Category: Recent Reads

Comics journalism round-up: Symbolia, Susie Cagle, more

After some delays on the production end, the 53-page “Space” issue of comics journalism tablet magazine Symbolia hit inboxes at the end of February. The theme is space this time around, particularly our relationship with outer space. Journalist/illustrator Roxanne Palmer explores black holes for the lead-off feature, and cites an experiment at China’s Nanjing University that had researchers mimicking the mysterious aspects of black holes in order to explore the phenomena in a controlled environment.

Palmer gets a chance to blend in pastel-hued psychedelic nuances with the depictions of what she learned in her more straightforward reporting — portraits of her sources are built in rough, sketchy lines, with meaty quotes popping alongside diagrams and against colorful backdrops. It looks like Eduardo Risso’s pages from Spaceman, the bold 2011 Vertigo mini-series, minus writer Brian Azzarello’s made-up language. Symbolia‘s traditional interactive features — hyperlinks for more research, visual pop-ups offering sidebar-type nuggets — are always welcome and enrich the reading experience.

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The release of Symbolia‘s “Space” issue marks the end of the bimonthly publication’s first year — a double-sized preview issue debuted in March of 2013 (a bundle of back issues is available). I was sold back then on what I believe was the first I’d ever read about California’s Salton Sea, the largest lake in the state at nearly 350 square miles. Symbolia‘s Salton Sea piece establishes a thorough history of the endangered body of water within a few pages — after a cyclical flooding and drying in the basin that had taken place for about three million years, 1970s-era tropical storms flooded seaside towns, a bout of botulism crippled its marine life, and it’s now home to fossils, a rotting decomposition smell, and a once-thriving, now-still marina (see a National Geographic update that ran in February). Reporter and comics journalist Susie Cagle spoke to experts as well as regular folk for her feature, combing shoreline towns for insight and ultimately offering a data-rich, visually vibrant overview of the issues affecting this region of California.

cagle_medium_finalCagle paired affecting close-ups of her interviewees with imagery of office interiors as well as crafty infographic-styled illustrations and striking, ground-level visual storytelling reported from the dry beds of the Salton Sea. It’s a beautiful, memorable work, and I’m glad to have seen a personal essay that she posted to Medium last week on her history and struggles as a freelancer — I’m hoping that one of the reckless editors who owe her money pay out her invoices soon. Cagle is working on a number of things right now, and she keeps her Tumblr updated with links to new work.

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I’ve signed up for the Archcomix newsletter, which collects updates on Dan Archer’s comics journalism in one place. Archer is up for a One World Media Award for his work on human trafficking in Nepal, a reporting project produced by the BBC. In Nepal, experts “estimate that about 200,000 girls and women are working in Indian brothels, with up to 7,000 more arriving every year,” reports Rachel Williams for The Guardian. For his 2013 piece, Archer hones in on one trafficking survivor named Laxmi, who was initially taken by traffickers from her family’s farm and forced into sexual slavery. Her testimony is two decades old, and represents a less complicated view of Nepal’s trafficking epidemic. Human trafficking means that girls are forced into multiple kinds of labor, not just forced sex work. Archer reports that the average trafficker is a relative of the victim that promises “educational opportunities in the city.” It’s “unsurprising that women are duped” in these scenarios, writes Williams. “(T)raveling abroad to find employment opportunities is far from unusual (in Nepal) – more than 100,000 women are thought to go to India every year as non-trafficked migrant workers […].” Archer uses watercolors to evocative effect in portrayals of his discussions with sources, to convey the horrors of the kidnappings in Nepal, and occasionally, positions himself inside the panels, sketching conversations or mapping out details. Find more of his work here and check out a conversation Archer had with Idea Lab from PBS’s MediaShift.

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A few pages of the March 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine go to London-based comics journalist Olivier Kugler, who has done a great deal of visual storytelling for The Guardian and more. The focus of his Harper’s piece is a refugee camp called Domiz, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where more than 42,000 people have sought safety from the Syrian civil war (more from the New York Times). In lieu of a narrative dictated sequentially in panels, Kugler profiles three refugees in full-page illustrations that are remarkable, a mesh of colored work, specifically not-colored line drawings that overlap the colored ones. This is subscriber-only content, and I recommend hunting this issue down (also for two other stories in there that I appreciated). Spend the afternoon with Kugler’s other reporting here.

On a much lighter note, The Philadelphia Flyers have won five straight games, with the most recent drubbing having been dealt to the number one team in the NHL. Even if you could care less about organized sports, this is a mighty streak for those of us born in the suburbs of Philly. Print and online longform magazine Victory produced a wild piece of comics sportswriting about 1970s-era Flyers hockey in February that’s partly animated, all vintage Marvel-looking. It’s fantastic. Sports columnist/reporter Dave Hollander remembers the standoff between Philly’s “Broad Street Bullies” and the Soviet Red Army Hockey Team, a Russian government-owned hockey club that toured North America in 1975 and 1976. Artist Stephen Halker’s rendering of on-ice action is flashy and ripples with energy, beginning as a memoir comic of sorts that traces the game day from the perspective of Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe. Hollander’s copy is both humorous and packed with detail, while Halker’s application of color and graphic design is explosive, emphasizing each gritty piece of the era and a truly weird day in Philadelphia sports history. Check it out here.

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Duppy ’78

Warring gangs squabble for territory in Duppy ’78, a new hallucinatory whirlwind of sometimes gory, drug trade-fueled violence and Jamaican ghost-story horror from UK publisher Com.X. Writer Casey Seijas sets this Caribbean yarn in the summer of 1978, a time when the island’s state of considerable political unrest yielded a very public death of civilians at the hands of Jamaican soldiers.

