lördag 10 december 2011

Jason Aaron & Ron Garney: Ultimate Comics Captain America

The Ultimate Comics Captain America isn't quite like the Steve Rogers we've come to know and love in the standard Marvel Universe. He's cruder, doesn't mind shooting people, and is more chauvinistic. When the raid he leads against a North Korean installation goes to heck, he blames the "incompetent Brits", and he echoes the anti-French prejudice heard from so many on the American Right after France wouldn't support the Bush admin's Iraq invasion. So this counts against him as a hero in my book. You could explore such issues to make him a more fully-rounded character, of course, but that's usually not what mainstream superhero comics do.

Turns out that's not what Aaron and Garney do in Ultimate Comics Captain America, either.

The story is as follows: Cap is kept prisoner, in shackles. He attempts to escape, is caught, beaten, and a gun is put to his head. He starts praying. Disgusted, his captor leaves, saying he'll be back in five minutes and shoot Cap, and then he'll see how useless praying was.

Flashback starts.

Cap leads a raid on a North Korean compound, where attempts are made to replicate the super soldier serum. They're working from the blood of somebody who apparently has the serum flowing in his veins, somebody who double-crosses the North Koreans and makes off with the serum – after having beaten Cap to a pulp. Cap wakes up, blames the British soldiers who were with him on the mission for its failure (real class, right?) and is dismayed that he's in a hospital in France. He learns that the man who vanquished him – and who invited Cap to seek him out so's he can educate him on all the bad things the U.S. has done, and why serving it is a sham – is Frank Simpson, the Captain America of the Vietnam era.

Sickened by what the U.S. made him do, Simpson became a renegade – "a $#@%& traitor", to quote Cap – and now he's got the super soldier serum to sell to the highest bidder. So Cap goes off the plantation (as planned by his superiors) and goes to Cambodia where he, while complaining about how badly the food smells, attract the attention of some killers, which somehow leads him to Simpson's hideout. There, it turns out Simpson has turned a whole village into super-soldiers, and Cap is captured. Simpson proceeds to torture him and lecture him on all the bad things the U.S. has done over the years.

Which ends the long flashback. When Cap has finished praying, a snake appears, and Cap uses it to defeat Simpson when he returns to kill him. Cap also delivers a little speech about how he already knew about all the bad things America has done, but "Peace and security don't come easy, Simpson. And wars are never pretty, no matter the era.
But we do what we can for the greater good.
Has America done its share of mistakes? Obviously.
You were one of its worst."

Now, if the Iraq war and other things like the Vietnam war and supporting military dictatorships all over the world were smaller mistakes according to Cap, and to Jason Aaron, I have to question their judgement.

Seriously. That sort of facile glossing-over is just pathetic.

Next, Cap, echoing George W. Bush, looks at the villagers pointing weapons at him, and says, "Anyone still pointing a gun at me, I will consider an enemy and deal with accordingly". Amazingly, this cowes an entire village of super-soldiers into letting him leave unhindered.

So that's two strikes of Aaron repeating Bush-era dogma as basic tenets of Captain America. The third strike comes at the end, when Cap comes to read the Bible to Simpson at his hospital bed.

Now, while an agnostic, I'm not anti-Christian or anti-religion in general, but just as I don't particularly like other in-your-face ideology in my comic books or movies, this gets to be a bit much. Adding the chauvinism, it turns out that this version of Captain America is definitely not my cup of tea. George W. Bush was pretty much a disaster for the world and the U.S. as American president, and seeing the basic tenets of his presidency repeated in comic book form is just tiresome (and a teeny weeny bit sickening).

Garney's art is OK, but I preferred the way it looked in his Mark Waid collaborations. I can't quite put my finger on why – it could be that the design was cleaner, but I'm not sure.

Anyway, this book's about a hero with a simplistic, chauvinistic world-view. OK. That could have been the starting point for an interesting clash of world-views between him and the Vietnam era Cap. Aaron chose to forego that option, and went for a simplistic slugfest-tough-talk-and-gritted-teeth story leavened with some chauvinism and Bible-thumping. That rates it a clear "Not recommended" in my book. Read the Roger Stern, J. M. DeMatties or Mark Waid Captain America instead.

tisdag 6 december 2011

What have I done?, 2011a edition

OK, so I did do a year's worth of Knasen. I'm putting up all the year's covers here.

And of course, the covers are created by the Norwegian bullpen who do an excellent job of it; I just sort of Swedify them.

