It’s June and that means ELCAF is back at the Round Chapel in Hackney for another fine looking gathering of artists and publishers. Of the artists reviewed in this column, Jon McNaught is the artist in residence, Tim Bird is exhibiting, Ian Williams is signing on the Saturday, and Tillie Walden’s work will be available from her publishers, Avery Hill.
Having skipped a season, I can only blame the tardiness of this column on the foolhardy decision to review two particularly huge graphic novels. Whilst Jason Lutes famously took over 20 years to finish Berlin, Tillie Walden pretty much drew On A Sunbeam in about the time I’ve taken on these reviews, so maybe that’s not the best excuse after all.
More and more publishers are using crowdfunding to make sure there’s enough demand to cover the cost of getting a book made, which makes a lot of sense as nobody wants to put themselves in debt to print a load of comics that aren’t going to sell. ShortBox have been doing this, most recently (and very successfully) for an art book by Choo, which has made three times the target at the time of writing. 2d cloud have recently launched one that’s a little different. Themed bundles from their back catalogue are available as well as a box of new releases, so if you’re looking to get your hand on some weird and wonderful new comics or some of their older releases, do check it out. It could definitely do with some support over the last few days.
James Sturm - Off Season
(Drawn & Quarterly)
A sombre book with a grey palette that perfectly matches the tone, Off Season charts a bleak period in the life of the protagonist as he struggles with pretty much everything. Estranged from his wife and sharing custody of two young children, Mark (represented, like all the characters, as an anthropomorphised dog) finds himself in an unwelcome employment situation. He’s had to sell his truck to afford the apartment he has moved out to, and this has cost him his independence as a contractor and puts him at the mercy of working for an unreliable boss, who often claims to be busy and unable to pay at present while his social media indicates otherwise.
The book also plays out over Bernie Sanders’ failure to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, the Trump campaign and surprise election and his early presidency, with most of the characters seeming to have been Bernie supporters. His wife Lisa is now volunteering for Hillary, supported by the daughter, just old enough to develop political awareness. Personal dramas are writ larger, however, and it is obvious that Mark is depressed, and out of control in both his working and family life. He wants to do the right thing by his children and his wife, but his anger and sadness mean he can’t quite bring himself to do what he knows he should. Relatively trivial parenting failures such as not knowing which jam his son prefers further lower his feelings of self-worth. Sturm is a gifted cartoonist, with brilliantly expressive canine faces. One chapter runs two contrasting narratives, the images showing him playing a game called Hungry Giant with his children, while the text reflects on his own childhood and brother, and his separation and meditation and how he thinks the process will go, a particularly effective technique.
An account of a straight white American male, there will be people for whom this is not a story they have any interest in hearing. However, there is certainly more to this. The changing economy and eroded workers’ rights, the shifting political landscape and obvious struggles with mental health are issues that cut across race and gender, although they are also issues being explored by a wide range of cartoonists. Sturm certainly isn’t taking the MRA route here, and where there is redemption Lisa usually comes off as the driving force and the bigger person. Off Season is both the name of a chapter in which Mark takes his children to a seaside resort and finds nearly everything is shut, and cold, but also the idea that the period depicted in this book is an off season in his life, and that normal service will be resumed. Despite the melancholy tone this is a sensitive and ultimately positive book constructed with immense skill.
Jason Lutes - Berlin
(Drawn & Quarterly)
This vast graphic novel, released last year by Drawn and Quarterly, appeared on countless best of year lists, and rightly so. An account of the fall of the Wiemar republic and the rise of Nazism in Berlin, it’s hard to refute the widespread observation that Jason Lutes finished his series at a regrettably prescient time. We’ve all read thinkpieces along the lines of “I’ve always wondered how people watched fascism take power and now I think I know”, but if Berlin is in any way an accurate account, a lot more people seemed to be trying to stop it in 1930s Berlin than in present day anywhere.
The first of the 22 issues was published in 1996, and one has to be impressed at the visual consistency considering how long Lutes worked on this. His characters are carefully selected to show how the changes affected different groups in society, and include struggling families, students, journalists, musicians, the gay community and more. We see a family, the Brauns, split apart by economic hardship and then dividing upon political lines, the father taking the son and joining the National Socialists, the mother taking the daughters and eventually joining the communists. The focus is frequently on the lives of individuals rather than the bigger picture, with societal change happening in the background. It takes nearly 200 pages, but when the first "heil Hitler" comes, the impact is substantial. It’s followed by a heartbreaking death during the International Workers Day massacre in 1929, pushing family members further apart in their chosen directions.
What Lutes does here is genuinely impressive. By focusing mostly on the small picture we see how individual lives change over this period, but we are reminded that society is made up of individuals when we see the massive changes taking place in the background, and it’s the overall movement that has the greatest impact on the reader. Meanwhile, the architectural detail draws us in to the story, a fantastic diversity that matches the characters who inhabit this city. After more than 500 pages depicting five years in these lives, we are left to consider what came next, and yes, how this relates to what we see in the world today. This is well worth investing the considerable time it takes to read and reflect upon, and is very highly recommended.