The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

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I’ve been fortunate to read some really good books during 2015 and certainly it’s been a good year for the boysbookclub.  Whilst I always focus my reading on whatever the book club selection is that month I do try to squeeze in other books and forms as well.  Graphic novels provide a perfect way to do this as they don’t necessarily take a long time and it’s a format that I’m really growing to appreciate.  Jared and Oliver at OK Comics have been guiding me into a world that I know very little about recommending titles and opening my eyes to the creativity and intelligence of the graphic novel.

The latest book they suggested to me was The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, which is undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve read this year.  It’s a 500 page turner of a graphic novel with real depth and emotion throughout that lived long in my memory and raises many fundamental questions on my (our) approach to life, the lives we lead and what we leave behind.  These hugely powerful themes are intertwined around a powerful love story, a Faustian pact, a portrait of young urban life, an artistic journey, mortality, aspiration, the commercial art world and mental health.

The Sculptor is brilliantly enjoyable as you are reading it but like the very best novels it seeps into the consciousness after you have finished, leaving little hooks in your mind that you find yourself musing and thinking about in moments of quite reflection long after you have turned the final page.

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The novel essentially centres on the life of David Smith, a young sculptor who found fame and patronage early in life but is now down on his luck, working in a fast food restaurant, creatively unproductive, frustrated that his life and art appears to be going nowhere.  Whilst drinking in a bar death (in the shape of his deceased uncle) sits with him and offers him a Faustian pact.  He will give David the ability to create and sculpt anything that he can imagine out of his bare hands but if he accepts the deal he will only have 200 days before death will take him.  Death also shows David an image of his life should he not choose to accept it, what he shows is a good life, working in a community college, teaching art, a wife and family, the type of life that most of us either want or settle for.

Here lies one of the first of the underlying themes of the book, almost all of us have dreams and aspirations, to create something, to leave our mark, to be remembered.  For most of us this does not happen and for David he is faced with a choice of essentially a good life or a short life that realises his creative ambitions.  David accepts the deal with Death but it still leaves him struggling with how to unleash his creativity and sculpt something that will realise his ambitions and leave a permanent legacy after he has gone.

What David has not considered is the strange twists that life can deliver and like all of us David never knows when love might strike.  A surreal chance encounter sees David falling madly in love with Meg, a jobbing actor and performance artist.  David is forbidden by death to tell anyone including Meg of the deal that he has made so he divides his time spending as much time as he can with Meg and then during the night working on his art trying harness his power to create his legacy.

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Meg and David’s fast developing relationship is beautifully captured and I really felt for the characters and had a powerful pang in my chest knowing what was going to happen to David.  Meg has a spontaneity to her which is instantly likeable compared to David’s intense over-worthiness but each character realises that together they are better people than they are apart.

The days pass and the David’s destiny is approaching, his art is still not the hit he wants and in his interaction with agents, galleries and patrons the book shines a light on the contemporary art world and makes you question who decides what is good art.  In the end David physically sculpts the world around him, eschewing the art world and leaving his work to be discovered in the mornings after night time creative sessions.  In doing so he brings the attention of the law enforcement agencies down on him as they try to uncover who is doing this.  Echoes here of graffiti artists and the question of whether it’s vandalism or art.

As I was reading the book I really wanted to know what was going to happen and was genuinely gripped.  Would David create his legacy, was Death going to insist on the pact, what was going to happen to David and Meg’s relationship, would David tell Meg about the pact.  I’m not going to reveal here what happens but the story is brought to it’s conclusion with a really powerful emotional twist.

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As I don’t really know much about the graphic medium I’m not familiar with the names of authors so Scott McCloud doesn’t mean anything to me but apparently he’s a bit of a big deal in the comic world, regarded as one of the smartest minds operating in the field and renowned as a theorist on all things comic.  Perhaps though as McCloud himself hits middle age he has been musing on his own legacy and in doing so it has driven him to create this masterpiece.  Does the protagonist of the novel reflect McCloud’s own artist journey in completing his first large fictional narrative ?

