Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea

September 16th, 2010

North Korea didn’t get its reputation as the bogeyman of international policy just because it’s a militarized nation with institutionalized anti-West ideologies led by a half-crazed dictator. It did so by being all of those things and keeping itself almost completely unknowable. With the citizenry prevented from having any contact with the outside world and the few foreigners allowed within its borders from having any contact with the citizenry, North Korea’s reclusiveness just added to the fear.

Which is why books like Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang are so important. There have been glimpses into North Korea before, such as the Vice Guide to North Korea, but they tend to try a bit too hard to be scandalous exposes rather than simple inquiries into what life in the country is like.

What makes Delisle’s account different is that he wasn’t there to observe horror stories and report them back to an audience eager to hear tales of oppression and paranoia. He was there to do his job, which happened to take him to the North Korean animation studio SEK just as it had previously taken him to studios in China and Vietnam. He was there for two months, giving him plenty of time to settle in and have a good look around the place. Or as good a look as any foreigner is allowed to have around Pyongyang, at any rate.

But the particulars of the two-stop subway, the empty highways, and the omnipresent guides can be found in nearly any account of the city. Pyongyang shines in its recurring characters, the party officials and fellow expatriates and how they reveal themselves over the course of Delisle’s stay.

On the DPRK side, there’s Comrade Sin (sometimes mockingly called Captain Sin), Delisle’s chaperone around the city, and an unnamed translator who later replaces him. Sin is for the most part implacable and unnerving; he’s got a military background and insists that everyone Delisle sees doing manual labor is “volunteering.” In one of the book’s creepiest exchanges, he calmly explains that a former star animator in the studio isn’t on any of the current production teams, didn’t transfer studios, or go abroad, but remains silent on Delisle’s obvious follow-up question: “He didn’t just disappear, did he?”

Delisle wonders of Comrade Sin the same thing most people who learn the basic facts about life in North Korea do: “Do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?” As he points out–more often in narration than dialogue, since to casually discuss the truth with his guides could be a very bad idea–North Korea has serious problems and its neighbors, if and when things come crashing down, are not going to be sanguine about supporting a bunch of brainwashed, jobless refugees. Is there hope for these people?

Probably so. You can see it in the cracks and between the lines of Delisle’s story. The officials who let down their guards on the one outdoor afternoon they spend following a trip to the surreal Friendship Museum. The pure joy on Comrade Sin’s face as he receives a gift of Hennessy cognac. Even the fear, in places, is revealing. When Delisle lets a translator borrow a copy of 1984 he brought with him and later asks what he thought, the translator starts trembling and stammers that he doesn’t like science fiction. The slip in the carefully maintained doublethink shows that the translator, like everyone else, knows the score. Someday he may even be able to say so.

After all, as Delisle shows, the facade can’t last forever. Even during his two-month stay, there’s a revolving door cast of expatriates in the form of fellow animation vets, fashion designers, tech experts, and NGO workers coming to and from the country all the time, an inevitable factor in the country’s economy since it requires so much foreign aid and foreign investment to stay afloat. All that imported help comes at the price of further exposure to ordinary Western people, in stark contrast to the Museum of Imperialist Occupation or the propaganda films that comprise the sole programming in the country’s movie theaters.

The cracks are there, and they’ll widen, and it’s books like this that will drive the wedge. The propaganda films isn’t as scary as long as you know there’s one guy there willing to say he thinks they’re boring. The guides’ authority isn’t as absolute after they’ve laughed their heads off at a subversive joke you made. The country isn’t as alien once you know they’re waiting for the same thing we are.

The Left Bank Gang

September 15th, 2010

The hardest part when talking about Jason is knowing where to start. He’s prolific, and his books are all great, so when I recommend him to someone and they ask what to read first, it’s tempting to say “All of them. Read them all first.” But in lieu of the temporally impossible, you might as well start with The Left Bank Gang.

