkwood
by Jase Harper
Milk Shadow Books

Awkwood is set in a sort of Western culture anywhere that, thanks to its art style and themes, feels like America. Drawn in a nicely rendered ‘traditional’ cartoony style, it follows the travails of Liam, someone struggling to break free from his mundane existence – working in a dead-end job, with a deadhead flatmate. He does have talent with the guitar, but lacks the confidence to pursue it. So as the story opens he is seeking the services of the Awkwood Rehabilitation and Shamanistic Cure-All Centre where he undergoes therapy that inadvertently sets loose a personification of his ‘inner bad’. In effect this is a delayed coming-of-age story which has been a staple of Hollywood for many years, but here it is given an unusual and entertaining twist.


Gasoline Eye Drops
by Chris Gooch
Self-published

Gasoline Eye Drops is nominally set in contemporary Melbourne, but one that, rendered in Gooch’s sparse, expressionistic style, also ‘could be anywhere’. He had a number of other short books out last year, of which this is the best, and an excellent collection of his work Very Quiet, Very Still from Optic Pop. Gooch seems drawn to stories featuring elements of unease – often the uncertainty associated with young love (as in Gasoline Eye Drops), or with tropes drawn from the horror genre, sometimes both in the same strip. Both Harper’s and Gooch’s works feature some well-realised character studies and some fine drawing, albeit at the two ends of the cartoon spectrum. But if you’re looking for kangaroos, koalas or the Sydney Harbour bridge, much less a ‘national style’, best to look elsewhere. 

Belgium

Selected by Gert Meesters
Gert Meesters is associate professor of Dutch language and culture at the University of Lille, France. He is a co-founder of the comics research group Acme in Liège, Belgium and has recently co-edited essay collections about French publishing house L’Association and about independent comics publishing (bilingual English-French). Since 2001, he has been writing weekly comics reviews for the Flemish news magazine Knack.

2014 was an exceptionally good year for Dutch language comics from Belgium. It started with an Angoulême patrimonial prize for Kamagurka and Herr Seele’s Cowboy Henk and ended with an Angoulême nomination, his third, for Brecht Evens’ new book Panther. Also, Arsène Schrauwen, Olivier Schrauwen’s fictional account of his grandfather’s stay in the Belgian Congo, has appeared in many best-of lists in the US before the Dutch edition has even come out (it is scheduled for February 2015). In this brief overview, I am going to write about three other interesting books from last year that are less well known to English readers.


Gewonde stad (‘Wounded City’)
by Johanna Spaey & Gerolf Van de Perre

An interesting collaboration by a painter and a novelist, this book recounts the fire of Leuven during the Great War. Several characters tell their experiences, ranging from King Albert I and an intellectual German soldier to a simple woman who lives in Leuven and even a sort of Greek chorus. Each tells in a beautiful poetic language how they lived through the events that ended with burning the university library and the execution of innocent inhabitants. As a result, Leuven became an international symbol of the cruelty of war at that time. The words are beautifully chosen by Spaey, who previously already wrote fiction about the Great War. Gerolf Van de Perre is her ideal companion for this book, not only because he paints his own town, but because ruins are a continuous source of inspiration in his comics and paintings. In his previous books, he documented the changes in the Chinese cityscapes just before the Olympics in Bejing and he put together an illustrated version of the single prose book by Rainer Maria Rilke. In Gewonde stad, both writer and artist are at their best in a book that is definitely not just another addition to the endless list of books about the Great War. It is focused, inspired and needs a translation to reach an international audience. Watch the Vimeo book trailer here…


