Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie,

Nejib,

SelfMadeHero

It was the end of the Swinging Sixties. That day, like so many others, the London sky was sad, like a cold cup of tea. The nasty rain rattled tediously at my windowpane. I was waiting for my new tenants to show up and inhabit me.”

It’s 1969 and dawning into the early 1970s, and it feels like things are changing, socially, politically, artistically. A young couple have come to view a huge old mansion on the outskirts of London, a vast old property well outside their then fairly slim means, except that they intend to share it with a whole bunch of their artistic friends, almost like a bohemian commune. That couple comprises a very young David and Angie – David Jones, with a genuine hit under his belt (Space Oddity) but not yet broken through, not yet Bowie. The talent is there, the love of all sorts of music, the artistic sensibility, but something’s not quite clicked yet. And that’s what this book is about – not an exhaustive biography of the Thin White Duke, but a look at a crucial short period in which the artist who would become the master of reinvention first truly invented himself for the stage. And the worlds of music and arts were never the same again…

Interestingly Nejib avoids the normal biographical form of recreating known events in a person’s timeline and illustrating them one after another. This is telegraphed right from the start as we realise that we are seeing these artistic young people – and they are oh such bright, young things here – from the perspective of Haddon Hall itself, observing these strange, new, young people living in it, not put off like others by the “discreet decrepitude” of the old mansion but instead amused, delighted, charmed by its idiosyncrasies. It’s not long before they and a group of friends are sharing this huge home – at the house-warming party a long-haired David happily showing Marc Bolan around, the house so large they even have space to turn one big room into a rehearsal space. Every musician’s dream, surely, your own space in your own home to play and record and jam…

But when the Last Judgement comes around for pop stars, I shall willingly testify in favour of our two wild blokes, for behind their outsized egos hid two true loves of music. The could talk shop till they were blue in the face.”

There’s some tension between them, a little professional and artistic jealously perhaps, as they both struggle to make it, to stand out from the musical crowd and leave their mark, but mostly what comes across here is a camaraderie, a friendship, and a deep, deep shared love of music. That sense of warmth and the love of music in so many forms suffuses Haddon Hall. There are other events going on at the same time as the struggle to make it as a musician – relationships, children, family. There’s starting a family to think of, and David’s brother Terry is in a care home because of mental health issues, while David is one of the few people he can connect with.

There are some beautiful scenes, like the brothers settling down, just the two of them, like they did when they were younger, to play records together, Nejib delicately illustrating the almost ritualistic form of this, the choosing of the albums, slipping them out of the sleeve, needle on record, perusing sleeve notes, blissing out to good music shared with someone who means the world to you, your own personal little world for a blessed few moments. It’s a scene so many of us can empathise with because most of us have done the same with friends or siblings; it’s a blissful shared moment of music and art that can bond us emotionally with someone else forever so much that each time we hear a particular song on the radio we think on that moment, laid back in our room with them and the music playing and how for a few moments everything is just right (and how even in bad times later those moments come back to us and help us cope).

Those little, very personal moments counterbalance the larger moments in the evolution of David, as he reaches towards what will become Bowie. The BBC is showing the coverage of the first Moon landing, and there’s his Space Oddity being played to the nation’s television sets as one of the most remarkable feats in human history is finally achieved. There’s the need to focus more, to stop spreading himself about, to concentrate on this next album – perhaps his last chance to make it or else be dropped by his label (and this is an era where labels largely rule the roost, very different from today’s music scene, great if you have a contract and success, nightmare if you are a struggling musician trying to get in the door, no YouTube, SoundCloud or Twitter to build a rep with for the struggling newbie). There’s a tension in the air, like the pressure just before a thunderstorm, except here the prayer is for lightning to strike.

Nejib avoids going for a realistic look, sticking instead with a much more cartoony and loose style here (not even panel borders between scenes on the pages), using only a few colours per white page. It works stylistically with covering this story in a less traditional biographical manner (and face it, Bowie is a subject that deserves a non-traditional approach), although one slight problem is there are a few times where it takes a moment or two to work out who is who in some scenes! That’s not too often though and on reflection it may also be slightly deliberate, a visual way of referring to the androgyny of some of the styles of the period.

