Tag Archives: comics

Meet the men behind manga: Gekiga exhibition launches at London Cartoon Museum

23 Sep
Gekiga

Gekiga at the London Cartoon Museum. Note the paucity of speech bubbles or narrative captions

We all know manga. It arrived drip-drip in the West in the ‘80s, most prominently through serialisation of the samurai epic Lone Wolf And Cub with covers by Frank Miller, and now spills across endless shelves of Forbidden Planet – everything from riotous fantasy to the exploits of super-chefs or teen tennis prodigies – as well as filling our cinemas in its animated form. But before manga arrived in the West, before it even existed in its present form in Japan, there was… Gekiga.

Gekiga is the bridge between Japanese post-war kids’ comics about wide-eyed robot children, and the astonishing variety in style and subject matter we see today. It sprung from an intuition on the part of three friends and occasional rivals that those who had grown up with comics were ready for something more adult. Ordered to share a bedsit in Osaka by their publisher to increase productivity, Masahiko Matsumoto, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Takao Saito stayed up late into the night discussing a new visual language, based on the cinematic vision of Osamu Tezuka, the “Father of Manga”, and a new kind of storytelling, rooted in real life rather than fantasy. A new genre, they decided, needed a new name. The one that stuck was coined by Tatsumi: “Gekiga”, or “dramatic pictures”.

Those early pioneers are not well known in the West. The Wikipedia page on Gekiga does not even mention Matsumoto, whose work The Man Next Door thrilled and inspired the other two to raise their game. So it was wonderful, and not a little moving, to see Matsumoto’s son last night at the London Cartoon Museum, launching a two-month-long exhibition dedicated to Gekiga.

Tomohiko Matsumoto

Tomohiko Matsumoto, son of the originator of Gekiga comics, and cartoonist Takayo Akiyama, who translated for him

“These stories are less humorous and more realistic,” explained Tomohiko Matsumoto through a translator, “which appeals more to teenagers than children. Before, it was all fantasy – a lion starts talking to you, or people come out of a rocket. My father invented the manga which formed the basis for Gekiga in 1956, then two years later Tatsumi created the name, and worked in the same concept and style. Other cartoonists begin to experiment with Gekiga, and it starts to become more normal and popular, and that is the start of manga culture as you now know it.”

I collared Matsumoto after his speech, to ask him about the influence on these pioneers of Tezuka, who created Astroboy and Kimba The White Lion (which formed the template for Disney’s The Lion King). “Good question,” said Matsumoto smilingly in English, before continuing through the translator: “Tezuka used to live on the West side of Japan, near Osaka where my father was. He gave my father a drawing, and to Tatsumi too. [The drawing given to his father, of priceless historical significance, is up on the Cartoon Museum’s wall.] They admired his work greatly; their goal was to become cartoonists like him. But when he moved to Tokyo, and started doing shorter stories, where he needed to explain the action with speech bubbles, they felt it narrowed down his expression. So they needed to create that expression for themselves.”

So successful were they that the pupils became the masters: Tezuka himself would later derive influence from the more realistic Gekiga style, most notably in Message to Adolf.

Samurai Gishiden, by Hiroshi Hirata

Samurai Gishiden, by Hiroshi Hirata. Frank Miller, eat your heart out!

The exhibition at the London Cartoon Museum brings together over 50 pieces of original artwork and reproductions from rare manga, most never displayed before in Europe. Most interesting are pages from Tatsumi’s autobiographical manga memoir of the period, A Drifting Life, which conveys the challenge and excitement of developing a new literary movement; a series of intoxicatingly bright and pulpy noir covers; and two extraordinarily powerful black-and-white Samurai illustrations by Hiroshi Hirata, which could grace the wall of any art gallery.