The Sculptor was five years in the making and it’s painstaking thoughtful creation left a profound mark on me.  It is often said that the best art is a mirror to your own life and experience and this brilliant page turner left me lingering on my own life, mortality and life’s purpose.  Powerful stuff, and I’d urge you to read it.

 

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I Killed Adolf Hitler

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Popped into OK Comics (a place I need to do a blog post on) recently to see what they’d pick out for me this time and I came out with a couple of interesting numbers, the first of which was this fantastically titled comic / graphic novel by Jason.  It’s a quick read, you can comfortably read it in half an hour for example, as there is a sparseness to both the illustration and the narrative which, as someone new to the comic world, is something that takes me a bit of getting used to.  A novel telling the same story would be packed full of text, characterisation and description whereas Jason boils everything down to the bare bones, but in doing so invites you the reader to build the body around them, to fill the space with thoughts and reflections on what is happening.  As there is often so little on the page you can tend to whizz along and I found myself having to force myself to slow down to savour the word and the images, like drinking a nice wine, don’t gulp it down let it settle on the tongue and savour the flavour as it develops.  So my new method was slow the pace and fill the space and once I’d adopted this method the comic took on new levels for me.

The story opens in a strange world that is essentially the world of today but one in which violence is ever present as assassins loom large, hired to kill everyday people for the generally annoying things that happen in everyday life, a noisy neighbour, someone getting promotion instead of you, a failed relationship etc.  The central protagonist (nobody is named in the story apart from Hitler) of the story is himself an assassin, an assassin who’s relationship is failing, but who’s business is booming and who has a steady stream of people queuing outside his office to employ him to kill the annoying people in their lives.  One of these people though has someone more serious in mind, he’s invented a time machine and wants to employ the killer to travel back in time to kill Hitler in 1938, thereby preventing the second world war and the subsequent Genocide.

There is a potential snag however as the machine uses so much energy that it takes 50 years to create the energy for one trip back in time and to have enough energy to return to the present day and the inventor has been waiting up until this moment to have the energy for the machine to work.  There is an interesting moral ambiguity here in using a contract killer to kill a mass murderer before he becomes a mass murderer.  The assassin accepts the mission but gets overpowered by Hitler who jumps in the time machine transporting himself to the present day and leaving the assassin stranded back in 1938.  At the same time as Hitler is now living in the present time the assassin is also there, and looking to find him but he’s now an old man having waited 50 years to get back to the point at which he was originally sent back in time.  He enlists the help of his girlfriend (who is now like his granddaughter) to see if they can find Hitler.  I won’t reveal what happens next as unsurprisingly there is a twist, however something to think about is that despite the second world war not happening the world is still a violent place so with or without Hitler man’s inhumanity to man remains intact.

With the protagonist effectively having lived his life again over the previous 50 years and Hitler not embarking on his plan for world domination, both have second chances which I think is a key theme that Jason is trying to portray and perhaps to ask questions of ourselves that no matter what mistakes we have made we possess the ability to change, to create our own second chances.  This is particularly effective when we think of our relationships and how we treat those closest to us, perhaps if we looked to understand more and condemn less we would not become so annoyed by the things others do, we would be happier people and there would be less conflict.  Despite the sci-fi time travelling shenanigans I think that this is what Jason is trying to say and that the comic is really a love story and reflection on relationships.

This is a comic that is a short read but don’t think that this means it doesn’t contain some big themes, dry wit and clever ideas as it does.  What it really does very cleverly I think is to allow you the space in which to explore them.

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The Park – Oscar Zarate

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My latest recommendation from OKComics as I slowly delve into the comic/ graphic novel world was the whimsical revenge tale The Park by Oscar Zarate.  What I found interesting was that it was only really after I had finished reading and put it away that the concepts and themes really began to seep through me as I went about my everyday life.  The story centres around a chance encounter in the park between Ivan (columnist /blogger and soon to be radio presenter) and Chris (postman / musician) after Ivan’s dog bites Chris and how this incident unfolds, is seen by each side and how others react to it, particularly their grown up children.  Chris loves Laurel and Hardy films and he and Ivan play out an over the top absurd reaction to the dog incident that mirrors Stan and Ollie who Chris watches and draws solace from throughout the developing story.

