fredag 29 april 2011

I did this!

General Halftrack being generally clueless and not understanding what is going is a regularly occurring gag in the "Beetle Bailey" strip. So the job for the Walker gang is to come up with new ridiculous situations for him to react to, and a credible back story for how that particular situation came about.

måndag 25 april 2011

My t-shirts, part 35: Modesty Blaise

"Modesty Blaise" is one of the best thriller/action comics ever. If you haven't read it, you should. It didn't stay great over its entire publishing span, but enough of it is still very much worthwhile thanks to taking the subject of the heroes' combat against various gangsters seriously and utilizing techniques and tech that are pretty realistic (unlike the James Bond fantasies that make the films generally lose all believability). The Jim Holdaway- and Neville Colvin-drawn episodes are generally the best.

And once you're hooked on the comic strip, you can read the novels and short story collections as well. They suffer a bit from writer Peter O'Donnell's conservative, even nigh-reactionary, world-view shining through a little too much, but are still very much worth reading if you like action-adventure stories.

I guess have two favorites among the books. One is A Taste for Death, in which Modesty's friend Willie Garvin is put into an excellent dilemma – he has to battle a man he has essentially no chance of beating, and though he's prepared to do so and die to protect Modesty, Modesty's not prepared to let him sacrifice himself so she puts him in a position where he really has to beat he's nemesis, or both he and Modesty will die. Another is The Xanadu Talisman, in which an enemy manages to kill a man under Modesty's protection in such a gruesome way as to unnerve even the normally stable-like-a-rock Willie Garvin.

Good stuff.

lördag 23 april 2011

fredag 22 april 2011

Fabian Göranson: Inferno

Inferno is one of August Strindberg's most famous novels, depicting his nervous breakdown and descent into paranoia, occultism and alchemy. Swedish comics creator Fabian Göranson has adapted it to comics form.

The novel starts with Strindberg in Paris, saying goodbye to his wife who's going back to Austria as their little daughter, living there with Strindberg's mother-in-law, is sick. Having just had one of his plays played in Paris to apparently good reviews, Strindberg is apparently having trouble writing, and turns instead to chemistry to make earth-shattering discoveries and become incredibly famous. Since he's nothing but a dilettante, of course nothing comes out of his naive musings and experiments (which, apropos nothing, reminded me very much of bloggers or people internet discussions boards declaring how they've now proved that climate change is a bluff). Well, not quite "nothing" – isolating himself, and the strain of his feverish experimenting, leads Stindberg to psychosomatic illness (eczema) and exhaustion, and he's put in a hospital. However, his mental condition continues to deteriorate, with increasing paranoid ideation and a belief in the spirit world. After that, the book is basically about how he keeps having these paranoid delusions about things that happen to him, coupled with his newly-found beliefs in spirits, and the ventures into Swedenborgianism and brushes with Catholicism those beliefs lead him to.

In the "real" world, Strindberg feels he's being persecuted by a Russian expat, returns to Sweden to be taken care of by friends, and goes to Austria to meet his now two-year-old daughter. The emphasis is, however, on his mental illness, which colors everything he does and experiences (naturally), and how he thinks he's really being persecuted by a punishing spirit.

Göranson sticks pretty closely to the original novel, as far as I can tell without actually reading it, but being a cartoonist takes some liberties with how he depicts it. Most amusing are a couple of instances where he shows people's reactions to things by utilizing thought balloons that depict characters as manga caricatures, but the overall story is ably told too. Me, I like a crisp, clean and strong ink line, so I'm not really a fan of the more murky, somewhat Tardi-ish look I think the artwork has here, but the coloring works well and like I said, overall it is a story well told.

The big problem for me is rather that Göranson sticks a bit too close to Strindberg's original, because after 80 or so pages (out of a total of about 150), I've grown weary of reading about the torments of poor neurotic August, as there is no character or other development really going on, just more and more delusional ideation applied to what is really basically rather humdrum events. When August decides to go Austria to visit his daughter, a refreshing change of pace and scenery makes the book more interesting again, but by then I can't really rekindle the enthusiasm I had for the first quarter or so of the book.

