La Serenissima – Taniguchi’s exquisitely beautiful Venice

Venice,

Jiro Taniguchi,

Fanfare/Ponent Mon

A while back you may recall Wim in one of his Continental Correspondent columns discussing a series of travel comics commissioned by famous fashion house Louis Vuitton, each by a different and well-known creator and taking in a different global destination. One of those was by the late, great Jiro Taniguchi (whose work on The Summit of the Gods, also translated and published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, was highly praised on here by Richard), and I’m delighted to see Fanfare/Ponent Mon publishing it in an edition which makes it much more easily available than the special editions created purely for LV. And it would be criminal if a work this exquisitely beautiful hadn’t been made available to a wider readership.

Venice sees the artist visiting the ravishingly beautiful La Serenissima, driven more by a recently discovered family connection to this historic city on the water than by any mere tourist impulse (poor Venice, a victim of its own success, is now so inundated with legions of tourists, while her own population declines, that it has become a huge bone of contention with remaining Venetians). Following the death of his mother, the artist finds a fine, lacquered box, and inside a series of old photographs, taking in a young Japanese couple, and some with a small child, snapped in Venice, and hand-painted postcards of the coty. One features the iconic Piazza San Marco, with the couple feeding the pigeons, and from the clothes and style it looks as if it were taken in the 1920s or 1930s. Was this his grandmother and grandfather in Italy? Is that his mother as a young girl alongside them? His mother never mentioned much about his grandparents and nothing about a trip decades ago to Venice. He decides to visit and try to retrace their steps, as best he can.

Eschewing a more common comics layout of sequential panels and speech bubbles, here Taniguchi instead opts for something more leisurely-paced, mostly taking the form of a series of individual paintings as he walks around this glorious, ancient city, ravishing watercolours that you can lose yourself in, with only a small amount of text here and there. The effect is like looking over Taniguchi’s shoulder as he strolls around, pausing to drink in the sights and sounds and scents of Venice, and there is, to my mind, something highly appropriate about this approach, given that Venice has, for centuries, drawn artists and poets to her canals and elegantly crumbling grand architecture to paint her, write about her, compose sonnets, it became an integral part of the Grand Tour.

Taniguchi, with his delicate style, gentle pace and eye not just for detail, but also, crucially for a location like this, for the quality of light, and how it changes, is simply perfect here. He’s not just depicting the city through his walks and visuals, he’s practically taking us there. You can almost smell the saltwater of the lagoon and canals, feel the texture of some of those centuries-old buildings fighting their slowly-losing battle against the tide of time and element. The ravishing richness of a marbled church interior is as lovingly depicted as the wall of a family home, you can see some of the old plaster rendering coming away and the bricks below, and you feel you could run your hand along the wall as you walk past with Taniguchi and feel its texture against your fingertips.

The quality of light changes as the skies brighten blue then cloud over, and Taniguchi’s gorgeous art reflects this, from the clear blues over the Piazza San Marco or an aerial view of the islands and lagoon, basking in the Adriatic sunshine, or the gloomier, watery grey light of a rainy day in the north of Italy. As we follow him around we get to see, as you may expect, many of the city’s remarkable landmark structures, but this is mixed beautifully with an artist’s eye for smaller details, from the swinging of bells in the church tower to close-ups of the people and wares in the local street markets, or reflections in a puddle of rainwater on a city square. It’s wonderfully immersive, the paucity of text leaving the visuals to carry us, and oh, that is such a good decision on Taniguchi’s part, because it allows us to be drawn in until the reader feels like they are walking with the artist alongside the canals, over the bridges, pausing for as long as we want to drink in the surroundings.

The fact that he is following a part of his family history he never knew adds a lovely, emotional element to this beautiful work, as he tries to recreate the routes his grandparents took through Venice, working from photographs but also hand-drawn art from the period, crafted by his grandfather. Past and present and family history connect through this ancient city and through art, old and new, and it simply wonderful to take in and lost yourself in.

I also found myself pondering family history, my own this time – quite a number of years ago one of my family visiting relatives in London looked at some very old postcards at a kiosk. Very old, black and white postcards, the types with the crinkly edges rather than straight, people feeding the pigeons, just like Taniguchi’s postcard, but here it was Trafalgar Square rather than the Piazza San Marco, and in the old postcard? My grandfather. Snapped unknowingly decades before, preserved in that instant on postcards and found decades after he was gone. A magical gift from the past, washed up on the ebb-tide of time. For me that added another, personal element to Taniguchi’s artist retracing old steps from the past, but in truth that was just an extra topping on the dessert of this delicious, lusciously-drawn work. Lose yourself in this book.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The man who walks