In many ways you can just read it as a bit of whimsical fun but there are I think some really interesting themes that are being commented on within the book, not least how we communicate and interact with each other.  I think the author is asking the question of whether, despite all of our technology, have we not regressed to characters in a silent movie with wild gestures that lack nuance and understanding?  People jumping to conclusions and reacting without thinking things through, looking at the whole picture and without talking?  Ivan sees Chris kick his dog and takes to his blog to denounce this hooligan and bragging about how he took matters into his own hands despite the fact that Mel, his daughter, told him that Chris had been bitten by the dog and was reacting defensively.  Chris is angered when he learns what is being said about him, wrongly, via the internet but does not really want to do anything about it and is not sure what he could about it, which makes his son Victor very angry who decides to try and seek revenge.

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Has the immediacy and omnipotence of social media clouded our judgement as individuals within a society and made us less reflective and more eager to spout opinion on all things without perhaps knowing the facts and has the eagerness to rush to the keyboard affected how we actually behave towards other people in real life?  These are quite large and profound questions on how our society is changing that are explored through four main characters in the story.  In addition the idea of reflection I found interesting, after all it’s only on reflecting on what I had read that I really thought about what Zarate might be saying with his story and the fact that it’s set around a Park is telling I feel as, for those of us who live in an urban environment, Parks are one of the main places that we go for peace, fresh air and reflection.  Zarate sets the scene for our urban splashes of greenery thus:

The Park.  Blue skies, only a few wisps of cloud.  If you close your eyes for a moment and listen, jumbled sounds gradually become distinct.  Kids playing football, a brass band bringing an echo of the past (you think of your parents, something of your childhood comes back to you).  You hear fragments of conversations, the squeak of buggies, the chirping of birds, the swoosh of kites, the caw-caw of crows, the rustling of leaves……. sudden yells of delight – a kid has scored a phenomenal goal.  Young people are singing a song by Oasis.  A dog barks, you smell the grass.  Just for a moment you feel intensely alive.  Now you open your eyes then you know why we love this park.  Woodland, wildlife and people meet together in the middle of the city, the pace slows.  People linger over conversations.  It’s like the countryside.  Gentle, green hills, ponds, bridges, lines of old hedgerow with rarities such as wild service trees and woodland hawthorn, old poplars, oaks, maybe over 500 years old, ancient witnesses of other times, their roots twisted like exposed varicose veins.

This beautiful paean to park life stands in stark contrast to how many of us live the rest of our lives in cities, cooped up in small boxes, not knowing our neighbours, little if any sense of community or communication where after working we close the front door and retire to the keyboard where we moan about our existence and criticise people that we don’t know.

For me therefore The Park acted as a modern day parable focussing on us as the modern day inter-connected people that we are but warning us of the importance of real relationships, communication, shared space, community and to form our judgements slowly.  Be wary of the keyboard.

An illustration from The Park by Oscar Zarate

Super human like you

I´ve always loved the superhero comics. As a kid i read Batman, if fact i still do. The caped crusader with his gothic home town really made me wonder away into a fantasy world. I tied a towel around my neck and jumped down the stairs so it would flap in the wind. The love for comics followed me as i grew older. Slowly i started to read the more adult orientated titles in the DC universe. Like Sandman, Preacher among others that were released on DC Vertigo.
But it wasn´t really superhero comics i was used to. Then i got a hold of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen and everything changed.
All of a sudden the world of Super heroes was real. The people behind the masks were real people with real problems. Watchmen was the kick off for this kind of comics. In 1994 Marvel released the mini series Marvels. Written by Kurt Busiek and painted by Alex Ross. Here we behold the birth of super heroes through the eye of a photographer. Busiek returned a year later with his own concept “Astro City” on Image comics. In “Life in the city” We get to follow, among others, the Superman character of Astro citys universe The Samaritan. During night he dreams of flying. Without obligations like saving the world or rescuing people from burning buildings.