Göranson has stated that he views Strindberg's Inferno as to a large extent self-ironic, a "look how stupid and crazy I behaved, wink wink" sort of book. I can't really agree with him all the way there, as I have a very hard time seeing Strindberg as capable of real self-irony, but there may well be something to it – the English Wikipedia article mentions (unfortunately without supplying a source) that "evidence also suggests that Strindberg, although experiencing mild neurotic symptoms, both invented and exaggerated much of the material in the book for dramatic effect" (which would lead me to revoke at least some of the sympathy I felt for him while reading about his miseries, if it's true).

Anyway, Göranson is an able comics creator and has created a work that is well worth your time – not least because it means you'll save the time it would take to read Strindberg's own novel. So the book is recommended, if not unconditionally – had Göranson chosen to free himself from Strindberg's original just a bit more (like perhaps taking some more cartooning liberties à la the manga storytelling imagery), I would probably have upgraded my recommendation.

torsdag 21 april 2011

Nils-Erik Landell: Svartsjö, sagoslottet som speglar Sverige ("the fairy-tale palace that mirrors Sweden")

Nils-Erik Landell's book about the Svartsjö palace goes back to the 1100s to trace its earliest origins. Since 1345, there's been (a bit on and off) a royal demesne at Svartsjö. In the 1400s, a stone building was erected there, and Gustav Vasa and his sons had that rebuilt into a renaissance castle – which burned down in 1687, 107 years after it was finished.

In the 1700s, king Fredrik I had a Jagdschloss built there for his queen, Ulrika Eleonora. Architect Carl Hårleman constructed a magnificent rococo palace for her, and set the standard for grand countryside buildings for the rest of the century. In the 1770s, Carl Fredrik Adlercrantz (who also designed the magnificent Adolf Fredrik church in Stockholm, which you owe it to yourself to visit if you pass by near it) added the wings that makes the palace really imposing.

After Lovisa Ulrika's death in 1782, the palace was allowed to fall into disrepair. In 1891, it was turned into a forced labor institution for alcoholics and poor people. Later it took in criminals, and part of it was divided into 300+ cells. After 1966 it was abandoned as a prison, and once again allowed to fall into disrepair. Fortunately, it's been restored again during 1994-2003.

So does Landell's book do the palace justice? Not quite. There are quite a bit of tidbits of historical info to be gleaned from it, but unfortunately, the narrative is diluted with bits about this or that lovely flower that the author has seen in the palace park or surroundings interspersed here and there. The master of this sort of literary historical infotainment, the historically interested journalist Jolo, could get away with this sort of digression, because they were always interesting and illuminating in their own right, but Landell isn't the writer Jolo was, so if you don't share his botanical interests, your out of luck for the remainder of the digression.

So, a nice enough book, but it doesn't quite make it to the recommended-list.

Photo of palace by HansM, of interior by Udo Schröter; both photos via Wikipedia.

onsdag 20 april 2011

My t-shirts, part 34: The Midnight Cows

In Sweden, the back of milk cartons tends to contain little texts of some didactic ambitions, like about various sorts of cows. (Hence the nickname "The people's university" for them.) Cartoonist Max Andersson did a couple of excellent cartoons satirizing these little lessons, and this is the best of them.

The text ells us that twice every year, the Midnight Cows walk the streets, searching out drunks, druggies and homeless, and turning them into butter.

The absurd heartlessness of the text coupled with the cute little cows in the picture and the wholesomeness of the milk carton texts it satirizes makes this one of the best cartoons I've ever seen.

måndag 18 april 2011

Michael Lynch: The Chinese Civil War 1945-49. Osprey Essential Histories

Mao Zedong turned out to be quite apt at snookering people – and I'm not talking about the Chinese people, who had no choice but to obey his dictums on various hare-brained (or, if you like, evil) schemes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. No, I'm talking about Western pseudo-revolutionaries and pseudo-intellectuals like Swede Jan Myrdal, who went to Mao's China and was completely snookered by the regime and became their willing propaganda tool, the American diplomats who visited China and believed they could work with him because he was just "land reform plus", and the historians who believed him to be a military genius because he had loyal generals who let him take credit for their plans.

