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Friday, 5 June 2020

Comics in the GDR

Following on from my previous post, about the British journalist who ended up becoming a hit crime author in East Germany, but also continuing the series of articles I began earlier this year about comics around the world. 

I am indebted to the German language website ddr-comics.de for much of this information and to online translation tools for helping me understand it.


Atze was the name of a children’s adventure comic in the GDR. The small-format comic magazine was published monthly from 1955 to 1991 by Junge Welt-Verlag, under the direction the national youth organisation the FDJ (in English: ‘Free German Youth’), and was aimed at the members of the Ernst Thälmann Pioneers (an East German version of the Boy Scouts or Woodcraft Folk). It’s first editor was Klaus Hilbig.

Popular themes included the October Revolution, the communist resistance against Nazism, or partisan stories, but also stories about voyages of discovery.

However, not all of the comic strips drew upon events from labour or partisan history for inspiration. Jürgen Kieser (1921-2019), who created the title character Atze, a boy from Berlin, also created the popular comic strip about two mice named ‘Fix and Fax’ in 1958. An animated version of this comic strip with puppets was produced by DEFA in 1969. Although ‘Fix and Fax’ was discontinued in 1991, the comic strips have continued to be published in various collected editions since 1994.

The series ‘Pats Reiseabenteuer’ (in English: ‘Pat's Travel Adventures’), which ran from 1967 until 1991, was about a wandering journeyman travelling around Germany in the 19th century, often meeting famous historical personalities, and the episodes always contained a competition where readers were asked to spot the modern item hidden within the panels. It was written by Atze’s editor Wolfgang Altenburger and drawn by Harry Schlegel. The artist Günter Hain also created ‘The Bells of Novgorod’ in the 1980s.

In many primary schools in the GDR, the Working Group "Junge Brandschutzhelfer" (Young Fire Safety Helpers) was founded in the 1960s, which were known as the "Atze fire brigade" until 1990. The Atze editorial staff promoted fire safety for children and young people through regular reports on the groups’ activities. The television network of the GDR also addressed the work of the Atze fire brigades, commonly in its holiday programming.

The magazine FRÖSI (short for "Fröhlich sein und singen" or “Be Cheerful and Sing”, which does sound a bit coercive within the context of a one-party state) was aimed at kids between 6 and 14 and also featured some comic strips, among other content about interesting crafts and scientific and cultural stuff. From the 1960s it also published comic strips from places like Italy and Hungary. Jürgen Günther (1938-2015) created a comic strip for the magazine about a fat orangutan named Otto, which later became ‘Otto and Alwin’ in 1976 with the addition of a penguin who escaped from a zoo and became Otto’s friend.

The ruling Socialist Equality Party of the GDR struggled with what to do about comics throughout the countries' 40 year existence, which I suppose explains why the East German comics scene was quite small. Most of those that were published, like Atze and FRÖSI, seemed to strike a balance between popular strips featuring characters like Fix and Fax and more propagandistic offerings that promoted the SEP's socialist worldview. Both its small size and the fact that East German comics have been almost entirely ignored in the west means that for many years I remained oblivious that the GDR had any comics, hence the reason for this article.


My other articles about comics around the world:

https://thefreakydoodlesofrussmcp.blogspot.com/2020/02/historietas-y-tebeos-comics-in-mexico.html

https://thefreakydoodlesofrussmcp.blogspot.com/2020/02/bandes-dessinees-rich-world-of-french.html

https://thefreakydoodlesofrussmcp.blogspot.com/2020/01/fumetto-discovering-italian-comic.html


Tuesday, 19 May 2020

An Englishman in the East

Born in London, England in 1910, and winning a scholarship to Chigwell School as a child, during his lifetime the British journalist and novelist Alan Winnington would travel the world.
As a young man, following a chance meeting with Harry Pollitt in a pub in 1934, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and he soon became a branch secretary. His career in journalism began when he landed a job with a photo agency, and soon he was writing for socialist newspapers like the Daily Worker (as the Morning Star was known at the time) which he continued to write for from the 1940s up until the 1960s. For the first few years after WW2 he became “our man in Beijing”, when he reported on the early years of the newly independent People’s Republic of China for the Daily Worker, while also working as an advisor to the new Xinhua (New China) news agency.

Uncomfortable Truths
His location in Asia meant he was ideally placed to report on the Korean war when it broke out in June 1950, and he would anger his own government by reporting on both the Korean and later the Vietnam wars from the communist side. Along with his colleague, the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett (who was equally ostracized for his reporting by his own birth country), Winnington would expose the use of biological weapons against Koreans by the USA.
For this brave reporting both men had their passports removed for many years.

