Over on Ink Logging, I’ve written a short review of the great looking new Silver Surfer Black series from Marvel. It’s drawn by Tradd Moore. Here’s a taste:
There’s a barely restrained surrealist/trippy component to his drawings. The Silver Surfer series seems designed bring that element out in force. There are a lot of psychedelic flourishes, unusual angles, expressionistic renderings, complex layouts, etc. Moore seems to be really having fun here. There’s a surreal fluidity to everything. Everything is flows, undulates, and bubbles like… a lava lamp. There’s not much to the story… at least so far…
The distance between the
present and utopia is measured in centuries. We locate utopian societies in the
future, and prefigure them with premonitions of apocalypse; the dysfunctional
order of the present must be swept aside by some vaguely grasped apocalyptic
event to allow a new and better world to emerge. Every generation faces their
own unique brand of the end of the world: religious rapture, nuclear
annihilation, natural disasters, clash of civilizations, Malthusian
overpopulation, and so on. Ecological collapse caused by industrial pollution
fuels the horror in Kazuo Umezu’s inventive, eleven-volume manga horror epic, The
Adults As Part of the Problem
The titular classroom is
actually Yamato Elementary School, which due to unknown circumstances finds
itself ripped out of time and flung into a devastated future. The school,
housing 863 students and teachers, becomes an ark adrift on the sea of toxic
sand that covers the remains of Tokyo and the rest of the world. The school’s
temporal realignment brings the kids and adults face to face with the deadly
consequences of Japan’s famed “economic miracle.” They become the last remnants
of civilization and, at the same time, the last hope for humanity’s survival.
It’s clear that Umezu
perceives adults as part of the problem, for he dispenses with the teachers
early on. One by one the grown-ups succumb to madness and die off quickly. They
can’t process what is happening to them—the idea that the school might be in
the future is utterly impossible—and unable to imagine the impossible they have
to die off, like dinosaurs. The children, not yet saddled with dogmas of
adulthood, are able to imagine the possibility of time travel and thus
grasp the reality of their predicament. Their capacity to imagine the
impossible becomes their salvation, but also the source of the horrors to come.
By the third volume the kids
are on their own, allowing Umezu to present a kind of post-apocalyptic Lord
of The Flies, with several hundred Piggies. Led by the idealistic sixth
grader Sho and a few of his friends, the children try to survive both the
inhospitable environment and themselves. The body count grows rapidly as they
face toxic mushrooms, vicious plagues, freak floods, mutated spider-humans,
mummies, bizarre starfish, gigantic sand worms, and starvation. This degraded
future sharpens the children’s connection to the environment in several ways;
for example, they can no longer take things like clean water for granted, and
they have to conserve what meager supplies they have (a swimming pool with
water, lunch room food, etc.).
These are just the more
obvious lessons of ecology, however—Umezu’s genius is that he broadens ecology
to include the social. To survive, the kids form the Nation of Yamato
Elementary and elect Sho as the Prime Minister. But, like its counterparts in
the present (their past), the nascent nation quickly succumbs to infighting and
breaks into rival factions. Their society devolves from an idealistic democracy
through various stages of feudalism to a band of starving nomads. For Umezu,
the Nation of Yamato Elementary becomes a stand-in for the present world and
shows the fate of civil society deprived of its ecological base.
Working in the tradition of
H.P. Lovecraft, the horror of The Drifting Classroom is purely material—it
isn’t mystical, as it tends to be in earlier Umezu works like Cat-Eyed Boy.
He dispenses with ghosts, spirits and unexplained monsters, locating the real
sources of “evil” in our ignorance of the workings of the world and the hubris
of technological progress. And buried under the desert wasteland around the
school are the remnants of human civilization; Umezu thus turns our own world
into something akin to Lovecraft’s cyclopean ruins of some ancient antediluvian
civilization (like the corpse-city of R’lyeh). Seen through the prism of the
destroyed future, the industrialized world we live in seems like an apocalypse
in slow motion. The skeletons of our cities seem bizarre and alien, the
fossilized bones of a civilization choking on its own success.
Gods and Mutants
Umezu does break with
Lovecraft in some ways. Lovecraft’s universe is completely indifferent to the
fate of humanity. His gods are cosmic entities that have crossed into our world
from unknowable dimensions. The destruction they wreak is almost accidental. In
Umezu’s universe, the fate of humans and the planet is more intertwined and
symbiotic; a poisoned planet leads to a toxic society and vice-versa. In one
revealing sequence, the children decide to create a religion, and the image of
Sho’s mother becomes a benevolent Goddess designed to give the kids hope in a
hopeless world. Meanwhile, a small group of children slowly mutating from
having ingested toxic mushrooms (!) create their own god: a one-eyed devil.