Sugar
by Serge Baeken

In the radical black and white of an artist at the peak of his drawing capabilities, Serge Baeken tells anecdotes about the cats his family has had as pets. The subject may seem dull to people who do not cherish a special affinity with the internet’s most popular mammals, but Baeken self-imposed some formal restrictions that make his book interesting to all comics readers, not only the cat lovers out there. He used a grid of 24 equal panels per page (4 by 6), limited the number of word balloons to reinforce seeing the stories from a cat’s point of view, and ended with a series of wordy odes to the cats in his life. Sugar is the name of the cat that provides for most of the stories in this lovely book. Some of the most beautiful pages carry virtuoso experimentation e.g. by transgressing the panel borders to obtain fragmented views of larger scenes. Sugar was published in Dutch and in French (by Dargaud), but should definitely be able to find readers in other languages. Due to the sparse use of words throughout the book, reading the Dutch or French version could work, even if you do not normally read those languages. See samples in Stripel‘s interview with Baeken here… and in Forbidden Planet’s blog review here…


Junker
by Simon Spruyt
Blloan

Junker may seem like another comic about the First World War, but it really is not. It is a fictional account of a boy growing up in an ancient Prussian family just before the war. Spruyt holds a master’s degree in literature and that shows in the richness of the themes in Junker. A lot of attention goes out to the father–son relationship, the relationship between two brothers, and the main character’s love for the machine gun he learns to master in military school. The gun’s technicality channels a lot of his doubts about his identity as a member of a strange family and as a part of the dying race of traditional nobility. Even though the events seem plausible, a reader with a little knowledge about history will soon discover anomalies in the story told by the Prussian boy that undermine its veracity. In addition to the layered and accomplished storytelling, Spruyt also demonstrates his ability as an artist. Junker is drawn in deceivingly simple-looking blue brush lines that give the book the appearance of an old novel. The drawings are limited to the essentials, unimportant characters just feature a schematic smiley face, but the images are rendered very fluently and efficiently. Junker was awarded the Vandersteen prize, the annual award for the best Dutch language comic of the year and will be translated into French in January 2015 and German later this year. Read Wim Lockefeer’s review on the FPI blog here…


Finland

Selected by Harri Römpötti
Harri Römpötti is a freelance Helsinki-based journalist specialising in comics, cinema and music. He’s written and edited books on Finnish comics and curated exhibtions in Helsinki and abroad together with Ville Hänninen. He’s also curating a programme of animated films related to comics for the Stuttgart Animation Festival 2015.


Minä, Mikko ja Annikki (‘Me, Mikko and Annikki’)
by Tiitu Takalo
Suuri Kurpitsa

Visually, Tiitu Takalo has been one of the best Finnish comics artists for years, mastering many drawing techniques. In the 248-page Minä, Mikko ja Annikki she has matured as a writer as well. It’s a masterpiece and her final breakthrough. Takalo mixes autobiography and local history or Tampere, her hometown. Minä, the ‘I’ in the title, is Takalo. The other words are names as well. Mikko is Takalo’s boyfriend but Annikki (a female name) is a block of wooden houses in Tampere, over hundred year old. Takalo tells the stories of the beginning of the town and her relationship side by side. Mikko, the boyfriend, gets less attention than Tampere. That’s the only slightly unbalanced aspect in the book. Of course Takalo’s relationship with her hometown has lasted longer than she’s been together with Mikko. She got to know the old wooden buildings of Tampere as a child going to school in the Tammela neighbourhood, right next to the Annikki block. Telling the history of Tampere, Takalo creates the sense of different time periods by varying the colour palette and drawing styles. Enthusiasm and passion for the subject glow in every page. Takalo’s view of history is not impartial nor schoolbook dry. She lets her leftwing sensibility show without underlining it. The book shows how Tampere grew into the largest industrial city in Finland – and also the largest working-class population. Left was the majority in the Tampere City Council from 1919 to 1992. Takalo, born in 1976, represents the alternative ideals of her generation. She favours recycling and scavenges her food and other necessities from trash containers. The impressive graphics carry effortlessly the critical notions of city planning and the damage done over the decades. Nearing our times, Takalo focuses on the struggle to preserve the last of the idyllic wooden neighbourhoods. Takalo has participated in that long fight since the 90’s. She caricatures the authorities smartly in a medieval drawing style. The story narrows further down to the renovation of the Annikki block. There the town’s history and Takalo’s personal history meet, when Takalo and Mikko repair their own apartment in Annikki. Takalo’s book has three protagonists but it is not a triangular drama. It’s a story of a voyage to home through history.