And there are some lovely moments worked into the art using that loose, cartoony style and limited colour palette, such as David and piano, all in blue, several scenes of working away hard, struggling knowing there is something there, not stopping for a break, pushing, frustrated, the litter of empty bottles and fag ends building up around him as he pushes onwards doggedly and… And then that wonderful moment when suddenly it clicks, the Muse flows, the colour of the figure changes from blue to green and from the piano erupts, a visual flowering of colourful music growing from his fingertips to the keys and out of the instrument to fill the house: it’s the birth of Life on Mars. There are several other scenes which capture that lightning in a bottle moment of creation beautifully, the real emotional jolt and deep satisfaction that comes with creation, be it music, painting, writing, that moment when it suddenly flows and you know you’ve got it. It only lasts a short time before we have to chase it again, but just for those moments it’s like communing with the gods …

This is a beautiful homage to one of the great musical and artistic influences of the last half century of pop culture, one many of us adored and one whose loss we felt deeply just last year. And here he is, on the cusp of it all, young, trying it all, reaching out for that future, among friends, family and the music. Nejib doesn’t exhaustively document like some biographies, instead crafting the style, the taste, the flavour of the era, of changes (pun intended) of zeitgeist and possibilities and magic in the air, if only you can grasp how to control and channel that magic, and how that magic is shared with the rest of us, incorporated into our own lives and moments (can you imagine going through this life without it?). Stick on some classic Bowie on your stereo, and then lie back with Nejib’s lovely book and just groove.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August

Reviews: the Imitation Game explores the life of the astonishing Alan Turing

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded,

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,

Abrams Comicarts

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I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.

And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.

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Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).

It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).

But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).

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Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).

At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.

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And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).

The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).

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It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

Hertzko (later anglicised to ‘Harry’) Haft tells his son these words in the bright Florida sunshine of Miami in 1963. But it would be decades before his son actually found out why his father insisted he accompany him on this Florida road trip and what it was he wanted to tell him but simply couldn’t. That promise to tell his son everything circles The Boxer, the latest work by Reinhard Kleist, one of the brightest stars on the German comics scene. Kleist first came to our attention with his remarkable graphic biography of Johnny Cash, which was the first European comics work SelfMadeHero translated and republished in English (thankfully the first of a number of excellent foreign language works they have brought to English language readers). If, like me, you really dislike boxing, don’t be put off by the title and the pugilistic pose on the cover – yes, there is boxing in here, but in truth that sport isn’t really what the book is about, despite the title. This is a story about survival against the odds, from wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland to the nightmare of the death camps to reaching America after the war and finding that yes, you can make it there, but it too is full of tricksters and scammers and people out to make a buck out of you.

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Part of what makes The Boxer so fascinating is that Kleist, bravely in my opinion, has chosen a pretty unsympathetic subject for his later graphical biography. Harry is really not a very likeable character, even as a young lad in Poland, he’s aggressive, loud, quick to anger, quick to resort to force. Sure, life is tough in their village, especially for Jews (even before the Nazi occupation, as Maus documented years ago, there was a lot of anti-Semitism there already), but although it is tough going Harry seems to take it worse than his siblings, the chip on his shoulder is large, right from the start, and in truth he never really shakes it, even when he settles in America years later, beating all the odds that saw so many millions die horribly, reduced to ash and leftover personal effects.