The premise of the book is so high-concept and ludicrous that it sounds like a shaggy dog story. What if all those famous novelists of the Jazz Age lived in close proximity on the Parisian Left Bank, except they were all animals, and they were cartoonists instead of writers, and they fell on hard times and tried to pull off a bank heist?

It’s as dryly nonsensical as it sounds, but it works because of Jason’s art style. His depiction of the story could hardly be called realistic; the best word to describe it might be “fair.” Not fair as in a qualitative judgement of his skill on a scale from “excellent” to “poor,” but “fair” as in a style that makes no qualitative judgements. His hard-luck cartoonists don’t make grand or exaggerated movements, they just do what they do, never betraying any artist’s knowledge that they’re in a story.

The page composition complements this style well. I had initially thought that one of the reasons Jason’s style worked was because he didn’t vary his camera distance or placement much from panel to panel, and on most pages that’s true. But there are plenty of pages where it isn’t, enough so that you can’t discount his range as a cartoonist. What is true is that he rarely deviates from the simple-to-understand nine-panel grid.

When used like this, page after page, nine-panel grid does two things. It sets up a steady rhythm for the reader so that even when things start to go seriously awry in the story, it feels as natural and everyday within the grid as that casual dinner conversation ten pages back.

More than that, though, it prevents any panel from ever growing too big to let a character breathe. This is mostly a story about people feeling trapped, whether it’s in a country, a career, a marriage, or a life, and the tight space of every panel gets that feeling across well. Big, open vistas of breathtaking scenery are pulled out when an artist wants to impress the reader, but Jason’s restraint and insistence on the nine-panel grid goes all the further toward emphasizing the smallness of these people and their concerns.

Even if “these people” do happen to be the most celebrated writers of the early 20th century.

Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President

August 11th, 2010

In the Presidential election of 2008, I was largely in sync in Barack Obama’s policies and platforms. (No Catholic can ever be completely so, of course.) I liked what he said about war, race, education, science and technology, international relations, terror and torture, and civil rights. But even in spite of that, when I cast my ballot on that November 4th, some part of me wasn’t voting for Obama. It was voting for Kenneth Yamaoka.

Yamaoka is, not the star exactly, but certainly the central figure and enigma about whom Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President, by Kaiji Kawaguchi, revolves. The star of the book, if you must know, is Takashi Jo, cub reporter for the Daily Maicho Shinbun in Japan. Takashi, it’s revealed early on, is also Yamaoka’s son, born of an intense relationship the candidate had on an Okinawa airbase en route to Vietnam. The family drama surrounding Takashi and Yamaoka’s family is pure potboiler material, meant to hook in Japanese readers who couldn’t care less about labor disputes or racial tension.

But the real meat of the book is the political machine. Yamaoka doesn’t even become the official Democratic candidate until the fourth of the five thick books. (Average page length: 473 pages.) The majority of Yamaoka’s struggle is–and stop me if you’ve heard this one before–vying in the primaries with the beneficiary of the Clinton legacy, though since Eagle dates back to 1997, that comes in the form of an Al Gore manque rather than a Hilary isotope.

As Yamaoka wends his way through debates, press conferences, and backroom deals, the ideology and argument on display is simplified and idealized, to be sure. Just as Riichiro Inagaki slowly and painstakingly lays out every rule and exception of American football for Eyeshield 21 readers coming to the sport for the first time, Kawaguchi couches political points in Eagle heavily in metaphors. There’s Yamaoka conning Al Noah into playing chess as the two of them trade sound bites about the intertwining issues of education and immigration policy. There’s George Tuck (Kawaguchi’s Dick Tuck stand-in) screening a campaign ad showing an inner-city kid being left behind on the side of a road by a station water, sports car, and space shuttle until Yamaoka pulls up driving a bus to ferry him “to the 21st century.” There’s Yamaoka speaking privately to Takashi amidst a backdrop of scenes frim his Vietnam tour, claiming that he’s “still in the jungle” when it comes to the bare-knuckled world of politics.