Köyhän miehen Jerusalem (‘Poor Man’s Jerusalem’)
by Ville Ranta
Asema

The city of Jerusalem is sacred for the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian alike. This ancient town has been built in stone on a mountain of stone. That’s why it has lasted through many wars. In his latest book Ville Ranta does not travel to Jerusalem. In the end of it he does travel to Italy, to an artists’ residency in Matera, where, among others, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson shot movies taking place in ancient Jerusalem. Matera offers Ranta a reason to name his book as ‘Poor Man’s Jerusalem’. However, the name refers to another ancient location. Actually his theme is family, a Jerusalem of one kind as well. Like Jerusalem, family values defy time and are shared by many cultures. In his book Ranta portrays his painful balancing act between family and work. He also returns to the autobiography of his breakthrough book Isi on vähän väsynyt (‘Daddy Is a Bit Tired’, 2005). Ranta always draws with a free and jagged line that has a feel of immediacy. His drawing has hardly ever been as rough as here. Ranta has drawn fast, over 200 pages in less than a year. Regardless, his drawing is very expressive. The lines show emotions, sensations and perceptions. In Isi on vähän väsynyt Ranta was a new father trying to cope with his situation. Here he’s expecting a new baby with his new spouse. His puzzle of a family and its disjointed rhythm of life serve as a sample of a modern life of broken and rebuilt families. Ranta openly recounts his emotions, even in a confessional manner. The family takes time and strength that he’d like to use for his art. He fears mediocrity and ageing. He shouldn’t need to worry about mediocrity, at least. He’s way too good a storyteller to settle for a simple diary. Ranta uses flashbacks, fantasy and metaphor. In the wildest sequence, giving birth is juxtaposed with the slaughter of a lamb. Perhaps Ranta would not be as good an artist as he is without the pressures of family life. At least family is a central theme to all his work. See some interior pages online here…


Armeija (‘Army’)
by Petteri Tikkanen
Like

Petteri Tikkanen has followed Kanerva and Eero in seven books. The last four have concentrated on Eero. Tikkanen’s portraits of both the girl and the boy have been very sensitive. Through the series the characters have been growing up. Over the years it has been slowly building up into an impressive coming-of-age story. Perhaps the point of view has shifted from the girl, Kanerva, to the boy Eero because in later childhood it has become easier for Tikkanen to use his own memories and experiences. Along the way, Eero gets excited by playing rock music, for example. Tikkanen himself performs and plays guitar as the wild Black Peider, a character parodying pro wrestling, and yet Eero is hardly autobiographical. In the latest book, Eero graduates from high school and gets drafted, as everybody does at that age in Finland. Eero has to consider his life choices, whether to do military service or national service. A mild rash could offer him a way out of both. The generations of Eero’s family offer different approaches. His grandfather has fought in WW2. On the other hand, his peers give their opinions. His relationship with Kanerva, by now coloured by sexual desire, is especially significant. Tikkanen never offers obvious choices but between the lines one can read a subtle pacifist tendency. Tikkanen’s drawings are clear and polished, his line agile and assured. Usually there are only two large panels per page, which makes the composition sturdy. Each book has an extra colour. In Armeija (‘Army’) it’s grey, the colour of Finnish military uniform fitting for the subject matter. Armeija brings Kanerva and Eero to the brink of adulthood and ends their story arc. It has recently been published in French and all four Eero books have been collected in one German edition. Publishers’ webpage here…


Italy

Selected by Matteo Stefanelli
Matteo Stefanelli is a media scholar and comics critic, co-author of the first history of Italian comics Fumetto! 150 anni di storie italiane (Rizzoli, 2012), and editor of comics culture magazine Fumettologica.it.