Religion is not something divine and eternal—it’s a product of the environment
and our imagination, and it offers both comfort and destruction. But neither
can be our salvation. One leads to a debased existence as mutant spider-humans,
the other only offers temporary relief. Ultimately, we have to listen to the
planet and use our imagination to avoid the kind of future The Drifting
Unfortunately, according to
Umezu, the imaginative powers of the present are tainted by our “miraculous”
industrial society. When we first meet Sho, he’s a typical kid. He covets toys,
especially a “future car”—a sleek UFO-like automobile. And he has a conflicted
relationship with adults; he tries to be nice to his mother, but ends up having
a childish argument with her about some thrown-out marbles. Enraged, Sho runs
off to school discarding an unwrapped present his mother gave him (it contains,
of course, the “future car”). For both of them, futurity is embodied by the
toy, a shining symbol of Japan’s relentless economic progress and technological
prowess. Yet later in the series, after the children are forced to evacuate the
school ahead of a toxic cloud and have been wandering through the lifeless
desert, the starving kids end up in a UFO-domed amusement park—an impressive,
automated relic from Japan’s industrial peak. At first it appears like paradise
to the famished children, but the techno-Eden isn’t as benign as it seems.
Everything is artificial—there is nothing that the kids can eat—and the park’s
helpful robots, damaged by the ravages of time, have turned into deadly
In fact, both the UFO-domed park and car had real world counterparts at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair Expo. Housed in part under a space-age dome by architect Kenzo Tange, the Expo presented Japan with an airbrushed techno-utopian vision that was becoming increasingly preposterous to the visitors. The Drifting Classroom was serialized in 1972-74. Japan at that time saw the emergence of its nascent environmental movement. Up until then, a single-minded pursuit of economic strength, characterized Japan’s post-war years. The “Japanese Miracle,” as it came to be known, saw a decades-long increase in the industrial output of the nation and a corresponding increase in the wealth of its citizens.
But the counterpoint to the economic miracle was a high level of environmental degradation. Japan’s industrial might was tainted by ecological disasters, increasing occurrences of birth defects, and a string of incurable disease outbreaks: Morinaga Milk Powder Poisoning (arsenic), Yokkaichi Asthma (sulphur dioxide), Minamata Disease (mercury), Itai-itai Disease (cadmium). All this led to a greater ecological consciousness, the emergence of the environmental movement, and eventually, the creation of the Japanese Environmental Protection Agency in 1971.
Until the disappearance of the school, both Sho and his mother are oblivious to the ultimate fate of the planet. They haven’t realized the damage their way of life was doing to the Earth. Paradoxically, when they become separated by centuries their relationship grows stronger. Through a handicapped girl, Nishi, who appears to have unexplained powers, Sho is able to communicate with his mother. Several times she is able to help her son, by strategically placing valuable objects (a knife, vaccine, etc.) in the past for Sho to excavate and use in the future.
Once the future cataclysm is made concrete by Sho’s time travel, his mother can finally take steps to try to avert that catastrophe. Her love for Sho enables her to overcome adult skepticism, bear the ridicule of others, and put her mind to work. If she can’t bring Sho back, at least she can change the present to make his future a better place.
If this makes the book sound didactic and preachy, it’s not. The themes and ideas outlined above simmer beneath a shimmering surface of a fast-paced and slickly drawn comics narrative. Since The Drifting Classroom was serialized in weekly episodes, it’s chock-full of cliffhangers and surprise twists and turns. It’s a compelling page-turner designed to move the reader efficiently through the narrative. Umezu’s detailed art skillfully builds tension in series of cinematic sequences. He uses darkness very effectively: sequences comprised entirely of panicked dark silhouettes can go on for page after suspenseful page.
Finally, when he unveils the bizarre mutant monsters of the future, they’re lovingly embellished with detailed renditions of blood, bone, and peeling skin. Also, the 863 inhabitants of Yamato Elementary give Umezu ample opportunity to rack up a high body count, and he doesn’t flinch; the students die off quickly, dispatched in new and inventive ways. He often lingers on a violent scene with sadistic glee, just to make us feel a little queasier. With a few deft pen strokes he can change an innocent child into one possessed by some unknown menace.