A reader wrote in to complain that the above cover didn't look as good as the one we'd teased that issue with in the preceding issue – it had a lot of snowflakes that made for a more Christmas-y spirit to the cover. Of course, he was right. So below is the revised, more Christmas-y version:

Back from the comics store, December edition

Well, I turned in what is hopefully my last piece of work for my art history class today, so hopefully I'll have some time before Christmas to read some of these lovelies and review them here. A lot of good stuff in there. For example, if you don't have a Carl Barks collection already, now is definitely the time to start one. And the Superman story of the Kents is a really good story about not Superman, but Bleeding Kansas. If you haven't read it, I recommend getting these cheap and good DC Comics Presents editions.

I also bought the big-ass collection of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, which are IMO overrated but still classics, but it was just too damn huge to cram into a pic with the others.

söndag 27 november 2011

Back from the comics store, big sale edition

OK, so I don't have time to do much, or any, blogging right now with studying and work taking up a lot of my time, but I can at least buy comics that I don't have the time to read yet, either. My comics store had a sale with up to 20% off if you bought 20 comics collections, so I bought 20 comics collections.

"Journey", William Messner-Loebs' story about trapper Wolverine McAllister didn't come out all that clearly in the picture, so I'll recommend it in writing here. I'm not fond of his artwork, but the story is good.

lördag 19 november 2011

My t-shirts, part 48: Snoopy Baseball

I like this one a lot. Pleasant overall design and a great Snoopy pic. Baseball and Peanuts are inseparable in my mind.

lördag 12 november 2011

Ulf Jansson: Bengt Bouquet – Vinnörden korkar upp

Ulf Jansson is one of the best Swedish comics artists there is. He's got a strong, elegant ink line with a lot of energy and vitality to it, and an excellent sense of movement and attitude of the characters in his drawings. Working in a Franco-Belgian traditional humorous style, he'd probably be world-renowned if he'd been born in a country with more of a tradition of exporting its comics. He'd be an excellent artist for something like Spirou, for example, but as he was born in Sweden, that's unfortunately not going to happen.

So we'll have to make do with the many humor and humorous adventure strips he's created together with comics writer Magnus Knutsson, and I can live with that as they're usually quite good and worth your while, and the gag strips he's done on his own. One such was the 1979 Benke, a strip of single-page gags rather obviously inspired by Franquin's excellent Gaston but worth the read as the gags were OK and the art was excellent. It was published in the first issue of the comic book Svenska Serier, but sadly didn't come into regular production and publication.

 Bengt Bouquet is a strip that wine aficionado Jansson does for the wine magazine he's an editor of, Munskänken (The Cup-bearer). It has now been collected in its first volume, Vinnörden korkar upp ("The wine nerd uncorks"), depicting the life of a somewhat fanatical wine aficionado. The jokes center on Bengt Bouquets neurotic relationship to wines, sometimes in connection with current events, and has the characteristic elegant Jansson drawings. Unfortunately, the jokes are a bit of the "inside jokes" variety – they aren't quite strong enough to stand on their own, and you probably have to be a bit of a wine nerd yourself to really enjoy them. I was a bit amused by most of them, sure, but the strip never really clicked for me.

In this strip, a not-very-wine-knowledgeable couple decides to buy what the
confident Bengt Bouquet buys, not realizing until it is too late that he picks
the very best and most expensive wines, making it waaay more expensive
 than they expected.

So even though I think that any strip by Jansson deserves to be read at least once, I can't really recommend this (rather expensive, hardcover) book. Unless, of course, you are a wine aficionado yourself, and prepared to laugh a little at yourself and your hobby – or are looking for a present for somebody like that.

lördag 5 november 2011

Brad DeLong, national treasure

It's not even the politics of division, it's the politics of spite. I'll quote Prof. DeLong extensively because he's so good. His blog is well worth the at-least-daily visits it gets from me.

The Republicans are not just acting against the interests of the 99% and for the interests of the 1%. The Republicans are acting in the interests of nobody at all:

Il Quarto Stato
The 1% have an interest in full employment, high capacity utilization, and general prosperity just as the rest of us do.
It is true that the interests of the 1% differ from the interests of the rest of Americans in four particulars:
  1. The 1% have an enormous material interest in making the tax system less progressive.
  2. The 1% have a long-run material interest in hypnotizing Americans into believing that the current distribution of income and wealth is in some sense "deserved" or "just".
  3. The 1% have a short-run ideal interest in being reassured that they are in fact good people whose wealth and incomes are deserved and just.
  4. The 1% have a short-run material interest in not being reminded that it was the actions of many of them that played the key role in breaking the economy.
But the 1% have a strong material interest in the passage of the American Jobs Act. In acting to block it, the Republicans--and Senator Nelson--are betraying the interests of their contributors in the top 1% as much as they are betraying the interests of their constituents.

fredag 4 november 2011

Back from the comics store, not-much-time-for-anything edition

Haven't had time for much of anything other than work and studying lately, and the last week or so, work has even crowded out the studying.

