Old English #3

Conquering Armies

This is a softcover book from 1978, perfect bound and b&w and 64 pages for your post-bicentennial $4.95.

It's big, as in "big as Paul Pope's old oversized books, like Buzz Buzz Comics Magazine or THB Circus," or almost as big as that new Seth book, George Sprott (1894-1975), or that recent hardcover he designed, The Collected Doug Wright. You know, the one with the infernally gleaming red cover? Hold that thing up to an adequate light source and you can transform an ordinary bathroom into a scene from Flashdance. Of course, that's how my bathroom is already, but, like Seth, I'm an old-timey kinda guy.

To wit: 1978, big ol' softcover comic, big like the European albums, big in a way that seemed right for A Heavy Metal Book, just as they were new and hot, and the likes of Moebius' Is Man Good? and Lob & Pichard's Ulysses rolled off the presses. The world indeed seemed ripe for conquest, but this lost tome proved cautionary in more than its mere eventual obscurity. Battlefields may seem huge, barks the metaphor, but conquerors are thus necessarily small.

Conquering Armies is a suite of five short comics first seen in the pages of Métal Hurlant, and quickly brought to English via early issues of Heavy Metal. Obviously a lot of people believed in these stories, which weren't lacking in pedigree: the writer was Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Hurlant's co-founder and editor-in-chief, working with an artist he'd known for nearly his entire comics writing career, Jean-Claude Gal.

Granted, Dionnet's comics writing career had only just started in '71, with Gal following a year later, both teamed in the pages of the venerable Pilote, the growing pains of which would give way to Howling Metal just a few years later. Fast times, sure, but those virginal pages of 1975 looked like they had something to prove.

This is just a detail, mind you, as is every individual image in this post. You should see it in person. The stuff looks big in magazine form, but once you've witnessed those collected dimensions -- which I presume match a '77 French album of the same material -- you'll never settle for less. Gal wants to assault you with scope, much in the way he intimates violence toward those tiny soldiers, toy-like against their rocky scene so that magnified panels are necessary to track a man down the stairs, only then humanized.

And that's no basic establishing vista you're seeing; the grandeur of Gal's scenes is the very heart of this work, these linked stories, all of which seek to smother the ambitions of armies in the magnitude of greater existence. The first tale even stretches to literalize this notion, with a mighty vanguard rushing into a massive city that exacts a terrible psychological toll on the men, particularly as folks begin vanishing or falling over.

Heavy realism, that, at least in terms of character art. But Gal still emphasizes the scale of the room with his wide panels, pivoting to stretch the gulf between the characters and then zooming in to associate space with death. There's a tremendous amount of detail in these panels, but it never becomes overwhelming until Gal wants it to, as a means of aggravating the story's dread. When there comes a time when no detail at all would be better, the opportunity is taken.

All of this comes from a man three years into his professional comics career, although he'd been a drawing instructor for years prior. Yet remarkably little of the work suffers from the 'frozen' feeling illustrators sometimes bring to comics, or the sedate atmosphere of some older French adventure comics in a realist style, and I think much of that is due to the almost despairing sense of diminution Gal foists on his mighty warriors.

It's very different from the world-building majesty of Philippe Druillet and his mad architectures and psychedelic combats - Gal is drawing 'real' people, and his real, big places are going to kill them, or at least foreshadow their doom via the looming presence of matters greater than martial accomplishment.

Very little of Dionnet's comics writing has been translated to English, but what I've seen places him firmly in the political area of Hurlant's approach to fantasy. There are no wild visions in here (or the Enki Bilal-drawn Exterminator 17) devoid of evident purpose, all of it rueful in facing the human condition.

All of the military adventures in this book are doomed, always by something out of the control of the powerful, be it chance or disease or magic. Or metaphor. There is no explanation as to why the city in the first tale destroys the occupying force; the men of violence merely vanish as we see them growing humanized, chatting with locals or abandoning their posts, worn down by time and seemingly absorbed by the enormity of Gal's scenery. It's not sorcery, really, but the symbolism of the huge city as the endeavor of occupation, or colonization, beating the materialism of combat by just sitting around it.