From China to Germany
By 1960 Winnington had learned to speak Chinese fluently, but had already become skeptical of Mao’s approach to building socialism at least two years earlier because of the "Great Leap Forward" and other campaigns, which he described as “stupidities.” He left China with his Sino-British wife Esther and their two children, settling in East Berlin while they attempted to negotiate the return of his British passport with the help of Lance Samson, a German Jew who also worked for the Star.
The British government were still considering a charge of treason or espionage, possibly with a death sentence, as punishment for his reporting during the Korean war, so even after the restoration of his passport he did not return permanently to his country of birth, choosing instead to remain in Berlin. Sadly, his wife wanted to return to Britain, and their marriage broke down when she decided to move with their two children back to Britain, where she married Samson with whom she had a third child. Their daughter Polly would subsequently grow up to become an author in her own right.
After making the decision to remain in the east, Winnington began a new family with a lady named Ursula Wittbrodt, who he had met in 1963 and who would become Ursula Winnington when they married in 1967. He did not receive his British passport until a year later. (Burchett had to wait until Gough Whitlam’s Labour government came to power in 1972 before his birthright was restored.)
Winnington continued to work as a correspondent for the Morning Star from his new home in the GDR, and also served at times as an Asia advisor to the East German government. During the Vietnam War he repeatedly had the opportunity to travel to the Far East where he reported from both China and Vietnam.

From Journalism to Crime Writing
Alongside his journalistic work however, Winnington was increasingly beginning to develop a career as a novelist and author of crime fiction, among them novels in German like Heart failure, Inspector Gullet and The Death Curve, The Presumed Dead Man and Angler's Alibi. He also wrote children's books, such as a fantasy novel in two volumes about a robot horse called "Silver hoof", which was set in the Himalayas. During his time in China, he had developed a considerable love and admiration for the people of Tibet, writing Tibet: Record of a Journey (1957), which these stories reflected.
He even had a very brief foray into acting, appearing in a small film role as a Chief of Intelligence Service in the 1967 East German film Die Gefrorenen Blitze (Frozen Flashes), although he seems to have enjoyed more success with writing. His crime novel Police Alibi was made into a film for East German television in 1971 (Tod in der Kurve), while Milliony Ferfaksa (Fairfax’s Millions) was turned into a feature film in 1980 by the Russian Dovzhenko Film Studios.
His autobiography Breakfast with Mao was first published in a small German print run, as he had still been writing it when he died on 26th November 1983. Described by the historian Edwin Moise in the London Review of Books as “marvellously readable” it only appeared in English in 1986 when Lawrence and Wishart published it as From London to Beijing: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent 1914 to 1960.
Nine short novels, six of which belong to the crime and detective genre, the aforementioned two children's books and four travel books about China and Asia have also been published in English at some time or another. Yet despite this diverse oeuvre it appears that Slaves of the Cool Mountains remains the only one of his books currently still in print in the English language, and he currently has no English language Wikipedia entry.
Today Ursula Winnington is mainly known in Germany as an author of cookbooks, where she has been called the “Chef Queen of the East”, with some of her books reaching a total circulation of over one million copies, including her Kleines Kochbuch für Kinder (Small Cookbook for Children) (1977). Since 1992, Klatschmohn Verlag has reissued three of her most popular books, and in 2008 she published another book Liebe, Lust und Leckereien (Love, Lust and Treats). In 1995, long after Winnington’s death in 1983 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, she opened The Gecko in Berlin, a shop for exotic furniture and gifts from all over the world, and continues to make her home in Berlin.

Revival of Interest from Korea
Alan Winnington remains almost unknown in the country of his birth, and the English speaking world more broadly. Unlike Burchett, who is mainly remembered for his Daily Express article of 1945 which exposed the reality of nuclear radiation sickness following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Winnington does not even have an English language Wikipedia entry. He is remembered, it seems, only in Germany.
With this in mind it is therefore quite noteworthy that recently the media organisation Ahim and South Korean journalist Im Hyoin have been bringing Winnington’s revelations about US atrocities in Korea to light once more, if only in South Korea, among them Winnington’s work exposing the notoriously under-reported Sincheon massacre. This atrocity even inspired a painting by Picasso which sits in the Picasso Museum in Paris. It is a painting as stark and brutal as his earlier painting Guernica inspired by fascist atrocities in the Spanish Civil War but which still remains far less well known. 

This should give us pause to reflect upon how, thirty years after the Cold War ended, its logic continues to distort our own historical memory.

Notes:


Friday, 1 May 2020

The Longford River at Feltham


The Longford River flows through south west London. Its path is not entirely natural, having been canalised at various stages and engineered to flow downhill in order to feed the majestic Diana Fountain in Bushy Park. It flows through various landscapes on its journey, including skirting the southern edge of Heathrow Airport and making its way through Feltham and Hampton.