I got a brief chance to catch up with an artist and comics creator I’ve known for years online but never met in person earlier this week. Oli East has created some fascinating and unique works based on his long walks, often following railway lines, and his new project sees him retracing the steps of Maharajah, an elephant from the 1870s. Bought from a circus Maharajah was to travel by train to his new home in a zoo in Manchester, but made his displeasure known in spectacular fashion (wrecking the freight train carriage he was to go in), so he and his keeper had to walk the whole way from Edinburgh to Manchester. I met Oli early in the morning in Edinburgh’s huge Waverley train station where he was getting ready to set out on his journey, creating sketches as he goes on his ten day walk following the same route as the elephant and his keeper, our very own comics Hannibal. The journey is being filmed for a documentary and the finished artwork by Oli will be shown as part of the third Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal this autumn. (more details of Oli’s walk and project over on the FP blog)

Review: Big in Japan

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Big in Japan: an Illustrated Travel Diary

Moogs Kewell

Moogs is a sculptor and jewellery maker, as well as a comics creator, working out of the well known Hope Street Studios in Glasgow. In fact it was her hand-made jewellery which caught my eye at the recent Dundee Comics Expo (I had to get a close up of the supercute Domo earrings she had made for one of my manga-mad colleagues). And while chatting away to Moogs at the Dundee show I noticed her Big in Japan comic, with a very colourful and rather joyful cover and an unusual small landscape format. I’m not a major Japanophile or manga reader, but this caught my eye and I had to give it a go. Besides I do have a bit of a weakness for travel lit, especially done in comics form.

Dundee Comic Expo 2013 018
(some of Moogs’ jewellery at the Dundee Comics Expo, pic from my Flickr)

This is essentially a diary of Moogs’ trip to Japan, drawn in a manga-influenced style, to attend the wedding of her friends Masami and Taka, and knowing her trip starts with a hideously early morning call for the shuttle down to London to catch her main flight she’s decided to go in style – no budget airline here, the real deal complete with nice service and cooked breakfast, and a delighted looking Moogs tucking into it with a “screw you, Easyjet” speech bubble. Anyone who normally has to take the budget flights and then gets a full service one will sympathise with that reaction.

There’s the very, very long flight halfway round the globe to Japan, complete with turbulence and the “is there a doctor on board” moment you hope only happens in movies, but it appears does sometimes happen in real life. Still, it’s not al bad as she’s prepared with a bag full of distractions and snacks, plus there’s around eleven hours of viewing to watch. And at last she’s there, Japan – jetlagged nad tired, but arrived at her destination. Which is more than can be said for her luggage…

But getting there is just the start and forget the annoying lost luggage thing, because there are her friends waiting for her, and the real reason for her trip, to see her chums and be a part of their wedding. Of course there will be a bit of proper sightseeing, holiday making and socialising going on around her while she’s there, as well as the wedding herself. There’s the great delights of the Ghibli Museum (wouldn’t we all love to go there?), some dining form called Okonomiyaki and, of course, there is dancing and karoake. And then there is the shopping – and some wonderfully peculiar oddities, such as a shop that sells a Marie Antoinette action figure, complete with removable head! Ah, Japan…

The sightseeing and trips are fun, both the landmark, historical site and the quirky themed varieties – cafes (a Moomin cafe in Japan? Fab), theme parks and other venues – and taking in more traditional Japanese pastimes, such as the hot springs. But the core of this wee book is the wedding and sharing time with good friends, friends she obviously doesn’t get to see too often given the vast geographical differences, and the book reflects the sheer pleasure and delight in being among your friends and celebrating an important moment with them. It doesn’t get maudlin or overly nostalgic, instead the comic is suffused with a simple feeling of fun and joy, which left me smiling. It’s a short, personal work, but quite charming, and although much of it is drawn in a manga-influenced style (except for more detailed depictions of some of the historical landmarks) it’s still very easy on the eyes even to someone like me who doesn’t read a lot of manga. A short and pleasurable delight.

Fry in America

Seems to be something of an American media theme this last few days, no doubt prompted by the presidential circus, but as it means we get the national treasure that is Stephen Fry with a new show, “Stephen Fry in America“, as he crosses the United States in a London taxi cab (not his own one which he so famously drives around here in Blighty though). I had no idea he was almost born in the US when his father was offered a job at Princeton but he turned it down. Hard to think of Fry as American, he seems to quintessentially British – I mean Twinnings got him to advertise their tea, he cooks on an Aga and gives a wedding present to Prince Charles. All of which might have made him annoying except he seems such a lovely bloke, fiercely intelligent and very funny and self depreacting with it. America’s loss was our gain.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Mark Twain.

Twain/Sam Clemens has been a favourite author since I was a boy. In the bus to work a few days ago I looked up from my book when it was picking up passengers and saw someone had written this quote on the window of their flat facing out into the street two stories up where only the occasional person in a double decker bus would be high and close enough to read it. How lovely. Of course, I tend to include reading as ‘travel’ because it is travel for the mind…