As to Tomohiko’s revered father, Masahiko Matsumoto, he will finally get the British publication that in life eluded him. Four stories from the work that started it all, The Man Next Door, are being published by Breakdown Press this week – 58 years after it was written.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel rolls the dice, and…

7 Aug

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Poster-Art1

Playing poker, like making films, is all about taking calculated risks. Last night I called a £200 re-raise with just a pair, to someone who was representing a straight, because I sensed he might be bluffing. I was right, and doubled up.

Hollywood seems to know all about the calculation, but has forgotten about the risk. This summer’s blockbusters are, yet again, all franchise sequels (22 Jump Street, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3) or properties with existing brand recognition (Hercules). So when a new film by a relatively untried but hugely talented director (James Gunn) gets a mammoth budget, forgive us jaded viewers if we go a bit ga-ga.

Guardians of the Galaxy, currently scoring 8.8 on IMDB, is every bit as fun as people say it is: brash, colourful, irreverent, risky, and both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. As a tiny example, Stan Lee gets a Hitchcockian cameo in every Marvel movie. Usually it’s something pretty innocuous, but here the revered 91-year-old founder of Marvel is shown talking to a pretty girl young enough to be his great-granddaughter, at which a wise-cracking alien raccoon comments: “What a Class-A Pre-vert.” Or this: the climactic battle scene turns on a moving plea from the roguish leader of the Guardians: “I am an A-hole but I’m not 100% a dick.” If Shakespeare were alive today – and smoking a lot of dope – he could surely do no better.

Yes, there are spectacular action scenes and spaceships and explosions and aliens and strange new worlds. But it’s the left-field dialogue and characters that really sing. The closest comparison might be Avengers Assemble, also brilliantly scripted. But that was based on established, well known superheroes who had already been set up over the course of multiple movies. Guardians was not a comic many people read or knew about; the film seems to have come out of nowhere.

All credit, then, to Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios. In 2008, I interviewed Feige for The Times on the eve of the biggest gamble of his career. Instead of licensing their comics to studios who barely understood them in return for a fee, he reckoned Marvel could do better. So he bet the company’s future on a $550 million loan to fund an initial three movies. It worked. The first, Iron Man, took over half a billion dollars worldwide; Avengers Assemble, which in 2012 brought all their different superhero movies together, made over $1.5 billion.

With figures like these, it would be tempting to stick with a sure thing. But Feige rolled the dice once again, pitting the full might of Marvel behind a much quirkier, edgier, cultish sort of film. It’s paid off in spades: Guardians of the Galaxy had by far the biggest August opening in Hollywood history, taking $172 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

So c’mon, execs. Lighten up a little. Take some risks. Give us something fresh. And who knows? You might just get another franchise to milk out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already slated for summer 2017.

See also: how I “discovered” the young James Gunn

Comics Unmasked: Sunday Times plays supervillain

18 May

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On Saturday I went to the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK. It had its flaws, which I will come to, but the biggest flaw it highlights is that there has never before been such a large-scale exhibition on comics in the UK. Seriously? When the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood are powered by comic books, many of them heavily influenced by the revisionist approach of UK creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar?

Then today I read Waldemar Januszczak’s demolition job in the Sunday Times. He couldn’t believe the British Library had devoted so much space to such a “lurid and misguided” exhibition. The only thing he could find to admire in the whole thing, I kid you not, was a speech bubble at the start with a quotation from professional controversialist Julie Burchill (gawd love ‘er): “Comic books for adults is a complete contradiction in terms, as anyone who reads comics is not an adult and should have their voting rights removed ASAP.”

He picks holes in the scholarship: a) The exhibition opens with Punch who, as any fule kno, sprang from commedia dell’arte rather than comics. Does he seriously imagine co-curators Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning are unaware of this? The point is that it sets the tone for the “Art and Anarchy” sub-line, as well as referencing the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, who art-directed the exhibition. b) The catalogue,  Januszczak complains, “describes Sergeant (sic) Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as ‘the album that kicked off the ‘Swinging ’60s’, even though it came out in 1967”. That’s not too far off: the ‘60s only become known as swinging half-way through, and Sgt. Pepper’s was a defining moment. It’s certainly not worth point-scoring over.