Il mondo così com’è (‘The world as it is’)
by Tiziano Scarpa and Massimo Giacon
Rizzoli Lizard

Alfio sees strange things. Or rather, he sees words which things (objects, plants, buildings, insects ...) “speak” or tell to each other, if only someone had the unimaginable ability to perceive such conversations with human eyes. These words, however, become visible to Alfio’s – and our – sight as speech balloons. Yes: the most diverse balloons, as graphic devices and synaesthetic forces, are the main co-protagonists of a graphic novel that is a tour de force of playful visual imagination. Il mondo così com’è, co-created by Tiziano Scarpa, a literary writer always interested in signs and objects, and Giacon, an acrobatic cartoonist and designer, is one of those rare works that could not be possible if the language of comics didn’t exist. Check an excerpt here…


Fun
by Paolo Bacilieri
Coconino Press

If you’ve ever taken a look at an Italian newsstand, you have probably seen on the shelves La Settimana Enigmistica, the bestselling magazine in Italy for decades. Its main content is a transgenerational hobby and a national passion: crosswords. In Fun, Bacilieri leads us to discover the history of crossword puzzles, skilfully interweaving the ‘swing’ atmosphere of effervescent New York at the turn of the 20th century and the melancholic urban life of contemporary Milan. Suspended between historical research (thanks to Stefano Bartezzaghi, writer and creator of brilliant puns, who acted as consultant) and some elegant exercise in style - have you ever thought about the similarities between comics and crosswords puzzles’ grids? - Bacilieri infuses passion and curiosity to the somewhat eccentric development of puzzles. A graphic novel that turns into a graphic rebus: a puzzle to be enjoyed with the eyes and to be solved with narration. Check an excerpt here…


Golem
by LRNZ
Bao Publishing

The first graphic novel by Lorenzo Ceccotti, aka LRNZ, is a science fiction story set in Italy, which assumes the end of the global capitalist system. Forget your stereotypical ideas about Italy and drop down into the futuristic but slightly plausible dystopian Italy that LRNZ has built here, brick by brick, company after company, logo after logo. Thanks to his skills as comic artist and graphic designer, and sick of technology, Lrnz brings to an end after many years (working since his college days) a work which is a smart project of world-building, maybe the most mature offered in the genre by contemporary Italian comics. A choral work, led by two unconscious descendants of a bunch of formidable scientists, that tells a not-so-classic parable about power and control, told using Otomo, Miyazaki, Moebius and Evangelion. Entertaining and eye- catching, Golem is also a great work of pop style, where bright colours are sustained by harmonic, clear-line drawing. Check an excerpt here…


New Zealand

Selected by Adrian Kinnaird
Adrian Kinnaird has been involved in the New Zealand comics community as a cartoonist, writer and blogger for the past 15 years. He is the author of From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, and co-founder of Earth’s End Publishing, a boutique publishing house dedicated to producing New Zealand comics and graphic novels. For more information, you can visit his blog.


Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
by Dylan Horrocks
Victoria University Press

Following 16 years after the release of his ground-breaking debut Hicksville (1998), Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen introduces us to a burnt-out cartoonist, who having lost his faith in the comics medium, begins a journey of rediscovery that takes him inside and beyond the boundaries of comic books and their established storytelling conventions. Accompanied by web-cartoonist Alice Brown, and the mysterious rocket-booted, manga-styled schoolgirl Miki, Sam’s quest for the elusive Magic Pen takes them inside a series of comic books where they meet a tribe of sex-obsessed martians, medieval monks, a room of tentacles, and of coarse, other cartoonists. Using elements of auto-bio storytelling as a starting point, Horrocks digs deep to explore some of the underpinnings of comics creation and the moral pitfalls of genre fantasy, and in the process clearly re-igniting his own passion for the medium. A rewarding and fascinating read that was well worth the wait.