So many local artists use Bushy Park as a source of inspiration for their landscape art that I wanted to focus some attention on the more overlooked landscapes through which the river passes, like this stretch of the river as it flows from Bedfont towards Feltham town centre, hinted at by the buildings on the horizon.

If you like it there are a variety of forms for you to own it available through my Red Bubble page.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Cómo llegué a la edad adulta sin ver nunca una película vietnamita (versión en español)

Cuando la serie documental The Vietnam War de Ken Burns y Lynn Novick fue transmitida por PBS en los Estados Unidos en el otoño de 2017 (fue lanzada en DVD en el Reino Unido) se encontró con críticas mixtas. Oliver North escribió para Fox News, denunciando la descripción de "los heroicos" GI estadounidenses como un grupo de fumadores de marihuana, y también quejándose de la exclusión de entrevistas con figuras como Henry Kissinger. De hecho, los cineastas parecen haber tomado una decisión deliberada de evitar entrevistar a nombres grandes y potencialmente divisivos, optando en cambio por un enfoque centrista en el que las historias de la gente común tienen prioridad.
Muchos de la izquierda también han criticado el continuo fracaso de los cineastas estadounidenses para pensar más allá de los parámetros establecidos, como la persistente suposición de que se trataba de una noble intervención perseguida con buenas intenciones que Estados Unidos podría haber ganado si hubieran estado más decididos, o si la prensa hubiera sido más servicial tal vez. periodistas independientes, veteranos de Vietnam y activistas por la paz como John Pilger, S. Brian Willson y otros están más interesados en desafiar a cineastas como Burns y Novick para enfrentar la dura pero posiblemente necesaria realidad de que una razón clave por la que Estados Unidos perdió la guerra de Vietnam fue porque tenían tanto derecho a estar allí como la Unión Soviética de estar en Hungría o Checoslovaquia.
El lanzamiento de este nuevo documental y las diversas críticas que lo rodean me hicieron pensar en cuánto mis propias percepciones de ese conflicto han sido moldeadas casi en su totalidad por las películas y programas de televisión estadounidenses. A pesar de que crecí en un país, Inglaterra, que tenía la mentalidad cautelosa bajo el Primer Ministro Harold Wilson de negarse a comprometer tropas a la guerra (aunque Wilson también se negó a unirse a los Primeros Ministros de Suecia y, finalmente, a Australia al criticar abiertamente a los Estados Unidos. agresión), mi percepción de Vietnam y el pueblo vietnamita fue durante muchos años moldeada por una lente de fabricación occidental.
Esta percepción contribuye a una percepción con demasiada frecuencia unidimensional y a veces insultante de los vietnamitas como actores de apoyo en una historia estadounidense, como enemigos en su propia tierra, que persiste en grandes sectores de la sociedad occidental.
Mientras Burns y Novick han hecho un servicio al registro histórico al buscar las historias de personas del norte y del sur de Vietnam para sus series, todavía se verán en el contexto de una serie documental producida y financiada por Estados Unidos, finalmente hecha para un público estadounidense. También existe la preocupación de que esto pueda alimentar nuevos fracasos de la comprensión intercultural y una falta de voluntad para enfrentar las duras verdades que podrían impedir esa agresión imperial en el futuro.
Este es un fenómeno que no es exclusivo de los Estados, pero que impregna gran parte de la cultura occidental, incluido mi propio país. En realidad, es transmitido notablemente bien por el personaje central en la novela debut del autor británico Alex Garland The Beach (1996). Si esto fue intencional o no, no tengo idea. Si ha leído el libro, recordará que relata la narración en primera persona de un joven viajero de Londres llamado Richard que se siente atraído por el sudeste asiático en un año sabático, más por el clima cálido y las drogas baratas que por cualquier deseo significativo de entender y conectarse con la gente (en este caso los de Tailandia) y su cultura.
El autoengaño de la narración en primera persona de Richard se ilustra con sorprendente claridad por su deseo de establecer una clara distinción entre lo que él describe como "viajeros" y "turistas", con Richard clasificándose a sí mismo como un viajero. Esta es una distinción lamentablemente no confirmada por su propio comportamiento. A pesar de que la historia se desarrolla en Bangkok y el golfo de Tailandia, somos testigos de que Richard tropieza con fantasías derivadas de un joven que pasó viendo programas de televisión estadounidenses como The A Team y películas como la épica Apocalypse Now de Francis Ford Coppola (1979).
La tragedia subsiguiente se erige como una advertencia dramática de lo que puede suceder cuando los occidentales ricos ven una región económicamente subdesarrollada simplemente como un patio de recreo para sus propias fantasías en forma de Hollywood. Apocalypse Now, por supuesto, simplemente usó Vietnam como un telón de fondo contemporáneo conveniente para un recuento de la novela de la Segunda Guerra Mundial Heart of Darkness de Joseph Conrad, que tiene lugar en el Congo, de la misma manera que el protagonista de Garland y sus amigos usan las islas del Golfo como telón de fondo para sus propias aventuras hedonistas.