More foolishly, Januszczak pillories the exhibition for its focus on Alan Moore, “who gets more namechecks here than Popeye had cans of spinach”, which is as ludicrous and, frankly, embarrassing a criticism as if the Sunday Times’s theatre critic had lamented that there were far too many productions of Shakespeare being staged.

Januszczak does hit on a couple of genuine problems. To pick a single spread from a comic, and mount it in a glass case, is like showing two seconds from a film: those unfamiliar with the comic will get little idea of why it is exceptional; and the brief accompanying captions are unequal to the task of explaining it. [Though that’s why iPads are also provided with complete comics loaded, albeit an unexceptional selection.]

And organising the exhibition thematically into sections such as sex, politics, society and altered states (I paraphrase their more elegant titles; see below) does work well on its own terms, but may leave comics neophytes such as Januszczak wanting a more explanatory overview.

But these are small criticisms. The curators have dug up a wealth of content, sourcing original artwork and scripts from comics creators, and delving into the British Library’s archive to uncover historical gems such as a Biblia Pauperum (poor person’s bible) from 1470 with an illustrated account of the Book of Revelations; a contemporary knock-off copy of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress with several panels on a single page, as a comic book might have; or serialised illustrated stories from the Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, which Gravett says could be seen as the first true comic. And the whole thing is beautifully put together by Dave McKean, with a strikingly simple and clever 3D opening which I won’t spoil for you.

As Neil Gaiman said to me when I interviewed him for a feature in Where London magazine about Comics Unmasked, “When I was a young man I talked them into giving me a British Library Card so I could read rare books. It came in handy when Alan Moore needed a researcher on From Hell. The idea that one day the comics we were writing would be exhibited and displayed there, the idea that they would look up and realise and acknowledge that something unique had happened, was a pipe-dream of some far-off utopia. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

 

Paul GravettCurator Paul Gravett

If you want to know more about the exhibition, I also interviewed co-curator Paul Gravett (left) for the Where London feature. Some details will have changed since we spoke, a few weeks back, but these are the highlights of each section, in his own words:

Mirth and Mayhem: “This looks at the links between slapstick comedy and dark, nasty violence. Obviously that includes British humour comics like The Beano, and more recently Preacher. But it also goes back to the 50s, when there were a lot of scare stories about comics. Ironically, one of the campaigners against them was the Communist Party, who had their own reasons for not liking ‘capitalist’ American superheroes, but a lot of edgy, counter-cultural stuff got caught up in that too.”

To See Ourselves: “This is comics as a mirror – possibly a distorted, funhouse mirror – in which British society is reflected. We explore recent developments in autobiography: Spiral Cage, by Al Davison,  about his lifelong struggle with spina bifida; Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s semi-autobiographical comic about a kid who cross-dresses; and The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, which won the 2012 Costa biography award.”

Politics, Power and The People: “This starts with how leaders are depicted. It includes Tony & Me By Georg Bush, As Told to Dr Parsons, which is drawn like a five-year-old and full of spelling errors; a very funny satire of that ‘special relationship’.  There are two very interesting comics dealing with racism: one from the Young National Front, which explains to members what to do if they get into trouble with the police; and on the other side the Anti-Nazi League, whose Action Pact comic features a white guy and a black guy who get superpowers and defeat the National Front dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits. We end with V for Vendetta and the way its Guy Fawkes mask has become such a potent symbol for the Occupy movement.”

Let’s Talk About Sex: “This covers erotica right up to Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, in which a grown-up Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Alice from Wonderland get up to all sorts of sexual discovery in a mountain resort on the eve of World War I. It also covers the two big obscenity trials of the ‘70s: of Oz magazine and Nasty Tales. The exhibition is not recommended for under-16s, and this section is slightly separate and clearly indicated so that parents can take any kids straight past to the superhero section.”