The superhero comics has grown up. Most likely because the audience or comic geeks, has grown up. I believe that without these ground breaking comics today’s big comic book movies would not be possible. Even if the movies are more like the comics were before it is starting to change. They are getting there. The reboot of Batman as an example of an more dark and realistic super hero take.

I recently got my eyes on Swedish artist Andreas Englund amazing oil paintings of an ageing super hero. This really is the finest mix of classic art and pop culture. I just love it!
After all if the meta humans got the same problems as you. They become a bit more for real…


The Nao of Brown

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My new found forays into the world of the comic saw me looking for something to follow up the marvellous Daytripper so I popped into OK Comics to see what they would recommend next.  I came out clutching the Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon.  As I don’t know much about the comic world I’m fortunate to be guided by the marvellous people at OK Comics and, although the stories and depictions obviously differ, one thing that is consistently striking to me about the form is the ability of the artists to display multi layered and complex characters and emotions that morph and shift from one pane to the next and this was beautifully portrayed via the character of Nao Brown.  At one point in the book Gregory Pope quotes Herman Hesse thus “Words do not express thoughts very well, everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish” and this quote seems particularly apt for the way the Nao of Brown pictorially deals with thought and emotions.

Nao is half Japanese half English and we pick up the story as she arrives back in England from a trip to visit her alcoholic father in Japan.  She is an artist who has ideas for creating toys but has recently lost her job so begins working in her friend Steve’s Japanese toy shop.  Steve is infatuated with Nao but this appears to go fairly unnoticed by Nao who instead tries to fix him up with her flatmate.  Nao has a form of obsessive compulsive disorder where she imagines causing extreme harm to herself or those around her each example of which she scores out of 10.  So for example she finds herself in a state of panic after she is sat near the emergency exit on a plane as she imagines throwing herself out of the plane (9 out of 10); snapping the neck of a taxi driver (8 out of 10); smashing a beer glass into the face of her date (3 out of 10).  This obsession is really well portrayed in the book as one moment all is fine then in the next pane Kaboom ! as her imagination takes over.  The result for Nao is that she has become fearful of letting these imaginations take over her real life so she struggles with relationships, is scared of ever having children in case she hurts them and does not want to be left alone in any situation that might bring on anxiety and certainly does not want to be alone around any potentially dangerous implement especially pens and the knife draw in the kitchen !

In order to help deal with some of these compulsions Nao seeks peace at her local Buddhist centre where she also draws Enzos which is the Japanese word for circle but are also a zen symbol of enlightenment.  Circles and the sound and symbol of O or oh are everywhere in the book, in the Enzo drawings, the face of the ipod, saucers, clock faces, washing machine doors, the rounded face of Nao’s favourite cartoon character, the mix tape with all songs starting with O, Nao Brown as you pronounce it creates the O sound.  All of this is more than mere coincidence and I think it’s all to do with the idea of completing the circle or cycle of life to find enlightenment.

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Nao meets Gregory who repairs washing machines and effectively fixes their broken cycles, is he the character to repair Nao to fix her cycle allowing her to reach fulfilment and enlightenment in her life ?  Nao falls for Gregory who she thinks looks like the Nothing from her favourite cartoons but Gregory while being able to quote Buddhist teachings also appears to struggle with relationships and turns to drinking too much when anxious.  You later learn what he has been through and that he can perhaps use his knowledge and experience to help others as he tries to help Nao battle her demons.