But at least I've got work, so, hey... I shouldn't complain too loudly.

Anyway, some seriously cool stuff in this month's comics batch (and I have one bag of comics left to pick up because it got a bit too heavy to carry)... which only makes my lack of time to read it even more sad. Those Disney art books show just how much talent the studio has seen through the years, and I've now got the full Bloom County collection... Next up from IDW, Outland collected – which I'll get even though Outland never really clicked for me. I always thought it was the lack of a daily strip to build up, and lend stability to, the characters. The ongoing saga was weakened by the lack of a daily strip, and the ongoing saga was what gave opportunities to empathize with, and care about, the characters. With that gone, the Sundays on their own weren't enough to keep the strip really interesting for me, even though each individual Sunday page was usually pretty good.

And finally, because part of the course I'm studying involves doing a small presentation of Swedish Rococo pastel portraitist Gustaf Lundberg tomorrow, his portrait of fellow artist Charles-Joseph Natoire. Following that, a self-portrait by the French artist who replaced him as the darling of the jet-set of the day, Maurice Quentin de la Tour. Lundberg's portraits are nice and skillful, but de La Tour takes pastel portraiture to a whole new level; no wonder everybody wanted him to flatter them by making them look intelligent, handsome, and forceful in his portraits.

Natoire by Lundberg.

de La Tour by himself.

tisdag 25 oktober 2011

Back from the comics store, late October 2011 edition

There is currently a sale on two of Li Österberg's books, which means you have no excuse not to go down to your local comics shop and ask for them. Just like life, they have quite a bit of melancholy in them at times, and are very much worth the effort.

Book: Sergel

Finished the Swedish National Museum of Fine Arts' book "Sergel", about the Swedish 1700s sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel. Born 1740, Sergel started out working in his father's embroidery shop, showed artistic talent and received training in drawing by Jean Eric Rehn and then sculpting training from Adrien Masreliez and Pierre Hubert L'Archevêque, both of them French and recruited to work on the Swedish royal palace being built in Stockholm – and to train a generation of Swedish artists and sculptors. L'Archeveque brought Sergel with him to Paris for six months, during which time Sergel met and was inspired by neoclassicist sculptor Edme Bouchardon and retired soldier, amateur etcher and conoisseur Comte de Caylus.

Sergel brought drawings by Bouchardon with him home to Sweden and worked hard at acquiring the French master's elegant draughtsmanship, developing exquisite technique. Recognized as an impressive talent, at 27 he received a stipend to go to Rome to study the classical originals. This initially led to a "culture shock" for a Swede who hadn't really been party to this European tradition before. So he started drawing the antique sculptures, moving on to drawing paintings and eventually sculpture. And so, after a couple of years, he starts sculpting, which leads to international recognition. However, as most of his creations ended up in comparatively isolated Sweden, they haven't really entered the world art history canon. 

Eating too much rendered Sergel rather fat during his stay in Rome, and he also developed gout and depression when his future started to seem uncertain after rumors that the Swedish government might revoke his stipend. Still, he produced some impressive works, developed a reputation and received international interest. In the end, his old teacher L'Archeveque returned to France in ill health, and Sergel returned to Sweden to take his place as the royal sculptor. He largely didn't get to do the monumental statuary he was hoping for, which led to more melancholy, but was instead deluged with commissions for portrait busts of the royal family and Swedish nobility, as well as doing various decorative stuff for the king. Still, he held Gustav III in the highest esteem, and was justly celebrated for his skills.


He died in 1814. If you're ever in Stockholm, it's not a bad idea to seek out some of his works, for example the altarpiece in Adolf Fredrik's Church

This book is, if I haven't misunderstood it entirely, the catalogue for a large Sergel exhibit at the National Museum. It concentrates a bit too much on his various sketches and caricatures for my taste, good as they are – I'm not against caricatures per se, far from it but I'm a huge fan of beautiful draughtsmanship, so I would have liked to see a bit more of that.