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“In Jamaica, the two main political parties are irrefutably linked to the violent gangs which they armed and encouraged during the unrest in the 1970s,” wrote The Guardian‘s Mark Oliver of the Jamaica Labor Party and the People’s National Party in 2001. After having been promised jobs with the military, fourteen suspected members of local gangs in early 1978 were led to a shooting range where they’d been told to wait for transportation and a meeting about their potential employment opportunity. Instead, they were fired upon by a sniper squad and five of the men were killed. Incidents like the “Green Bay Massacre” signified the sort of violence that underscored Jamaica’s political climate on all fronts back then, with neighborhoods like those in Kingston split into factions according to support of the political figures who encouraged and empowered local gangs to hold down voting blocs. While Seijas and Canadian artist Amancay Nahuelpan don’t wade much into the region’s stormy politics, the gang element is prominent, and Duppy ’78 is grounded in Caribbean folklore and in the Rastafari movement, and is fitted with imagery and language specific to Jamaican culture. (A similar pairing of mythology and genre fiction is cast to visually striking effect in Com.X’s Babble, about which I wrote for PopMatters in 2013.) One of the comic’s more intriguing elements, however, is the part given to children in the book.

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A truce between local gang kingpins is compromised in Casey Seijas’s dizzying, turbulent graphic novel, and it sets off a chain of battles and otherworldly unrest that eventually engulfs all of Kingston’s major players — the criminals, the bosses, a local businessman named Mansfield who uses his daughter Elena’s volatile powers of communication and willpower to his advantage. Seijas gave an interview about his story to Robot 6 in January. He talked with writer Chris Arrant about the origin of “duppy,” a Jamaican word that originated likely in Africa meaning ghost or spirit. Seijas shared a story about Jamaican reggae musician Peter Tosh, in whom he found inspiration for his book (Tosh performed at the enormous “One Love Peace Concert” in 1978 with Bob Marley and others).

I had Heart of The Congos’ “Children Crying” going on our turntable during a recent Sunday morning when I was digging into Seijas’s work, and as children end up wielding so much power in this story, I haven’t been able to avoid thinking about that record while looking over the notes I made for this post. “Children Crying” was one of the first entries tracked for Heart of the Congos, which was recorded by legendary producer Lee Perry in 1976 and 1977. The engineer’s Washington Gardens studio digs were less than 20 minutes’ drive from Trench Town, where Duppy ’78 is set. Given the Peter Tosh connection that Seijas has made, I don’t think the writer would quibble with my associating this record with his story. Singer Cedric Myton deals worshipful verses over “Children”‘s jovial bass line, piano, and varied percussion, as well as the full dose of tape ribbon hiss and the rest of the intentional atmospherics (a child’s “cow sound” toy?) that characterized Perry’s experimental “dub” recordings of the era. “The entire sound is best described as aquatic,” wrote Michael Veal of the LP in his DUB: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Perry, a self-identified “Duppy Conqueror,”  has over the years discussed a power he harbors to rid the world of evil spirits, and he reportedly destroyed his recording studios in 1979 to cleanse it of evil.

“The children crying in the wilderness / Send us a prophet, to warn the nation / All the children in this creation, All the people that you see / Will be the children of the Most High”

Children are cast in a starring role in Duppy ’78 — they’re the sole conjurers of the book’s wealth of apparitions. The spirits are drawn to rich effect by Amancay Nahuelpan, whose approach is reminiscent of artist Eduardo Risso — Risso’s work on Vertigo’s long-running urban crime drama 100 Bullets definitely seems to have had an impact on Nauelpan’s action sequences (and Seijas is an ex-Vertigo editor). But the voodoo-driven horror that frames a lot of Duppy‘s panels is distinctive and psychedelic, with Nahuelpan’s scratchy red swaths outlining grotesque undead figures, the kind of thing that’s far removed from the darkened barrooms that fill the pages of 100 Bullets.

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Supernatural overtones mark Duppy ’78 early on, when a boy in a wheelchair named Judah is ushered into a barren room during an interrogation scene between local crime boss Johnny Too Bad and an underling who’s failed him. One of the panels suddenly hosts a trio of eyeless ghosts lurking behind the child. After a shotgun is discharged, we get a good, long look at the ghouls. Nahuelpan’s expository work here is chilling, comprised of a mash of things that typically defines your average everyday nightmare for someone Judah’s age. On a single page, there’s the perspective of Too Bad, of Judah, and a full shot of five duppies dancing in puddles of blood. Pig innards are strewn across the wooden floor, where the dead gang member is sprawled out amid rats, snakes, and spiders. Arachnid-fired imagery is used later, when Nahuelpan fuses the naked bodies of two stoned groupies in a rock star’s hotel suite.duppy 78 graphic novel

It’s an awfully nasty hallucination here, with Nahuelpan augmenting an already palpable air of witchery via pooling blood and a backdrop of black fluid swirls that mirror late 1960s-era West Coast psychedelic concert poster art. The swirls in his linework are apparent as soon as the sequence opens — the sky outside the hotel room is suddenly rife with motion, and sinister black spirals make their way across the wall interiors. Things don’t end well for the stringy haired rocker, and unlikely as it seems, it’s at the hands of cherubic-faced Elena, a small, seemingly gentle soul in a story that’s otherwise about big, bad people.

Duppy ’78 is available via Comixology. All images © 2014 Com.X.