But this nature is also part of what drives Harry, that makes him survive – of course there is luck in this too, why one man is picked and not others for one detail or another in the camps, but he works hard, and he hardens himself still further to endure what will come because it is the only way he can even hope to make it out the other end of this hell. And for a while he is in hell, a hell even Satan would have shaken his head in despair over, a hell made by men who had become worse than any demons. Shave-headed, in the striped, thin prisoner uniform, he and others chosen for work rather than immeadite extermination are marched to the building housing the ovens to clear them out. It’s one of the most horrific scenes in the book, executed in very heavy sweeps of black ink as the horrified prisoners are shown the ovens, and what it is burning there, exiting the chimney as nothing more than black soot now – human beings. Even stoic Harry breaks at this point:

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We were lead to the building with the chimney that darkened the sky… I regretted being alive…”

But he does make it through – an SS guard takes a shine to him, and uses Harry’s natural talents to his own ends. Before being caught he and his brothers regularly smuggled black market goods and in exchange for better treatment and food this SS officer uses his services and makes himself a good bit of money on the side. And then comes the boxing match. Seen as a fighter Harry is supposed to fight a guard, a spectacle to entertain the SS men at the concentration camps. Except it isn’t a guard, it is an other prisoner, half-starved – a mirror of him if he hadn’t entered into this deal. And if he doesn’t fight the poor man he knows both can expect a pistol shot to the head, so he fights, and he hates himself for it, but he fights, he wins, he lives, he has to do it again and again… What will we do to survive, what price will we pay? This is no easy choice, no coward’s way out, this is another horror he has to endure.

After the war finding little sign of his family or the girl he was hoping to marry before the war he manages to flee to America by himself, to start a new life, and his boxing seems, as it has to generations of working class lads, to be a way out of the bottom of society, to make something of himself, stand out, be a man, earn both money and respect. But even here there are goons with guns and muscle and Harry, struggling to make a rep for himself and get those big fights that can make his career, finds it is all run by gangsters are cruel and lethal as those SS guards cheering the boxing in the camps. You take a dive when they say or your body will be found floating in the Hudson. Make a stand, make that name for yourself. But maybe also end up dead very quickly too… After enduring and surviving so much Harry has to ask himself what’s more important, making that career or making sure he lives…

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It’s a hard read – not just because of the subject matter like the death camps, which is horrific enough, but, as I said, with Harry not being terribly sympathetic as a character. But with what he goes through you still root for him. You wish he would open up a bit more, lose those rough edges which are surely holding him back from enjoying life more once he is free, but then again those are the parts of him which helped him survive… It’s also about a father’s inability to talk emotionally with his son – men historically not the best at that emotional truth thing, even with their own flesh and blood, and of course in that era it was even more unusual for a man to open up like that, even to his oldest son, not just because what he has to say is awful but because it simply wasn’t what men did. And the mystery of that Miami trip with his son? That you have to read for yourself, but suffice to say it offers up a serious emotional punch. Yes, it’s a hard read, but a very powerful and deeply moving one too, a remarkable work from one of the finest young talents coming out of the European comics scene right now.

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Reviews from the past: Regards From Serbia

Another old review of mine I thought I would repost on here, this one from the FP blog back in 2007:

Susan Tomaselli on 3AM has a feature on Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards From Serbia, published earlier this year by Top Shelf (link via Marko at Neorama). I’ve been reading Regards myself recently and found it fascinating – the strife in the Balkans is quite recent history of course and it gave me a peculiar feeling as I read it because I remember following the events on the news throughout the 90s, while many friends would also watch and comment sadly how they had just been on holiday to that part of what had been Yugoslavia only a year or two before those events.

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As I read on that peculiar feeling increased; half-remembered events from the BBC news resurfacing in my memory contrasted against Zograf’s first-hand accounts from ‘the other side’ (as he tells an American during a trip abroad, he’s from Serbia, the ‘bad guys’!) – it isn’t just that he describes the surreal nature of living under threat of bombings and the ranting and spin of politicians (in the West as much as in Serbia, all full of justifications for their actions, all ignoring the harm to civilians they caused), it’s seeing events from the news reports we saw in the UK but from the perspective of someone who lived there. While NATO commanders and US and UK politicians cheerfully told us that we were using precision weapons to surgically strike only specific targets, the reality of being at the other end of a ‘precision’ raid is somewhat different. Precision is a very flexible term, especially when presented a military campaign to a cynical public sensitive to civilian suffering (although Zograf still manages to inject humour into this grim situation).