Subsequent stories proceed in much the same way: violent, material desire is thwarted by elements beyond the control of the sentry, always with a special emphasis on titanic locales. Simplistic, yes, but diabolical - there isn't one action scene or bit of daring in this book that isn't coated with irony or in active anticipation of the hero's downfall. Just look at this:

Vintage newspaper serial stuff, from probably the book's weakest tale. The encounter with the tiger leaves one brother maimed and the other scarred; the latter sets off on a journey to find an old mystery man who knows healing magic, his lair fittingly large and horrible, and filled with beasts to fight.

Our Man kicks his quota of ass, but alas - the magician's spell causes his brother's fingers to grow uncontrollably, and anyway he'd been captured by the magician while the hero was busy, and now his fingers will be cut off again and again for all his life, ha ha ha ha haaaa!

Still, even a story as silly as that benefits from Dionnet's distaste for genre heroism, and especially Gal's devotion to selling the both the occasion of the action and the constant visual metaphor of ambition dwarfed. Even one of Dionnet's more lackadaisical plots, concerning an ambitious commander ruined by a random local boy carrying the plague, becomes somewhat straightened by Gal's recurring motif of homes and tents as vessels for surrounding, burning death.

Again, though, this stuff's probably best taken at its most visceral.

Two soldiers away from battle, one attempting to sell the other into slavery for financial gain. Whoops - the seller winds up on the same ship as his erstwhile item, and combat breaks out again. Here it's chance that fucks pride up, the coincidences that happen in expansive spaces. Still, Dionnet has a soft spot for the enslaved, and just as a fresh army rushed in to re-take the haunted city from Story 1, a new master is again overthrown by ex-soldiers, ex-merchant & good, only equals at the bottom.

The conquest of Heavy Metal would reach its end too, and comics of this size would soon get less viable for direct English localization. You might be able to find a copy online for not too much money, though - they did seem to print a lot of these things, in the flush of early victory.

Dionnet kept working with Gal into the '80s, with the dark fantasy albums The Vengeance of Arn (1981) and The Triumph of Arn (1988); he left his editorship with Hurlant in 1985, two years before it suspended publication. Gal later began work on a color album with writer Alejandro Jodorowsky, La passion de Diosamante, which saw publication in 1992. From what I've seen, color takes away from Gal's power; the rawness of black and white underscore the power of his buildings and mountains, while color mutes it all into decoration.

He wouldn't get the chance to refine it. Gal died in 1994, at the age of 52. The second volume of Jodorowsky's series wouldn't appear until 2002, drawn by artist Igor Kordey, in the very thick of New X-Men and the whole Jemas thing at Marvel. Speaking of the folly of men's struggle.

I don't know of any other Jean-Claude Gal books in English. There might be a story or two lurking somewhere in that Heavy Metal back catalog. I wonder how else his heavy realism became the weight of powers beyond accomplishment, sneering at mortal effort? Or did it? Comics triumph gave us this much, buried to dig up; our little resistance against obscurity's campaign. It was all in here, from the man who saw how it worked, and delivered his urgent transmission:

Shit does happen.

Old English #2

Ashen Victor

Here's a question that comes up every so often: we hear plenty about North American cartoonists inspired by the energy and style of manga, but are there any mangaka crazy about cartoonists from the West?

To my knowledge, the answer is "not a ton." It seems there's some pretty specific, dominant ideas in Japan about how comics are supposed to 'work,' with a strong emphasis placed on visual mechanics. Put simply, Western comics just don't look right, and to the extent there's much of a Western comics presence in Japan at all, it tends to dwell on highly individual stylists as self-contained aesthetic forces. Yet some manga artists draw fabulous inspiration from that area.

This book is one result of that inspiration. I may have obtained it at tremendous monetary cost, but it's no big deal - I do it all for you.

And Yukito Kishiro? Looks like he did it for Frank Miller; I have no evidence, but it could be he devoured every volume of Sin City and still wasn't satisfied.

So he made his own.

Ah, never mind my melodrama. VIZ may not exactly have shied away from Miller comparisons when it published Ashen Victor -- first in 1997 as a four-issue pamphlet miniseries, then in 1999 as a collected book -- but the work itself is thoroughly Kishiro's. Indeed, it's actually a short prequel work to his expansive Battle Angel Alita (aka: Gunnm) saga, a massive sci-fi series that initially ran for nine volumes, 1990-95, and then saw its artist discard the original ending in 2001 and revive the series as a still-ongoing concern (Battle Angel Alita: Last Order) current up to vol. 13 in Japan and vol. 11 via VIZ's English translation.