Michael Lynch has written a characteristically excellent Osprey "Essential History" – if they weren't so bloody expensive, I'd build up a library of my own of them instead of occasionally borrowing them at the public library – about how Mao and his communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, kissing off the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the process. It is crisp, condensed, highly readable and most informative. I'll recommend it right off the bat so you'll know that you should read it for yourselves rather than just rely on my humble little review of it.

Anyway, the book starts out by giving us backgrounds on both Mao and his Chinese Communist Party, Chiang and his Guomindang Party, and the events of WWII setting the stage for the Chinese Civil War. Guomindang started out in a better position – more men, more money, more land, but essentially blew it, just like it did before the war when it had a chance to eradicate the communist armies with the aid of German military advisors like Hans von Seeckt. I'll skip over Lynch's account of the fighting and go straight to some of the reasons he gives for why the Communists won in the end, as that sort of thing interests me more than blow-by-blow reports on operations and such.

First of all, after WWII, Chiang got arrogant. Instead of working with local elites, he simply put in his own men after the war, which more or less guaranteed that cooperation and operations would be hampered. He also relied on local commanders who were mainly in it for themselves, pilfering supplies and selling them off instead of getting them to the (frequently conscripted or outright press-ganged) soldiers, thus guaranteeing worse loyalty and worse ability to fight among the soldiery (shades of the US in VIetnam...).

Also, the Guomindang trusted very much in a small upper class for its administrative and monetary support and neglected interests of the farmers and peasants who made up the absolute majority of China's population – which doesn't really mean that the Communists had the peasants' best interests in mind. However, encouraging them to take land from the big landowners – and to torture and kill those landowners, as well – was a clever way of getting the peasants on one's side, and if they made trouble later on, the Communists (like the Guomindang) had no compunctions about killing them. Simultaneously, hyper-inflation was undermining Nationalist China's economy, and it was very hard to control the racketeers and profiteers when one was dependent on them for support…

Finally, Chiang fell victim to strategic overreach when he rushed his armies to the North where they couldn't be adequately supplied, instead of first consolidating the parts of China he actually controlled by the end of WWII. Meanwhile, Mao had loyal and competent lieutenants, like, for example, Zhu De, who worked tirelessly to modernize the People's Liberation Army – like developing its artillery capabilities and competence – and who eventually succeeded. Chiang's generals, on the other hand, vied for access to their leader and his favors; if he liked their plan, that meant resources. Not the best atmosphere for cooperation among his top generals…

Read this book, it is an excellent "essential history". I'll end this with a sample from it, depicting the sort of torture that the Communist forces engaged in to keep their ideological purity – and their soldiers obedient to the master, Mao – as a little antidote to the adulation various left-wing pundits and proselytes has heaped on Mao and his revolution; and as a reminder to various revolutionary romantics of all stripes of what Mao himself said: "A revolution is not a tea party".

Chief among a soldier's duties was, as Mao had said, to be ever watchful of his comrades. (...) [I]f a comrade persisted in expressing bad thoughts, this could not be tolerated (...) The punishments were graded. They began with the pulling out of fingernails with pliers. Those who confessed during this first stage were spared further suffering, but those who remained stubborn – or whose offences were thought to merit it – were then subjected to the second stage. Hung naked by their wrists from a beam, with their toes barely touching the floor, their bodies were burned with lighted incense sticks. (...) On this occasion, only one of the accused had proved capable of withstanding what had been done to him. A gnarled veteran of the CCP's long march, he refused to confess that he had plotted against Mao and opposed the Party line. Bloodied and burned, he was now forced onto his knees in front of a wooden table. His arms were pulled forward and held, palms downward, on the table. A six-inch metal nail was then hammered through the back of each hand, transfixing him to the table.

söndag 17 april 2011

Hugo Palmsköld: Halmstadgruppen (The Halmstad Group)

Halmstadgruppen is credited with being "the Swedish Surrealists". Hugo Palmskölds "Halmstadgruppen" is a brief introduction to them, in essence just an essay with some very nice illustrations. The members were inspired by modernist painting, turned towards surrealism in the thirties, moved on from it in the forties, and the group dissolved in the fifties.