El viaje que los cineastas y documentales estadounidenses han tomado durante el último medio siglo parece haber sido un proceso de llegar lentamente a aceptar la humanidad del pueblo vietnamita y la legitimidad de su lucha por la independencia nacional. Sí, fueron y siguen siendo oficialmente un estado de partido marxista-leninista, pero solo porque la revolución de 1917 en Rusia parecía ofrecer un modelo viable y un aliado dispuesto en ese momento para los países económicamente subdesarrollados que buscaban industrializarse en un espacio de tiempo muy corto.
No olvidemos que Ho Chi Minh y sus colegas basaron la declaración de independencia vietnamita de 1945 en la propia declaración de independencia de los Estados Unidos. ¿Quién puede decir cómo podrían haberse desarrollado las cosas si Estados Unidos no hubiera tomado la trágica decisión de suplantar los intereses coloniales franceses en lugar de apoyar la independencia nacional vietnamita, o viera su política exterior deformada y subvertida por la lógica de la política real de la Guerra Fría? Pero estoy divagando...
Esta perspectiva es algo que debe ser bienvenida, incluso si una comprensión más profunda del papel de sus países en el mundo a menudo permanece excluida de gran parte del discurso estadounidense convencional.
En 1968, por ejemplo, el año de la masacre de My Lai, Hollywood todavía estaba produciendo propaganda bastante tradicional como la película de John Wayne The Green Berets. En la década de 1970, cuando quedó claro que Estados Unidos había perdido la guerra, los cineastas estadounidenses recurrieron a hacer dramas cargados, estudios de personajes de las torturadas psiques de veteranos individuales como Taxi Driver de Martin Scorsese (1976) y The Deer Hunter de Michael Cimono (1978), ambas películas que ayudaron a lanzar la carrera como actor de Robert de Niro.
Este tema fue desarrollado y refinado durante la década de 1980 con cada vez más referencia a la experiencia vivida de personas reales (blancas, occidentales) de ese período. Desde el disc jockey de las fuerzas estadounidenses interpretado por Robin Williams en Good Morning Vietnam (1988), y su lento despertar de que la historia que había vendido su gobierno era realmente una mentira, hasta Ron Kovic, cuyo viaje del joven patriota idealista al abierto activista por la paz es representado por Tom Cruise en Nacido el cuatro de julio (1989) de Oliver Stone.
Mientras que Estados Unidos exportó su producción cultural al resto del mundo, e incluso cuando el gobierno vietnamita de finales de la década de 1980 implementó políticas de "renovación" económicas favorables al mercado que eliminaron muchas de sus principales políticas socialistas, la mayoría de la gente en el oeste permaneció efectivamente ciega a las voces y perspectivas vietnamitas.
Ocasionalmente se puede encontrar una representación en estas películas estadounidenses de los vietnamitas como personajes más de una dimensión en una historia estadounidense, pero no se reconoce el hecho de que, a pesar de su subdesarrollo, Vietnam logró invertir en su propia industria cinematográfica de cosecha propia, donde los personajes vietnamitas toman el protagonismo en sus propias historias. El Vietnam Film Studio se estableció en Hanoi poco después de la partición en la década de 1950. El gobierno de Vietnam del Sur, respaldado por Estados Unidos, también tenía su propia industria cinematográfica con sede en Saigón, y permanecieron entidades separadas hasta la reunificación en la década de 1970.
Sin embargo, hoy en día cualquier persona en esta era de globalización que busque en Internet películas vietnamitas clásicas encontrará muy poco disponible en DVD o en servicios de transmisión de video para espectadores de habla inglesa, en contraste con la diversidad de películas de Japón, Corea del Sur e incluso China que están ampliamente disponibles para el público de habla inglesa.
Aquellos genuinamente interesados en encontrar perspectivas vietnamitas sobre "la guerra estadounidense" (como se la conoce en Vietnam) deben confiar en festivales de cine especializados ocasionales o recurrir a publicaciones aleatorias en sitios web para compartir videos donde, si tienen suerte, pueden encontrar una versión con subtítulos.
Por lo tanto, este artículo está diseñado deliberadamente para llenar el vacío que existe en la mente de muchos occidentales con respecto a la cultura vietnamita, y en particular el cine vietnamita.