Ashen Victor appeared between the two major Alita series in Japan, in late 1995; it was definitely not a sprawling opus, in that it consisted of only one volume and focused on the noir-like goings on in the violent armored racing sport of Motorball. It's also conspicuously the only piece of VIZ's Kishiro catalog not currently in print. Maybe some licensing trouble got in the way. Maybe the story seemed too odd for the bookstore-friendly Alita reprint push. Hell, maybe the damned thing looks too American for the market these days. That'd be a laugh.

But truthfully, Kishiro doesn't venture too far out into foreign waters. He certainly ramps up the high-contrast in good Sin City style, and deliberately avoids typical character stylization for a Japanese comic of this sort, yet there remains a suppleness to his backgrounds, a traditional scenery that Miller would strive to dissolve into a thousand scratches surrounding inky gobs. In other words, Alita fans might still admire their familiar world as recognizable, despite the curious perspective imposed on them. It's possibly as much a franchise concern as stylistic one; two reasons for not going too far over the top.

Why, Kishiro even has a spiky-haired hero we all can root for. God, he looks a little familiar, though...

That's right, sports fans: not only is this a Japanese Sin City homage set in the world of ultraviolent cybernetic racing, but one that features a lead gore-spattered cyborg racer modeled after Dream of the Endless. That is brilliant.

Or, at least that's what it looks like; I mean, he does draw in the eyes in a bunch of panels, and hair like that isn't exactly unknown as a boilerplate manga design trope, and I certainly don't have an interview or anything in which Kishiro states "oh, Morpheus, right; great guy, lovely eyes," but the resemblance is simply uncanny.

And it makes perfect sense too, well beyond the Sin City's an American comic, Dream's an American comics character, why not level. I can hardly think of a more perfect example of a writer-driven book than The Sandman; it had some consistent art toward the end of its run, sure, but it largely built its reputation in spite of its irregular visual quality. In the midst of the Image Revolution, it was a beacon of the scribe's victory over fulsome splash page aplomb, and, to my circle of 13-year olds, evidence of trust in the writer over the artist as the true mark of the connoisseur. It was the American way!

Call it projecting (because you could be right), but that's why the Dreamy protagonist of Ashen Victor seems so awesome to me - it's dealing with Sandman on a strictly visual level, ripping out that excellent character design and working the pale flesh and black hair and sunken eyes into the especially black & white contours of Kishiro's pseudo-Sin City, a clever application of visual elements that's indicative of the manga emphasis on the art as the storytelling base. That doomed complexion, that spur of danger... Dream can be noir as fuck!

The plot of Ashen Victor, meanwhile, is a gurgling broth of Miller-approved tactics and general noir notions, like 'fixing the races' and 'fighter bound to throw the match.' Snev (our Dream King) used to be a Motorball prodigy, able to glide between opponents on the track with ease to deliver the ball to the goal. But 17 matches into his pro career and he's best known as the Crash King, the "storm of self-destruction," famous for wiping out in violent, dismembering style in literally every match, to the point where his not inconsiderable fanbase adores him strictly for the spectacular show his body provides while ripping itself to shreds.

It's ok: Snev kinda likes it too, that weird pleasure of his artificial body falling to pieces; it's the fatalism of these stories literalized into an in-action motive. His teammates hate how he cheapens the sport with such circus hi-jinx, even though the best of them, Dolagunov (the semi-Marv design, here a villain) is doped to shit on designer sensory boost Accel, which a pharmaceutical corporation is trying to promote via racing victory. Granted, Snev used to believe in victory too, until the urge to self-destruct rose in his very first pro match, when some guy ran onto the track, and Snev was too far into winning velocity to move away, and:

I think that was a deleted scene from A Game of You.

