Joe's Graphic Novel Roundup, by Hamilton writer and artist Joe Ollmann, is a column dedicated to reviews of graphic novels and comic books.
Showdown! Making Modern Unions
By Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana
Between the Lines, 2016
One of the perils often shared by academic writing and writing on leftist politics is a dryness that rivals the finest martini in the world. What’s good for the imbiber of cocktails is not so for the reader of these tracts. But–spoiler alert–Showdown!, part of a PhD dissertation on labour studies, is an exciting and animated read.
The book tells the story of the 1946 strike that brought about the formation of the steel worker’s union in Hamilton. It’s an incredibly important part of labour history in Canada and a formative influence on the soul of the city of Hamilton.
Kristofferson’s writing is concise and scholarly, telling the complex story in a detailed and accessible fashion. But more importantly, it’s passionate and evokes a living history. It’s immersive and compelling and one gets a sense as you read what the strike must have been like, the solidarity that brought workers from all industries together and the generosity of the people of Hamilton, who donated money, food and resources to the steel workers, helping them to win this victory for workers' rights.
The drawings by Simon Orpana (with additional art by Matt McInnes) evoke the period perfectly and add a lot of humanity and personality to the events portrayed. His loose, brushwork cartooning evokes the best of indie and underground comics styles of the 80s and 90s. Happily, the text and art complement each other and work in perfect synch.
Showdown! is a timely story considering that the corpse of Stelco has been eviscerated by globalization and sold to an international corporation that is straining to strip the last pensioners of the company of the rights fought for and gained in the historic strike detailed in this book.
By Sarah Glidden
Drawn and Quarterly, 2016
Rolling Blackouts is a book about post-invasion Iraq and pre-civil war Syria and the resultant refugee crisis from this region, but it’s less about these timely, important issues than it is a meditation on modern reporting in the digital age – also a timely, important issue. This is a timely and important book, considering the work involved in writing and drawing a graphic novel (the book took six years) and that the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis are still as prevalent and awful as ever. It’s a serious book and it’s written and drawn with a suitable gravitas, but also with humour and humanity.
The book follows cartoonist Sarah Glidden (already experienced in comics journalism: see her excellent How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less) as she shadows independent journalists Alex and Sarah on a 2010 news-gathering trip to Iraq, as well as Turkey and Syria. Also joining them is the reporters’ childhood friend, ex-marine Dan who had served in Iraq.
The reporters are freelancers and Glidden studies how they gather stories and work at them to try and find a buyer in broadcast, print or online. We see that modern news can be manipulated by these market forces of ratings and promoting what’s “hot,” and neglecting what’s “not.” They struggle to tell important stories that matter to them, while subtly tweaking the story to get it to market. We see that urgent stories never see the light of day or get enough time spent on them, or stories that are reported on, tsk-tsked over, then never followed up on when public interest fades.
Truth is an important theme in the book as all the dialogue is taken from meticulous transcriptions of recordings. There’s no way for Glidden to alter the truth of what happens on the trip, apart from what she chooses to excise or what she adds import to. The book feels very honest; Glidden’s hard on herself and the other Americans in showing their shortcomings and American culpability in the chaos of the region they’re traveling in. The fact that Glidden chooses to have two characters named Sarah, instead of fictionalizing one of their names for simplification, shows her attachment to truth.
Dan the ex-marine is a bundle of contradictions. He’s against the Iraq invasion, but enlists to go fight in it. He maintains that he’s proud of all he did in Iraq, but tries to keep the fact that he was in the invasion force from people they meet in Iraq.
There is a lot of tension between Sarah the reporter and Dan as Sarah doggedly tries to get Dan to admit he has some guilt or trauma about his part in the Iraq invasion. She sinks her teeth into this idea – it was why she brought Dan on the trip – and she never lets up on it. She’s equally persistent in questioning a deported Iraqi-American about the reason he was deported. He maintains he was innocent, more of a clerical error, but she never lets up on questioning what he must have done to get deported. It sometimes seems like journalistic skepticism taken too far and she’s trying to push the story in the direction she wants it to go.
There are interviews detailing harrowing stories from refugees and survivors of war, and Glidden doesn’t shy away from discussing hard, awkward topics. She gives a good, brief overview of the confusing history of the conflicts in the region.
Glidden’s drawing style is a pleasant clear line cartooning painted in beautiful watercolours. Her colour palette perfectly evokes the feel of the region and her attention to detail from extensive photo reference adds to the realness.
Rolling Blackouts is a dense book, covering a lot of issues and asking a lot of questions. It’s a good primer on modern reportage and a good example of another new kind of reporting: comics journalism.
Hot or Not: 20th Century Male Artists
By Jessica Campbell
Koyama Press, 2016
This book is a Trojan horse. It’s serious feminist theory and a critique of the patriarchal art world subversively hidden behind funny cartoons. And of course I’ve ruined all that by discussing it, like putting a butterfly in a blender to better admire it under a microscope.
I love this book, from the cover, which features silver lottery ticket material that you can scratch off to reveal the Picasso-esque male nudes’ junk, to the pitch-perfect ironic blurbs on the back from comics superstars Lisa Hanawalt and Jillian Tamaki: “These men should be judged on their artistic merit, not their hotness. What Ms Campbell has done here is disgraceful.”
There’s an intro and outro comic and then the meat of the book, a paragraph about each man with the big reveal on the next page, including a portrait showing if they are hot or not. Campbell’s an incredibly smart and funny writer, and the critique concepts of male gaze in art and patriarchal structures in the art world have never been funnier or more effective.
This is a great book to give as a gift to your mom, or niece, or an art student or to an old, established misogynist artist.
Drawn and Quarterly, 2016
If the last three reviews have read like political tracts, I apologize. Everything has been political to me of late. But Seth’s Dominion is pure aesthetics! This is D&Q’s gorgeous packaging of the excellent NFB film about one of Canada's and the world’s greatest cartoonists. The package itself is incredibly beautiful; the dvd is folded in a hardcover z-fold book detailing some of Seth’s obsessions spotlighted in the film.
Besides being a great cartoonist, Seth lives his entire life in a very curated fashion. He dresses in suits and fedoras, changing into a lab coat when he works in his studio. He surrounds himself with a nostalgia for a past that is more his imagined version than the actual past.
The book (and the film) details Seth’s Dominion city, fictional setting to many of his comics, which he has built a cardboard model of, comprising almost one hundred buildings. We see puppet stages he builds to perform plays for himself and his wife Tania. We get to see the barber shop he designed for Tania, who is a barber. Besides puppets and maquettes of cities, Seth does comics for The New York Times, creates covers for The New Yorker, designs parade floats and trophies for imaginary and real awards, and still publishes his Palookaville comic every year. To another artist, seeing all of this is inspiring and a bit daunting, a prompt to work harder and ignore the distractions of modern technology and social media maybe.
The book includes childhood photos, shots of Seth in his rarely seen long-haired albino wanna-be phase and is filled with shots of the artist in company with the greatest cartoonists in the world. There is also a wide sampling of his comics included. The book and film are not just of interest to comics people. Anyone will enjoy this interesting glimpse into the life of a great Canadian artist.
If you haven’t seen the film, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Epic Books are bringing Seth to Hamilton in January for a talk with the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Andrew Hunter and a screening/book signing of Seth’s Dominion.
Cartoonist Joe Ollmann has lived in Hamilton most of his life. With a career spanning 34 years, he is fairly old. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The Paris Review and Best American Comics. He is the author of seven graphic novels, one of them, Mid-life, won a Doug Wright Award for best book in 2007 but several other of his books have lost that same award since then.