Hero With A Thousand Faces: “We could so easily have turned this into a superhero theme park, but its main focus is to look at the enormous impact of UK creators on American comics: writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Mark ‘Kick Ass’ Millar. As outsiders, they were able to challenge the conventions of the genre.”

Breakdowns: “This is quite a complex section that covers magic and drugs and altered states. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both use magic to help in the creative process. We have John Dee’s book of spells, Aleister Crowley’s Tarot cards, Moore’s Promethea comics, and the underground comics of the ‘70s. We’re also not just talking about altered states of mind, here, but the altered state of comics – going into digital, or installations. Throughout the exhibition we provide iPads on which to view comics, and here we have a whole section on Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon music group Gorillaz. You really could spend the whole day in here!”

 

 

 

 

Batman vs The Avengers

22 Dec

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Superheroes are currently locked in an epic struggle between the forces of darkness and the emissaries of light. I don’t mean good vs evil – I mean dark, depressing and dystopian, vs. primary-coloured escapist fantasy.

It was hard to imagine any superhero film topping Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, which felt like the films we’d been waiting for ever since Frank Miller’s graphic novel appeared in 1986, and the last two of which made just over a billion dollars each. Then along came Marvel Avengers Assemble, with a staggering $1.5 billion ker-ching.

The reason for this blog? On the ferry to France, Batman and Avengers were playing simultaneously in the two on-board cinemas. I’d seen both before, natch. Which to choose for a second viewing? The culmination of a lifetime’s near-obsession, begun as a toddler, continuing with interviewing Adam West (http://www.dominicwells.com/journalist/west/) and then writing the first cover feature on the Tim Burton Batman? Or else the four-colour joys of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble?

Slightly to my own surprise, Whedon won hands-down. To me, it’s an object lesson in screen-writing. It’s phenomenally hard to write a genuine ensemble piece which is generous to each character, but he pulls it off. We start with the Black Widow, tied to a chair and interrogated by sinister Russians. Then the penny drops for us, as well as the men, that she is interrogating them. The fight scene that follows, thrillingly choreographed as it is, is secondary to the message that this is a character with brains, as well as beauty and brawn. And that’s not all. Whedon piggy-backs on this scene to build up the next character: Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. That this fearlessly able woman is patently panicked at the thought of meeting him gives us a terrific feeling of anticipation before Mark Ruffalo even steps on screen.

And so it goes on, the dialogue fizzing like Aaron Sorkin in a cape.  Even Pepper Potts, in her brief time on screen, is given zingers that show she’s more than a match for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. The Hulk has two bits of laugh-out-loud visual slapstick. As for Captain America, Whedon makes even his boringness interesting: “These guys are basically Gods,” he is warned of Loki and Thor. He replies: “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

And a special prize for sneaking the insult “You whingeing c**t” into a 12A movie – which is basically how Loki’s Shakespearean insult “mewling quim” translates. At Time Out, our Marketing Director once snuck the words “f***ing hell” past the censors in a radio ad for the magazine, when Victor Lewis-Smith spoke of the “four quenelles” in a restaurant. Call me immature, but this gives me a similar kick.

What’s all the more remarkable is that this was planned so long ago. Five years ago I interviewed Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios (see full interview at http://www.dominicwells.com/journalist/marvel/). Tired of franchising his best characters to studios who kept messing them up, or perhaps worse, succeeding with them (like Spiderman) and pocketing most of the profits, he staked the company on a $550 million loan to produce the blockbusters themselves. Avengers Assemble is the final pay-off for a bunch of movies, successful in their own right, that were effectively glorified marketing campaigns for this team-up.

So you can keep your dystopia. Even Alan Moore is bored of the angst-ridden heroes he helped create, as he told me in several interviews, and returned to the old-school fun of his boyhood in his series 1963. As for Superman being Nolanised next summer – the new trailer does look great, but I’m not sure I want a gloomy, introspective Man of Steel, all tarnished and bent out of shape.

…What do you think? Comments please!