(The ink line in this and a number of other of other drawings reminds me of  Swedish artist and
Emil of Lönneberga illustrator Björn Berg. I don't know if anybody agrees with me, but it still does.)

On the other hand, just like I often find nicely rendered sketches more interesting than the finished inked comics art and finished paintings, I find some of of his terra cotta statuary sketches more interesting than the finished, smoother marble sculptures.

Anyway, anything that shows off great art is A-OK in my book, and Sergel is well worth anybody's time, even though I think the biographical narrative could have gotten a little bit more space – though it is an exhibition catalogue, and I understand that the narrative structure is affected by that. Anyway, recommended.

måndag 10 oktober 2011

Jiro Taniguchi: A Zoo In Winter

What I've read from Taniguchi before is one (1) collection of short stories – The Ice Wanderer – which were usually strong in the human relations/interplay and nature departments. A Zoo in Winter depicts, if I understand the text on the back cover correctly, how Taniguchi got his start doing manga. It has a lot in common with other "how I started doing manga" stories, but is well worth reading and stands squarely on its own legs. The story is well told, with interesting personalities, crisp linework and a charming love story woven into it.

Taniguchi's alter ego Hamaguchi works for a textile manufacturer, doing odd jobs while dreaming about becoming a fabric designer. The boss's disgraced (= divorced, and having-taken-a-lover) daughter enters his life when the boss trusts him to be her chaperone, taking her on various outings in Kyoto – including the zoo, where Hamaguchi likes to sit sketching the animals. On one of their outings, the young woman has arranged to meet her married lover, and elopes with him.

Hamaguchi's prospects at the company dwindle.

A friend studying at a design school arranges for a visit with a manga artist's studio for an interview to become an assistant, but when the two young men arrive, deadline is approaching at a hectic pace, and Hamaguchi is simply shanghaied into service on the spot, erasing lead art filling in solid blacks. Somewhat terrified, he even ends up doing some backgrounds because the deadline is so tight. The studio works practically all night, gets the art out to the printer's – the editor has been waiting for the pages to get finished and takes them there in a taxi – and Hamaguchi is bitten by the "manga bug".

Taniguchi's pacing isn't exactly rapid; there is a lot of time spent on the various personalities of the studio and their interplay, Hamaguchi's older brother coming to check up on him and to talk him into getting a proper job – but it turns out the brother is actually quite impressed with the work done at the studio – etc. There is also a somewhat bohemian artist friend of the manga sensei who introduces Hamaguchi to drinking and to some ladies. One of those ladies turns out to have a sickly younger sister, and asks Hamaguchi if he could take the sister for some small outings in Tokyo. Hamaguchi accepts. The sister is pretty, sweet, and very frail, and naturally she and Hamaguchi become quite fond of each other. She encourages him to draw a manga of his own, even though he has tremendous problems coming up with a story that works. With her help, though, something finally starts to take shape... and at the same time, her condition worsens, and she has to leave Tokyo.

Hamaguchi works at the story, trying to finish it for her sake, to be able to show it to her, but at the same time, she doesn't want him to see her in her brittle, emaciated state, so she forbids her sister to tell him where she is...

I won't give away the ending, or talk about the many subplots that don't really go anywhere but seem to be in the story mainly because they happened – towards the middle of the book, I actually felt that some of them were distracting a bit from the main plot, but only for a short while. Basically, those parts that don't contribute to the main plot are usually interesting enough in themselves that they aren't a distraction, and what I thought was a distraction was, in fact, a necessary part of the plot (though it was a bit slow-paced; I'll stand by that). Instead, I'll say that this is a both sweet and serious story about a young man finding his way in life, suffering some setbacks but persevering through hard work and the inspiration from a sweet girl; all told with empathy and elegant artwork.

Recommended; well worth your time.

Here is another review of the book. Artwork samples here. Another review, with artwork samples, here. (I recommend taking a look at those samples if you're in doubt whether to buy the book – I don't think the slightly bland painted cover represents Taniguchi's best work; however, his line art, complemented by excellent zip-a-tone "painting", is strong and beautiful.)

lördag 8 oktober 2011

Back from the comics store, October 2011 edition

Yeah, well, I ought to do a proper post but I've ben a bit under the weather and had a lot of work to do, etc etc. I'll steal the time to read at least one of these this weekend. I really liked most of the short stories in Taniguchi's collection Toudo no tabibito (Swedish title Isvandraren – "The ice wanderer" – from Epix), so I may go for A Zoo in Winter.