Members of the group were Sven Jonson, Waldemar Lorentzon, Stellan Mörner, Axel Olson, Erik Olson and Esaias Thorén. They received a bit of criticism during their existence, like for being too "nice" and too "understandable": "You're finding proselytes among the dullest bourgeoisie! Freud must be ashamed of your painting!", as one critic put it. Later, in the late eighties, dyspeptic art critic Peter Cornell complained that a retrospective exhibition showed the group not to be sufficiently obscene and blasphemous to be called "surrealists" – in other words, for not sufficiently sharing his depressive-aggressive worldview.

Me, I think they created a lot of nice pictures (which is good in itself), some of which seem to be expressing fear and anxiety for the coming war – like the cover picture above, by Esaias Thorén, 1938: "The game has begun". But they also IMO suffer a bit from the same problem as a lot of surrealist painting: great technical skill exerted to tell what is basically usually a pretty simple, if amusing, joke – and MAD Magazine has done it funnier and cheaper.

Worth the read, and Halmstadgruppen's pictures are indeed worth looking at.

torsdag 14 april 2011

Back from the comics store, part 2

Went back to pick up the books I couldn't fit into my backpack yesterday.

I enthusiastically recommend Tsai Chih Chung's books on Eastern philosophy and legends; they're excellent infotainment.

"Adamson", for you non-Swedish speakers, is known internationally as "Silent Sam".

What is wrong with these people, part 4: Rep. Paul Broun

In our popular "What Is Wrong With These People" series, a history lesson from Rep. Paul Broun: FDR sent his friends and cabinet people to visit with Stalin to study what Stalin was doing so FDR could replicate it in the United States... And he did everything that he possibly could to do so.

In other and better news, I finally happened to chance upon my old Vietnam movie fave 84 Charlie Mopic on dvd today! Only thing is, since I saw it the last millennium, I'm not sure if I dare watch it again with my 2011 eyes – what if I don't think it's as good today as I did in the nineties?

onsdag 13 april 2011

Back from the comics store

... Well, they had a sale.

Too  much work these days leaves me with barely the energy to point out that P. Craig Russell is an excellent artist whose work you owe yourself the pleasure of viewing.

söndag 10 april 2011

Anna Greta Wahlberg: Jean Erik Rehn

Jean Erik Rehn was a promising young Swedish artist who in 1740 was sent to Paris to learn engraving, after which he was set to work at home in Sweden creating patterns and motifs for the Swedish satin-, wool- and linen-weaveries. Rehn also did the same for our Swedish porcelain factory, as well as for jewelers, furniture etc. Having learned the French rococo style quite thoroughly, Rehn was the perfect choice for interior decorations as well, and he did much such work for the court, especially queen Lovisa Ulrika. Towards the end of his career, Gustav III had gotten a taste for the stricter neoclassicism and Rehn wasn't a pure enough representative for that, so he lost work to people like Masreliez and Desprez, who certainly were no slouches either.

Wahlberg has written a classical book about an interior decorator and architect – unfortunately, I have to say, because that entails a lot of verbal descriptions of Rehn's work, including such work that has been undone by later eras' tastes and renovations, and for me, verbal descriptions of architectural work just make my eyes glaze over. (This is not Wahlberg's fault, of course; she's done a very competent job, just one that isn't entirely suited to my tastes and abilities.) I'm much happier when she shows his actual work, which is smooth, elegant and friendly; practically the epitome of what rococo is supposed to be all about.

While Rehn did do some architectural work, and it's not bad, it's as an interior decorator and creator of furniture and furnishings he shines, and those pictures alone make this book worth searching out at your library – but unfortunately, there's not enough of them. The high point of the book was for me some samples of Rehn's drawings from his own travels in Italy and from originals from the travels of others – his pencil drawings enhances by ink and sepia wash are beutiful, and the Swedish landscape drawings have additional interest for what they reveal about what the country looked like in the 1700s. Harkening back to what I wrote about Holkers' book, it would really behoove the authorities to digitalize the collection of Rehn's drawings that was archived at the Bellinga palace in Scania and to make it public on the web; those drawings are a treasure indeed.