The Dharma Punks
by Ant Sang.
Earth’s End Publishing

Originally published as an eight issue comics series from 2001-03, The Dharma Punks is set in Auckland in the mid-Nineties, and follows a group of anarchist punks who have hatched a plan to sabotage the opening of a multi-national fast-food restaurant by blowing it up on opening day. Chopstick has been assigned the task of setting the bomb in the restaurant the night before the opening, but when he is separated from his accomplice, the night takes the first of many unexpected turns. Chance encounters and events from his past conspire against him, forcing Chopstick to deal with more than just the mission at hand. Still reeling after the death of a close friend, and struggling to reconcile his spiritual path with his political actions, Chopstick’s journey is a meditation on life, love, friendship and blowing things up. The Dharma Punks gained a cult status when it was originally serialised, and established Sang as a major local talent in comics and animation. The new collected edition is now bringing this powerful story to a whole new generation of readers. A North American edition is coming this September from Conundrum Press.


Family Portraits
by Sam Orchard
Self-published

Family Portraits is an inclusive auto-bio three issue series that interweaves Sam’s own story as a queer-identified transgender man with stories of other queer and trans individuals living in New Zealand across the spectrum of ‘rainbow’ identities. Using a different comics style for each story, Orchard explores and celebrates how age, history, gender, and ethnicity shape our experiences of ourselves, and how the stories of others can reflect and affirm our own, either through connections or differences. Speaking about the experience of creating the book in his own words, “I have been really lucky to chat with some amazing kiwis to create stories that explore a range of topics, like what it was like to be in a gay relationship before homosexual law reform in New Zealand, and what it’s like to be a first-generation queer from a migrant background”. Sam’s comics are extremely personable and engaging, inviting readers to share in these stories, that for some might otherwise be uncomfortable or outside of their own experience. Family Portraits is informative, educational and entertaining, and a great way to learn and understand more about the LGBTI communities.


Nothing Fits
by Mary Tamblyn & Alex McCrone
Self-published

Nothing Fits is the playful brainchild of two Christchurch-based art students, Mary Tamblyn & Alex McCrone. The story sees a group of misfits – Charlie, a girl who finds herself transported to another dimension; Algae, a gangly clone; and Mummy, a reincarnated Egyptian prince – band together to try and make sense of the strange and foreign world they find themselves in. Meanwhile, the mysterious Solemn plots to overthrow the ruling Rat Empire of the kingdom, and the group of strange misfits might have a part to play in this revolution if they can find a way to live together. If it sounds like there’s a lot going on here, there is. Newcomers Tamblyn & McCrone are having a great deal of fun with this concept, creating lively characters and a unique world for them to explore. At times it can feel like the story might be about to go off the rails, but revelations in the final act bring things back into focus. McCrone’s line art is very appealing and has an almost Tove Jannson feel to it. Nothing Fits is a fine first effort, and I expect more great comics from these two creators in the future.    


Holocaust Rex (2 volumes so far)
by Karl Wills & Timothy Kidd
The Comic Book Factory

The latest tijuana bible to roll off The Comic Book Factory press is Holocaust Rex, a medieval fantasy comic by Karl Wills (Connie Radar and Princess Seppuku) and co-writer Timothy Kidd (Came the Dawn). This is a genre gear shift for Wills, who is more than up for the challenge. His trademark clear line work and attention to detail here is a treat, creating an immersive medieval world - from the prop details (swords, armour), to appropriate buildings and extras, it’s all there along with authentic rotting corpses and flies! In volume one we meet Rex in pursuit of an unknown quarry. His journey is increasingly paved with death, as he encounters a plague victim and then a graveyard, before reaching the quarantined Gates of Koch. In volume two we learn more about the plague inside the city as we accompany two of the city’s doctors though the streets in search of potential cure. Plot wise, we only get a few scenes to chew over, but as with every Comic Book Factory production it’s the staging of these scenes that continue to entertain, with expertly drawn body language and actions selling the gallows humour - of which there’s plenty to enjoy here. Look for more volumes to follow this year.


The Philippines

Selected by Rick Olivares, who cut his eye-teeth in advertising, public relations and marketing, but has made a better name for himself in journalism. He has published four books and is working on two more novels this year. He says though that his real passion is comic books of which he is a lifelong fan. He finally took the plunge in 2014 and published two titles one of which sold out almost upon its initial release. He is working on three more titles this year, as he is dedicating this entire year to comics publishing.