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Of course when you read Regards From Serbia it puts you in mind of other works, notably Joe Sacco’s comics war reporting, but I think Regards stands on its own – the fact that Zograf is describing his own home adds much to the impact of the book; how would we feel if the place we had lived all our lives suddenly became a war zone? Not something that would happen to us? Well, I seem to recall before the struggle in the Balkans most of us assumed we’d never see large-scale armed conflict in Europe again… The surreal nature of trying to lead as normal a life as he can during abnormal events lends the whole thing a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, something Zograf exploits openly, taking the darker dreams he has during the war as raw material for the comic strip. In some ways the surreal and often absurd nature of wartime events and the humour used to deal with them reminded me a bit of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. On the art front there’s a lot of heavy, black ink which seems appropriate to the subject matter in the same way black and white film seems more suited for serious documentaries. Zograf’s characters are often seen from a side-on perspective, only one, large, oval eye visible in profile, reminiscent slightly of classical Egyptian art but also very much (to me at least) of Pablo Picasso and several times I found his scenes reminding me of Picasso’s powerful and terrifying nightmare vision of war in Guernica.

Regards From Serbia panel.jpg

A large section has been included by Top Shelf reproducing many emails back and forth from Zograf to friends and fellow comics creators in the rest of the world (when the power was on and when the net access wasn’t being blocked by the West); I know some thought this distracted from the comics, but personally I thought it was a good idea, adding to the very personal perspective on the events (I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Terry Jone’s contribution). And that personal perspective is the heart of Regards From Serbia; Zograf never pretends to be a reporter or historian – he presents the events that went on around him and his family and friends, their thoughts, feelings, hope and fears, from a very personal and emotional place, presenting us with an insight a more impartial news report of history text never could.

"Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…"

Cash: I See a Darkness

Reinhard Kleist

Self Made Hero

Cash I See a Darkness Reinhard Kleist

If you wanna save your soul from hell, cowboy, then change your ways today. Or you’ll ride with us through these endless skies, forever on the hunt for the Devil’s herd...” Ghost Riders in the Sky

To say award-winning German comics creator Reinhard Kleist’s graphic biography of the late, great Johnny Cash arrived with a fair weight of expectation – mixed with anticipation – on my part is an understatement. Those of you who’ve been reading the blog for a good while may recall that we first talked about this work nearly two years ago when the original made a big splash in Germany. In fact it sold out its original print run from Carlsen and among the awards it picked up was the prestigious Max und Moritz, before going on to be picked up and translated into other languages by publishers like Dargaud in France and an English language version was apparently on the cards from Dark Horse. Since many of us were eager to read it in English we were pretty happy at this, but then it went quiet and seemed to vanish off the radar until Blighty’s Self Made Hero stepped forward. Home of the Manga Shakespeare and some fine literary adaptations we’ve been very much enjoying this seemed like quite a departure for them. Was it worth the wait? Was it worth the effort? Oh yeah. It was.

Kleist Cash I See a Darkness cotton farming

(The Cash family, including young Johnny, singing in the cotton fields)

Anyone who’s listened to Cash’s music over the years knows his songs came out of his life; the darkness and the light were both there, he lived through them, he pretty much lived his songs. And that’s part of the point Kleist makes here, how so many people (including people like me who’d normally run a mile from anything remotely labelled C&W) bought into Cash because his singing is honest; you feel the raw emotion in his voice, in the early work and even in the final years (his cover of Hurt is immensely raw and powerful, for example, it could have been made for him to sing at that age in his life).

But since Cash’s songs often deal with loss and the struggles against the forces that can all too easily grind us all down in everyday life, living those songs means he himself never had an easy life and Kleist selects segments of Johnny’s life, from the childhood days on their New Deal sponsored cotton farm, struggling to fight their way out of the Depression, singing to keep up their spirits during back-breaking labour, marrying too young, his self destructive, amphetamine and booze fuelled behaviour touring on the road as his success grew, the love between Johnny and June Carter, the famous music gig at Folsom Prison.