Quizás la mejor película vietnamita para hablantes de inglés para empezar es el documental de 1998 de Tran Van Thuy Tieng vi cam o My Lai (El sonido del violín en My Lai), que dura solo media hora. Es particularmente bueno para cualquier persona que disfrutó de Nacido el 4 de julio, ya que se centra en otros veteranos estadounidenses convertidos en activistas por la paz, en este caso Hugh Thompson y Larry Colborn, que presenciaron la masacre por sus compañeros soldados y valientemente intervinieron para detenerlo. El equipo de filmación vietnamita graba el regreso de Thompson y Colborn a la aldea tres décadas más tarde para encontrarse con los sobrevivientes, y el resultado es una película sincera, conmovedora y finalmente esperanzadora sobre la importancia de la memoria y el anhelo humano de paz y reconciliación.
En contraste, el largometraje de Dinh Hac Bui Ha Noi 12 ngay dem (Hanoi 12 días y noches) (2002) es una película de guerra bastante típica, pero sigue siendo interesante de ver para apreciar mejor la perspectiva vietnamita. La película trata sobre el bombardeo de Hanoi por bombarderos estadounidenses B-52 que tuvo lugar durante 12 días y noches en el período previo a la Navidad de 1972, antes de que las conversaciones de paz comenzaran en París. Estos ataques provocaron la condena no solo de aliados naturales como China y la Unión Soviética, sino también de los gobiernos de las naciones occidentales, algunos aliados de los Estados Unidos. como el gobierno de Gough Whitlam en Australia (cuyo pueblo ya había sufrido mucho por su apoyo a los estadounidenses), otros firmemente no alineados como el de Olof Palme en Suecia.


Quizás una de las experiencias más gratificantes de ver esta película como occidental no sea simplemente la novedad de ver una película de guerra de Vietnam hecha desde el punto de vista de los vietnamitas del norte, sino la oportunidad de ver a actores de descenso europeo interpretando pequeños papeles secundarios en una historia vietnamita, a diferencia de lo contrario al que Otro contraste es el enfoque más central en la experiencia de los personajes femeninos que uno ve en una serie de películas vietnamitas sobre la guerra (Mua gio chu'o'ng, o Temporada del torbellino en inglés (1978), Canh dong hoang, o El campo abandonado (1979) y Bao gio cho den thang mu'o'i o Cuando llega el décimo mes (1984) siendo bastante buenos ejemplos),
En las películas vietnamitas se ve a las mujeres no solo como esposas y madres, sino también como participantes importantes en el esfuerzo de guerra, mientras que en las películas estadounidenses (la película Full Metal Jacket de Stanley Kubrick de 1987 es un ejemplo notorio) las mujeres vietnamitas son más propensas a ser representadas como prostitutas.
Una crítica de Hanoi 12 Días y Noches desde un ángulo puramente artístico es que parte de la actuación es un poco nervioso. Esto se compensa con un final mucho más triunfal de lo que estamos acostumbrados a ver en la mayoría de las películas estadounidenses sobre esta guerra en particular, un recordatorio de que para el pueblo vietnamita la guerra terminó con una victoria triunfal contra otro invasor extranjero y la reunificación de su país.
Una película mucho más temprana y artísticamente más impresionante, con un final más ambiguo, es el conmovedor drama de Hai Ninh Em be Ha Noi (Girl from Hanoi) (1974), que se desarrolla (y de hecho fue producida) durante las secuelas inmediatas de la misma campaña de bombardeo estadounidense de diciembre de 1972. La película utilizó verdaderas bombas como lugares para contar la historia de una joven, Ngoc Ha, que está buscando desesperadamente a su familia, violín en la mano, que han estado desaparecidos después del bombardeo de su ciudad. Para mí, las similitudes con el bombardeo alemán de la Luftwaffe de Londres son palpables.
Tras la reunificación, los vietnamitas fueron sometidos a sanciones económicas castigadoras, y estos años claramente difíciles se reflejan en los valores de producción de sus películas, la mayoría de las cuales todavía se estaban realizando en blanco y negro hasta bien entrada la década de 1980. Sin embargo, a pesar de estos contratiempos, el director utiliza una cinematografía impresionante para contar la desgarradora historia de una joven que lucha por continuar la vida normal en una tierra devastada por la guerra, incapaz de decirle a su padre e hijo pequeño que su esposo ha sido asesinado.
Si bien sigue siendo difícil encontrar ejemplos en el oeste de los vietnamitas que enmarquen sus propias perspectivas sobre la guerra, excepto en el contexto de las entrevistas de los documentales occidentales, en los últimos años se ha realizado un esfuerzo concertado para llevar más películas vietnamitas contemporáneas a las pantallas del mundo de habla inglesa.
Por ejemplo, cada dos años la Asociación Vietnamita-Americana de Artes y Letras organiza un Festival de Cine Vietnamita, que en 2016 fue organizado por el complejo Village Cinema Sunshine en Melbourne, Australia, donde proyectó trabajos recientes de cineastas vietnamitas de varios países de todo el mundo. Se incluyeron la comedia Taxi, Em Ten Gi, (Taxi Driver, ¿Cuál es tu nombre?), la película de acción Lat Mat (Face Off), Trot Yeu (Love) y Cau Vong Khong Sac de Tuyen Quang Nguyen (Rainbow Without Colours). En ese mismo año, en el 60º Festival BFI de Londres, Inglaterra proyectó nueve películas, incluida la galardonada Tôi thay hoa vàng trên co xanh (2015), la historia de Victor Vu sobre dos hermanos jóvenes ambientada en la década de 1980. Todas estas películas, y hay muchas más, demuestran hasta dónde ha llegado la industria cinematográfica vietnamita de los viejos, en blanco y negro.
Muchas de estas películas que solo están disponibles para la gente en el oeste a través de sitios web de intercambio de videos en las redes sociales reciben miles de visitas. Si tienes la suerte de vivir en un área con una gran población de expatriados vietnamitas, puedes encontrar una biblioteca local bien equipada con programas de cine y televisión vietnamitas en DVD, como lo hice una vez mientras visitaba el suburbio de Flemington en Melbourne no hace mucho tiempo.