Tabi Po (‘Excuse Me’)
by Mervin Malonzo
Visprint

In Philippine folklore, the phrase “Tabi tabi po” is uttered when passing by the supposed earthly “homes of dwarves”, lest blundering human folk offend them. But not all supernatural terrors lie beneath the ground or in some dimension. It is said that some of them live among the people and appear in human form. That is the premise of Mervin Malonzo’s Tabi Po, where he deconstructs the myth of the aswang by giving them human form instead of the frightening monsters told by our elders during our youth. Malonzo places them in the midst of everyday life in the province and makes them absolutely chilling. Tabi Po tells the story of the mysterious Elias, who wakes up in the middle of a tree in a forest with no recollection of who he is or what he’s supposed to do. All he knows is that he is haunted by a vision of a woman and at the same time has this maddening and overriding craving for human flesh. Elias then meets Tasyo and Sabel, who are like him but have been around much longer. As they help him come to grips with his life as an immortal, they move into a nearby town with faked identities and where they have access to a steady supply of victims. Malonzo’s painted art is like what you’d see in galleries, where idyllic scenes from life in the countryside or even a bygone era abound. And that is what makes it even more visually arresting – savage even—when monsters are placed in the midst of all this serenity. When it’s feeding time, the blood and gore rip apart all notions of peace and safety. Tabi Po is daring. It jars you, disturbs you a bit (well, that depends on your comfort zone), and leaves you thinking about the story and certain images. They stick to your mind. And that is what a darn good story is supposed to leave you. Visit the Tabi Po website here…


Maktan 1521
by Tepai Pascual
Visprint

A highly romanticized re-telling of The Battle of Mactan that took place in 1521 between the natives of Sebu (Cebu) led by the chieftain Lapu Lapu and the Spanish forces of Ferdinand Magellan. There really isn’t much information about this battle that took place some five centuries ago. And so, like the great Filipino komiks writer/artist Francisco Coching who also published a similar story back in 1955, Maktan 1521 creator Tepai Pascual finds her own voice, as she chooses to tell the story through the point of view of Lapu Lapu’s son, Sawili. However, unlike Coching who drew in what is considered the “Filipino Classic style” (that in turn was heavily influenced by Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Norman Rockwell and others of the pre-and post-World War II eras), Pascual brings her manga-influenced style to a chapter of history without going overboard with the Japanese style’s quirks. She injects elements that add to the mere testosterone-charged story. There’s some love in the air, à la Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, between Sawili and Mawo/Maya, and touch of Braveheart and the betrayal of Robert the Bruce in Paril and Sawili, as we can see how the arrival of the Spaniards creates tension between the inhabitants of Sebu that simmers and then boils into open conflagration. As a history buff, I highly appreciate Pascual’s work. While a lot of creators mine our country’s rich folklore and mythology, she chooses to delve into a pivotal moment in our country’s history. And like Coching before her, we are richer for this. See Chapter 1 and more on the Maktan 1521 blog here…


14
by Manix Abrera
Visprint

How often do you get to hear the monster’s side of the story? Manix Abrera is the Philippines’ most popular comic strip artist. Humanoid types with an irascible humor populate his worlds. And 14 is no different. Except this time, he tells the stories of the denizens of Philippine folklore and myth in a “silent graphic novel.” That means no words at all as we are left to interpret the stories herein. The story starts with a nameless man who takes the elevator ride up to the 14th floor. Yet at almost all the lower floors, various creatures from folklore get in – much to the fear of the man – all bound for the… 13th floor. As they exit, the 13th floor turns out to be a portal to the netherworld or some such, where a multitude of other creatures have gathered for some conclave. The man, having gotten over his fear is now intrigued. He likewise exits. And there begins the adventure. All the creatures that boarded the elevator tell there stories that are all self-contained yet are connected. And the reader is left to feel like he or she is the audience at that conclave from hell.