Anyway, Snev is also good friends with Beretta, one of the city's various angelic-yet tough prostitutes (oh yes), who winds up getting him into a heap of trouble when she swipes a Very Important Briefcase off of Snev's team manager, resulting in her murder and a violent race to discover the dirty secrets behind tomorrow's sports entertainment. And a scene in which a dude who looks like a boyish manga version of Dream of the Endless punches a cyborg until his brain squirts out the back of his head. Comics!

It's a fast-paced thing, probably not as tightly plotted as it could be, but consistently diverting. The real fun, though, is seeing Kishiro cook up increasingly showy visual tricks, balancing the obvious Miller influence with alternate approaches. You'll note, for instance, that all of the book's female characters are drawn in a more classically big-eyed style; this becomes a means of asserting their otherworldly beauty in the city without pity; talk about on a pedestal.

Other moments see the artist break his pages apart, glorying in the arrangement of panels for purely emotional effect.

And occasionally the art simply erupts into slashes of pain, obliterating fixed representation entirely in favor of the sensation of Snev's total immersion in the ecstasy of racing.

It all comes down to a final showdown on the track, naturally, where Our Hero must either live up to his self-made expectations or ruin everything that makes him a viable talent by succeeding for once; more complex than the average Sin City yarn, probably, but appropriate for a book in which an artist fresh off a big, successful series wanders around some striking, hopefully personally satisfying territory at some risk of alienating readers. He's made it his own.

You can probably see it for yourself, even if VIZ isn't keeping it in print. Online used bookstores tend to reward searches for lost manga nuggets like this one, and the rewards won't stop with finding a $1.30 library copy. This is eager, restless stuff, international yet so much of its birthplace. The kind of manga publishers used to hope for, an East-West 'bridge' to ease readers in. Those aren't common anymore; in time, you can't win for losing.

Old English #1

Perramus: Escape From the Past #1-2 (of 4)

Q: God, what the hell am I going to do with all these old foreign comics I bought in that April research binge? That was addressed to you, God.

A: This is a new series of short posts about old English translations of foreign language comics, probably still obtainable through back-issue and/or used book resources. There will be lots of pictures, as per God's advice.

And we might as well start with a veritable legend of sinking into oblivion, Fantagraphics' late '80s/early '90s magazine-sized pamphlet translations of Euro-by-way-of-South-Americomics. The publisher's five-issue, 1987-90 take on Carlos Sampayo's & José Muñoz's Sinner is probably the most prominent of the bunch, but there was a later, odder release in the same format: Perramus: Escape From the Past, a four-issue, 1991-92 release of work by writer Juan Sasturain and artist Alberto Breccia.

It was a curious release, not least of all for being a formidable bait-and-switch; all cover-sourced close-up skull imagery and "the horror is real" and POLITICAL HORROR CLASSIC notwithstanding, Perramus actually isn't a horror comic by most standards. There's horrific sequences, in which the art gleefully trades in terror comic visual tropes, but this is mainly in the service of genre-comprehensive allegorical adventure serial, prone to marshaling all manner of cultural stimuli in the service of confronting recent, awful political history.

Perramus was first published in 1984, serialized in the Italian anthology series Orient Express. Its first collected edition appeared in Europe in 1985, and subsequent editions continued along until 1991. It's a four-volume series, although most European editions compile vols. 1-2 in a single album, resulting in three books. Fantagraphics' four-issue English-language release, despite kicking off the year the work was completed, does not correspond to the four volumes of the original work; rather, every two or so issues collects one volume, which means the series halted around the end of vol. 2 (or, the first of the common European albums). I'm equivocating since I only have the first two issues, which definitely cover the first original volume, since they end on an Epilogue at a natural stopping point.

But maybe it's fitting that such a work stretches across so many odd, international forms; perhaps it could only really be at home in Argentina. Breccia (who died in 1993) was a giant of Argentine comics, who specialized in fantastical horror comics of a more traditional sort. Indeed, English edition editor Robert Boyd suggests in a much-needed back-of-issue #1 biographical essay that Breccia gradually moved deeper (if never completely) into a literary horror emphasis -- Poe, Lovecraft adaptations -- as a means of evading the hazards of Argentina's increasingly brutal political situation in the 1970s. His frequent writer, Héctor Germán Oesterheld, "disappeared" in 1976 as the duo prepared a comics biography of Che Guevara; is there any more appropriate response than horror?