Stephen King of Japan
Often called the “Stephen King of Japan,” Kazuo Umezu is a giant of Japanese horror. A steady trickle of his comics has begun appearing in the US since the 2002 publication of Orochi: Blood, yet The Drifting Classroom remains his best-known work. Regardless, this is an opportune time for its appearance on American shores. It’s an artifact of a fertile period in Japan. The eco-awareness of the Japanese was mirrored by a growing sophistication of their manga.
Umezu’s sprawling epic dates from the same period that saw the rise of mature comics known as Gekiga (see the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi). Around the same time, Osamu Tezuka, the “god of manga” and creator of Astro Boy, serialized Ode to Kirihito, his first mature work. As American comic books make their steady climb into respectability and the specter of global ecological collapse appears imminent again, the horrors of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom are a useful glimpse of a strange parallel world not that different from the one we encounter today.
The Drifting Classroom Volumes 1-11 Kazuo Umezu VIZ Media ($9.99 each) by Tom Kaczynski
I’m not a professional comics reviewer, so this list is simply based on personal preferences. I’m not looking for objective metrics of quality, I’m much more interested in how a specific work makes me feel or think, or if it surprises me. There are a LOT of 2018 comics I haven’t been able to read, so this also isn’t comprehensive. This list also doesn’t contain any Uncivilized Books titles (all of which I loved, naturally, but I’m biased), for obvious reasons. This list originally appeared as part of a massive round-up on The Comics Journal. There a some spoilers below. Here are my 10 favorite comics of 2018, in no particular order:
Young Frances by
Hartley Lin (Adhouse)
Lin created a stunning graphic novel. The cartooning is flawless, with
incredible attention to detail. The story is about Frances, a young legal clerk
pulled into the orbit of the menacingly charismatic executive Castonguay. It
has some familiar beats about trying to hold on to an authentic self without getting
lost in a messy corporate world of petty power struggles. But the execution elevates
the story. Hartley’s precise drawings, his framing, sly references (Castonguay
as Daddy Warbucks), surreal touches, and great propulsive editing kept things
alive and a pleasure to read.
Passing for Human by Liana Finck (Random House)
already a fan on Liana’s Instagram feed and her New Yorker cartoons. Passing
for Human is beautifully told, via a series of re-starting narratives. One
thing that stood out is Liana’s drawing ability. Her drawing style is raw and resembles
doodles, but she is fearless and can draw anything with it. A complete world
emerges: tiny houses, animals, humans and their lost shadows. Mythical,
magical, and absorbing.
Brat by Michael DeForge
Brat contains the word art. One way to read DeForge’s Brat is to substitute Art for Brat; art performance for prank; critical cynicism for temper tantrum; artistic calling for juvenile delinquency. Brats are artists. The titular brat, Ms. D, is an juvenile delinquent/artist struggling with relevance. Once the hero of all brats, Ms. D finds herself older, and no longer a ‘juvenile’. Is she still relevant?
Ms. D embarks on a new project, that, at first glance, appears as a mysterious terrorist plot. Finally, her big performance turns the audience, an entire town, everyone, to become brats! The entire population of the city loses it’s collective mind. The results are at first predictable: graffiti, property damage, zoo animals on the loose, and at least one death (the Mayor gets eaten by a lion). But then, the loss of collective control produces a kind of utopia. In the aftermath, the town rids itself of instruments of control that turned out to be unnecessary. Banks and police? No longer necessary. Hunger? Gone. These things were just accrued, stratified historical layers of a society weighing us down. Once you release the brat, it all falls away. We don’t need these things.
What happens day after brat Armageddon? DeForge alludes to it. But things don’t seem to have changed much. Our hero remains rich, so even if some banks are gone, wealth remains. The world didn’t change all that much. Her former intern, Citrus, is now a star delinquent. Delinquency still exists. Maybe we need a bigger temper tantrum? Or the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Blammo by Noah Van Sciver
does the one-artist anthology like Noah Van Sciver. Blammo is the heir of the 80-90’s single artist anthology comics
like Eightball, Optic Nerve, or Dirty Plotte.
Every issue fills me with joy and nostalgic pangs for that time.
MS Harkness has emerged as a vital member of the Minneapolis comics scene. Her incredible work ethic has already yielded many mini-comics and her first graphic novel, Tinderella. Self-deprecating, self-abasing, fearless and fun, there are few books out the like it. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but it’s a promising foreshadowing of things to come.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)
didn’t know what to think of first when I to started read Sabrina. I was repelled by it’s quiet abandon, it’s cold artwork,
and it’s meandering repetitions. But half way through, something flipped in my
brain. I did a 180 and absolutely fell for this book. It reminded me of Tom
McCarthy’s Remainder. Both books
revolve around damaged characters trying to recapture something utterly lost
and unrecoverable. It’s an impossible task. We’re placed in an uncomfortable
voyeuristic position – watching the characters grasp at memories and fragments
as they slowly evaporate – and we can’t look away.