Until then, we'll have to make do with the catalog from when they were auctioned off at Bukovskis: Bellingasamlingen. I'll put in a request for it at my own library tomorrow.

Just to show what a marvelous draughtsman Rehn was, some of those drawings; first one from Italy and then a bunch of Swedish landscape depictions.

… Now, don't you wish someone with that kind of talent would do some Swedish adventure comics?

fredag 8 april 2011

Märta Holkers: Den svenska målarkonstens historia

So you want to write an art history book. How do you best go about that?

If you want to make it interesting, one suggestion would be to take a certain period of time or geographical area and pick out the greatest works and artists from it and make a whirlwind tour through them, giving intelligent and knowledgeable information about them along the way. The beautiful artwork will do half the job for you.

That is what Märta Holers has done in Den svenska målarkonstens historia ("The history of Swedish painting"). Since she's gone through representative examples from all of Swedish history from medieval times to 2000, she also brings up painters and works that I'm not all that keen on – for example, much like there's basically been no music worth buying since 1992, IMO there's been very little Swedish "fine art" worth its name since the modernistic breakthrough early last century – but since she does it in a knowledgeable and intelligent way, I can certainly live with it.

There's not much more to say, really. This is an excellent book. If you want to get an overview of Swedish art history, I can't think of a better place to start. You'll learn about various artists and art styles, as well as something about the societal developments underlying them, and you'll be treated to some rather beautiful art in the process. We didn't really have much in the way of good artists until the 1700s, but once the building of the royal palace in Stockholm necessitated both importing excellent artists from abroad (i.e., France) and using those foreign masters to train talented young Swedish men as artisans and artists. The building of the palace thus served as somewhat of a "nursery" for artistic talent, and resulted in the 1700 being labeled more or less a "golden century" by Holkers. And considering that it saw Swedish artists like Alexander Roslin, who depicted satin and velvet and other textures so beautifully (I couldn't find a good version of his portrait of Catherine the Great online, unfortunately, so you'll have to settle for a pic of a far less successful ruler, Gustav III) …

… Gustaf Lundberg, who did some marvelous portraits in pastel …

… but as for me, I'll still take the 1800s any day, with painters like Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Marcus Larsson:

Of course, covering all of Swedish art history in one book is impossible without skipping a bit too hastily over some genres and artists for some people's tastes – like my own. Did you, for example, know that the "mother" of the Swedish Santa Claus, Jenny Nyström, was a skillful history painter? Here she depicts an old myth about Gustav Vasa being identified early on as someone who's going to do great things when he grows up: "Gustav Vasa som barn inför kung Hans" (though note the kids on the right, looking very much like something from her later, more commercial work).

Anyway, this is an excellent introduction to Swedish art history, and warmly recommended.

(And the high-resolution digitalization of our Swedish art treasure ought to be a priority so that all those pieces of art can be enjoyed by everyone online, without having to travel to the large museums in Stockholm, Gothenburg and other  cities – even though they're certainly excellent and I recommend anybody in the vicinity of Stockholm to pay a visit to Nationalmuseum.)

måndag 4 april 2011

Back from the comics store

Brian Walker's history of US comic strips is brilliant, weaving together the stories of the creators, the industry, and the economic and political developments of the society in which they develop. The treatment of the industry's pre-WWII history is especially good, so this one I wholeheartedly recommend.

Of course a serious comics scholar – or comics fan – needs the complete Prince Valiant in his library, as well as Bloom County and Secret Agent Corrigan. (It's hard to find a better drawn daily comic strip than Williams' marvelous ink masterpieces.)