Argentina's military junta relinquished power in 1983, and Perramus began almost immediately thereafter from a script by Sasturain, a novelist and poet. The story begins with an unnamed man fleeing the dead-of-night approach by a (literally) skull-faced death squad, dooming his revolutionary compatriots left behind, still asleep. In a daze, the man wanders into a teeming nightclub where he's offered his choice of three prostitutes: Rosa, for luck; Maria, for pleasure; or Margarita, for forgetting.

The man opts for Margarita, and surely does awake a while later without the slightest idea of who he is, or what he's done. Dressed in a patchwork uniform left from johns of many nations, he derives his identity from what's closest to his heart.

What follows is a freewheeling series of events, chopped up into 2000 AD-sized chapters, seeing Perramus and a growing band of companions through various satirical encounters. Conscripted by the death squads to body-dumping detail aboard a ship, Our Man and one Washington Sosa -- possibly an allusion to a sidekick character from one of Breccia's earliest adventure comics -- escape to an island where a local dictator justifies his existence with an annual trotting out of society's Enemy (a downed foreign airman), who's recently begun a campaign of civil disobedience by refusing to escape.

Then there's a run-in with an equally dictatorial film company that only makes trailers, although their enforcers are fortunately well-trained enough to fall down and play dead when you pretend to shoot at them. Less playful are Perramus' old cohorts at the Volunteer Vanguard for Victory -- not the ones he got killed, mind you -- who don't recognize him personally but do understand the revolutionary potential he carries. History seems to be repeating, along with visions of Margarita, who appears to be somehow present in every escapade in the form of a different woman; and she's not the only one he'll be seeing again.

Recurrence is an important theme in this work, along with development. Surely the visuals seem to be redolent with Breccia's own evolution; any given panel seems hell-bent on packing in as many mixed-media flourishes as possible without sabotaging readability, although the sheer richness of these images can nonetheless seem overwhelming. Lavishly caricatured figures share space with environments ranging from suggestive swirls and dashes of ink to photographic collage. Supine corpses are covered with a gauze of light against deep shadow -- respect for the dead -- while death squad skulls hide additional skulls in their hats, symbolizing the authoritative facet of their personal killings. Often the human figures will recede into silhouettes, left small and alone against the mayhem of clashing textures that is Breccia's South America, a world of sufficient unreality arranged to register as nature, and sometimes be beautiful.

Yet persona and politics is fundamentally a construct, as the titular runaway learns late in issue #2 as part of a titanic team-up with Argentine literary lion and in-story secret agent Jorge Luis Borges, ready to encode messages in the poetry of 15th century Spanish satirist Francisco de Quevedo (and still alive at the time of the material's early publication). Sasturain & Breccia make mention of Borges' 1942 story Funes the Memorious as a sort of mirror to their own story; Funes also met Borges, but his talent was to remember everything, to the point where his command of detail undercut his capacity for abstract thought. In contrast, Perramus meets Borges unable to recall a thing about his past life, which renders him sheer abstraction, fortuitously wandering a continent of abstracted political and societal ideas, fastidiously rendered by Breccia in multimedia splendor.

Does it go deeper? Down to the literary Funes' Uruguayan heritage, same as Breccia's?

Ah, but even Borges himself is part of the plan, recontextualized like a good frequent literary character into an avatar for sheer artistic skepticism. In this world, the real Borges' politics needn't matter so much as his art's capacity for inspiration. This mixes well with Breccia's self-reference, his horror images positioned in society now explicitly in the form of repression, rather than as a response to such. There's plenty more where that came from - I sincerely doubt you can grasp the totality of this work without a serious command of Argentinian politics and culture, which I don't have. Still, as the might of Breccia's art is obvious, so is the broadest contours of his and Sasturain's story, looping Perramus back to the mystic nightclub for the volume's end, where the prostitute again offers what's expected: his desire. Will he have learned for next time? Will his country?

There's a little bit of an answer in these two Fantagraphics issues I have, and obviously more in the other two, although the other half remains obscure. I can't imagine a comic of this sort did gangbuster business in the US in '91, to the point where I'm mildly surprised that the issues we've got exist. Maybe the future holds something more for Breccia, but until then it's another story from another longbox, undeniably out there.