Poland

Selected by Łukasz Chmielewski
Łukasz Chmielewski is head editor of the comics website AlejaKomiksu.com, journalist and comics critic working for culture.pl, a web portal dedicated to Polish art and culture, and for the lifestyle magazine Aktivist
.


Zdarzenie. 1908
by Jacek Świdziński
Kultura Gniewu

Jacek Świdziński surprises his readers by skilfully combining seemingly disparate elements. He comes up with plots full of action, and illustrates them in an extremely minimalist manner. The conventionality and economy of his drawings is, however, very telling, and shows the potential of conveying meaning through image. At the same time, his illustrations are in a way refined and charming. Zdarzenie. 1908 is his best comic. Despite its action storyline, the plot develops at a leisurely pace, mainly thanks to the panel composition, very often one panel consists of 3-4 large frames. The comic is by no means long-winded and captivates you from its opening pages. Incidentally, the final twist and epilogue are truly shocking. At the beginning of the 20th century, in a distant taiga forest, strange things begin to happen. An unconventional expedition, including Rasputin and tsarina Alexandra with her little son, is sent to investigate. Gradually discovering the identities of the six characters adds new layers of meaning. Each member of the expedition has their secrets and goals. For each of them, this journey will be life-changing. Each person seems to be playing their own game which might change the course of history; however, it might turn out that they are all just pawns in a bigger game that they cannot understand. Especially if one of the players is Nicola Tesla himself… Find an extract online here…


Blaki: Czwórka (‘Blacky: Four of Us’)
by Mateusz Skutnik
Centrala

At first sight, Blacky seems to be a frustrated guy in his 30s. Everything bothers him, he complains about things changing, he’s grumpy and nothing can cheer him up. But it’s only a pretence. The protagonist has put himself in a shell that separates him from the past and allows him to be a different man. Blacky is in a way an alter ego of the comic’s author, Mateusz Skutnik. The long-eared humanoid creature dressed in a black robe that he created resembles an alien more than a man. However, the reality surrounding him is very human. It’s an intentional move which allows for more distance, gives a sense of independence and makes it possible to separate the protagonist from the author. Blacky has a wife and two kids and he has a job, but his office is at home. Occasionally, he’s still reminded of his old life but his world is changed now. This can be seen in a moving scene when his daughter asks him to draw her a house, and he leaves everything to play with her. Such metamorphosis should be understood by everyone, even before they become a parent. For Skutnik, everyday things, from ironing shirts to looking at old photos, have an existential dimension. Every action says something about our attitude to the surrounding world, and regular things can show our real face. The artist paints in a very characteristic fashion using ink, which makes the comic visually appealing.


Podgląd
by Daniel Chmielewski & Marcin Podolec
Kultura Gniewu

In this story, brilliantly and compellingly drawn by Marcin Podolec, Daniel Chmielewski is almost like Rembrandt in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as he invites the reader to witness both an autopsy and vivisection of a man and a marriage. A young married couple engage in a sophisticated and perverse game with no apparent sense. It’s unclear who’s the victim and who’s the oppressor. They both wish for more excitement in their relationship. He is obsessively jealous, she has no inhibitions. Their initial bedroom role play turns into a film script that can get out of hand. The line between fantasy and reality seems to blur. The scriptwriter doesn’t judge, he secretly watches and presents elements of life that the reader has to put together. These elements do fit together, although it’s difficult to pinpoint the characters’ motivations, since boredom and exploration of increasingly stronger sensations seem to to be a rather insufficient driving force. There is a certain fatalism to the characters and their behaviour brings to mind Heidegger’s concept of man. Both the man and the woman want to escape everyday life, their corporate jobs and unfulfilled ambitions. By deciding to act in certain ways, they search for the meaning of life. One can wonder whether they succeed and whether what they find is genuine.