The Complete Julie Doucet by Julie Doucet (Drawn & Quarterly)
While working on Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucetwith Anne Elizabeth Moore, I re-immersed myself in Julie Doucet’s comics of the 80’s and 90’s. It was another reminder of the incredible versatility of the one-artist anthology format. It enabled the artist to experiment, take detours, and continue on a primary narrative at the same time, while producing regular work, on a (somewhat) regular schedule. Julie filled every page of Dirty Plotte with incredible one-page bizarre experiments, ongoing stories (My New York Diary), and small one-off masterpieces of short comics. It’s really great D&Q brought this important work back into print.
Comics read in 2018:
Anti-Gone by Connor Williamsun (Koyama)
took me a while to finally read this book. It was very much hyped after it’s
release last year. When something is hyped, I tend to tune it out. I’m glad I
finally read it. Connor’s minimalist cartooning is the perfect match for the
absurd vacuous characters literally floating around a dystopic post apocalyptic
world. It hits close to home. We are these characters. We are empty beings,
getting stoned, floating easy as the world burns. Beautifully executed. Near
perfect graphic novel.
Arsene Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics)
Olivier Schrawen has an incredible ability for the absurd. Arsene, ostensibly a Schrauwen ancestor – gets involved in an absurd folly – a Utopian city in the middle of a tropical jungle. The book comes with explicit instructions to pause reading between certain chapters: a week, two weeks. I followed the directions to the letter, and I must say it enhanced the reading enormously. By the time I’d return to read the next chapter, the previous chapter had receded in my mind, like a dream. It perfectly suited the book. Finally, when Arsene and crew reach the jungle site of the utopian city, the absurd world had wormed itself into my unconscious, providing the perfect imaginative fuel for the finale to come.
The distance between the present and utopia is measured in centuries. We locate utopian societies in the future, and prefigure them with premonitions of apocalypse; the dysfunctional order of the present must be swept aside by some vaguely grasped apocalyptic event to allow a new and better world to emerge. Every generation faces their own unique brand of the end of the world: religious rapture, nuclear annihilation, natural disasters, clash of civilizations, Malthusian overpopulation, and so on. Ecological collapse caused by industrial pollution fuels the horror in Kazuo Umezu’s inventive, eleven-volume manga horror epic, The Drifting Classroom.
The titular classroom is actually Yamato Elementary School, which due to unknown circumstances finds itself ripped out of time and flung into a devastated future. The school, housing 863 students and teachers, becomes an ark adrift on the sea of toxic sand that covers the remains of Tokyo and the rest of the world. The school’s temporal realignment brings the kids and adults face to face with the deadly consequences of Japan’s famed ‚ “economic miracle.” They become the last remnants of civilization and, at the same time, the last hope for humanity’s survival. It’s clear that Umezu perceives adults as part of the problem, for he dispenses with the teachers early on. One by one the grown-ups succumb to madness and die off quickly. They can’t process what is happening to them‚ “the idea that the school might be in the future is utterly impossible,” and unable to imagine the impossible they have to die off, like dinosaurs. The children, not yet saddled with dogmas of adulthood, are able to imagine the possibility of time travel and thus grasp the reality of their predicament. Their capacity to imagine the impossible becomes their salvation, but also the source of the horrors to come.
I probably don’t do this sort of thing enough… but here are a few recent reviews of my work I was alerted to, or have stumbled upon:
“Still, though not quite successful on a philosophical level, it’s a lovely-looking strip, with judiciously chosen images representing the various ideas and idea-spouters and Kaczynski’s precise use of thicker blacks creating a memorable Easter Island sequence.”
— on Cartoon Dialectics by Sean T. Collins
“[…]another one of his psychoeconomic fables, one where his trademark mounting sense of disconnection and dread wind their way through several symbolically engrossing episodes[…]”
— on MOME 11 by Sean T. Collins
“[…] incredibly well-written but not-very-inspiringly illustrated […]”
— on MOME 11 by Chris Estey
“Like Eightball with footnotes! (or at least, in this case, an actual bibliography.)”
— on Cartoon Dialectics
“The artist-author, like his protagonist, manages, without premeditation or planning, to discover some profound truths encoded within a corporate brand finally produced as a 21st century cave painting of blood, sweat and semiotic design at the end of a trail of excrement and allergens.”
— on MOME 11
both quotes by Chris Nakashima-Brown