Running through the book alongside Nao’s is an allegorical story of Pictor who is half man and half tree and there are similarities between Pictor and Nao.  Both end up in a happy place but go through unhappiness or do bad things before they get there the writer appears to be saying that within the cycle of life our experiences lead us to where we end up and there will inevitable by good and bad along they way but neither one or the other defines us they simply help to shape us into what we are.  Doing something bad does not necessarily make you a bad person and doing something good does not mean that you do not possess the potential for badness.  As human beings we all possess the capacity for both sides it’s how we handle that dichotomy that will define us.  As Gregory says to Nao “there is good and bad in all of us, no one is all one or all the other, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”

I did find the ending slightly strange, I enjoyed the build up and dramatic moments but found the section where it simply skipped forward somewhat at odds to what had gone before, however I suspect that this lies with me and not the writer as it is clear when reading this that every single element of the book has been meticulously thought through so the ending will have been as well, I’m just not sure I’ve fully appreciated it yet.

Overall this is a stunning work of art and literature.  Read it and search for your own peace.

 

 

Daytripper – Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon

 

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A couple of months ago our boysbookclub did another comic/graphic novel, the quite astonishing Building Stories by Chris Ware, which I’ve not had the chance to get written up on the blog yet.  When I went into OK Comics in Leeds to buy a copy I got chatting to the guys in the shop and they recommended Daytripper to me which I’d not got round to reading until I was away last week when I sat down with a bottle of wine and read it through – what an astonishing book.  I say book but it’s a comic, or is it a graphic novel – not knowing much about the field I’m not sure how best to describe it but it’s an amazing work of art.  In reading this I got to thinking and chatting about the difference between the graphic and non graphic way of storytelling.  In traditional books you can get lost in them in a way that I’m not sure you do in the graphic format but the graphic format possesses an intensity and punchiness that is very hard to replicate in traditional form.  All I would say is that they are both great and even though I’ve not read huge amounts of comic/graphic novels I’d recommend anyone who is perhaps skeptical of the format to give it a go and you could do a lot worse that start off with Daytripper by the Brazillian duo Gabriel Ba and Fabion Moon.

The story centres around the theme that everybody dies, it’s a natural part of life, but it’s how you live your life that’s important and specifically what you make of key moments that occur throughout your life.  It’s a quiet, dreamlike and somewhat melancholy tale with elements of fantasy/ magic realism that made my really reflect on my own life and like all the best art it holds up a mirror to yourself.  Ultimately though after a period of reflection I found myself uplifted by the tale told.

Bras de Oliva Domingos is an obituary writer who dreams of being a famous novelist like his father and who questions where his life is heading compared to the people that he writes his obits on.  Each chapter deals with a period in Bras life but not necessarily in chronological order so it starts when Bras is 32 and finishes when he is 76 but between time will skip through his life going backwards and forwards as his life and dreams unfold.  Within each chapter Bras faces a key moment (even if he doesn’t realise it is a key moment) that may or may not have an impact on his life depending on how he reacts and each chapter also ends with a twist which jolts you and makes you reflect on what are your own key moments and how you might have reacted or not as the case may be.  Of course our lives may well have turned out differently if we had acted differently, what about that woman that you saw in a supermarket once and shared a look between – was she the love of your life? did you do anything about it or watch her walk away?  The book niggles away at you effectively asking you what do you want to do with your life and if you are not doing that right now then you best get on and do something about it because you don’t know what’s around the corner.

At it’s heart therefore as the book reinforces the fact that everybody dies it questions what is important to you and draws the conclusion that it is friends, family, your loved ones and taking control of your life that are what is important.  This may sound obvious but it is done in such a beautifully affecting way.  I was drawn while reading it to a conversation that I had with my father once.  He was advanced in years and his health was failing to such an extent that he could no longer live in the house that he had bought from when the first brick was laid, worked hard and brought up his family in it.  I took him back to have a pint in the local and say goodbye to the house and the area as we drove away he simply turned to me and said “Son, always remember houses are just bricks it’s people and family that are important”.  It was a very prophetic and poignant moment and this book brought this and many other reflections of my life racing to the forefront of my mind.

Brilliant stuff, wonder what OK Comics will recommend next as this will take some beating.

 

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