Espero que podamos esperar un momento en que mucho más de estas películas clásicas, junto con la tarifa más contemporánea, puede ser remasterizado para la televisión occidental y el mercado de streaming de Internet, o para comprar en DVD, para que podamos entender mejor entre sí. Cuando esto sucede, un mundo de verdadera comprensión y paz, en lugar de una mera cesación de las hostilidades, puede ser posible.

Puede leer la versión original en inglés aquí: https://thefreakydoodlesofrussmcp.blogspot.com/2018/11/how-i-reached-adulthood-without-ever.html

Saturday, 28 March 2020

A little bit of Arabia in the heart of Paris

Pictures taken at the Grand Mosque in Paris, France last September 2019.


I haven't been to Morocco since 1994, but for a brief moment in time it almost feels like I have left the streets of southern Paris behind and I am deep in the Casbah of Tangier.


According to Mrs McPherson, during WW2 this majestic building was used as a makeshift school for Jewish children, whose families were being sheltered from the Vichy government of Nazi collaborators by Algerian partisans involved in the French Resistance.


As a counter-balance to the intense history associated with the Grand Mosque is the cafe which occupies one corner of the site, where beautiful mint tea again transports me back to a Tangier of the mind.


I simply cannot do justice, at present, to the beautiful intricacy of Islamic design, so I am letting the photographs speak for themselves.



Friday, 27 March 2020

Drawing with Russ Ep.2 - Light and Shade


The second part of our new series of web tutorials teaching the raw basics of drawing that pretty much anyone should be able to master.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Drawing with Russ Ep.1 - "I Can't Draw!"


My first YouTube tutorial, aimed at complete beginners, in which we explore how much you can convey with a stick man.

The Music and Movies of Independent Algeria

This article, like my other articles about the music or films of Venezuela or comic art around the world, is intended as an introduction, a brief overview, of the popular culture of a country that is all too frequently ignored in European countries like my own.

I begin by looking at Rai music.
“Rai” is a form of Algerian folk music which originated in 1920s Oran (in French colonial Algeria, Oran was sometimes known as “little Paris”). At that time the city in the west of the country was a cultural melting pot full of nightclubs, with a large Jewish, Spanish and (of course) French population living alongside the native Arab and Berber population.
Rai music is traditionally sung by the cheb, or shabab (“young”), and the style developed in the poorer, working class neighbourhoods of the city, out of traditional Berber folk styles.
Derb, the Jewish quarter, produced musicians like Reinette l'Oranaise (1918-1998) and Saoud l'Oranais (1886-1943), the latter being not just a band leader but also owner of the original Cafe Oran venue.
A popular female rai singer from the 1940s onwards was Cheikha Rimitti (1923-2006).

Sidi el Houari, the old quarter (like a Casbah) of Oran, sits out in the west of town beside the docks, in an area that used to be made up largely of Spanish fishermen, a population which vastly expanded after 1939 and the fascist victory in Spain. It remains a poor neighbourhood with few transport links even today.
Rachid Baba Ahmed (1946-1995), who often sang in a duo with his brother Fethi, and ran his own record store, was tragically assassinated by Salafi Islamists during the civil war that disrupted the country during the 1990s.