But for all their simplicity and digestibility, these are still recognizably American touchstones and issues. Kawaguchi didn’t phone this one in: according to a short interview in the back of volume 2, he engrossed himself in American political literature, leaned heavily on Japanese experts in the field at top newspaeprs, and spent months touring the country for himself and taking “what eventually amounted to 50 photo albums’ worth of pictures” for reference. All that work, translated by equally fervent research junkie Carl Horn, paid off.

So when the story goes to New York, where Yamaoka began his political career, and deals with a local politician who seems to have no political agenda beyond peddling influence and keeping himself reelected, it feels real. When Yamaoka struggles to keep the support of the military while not compromising on his hardline antiwar stance, it feels real. When the campaign heats up after the Democratic National Convention and Yamaoka is shadowed by fringe kooks leaving threatening messages and worse, it feels real.

And most importantly for those of us who voted for Obama two years ago, when Yamaoka lets the reader down, when he tosses aside a principle or two if it helps him jockey for position, when he’s shown to be only a man after all, that feels real too. When you start to notice that Yamaoka’s victory is built as much as anything on savvy media manipulation, demographic jockeying, and one grim-jawed get-out-the-vote organization, it rings unfortunately true.

But if you knew back in 2002 that this is who Yamaoka was, it took some of the sting out of it when you helped elect him six years later.

Bite Me!

August 10th, 2010

Generally speaking, I like webcomics. But what I like even more, paradoxically, are print collections of webcomics. I’m not sure I’ve ever read more than 5 pages of Girl Genius online, but I have all the collections so far. I enjoy them when they’re online, but they feel too ephemeral there. It’s not until I have a bound volume in my hand that I really feel like I’m looking at a comic, which is why when it comes to webcomics merchandising, I’ll take a book over a snarky t-shirt every time. (Far too few creators will indulge me on this, alas.)

Which brings us to Bite Me!, Dylan Meconis’ vampire farce of Revolutionary France. This was one of many books I picked up during APE 2009 (all of which I hope to get to eventually), but unlike many of those, this one’s reputation preceded it. I’d heard a lot of good things about Meconis, but I’d never gotten around to checking out her work, even though it was all freely available online. But now that I was right there at her table, and there was a bound volume, well then. I was powerless to resist.

Here’s what’s great about webcomics that you don’t often get with most American comics: they’re like a time-lapse photo of artistic development. In an original graphic novel, if the artist finds that his or her style develops over the course of working on the book, he or she can go back and patch up the first pages for consistency’s sake. But with a webcomic, of course, it’s being tossed up for public consumption as you go, so when the full story that originally took a year or more to create is put between two covers, it goes in warts and all.

For an example, here’s Meconis rendering Claire from near the start of each of the six chapters:

At the outset, the style is very flat and angular. There’s not much shading to be seen, and the facial poses tend to be either straight ahead or directly to the size, like an Egyptian frieze. But later, the poses get looser and more dynamic, the curve of the chin becomes an actual curve, and there’s more depths added to the facial structure with improved shading. (And this was where Meconis was by 2004. If you really want to be impressed, go have a look at where she is now.)

And now I feel a little bad, because I’ve taken all this space in an entry ostensibly about Bite Me! and all I’ve talked about is neat things you can see with a bound collection of any webcomic by an artist worth his or her salt. So back to the subject at hand.

The quality of the art having been firmly established by now, Bite Me! is something you want to read if you ever had a vampire phase and was later embarrassed by it. Meconis takes the Anne Rice trope of glamorous vampires in old France, but approaches it from the point of view that even after several centuries of unlife, the vampires wouldn’t be any more glamorous or seductive than ordinary people. Driving the stake home is Claire, an ordinary person who’s vampirized early on and takes naturally to the lifestyle. (And just to put the boot in further, there’s a late gag riffing directly off of Rice’s own characters.)