Essential Captain America Vol. 6 gives you a whiff of that very special 1970s Marvel aesthetic that is epitomized by Sal Buscema's pencils inked by Mike Esposito. I know the term "artwork" is used for this, too, but that can only be just barely. At least a number of the scripts are by Roger Stern, one of the not-many reliably-good scripters of the late seventies-early eighties. Then there's EC-light from the late sixties in Showcase Presents The Witching Hour Vol. 1; short stories with a twist illustrated by artists like Alex Toth, Mike Kaluta, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow etc. – and a bunch of far lesser luminaries, of course.

Rounding out with a collection of Jeffrey Brown shorts, and a couple of manga for grown-ups, or gekiga.

… Now back to obsessing about not having enough time to read all my comics.

söndag 3 april 2011

Ingrid Sommar: Funkis

The modernist strain in architecture, represented by people like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, had its Swedish version known by its nickname "funkis" – short for "funktionalism". This book about the Swedish branch of the international movement, and is written by Ingrid Sommar, who writes about design and architecture in books, lifestyle magazines etc. (That latter part becomes a slight annoyance to me, as she brings that style of writing to her book, and it's not really the sort of writing I want to read; I prefer a more precise language with fewer catchphrases.)

Anyway, the book briefly presents a number of Swedish functionalist architects and some of their work. It also touches a bit on the political implications of the style, coming as it did on the eve of an era of Social Democratic near-hegemony for Sweden, when the increasing wealth of the nation made possible a major expansion of the welfare state as well as Sweden's building stock (including for the new and increased functions taken on by the state – like many new library buildings, etc.). Hence, it was associated with the building of the Folkhemmet, "the people's home", the Swedish welfare state. Sommar sees this as something that has worked in functionalism's favor, being associated with this era of rapid development for Sweden. Me, I think the boring, austere look of those functionalist buildings helped build an image of the Social Democracy as too bureaucratic and not enough concerned with actual people, something that finally came back to bite them in the butt in the seventies, when they finally lost that near-hegemonic position they'd held on to for half a century in Swedish politics (didn't leave the party leadership in those days very happy, I can tell you).

Some of the people presented in the book are quite interesting, and they have created some of the most enduring monuments to functionalism in Sweden. Me, I think an architectural movement that calls itself "functionalism" really should realize that in our Nordic climate, flat roofs are simply asking for trouble, and that for an environment where people live and work buildings should be pleasing to the eye to increase happiness. But I also recognize what these architects and planners were trying to do: building a new and better society, where even the less well-off would be able to afford a good housing standard, with lots of light, and room enough for proper living amenities – like indoor bathrooms, and kitchen equipment. I'll also admit that many of the indoor designs are quite pleasing to the eye, even if the exteriors are angular, blocky, and boring.

One of the greats of the movement was Gunnar Asplund, who among many, many other things did an add-on to the Gothenburg city hall that is symptomatic of my views of the movement. Instead of creating something that harmonized with the existing building, he decided to tack on this ugly slab on the right:

If you're not thinking, "What was he thinking?", clearly there's something wrong with you.

On the other hand, he also created these spacious interiors: he can't have been all bad. (I recommend that you go to the Gunnar Asplund site linked to above; it's worth it to see some of the more important architectonic creations of Sweden's 20s and 30s.)

Funkis worth the read, the prose flows easily enough and some of the pictures (by Åke E:son Lindman) quite nice, but don't expect a critical eye or deep enquiry from Sommar; that's not what her writing is about.

(...And if you're over the age of forty and an English-speaker, I certainly hope the word "funkis" reminded you of "The Funky Gibbon".)

fredag 1 april 2011

Audrey Hepburn. What can you say?

Well, other than "Just you wait, 'Enry 'Iggins, just you wait!", of course.

In another example of the absolutely blatant sexism of Hollywood, George Bernard Shaw and the entire world, naturally Rex Harrison's Professor Higgins got all the best songs. "Why Can't the English", "You Did It" and "A Hymn to Him" are all brilliant showpieces for a flamboyant egomaniac, and more entertaining than just about anything else done in the last fifty years. (But Audrey Hepburn is still Audrey Hepburn, so she wins anyway.)

If you haven't seen "My Fair Lady" already, you should.
If you have, you should re-watch it.