A younger rai musician, Cheb Hasni (1968-1994), whose song 'El Berraka' concerns an evening of drunken sex, like so much rai music a reflection of the lives and social conditions of the people, was killed by the same ultra conservative forces.

An Algerian singer with a far more mainstream pop sound was Freh Khodja, whose songs in the 1970s and 80s often dabbled in funk, disco and even reggae!

The most famous Algerian film in Europe and beyond is probably Z (1968), an Algerian-French joint production which was directed by the left-wing Greek director Costa-Gavras. The Battle of Algiers (1966), an Algerian-Italian documentary about the independence war, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, is also very well known.
I understand that the US military even organised screenings of this latter film for Pentagon officials prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, although it is hard to understand how a film about an indigenous guerrilla war bears any relation to a foreign-backed regime change invasion...



There are a few examples of films made exclusively in the Arab world around this time which still make good viewing today. 
Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's 1958 historical drama Jamila, the Algerian was produced in Nasser's Egypt, clearly out of solidarity with the cause of Pan-Arab national liberation, as the independence war against French colonialism in Algeria was still ongoing at the time this film appeared. 
Chahine's film, with its fast-paced dialogue, focuses on Djamila Bouhired, one of the most important female revolutionaries to emerge during the Algerian independence struggle. Born in 1935, she continues to make her home in Algiers, where she remains politically engaged in a number of different causes including the women's movement, which has sadly seen rather less success in Algeria than the cause of national independence did.
In the post-independence context, Chahine also directed the first Egyptian-Algerian co-production. Le Moineau (The Sparrow in English, or Al-Asfour in its native Arabic) is a political drama set during the Six Day War of 1967. It did not receive a UK release until 2007!


Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won an award for Best First Work at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival for his war drama Le Vent des Aures (The Winds of Aures), and would follow it with the war comedy Hassan Terro (1968) and the epic Palme d'Or award-winning historical film Chronique des Annees de Braise (Chronicle of the Years of Fire) (1975).

I could go further, outlining the contemporary cultural scene in 21st century Algeria, in particular how the country was affected by endemic corruption and an uprising of ultra-conservative Salafi forces during the 90s, but I will save this for another article, in which I will also talk more about Algerian literature.

A recent book by the French historian Alain Ruscio (b.1947), a contributor to France's longest-running left-wing daily newspaper l'Humanite, may also add some useful context for those wanting to understand more of the country. Les communistes et l'Algerie. Des origines a la guerre d'Independance, 1920-1962 (published by La Decouverte in 2019), examines the role of leftist movements in Algeria in the decades preceding independence.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Anti-war Art

The creation of art that attempts to convey the sterile horror of war has a long history indeed.

Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was a Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century and, for a time, an official war artist for the Russian army. His paintings often reflect his own direct experiences. 
He is often categorised as an anti-war artist because of the devastated landscapes he painted drew closely upon his own direct experiences, and were depicted in his distinctive crisp, unflinching classical realism. These paintings are like a "morning after" image, displaying the sterile destruction of life and civilisation that remains once the heat of battle has died down.


Vereshchagin dedicated 'The Apotheosis of War,' to "all great conquerors, past, present, and to come." It can be found today in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which houses a great deal of his works. 'The Ruins of the Theatre in Chuguchak' (below) can be found in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.
What makes paintings like these so powerful and disturbing to me is how often images like these have been repeated and recreated in the real world in the century and a half that has elapsed since their creation.



The lifelessness of Vereshchagin's landscapes are echoed by those of the British war artist of WW1 John Nash. The hideous mound of skulls in 'The Apotheosis of War' has been seen in the twentieth century too many times to count, perhaps most infamously and presciently in Cambodia of the 1970s.
In the last century we have seen the power of photography replace painting to convey the reality of war to the public. Think of those photographs of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who defied a ban on western reporters visiting the cities following the US atomic bombing, described as "a warning from history".
In the twenty-first century independent journalists like the British photojournalist Guy Smallman have produced similarly stark images on landscapes in Afghanistan. 
Others increasingly rely more on video, which can be easily distributed via social media to anyone with an Internet connection. For example, this footage shot by the British independent journalist Vanessa Beeley of Daraa al Balad in Syria I feel captures the same spirit of Vereshchagin's unblinking vision, which bears witness to our own inhumanity.


Today some of the best anti-war reportage is that which is created by the perpetrators themselves, and it is merely left to conscientious individuals to alert the general public to its existence, as US Army Private Manning did back in 2010.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Historietas y Tebeos - Comics in Mexico

Since the Spanish-speaking world covers everything from Spain itself to the whole of South and Central America that isn't Brazil or French Guyana, I am going to focus on the comics of one country for starters: Mexico.