Lawa (‘Lava’)
by Wilhelm Sasnal 
Wilhelm Sasnal, Anton Kern Gallery & Fundacja Galerii Foksal

Wilhelm Sasnal is currently the most expensive contemporary Polish artist. His works can be found at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London or Guggenheim Museum in New York. In his art, he has often used comics – either as a form of expression or as inspiration. Lava is his second comic. The plot takes place in Hawaii in a town buried by lava. It is a story about two young people whose paths cross by accident. The narrative is focused on everyday life and the little aspects of living together. The album’s structure is well thought out formally and artistically, and the style is a great match for the story. Sasnal’s comic is composed of full-page frames in a form of a notepad. What seems to be a printing error turns out to be an intentional move that highlights the authenticity of the story. Graphically, Sasnal opts for minimalism, softly drawing usually just his characters; the backgrounds are reduced. On a wasteland covered by lava and scorched by the sun, people are isolated and have to cope on their own. It’s a good place to show where danger comes from. At the beginning, Lava gives the impression of being an expensive, slow, uneventful comic book focused on relationships and emotions. However towards the end the artist introduces a twist, speeds up and complicates the plot, eventually turning it into a crime story.


Quiet little Melody. A simple fairytale
by Sebastian Skrobol 
Wydawnictwo Komiksowe

Quiet little Melody. A simple fairytale is a debut album by Sebastian Skrobol, in which the author shows not only that he’s skilful at drawing but also that he has a knack for telling stories through images and using colours. The comic is wordless and the narrative relies on the visual form. Skrobol clearly and convincingly tells his story, not forgetting about suspense and surprises. The narrative is twisting and non-linear. A girl goes to a forest. Her journey is full of dangers, those who act as friends turn into beasts, however her aim is noble and she must take the risk. The journey can be treated both literally and figuratively. There is a moral to the story, but it isn’t direct – it’s a truth one has to grow to understand. There are werewolves, witches, a secret artefact and a magic plant. With a surprising grace Skrobol adapts and combines various fairy tales. Well-known motifs transform from one into another and the boundaries between them are blurred. The re-interpretations are interesting and Skrobol’s versions are dark and full of terror. Nonetheless adult readers should take up the challenge and track down literary originals – without it the intrigue may seem too obvious. Younger readers are going to be unconditionally delighted with the story.

Spain

Selected by Alfons Moliné
Alfons Moliné is an animator, translator, and writer on the subjects of comics, animation and manga. He is the author of a number of books, including El Gran Libro de los Manga (Glénat, 2002) and biographies of Osamu Tezuka, Carl Barks, Rumiko Takahashi and Charles Schulz (scheduled for 2015).


Yo, asesino (‘I, Murderer’)
by Antonio Altarriba & Keko
Norma Editorial

Antonio Altarriba is the co-author with illustrator Kim of the acclaimed graphic novel The Art of Flying (published this year in English by Jonathan Cape), which depicted the life and (hard) times of his father during Francoist Spain, and was reviewed by this writer on this site five years ago and also included in 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. Altarriba has now joined forces with another artist, Keko (José Antonio Godoy), whose career spans almost three decades in the field of both comics and illustration, to concoct a graphic dissertation on what makes a murderer. The main character is Enrique Rodríguez, a renowned, well-mannered professor at a Basque university, who has a peculiar hobby: murder as a work of art. Rodríguez performs his killings cold-bloodedly and with no feeling of guilt at all, searching an aesthetic level in them, like somebody who paints a picture or sculpts a statue. There is, of course, a touch of black humour in that, but also a call to reflection: aren’t we, the present-day society, becoming ourselves murderers in a way, as we witness in the media with absolute indifference, day after day, the countless murders, attacks and other acts of violence committed all over the world? Keko’s crisp black-and-white (and red, for the blood!) artwork, influenced by such masters as Alberto Breccia and Will Eisner, displays a skilful use of chiaroscuro that ideally suits Altarriba’s poignant script, even incorporating nods to Goya, Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch and other painters. Yo, asesino has been awarded in France the Grand Prix de la Critique 2015 by the ACBD (Association of Comics Critics and Journalist), and Altarriba is currently preparing a sequel to The Art of Flying which will focus on his mother. Read a four-page extract of the French edition from Denoël here…

Posted: February 1, 2015

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