The format of the book is also worth a mention. Not the six-chapter format found online, which isn’t reproduced in the book. But… Well, ever since the trade paperback collection of superhero comics came into vogue, there’s been a debate about whether or not it’s acceptable to “write for the trade,” which is a way of saying writing stories that don’t have concrete stopping points in individual (purchaseable) issues, but instead simply cut off every 22 pages, because the assumption is that they’ll be eventually taken in as a complete 132-page story.

Like most webcomic authors who produce books, Meconis has her own variant of the “writing for the trade” problem to solve. She splits the difference neatly by organizing the story right from the start as a continuing plot that builds on itself with every page, but she also makes sure every page ends on a strong note–either a moment of melodrama or, more often since this is a farce, a punchline. Taken as a whole, you can still see the seams a bit. It’s not hard to remember the form in which the material originally appeared, where readers would be expecting a payoff with every update. Having a kicker at the end of every single page does play counter to expectations when reading a longform work, where you expect most things to build for a while before getting any payoff.

But if that’s true, it’s also true that Meconis ended up producing a work where something happens on every page, and you never (okay, almost never) get a page that’s just a big, self-indulgent splash panel because the artist thought it would look cool. The book is ultimately stronger rather than weaker due to the need to make sure every page works. In fact, there’s your review. Bite Me!: it works.

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

August 7th, 2010

Harvey Pekar passed away a few weeks ago. But fortunately for us, he left half his life behind in ink.

There’s too much in this book to go into in detail, and what’s the point, really? Pekar obsessed about his work and its reception enough for any ten critics, and then duly recorded his neuroses about it in his comics. You can’t possibly think Pekar was more of an overlooked genius than Pekar did.

Suffice to say it’s still essential reading to show what’s possible with the medium. Though, in these books, what’s possible is not always what’s best: this volume, itself a collection of two collections, begins at the beginning, when Pekar was still essentially writing prose pieces that he could cajole friends into illustrating. The very first vignette, “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” boasts R. Crumb art on a story that’s barely visual.

But as you keep reading–and you will, because even when he’s still grappling with the comic form, Pekar was a born storyteller–the script and the art start to complement each other better until you reach what I found to be one of the most striking single moments in the book.

“Guerilla Theatre: July ’74 – On the Corner,” illustrated by Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm, is an 18-page story that rambles and wanders, as all Pekar’s drawn-from-life stories do. The primary action concerns Pekar getting out of the house one evening and checking in with his friend the box office clerk, after which he meets up with two more friends in succession. The three of them leave the theater and eventually help one of the men move some furniture into his new apartment.

That takes up the last 17 pages of the story. The first page consists of Pekar watching the evening news, featuring reports on the Middle East and the House Judiciary Committee. And the reason I found this striking is because at no point during the next 17 pages–each one of which is basically an illustrated conversation–do either of these subjects come up again. Pekar neither thinks about them nor introduces them into the dialogue.

So why is this page in the comic?

After wondering about it, it seemed more like a quiet comment on the superficiality of the news. The topics Walter Cronkite discusses, despite their weightiness, have no bearing on the life of an average man in Cleveland, and he has no bearing on them.

It’s not that Pekar is ignorant or uncaring; there are plenty of stories in this volume that demonstrate his love for history and his awareness of world politics. But in the course of ordinary life, which is what Pekar primarily documents in his work, these things simply aren’t a factor. The evening news has transformed serious subjects into inconsequential trivia.

Now, maybe none of that was intended by Pekar, and maybe his actual reason for including the page was something entirely different. But that’s what you find yourself amazed by, again and again, in reading American Splendor. By presenting the ordinary reality without inflection, he makes us examine and draw new conclusions about things we’d other take for granted. That’s Pekar’s true gift to the world: the ability to see what would otherwise be invisible; the splendor present every day and everywhere.

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