Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hitler and Comics

It’s interesting to come across old comics that are so obviously products of a certain time in history. The effect produced in a modern reader is often completely divorced from their original intent.

I’ve been browsing through a book called Christmas Comic Posters (Blossom Books, 1991) by Denis Gifford.

For those of you who don’t know of Gifford, he was a writer who covered various areas of pop culture including horror, film and comics, producing many books in the process. He drew comics for a time as well, and he also produced a wonderful book called The International Book of Comics in the 1980s, which my parents bought for me years ago (for Christmas, coincidentally).

As I looked through the book I came across a fascinating front page, which I’ll reproduce here:

It seems so incongruous to modern eyes, having Hitler appear in a children’s comic, and it really illustrates the difference between how wartime and modern readers’ would react to this strip. It’s propaganda, of course, in its attempt to ridicule and belittle Hitler, poking fun at his appearance and salute. The main difference for us as modern readers is that we have much more detailed knowledge of the twisted legacy Hitler has left. He is probably the most monstrous personality of the twentieth century, if not the whole of history.

For this strip, the original context is no longer relevant and the original intention is no longer appropriate for a modern reader. Hitler can never be depicted as a figure to ridicule again: only to despise and hate. We can only try and put ourselves in the place of a wartime child to try and imagine the intended effect of the strip.

Gifford’s book briefly mentions another strip called 'Addie and Hermy the Nasty Nazis'. Here is an example that I found:

(Click picture to enlarge)

I think this strip is utterly bizarre. It’s certainly much different to how US mainstream comics handled the Nazis at this time. In titles like Captain America Comics, Hitler and the Nazis were depicted as serious threats and treated like dangerous enemies to be defeated, which they were on a regular basis through the war years. It’s a dramatic portrayal which seemed to embody a particular type of American confidence that they wanted to project, both in reality and in their comics. Characters like Captain America could always solve Nazi threats with a well aimed sock to the jaw.

In the UK, however, humour comics dominated the newsagents’ shelves, not only through the war years but for much of the last century. In our own quiet way we Brits poked fun at our enemies through the creation of surreal, distorted doppelgangers who spoke in phrases peppered with “der” and mangled English – “We must hurry to der home, mine leader”. Perhaps it was our nation’s way of dealing with the fear of what they represented. Such comics certainly helped to negate Nazi threats and psychological tactics, and reduced their perpetrators to the roles of buffoons or clowns. It’s an approach that was also adopted by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (released October 1940). The film predated America’s entry into the war (as did the creation of Captain America. Chaplin mericilessly attacks Nazism and Hitler through ridicule and parody, and he adopted the role of Adenoid Hynkel (a Hitler-like figure) to help achieve this goal.

Chaplin, UK born and bred, would no doubt have understood the appeal of these wartime UK comics, which shared his sense of absurdity, comedy and morality.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Grandville by Bryan Talbot

Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape 2009

Bryan Talbot has established a reputation for producing engaging and thought-provoking work. His first major work, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, established him as one of the founding fathers of the British graphic novel, while The Tale of One Bad Rat saw him deal with issues like child abuse and homelessness with intelligence and sensitivity. His previous graphic novel, Alice in Sunderland, has been critically acclaimed as one of the most accomplished graphic novels ever produced, with its use of multimedia techniques, historical investigation and vaudevillian excess to create a highly memorable reading experience. Grandville is Talbot’s first major piece since he produced Alice in Sunderland, and it does not disappoint.

It is beautifully designed book, with a heavy, canvas-style backing, stitched binding, and glossy, heavy-stock paper. This is a book that’s designed to last, and it rivals Chris Ware’s work in terms of quality production values.

Talbot has classified Grandville as a ‘scientific romance thriller’, a phrase which neatly captures the sense of Victorian popular fiction that has influenced this work, such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or H.G. Wells’ early SF work. The tale itself is set an alternative universe, like Arkwright, but anthropomorphic animals are the dominant species here. Another major historical change is Britain losing the Napoleonic wars, but Britain reasserted its independence 23 years ago. Despite this, it seems to remain subservient to France in many ways, and no love is lost between either nation.

The story is focused on an investigation into the death of Raymond Leigh-Otter, a British diplomat who may have been involved in clandestine operations. Detective Inspector LeBrock is in charge of this murder investigation, and he is an engaging character, a mixture of gruffness and strength who employs a practical, no-nonsense approach to his British style of policing. He is aided by Detective Ratzi, his faithful companion. The fact that they are a badger and a rat respectively only adds to the appeal of Talbot’s engaging mystery, and is evidence of Talbot’s major inspiration: his title Grandville was inspired by the pseudonym of Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard (1803-47), J G Grandville, a French artist partly famed for his illustrations of anthropomorphic animals.

The universe Talbot creates is visually stunning and intellectually engaging. LeBrock and Ratzi are sent to France, and architecture like the Channel railway bridge almost defies belief. The influence of another French artist, Albert Robida (1848-1926), is at work here, and Robida also wrote some well regarded early works of science fiction. Grandville is a gorgeous visual feast, blending sublime architecture, visceral action and engaging characterisation into a stunning whole. The opening pages alone are a master class in depicting three-dimensional action in the 2D medium of comics through the use of dramatic perspectives, angles, and blurred images.

The work gains added depth and texture through Talbot’s inclusion of wonderful tongue-in-cheek references to comics’ culture which will raise a smile for even the most jaded comics’ enthusiast – I particularly liked the references made about Angouleme and certain elements from the Tintin books. This is a promising first volume and creates high expectations for its sequels.