Johnny Cash Folsom Prison

(Folsom Prison; no fancy sets or theatre, just Johnny, June and the boys in the band in front of hundreds of hardened prison inmates; a gig that’s passed into musical legend)

Its a long work as comics go, over 200 pages, but even so there is no way it can pack in as much in depth detail as a prose biography and Kleist wisely avoids the temptation to simply jam in as much of Johnny’s life as he can. Instead he opts for a roughly chronological approach which takes in elements of the life that shaped Cash and his music, interspersed with comics interpretations of of some of his songs. In fact the book itself opens with one of these songs being acted out – almost the equivalent of the dream sequence in a movie, where the protagonist drives a car with number plates reading ‘HELL’ through the streets of a gambling city where he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” While some of the song sequences have a slightly different style about them Kleist keeps the differences in style mostly small so on a first reading it isn’t always obvious you’re in a song/dream segment and not an actual ‘proper’ biographical chapter, until the penny drops and you realise this is based on one of Cash’s songs.

At first I thought this was a bit of a failing on the artist’s part, not more clearly differentiating between biographical and song-based chapters. But as I was drawn further and further into the book I changed my mind and decided that this was actually a good decision on Kleist’s part; as I said earlier you can’t really separate the man and his music; he sang life as he saw it and lived it, they were part of him and he’s in each of them, so although the song chapters are a sort of fantasy they are also, in their own fashion, biographical.

The art through most of the book, both the biographical and the interpretations of the songs, is mostly in a suitably moody black and white with some gray tones for effect, although occasionally for the songs Kleist uses a more cartoony style (such as he uses for ‘A Boy Name Sue’). There are a couple of distinctive exceptions to this, however, a section where June and his mother try to help Johnny kick his dependence on drugs that’s leading him down a dark highway, executed in negative: white lines on a black background, an eerie sight of a human nervous system arced in pain, a glowing ball emerging from within, darkness and light, black and white, drugs dependency and love all warring within his body in a couple of wordless but very powerful pages. A song segment for The Ballad of Ira Hayes is again in a totally different style, much more symbolic and cartoony but equally powerful and, given the contrast they make with the principally more regular style through the rest of the book their impact is much stronger.

Johnny Cash Ballad Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill,
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again

And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes
” (the Ballad of Ira Hayes)

The music itself is normally presented in long, winding strips, reminiscent of the stretched out, long, narrow proto-speech bubble you see on say, 19th century cartoons, before the more common, modern speech bubble developed. Here Kleist uses speech bubbles for, well, speech, the long, thin ribbons for the songs. Its simple but very effective, giving the reader something of the feel of music, the way it doesn’t always seem to come from one source but moves through the air, reflecting, echoing, drifting, carried on the wind, almost an elemental force. It also allows Kleist to visually display something of the power of music; for me he achieves this most powerfully in the chapter on Folsom Prison, as the music drifts out seemingly on the wind, across the echoing, depressing halls, through the bars, the razor wire and out into the trees beyond. Its hard not to think of the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption and like that remarkable scene of modern film this too has a simple, elegant power to it about the ability of art to touch lives and reach through barriers.

Johnny Cash Bob Dylan

(Cash and Dylan jamming in a studio; how much would you love to have been in that room??)

Its a wonderful read; in fact I found after I’d finish I had to go back and re-read it more slowly and enjoyed it even more on the second reading and I know its going to be one of those special books that I go back to every so often and read once more. Its a story of a 20th century icon, a man who bestrode pretty much all normal boundaries of genre to appeal to a far wider audience and a remarkable life. Its a story where the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are just supporting characters (let me say that again: Lewis, Elvis, Dylan – I mean come on! Great flawed gods of music). But mostly its about a man, the darkness he sees around him that almost swallows him and the lights that lead him back out the edge of the darkness (although he’d never be completely free of it), the love of his mother, his lost brother, June. This will be going on my books of the year list.

Reinhard Kleist will be one of the guests at the excellent Comica festival in London this year; He will be in conversation with (appropriately enough) someone well known to Brit comics and music fans, Charles Shaar Murray on November 22nd; details here.