When looking for the roots of Mexican satirical cartoons one place to begin may someone like the nineteenth century political lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada's influence was of course not just confined to cartoonists but also extended to the wider culture, perhaps most notably to the muralists that emerged after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. 

Figures like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Fernando Leal, not mention the iconic surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, often referenced some of the same cultural iconography that Posada had popularised years earlier, and they certainly shared similar politics. 

One of Posada's iconic characters

A later artist to draw upon the political radicalism of Posada and the muralists was the cartoonist Eduardo del Rio (better known by his pen name Rius) (1934-2017). "Rius" created satirical comic strips in the 1960s like 'Los Agachados' as well as many books that reflected his left-wing sympathies and critique of the Catholic church, of which he was a member for many years. His 1981 book El manual del perfecto ateo (The Handbook for the Perfect Atheist) even got him excommunicated, while his history of the Catholic Church probably didn't help things either. Its called Pope Puree (which I understand is a kind of play on words of the Spanish term for "mashed potatoes"). 
Rius also carries the curious distinction of being the first author outside of the Soviet bloc to be published by Izvestia.

"Drugs: The U.S.A's Big Business"
(a cover for Los Agochados de Rius)

One of his most widely read books is Marx para principiantes (Marx for Beginners) which helped launch the whole "for beginners" genre.
Rius remained active for most of his life, helping launch the magazine El Chamuco in 1996 with other creators like El Fisgon, although sadly this version of the magazine folded in 2000 before its eventual re-launch in 2007. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Bandes-dessinees: the Rich World of French Comics

I have always been aware of the respect that the French hold for the arts. More to the point, since learning, in the mid-1990s, that the two most famous names of 1960s U.S. underground comix - Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton - had both chosen independently to emigrate to France, I have also been conscious that this high regard also extends to that form of graphic storytelling and social commentary so frequently dismissed in the English speaking world as "comics" or "cartoons" (I imagine this is because no one has yet coined a more succinct term, meaning the endless confusion with fields like animation and stand-up comedy persist).
Growing up in the UK I found that only a thin slice of French talent was ever translated and published in English. I had heard of the work of the science fiction illustrator Moebius (pen name of the late Jean Girard), for instance, or the humorous slice-of-life cartoons of Claire Bretecher, and of course books like Asterix and Iznogoud figured prominently in my reading habits from a young age (certainly as much as MAD magazine), but that was about it. 
As i grew up and found myself wanting to seek out newer or more different work I soon found that unless you read Heavy Metal magazine avidly (this being the US version of France's sci-fi/fantasy magazine Metal Hurlant, nothing to do with the music genre), there were very few opportunities to find work by French artists short of actually learning some French and going there.
One of the interesting things you find when you do go there is how mainstream the French love of comics and satirical magazines is. It extends well beyond the walls of comic shops, as here you will find that they grace the shelves of most newsagents in the country. It reminds me of that brief renaissance in the late 80s-early 90s when British newsagents's shelves were filled with VIZ imitators.



The reality for UK mass market comics aimed at a more mature audience has consisted for many years now primarily of VIZ and Private Eye (both of which are really humorous or satirical magazines that also happen to publish a lot of comic strips or gag cartoons). This figure at least doubles as soon as you cross the Channel. For every VIZ you have a Fluide Glacial and (periodically) l'Echo des Savanes. For every Private Eye you have papers printed on equally cheap looking newsprint with names like Le Canard enchaine, Sine Mensuel or Charlie Hebdo.
It also impressed me that within just one French comic magazine you find a much wider diversity of drawing styles than I am used to seeing in either VIZ or more kid friendly fare from DC/Thompson. (This is one area in which the long-running science fiction mag 2000ad bucks the trend at least.) 
Perhaps it is just because I grew up with MAD and US underground comics more than Marvel and DC that I feel more invigorated by publishers that do not cultivate a "house style"? 
In just one edition of Fluide Glacial, for instance, I have seen artists as diverse as those with the loose cartoon-style of Fabrice Erre or Edika, to those with the detailed realism of Dominique Bertail.
And that's just on the news-stands. There is of course an equally dedicated array of specialist comic shops catering for people that enjoy longer, graphic novels. Rue Dante, in the area known as the Latin Quarter (on the south side of the River Seine), has long maintained a collection of different comics and speciality stores. Over the years, we have even seen this unique market developed and catered to by a science fiction-themes creperie.  
Almost makes me wish I could speak French more fluently!

Friday, 31 January 2020

Fumetto! - Discovering Italian Comics



When I first became aware of Italian comics and graphic novels (known as “fumetto”, for “picture-stories”, in Italian), I found that most of what has been translated for English-speaking audiences are books by the greats of Italian erotica: Guido Crepax’s adaptations of erotic classics like The Story of O and Justine, Milo Manara’s amusing and often thoughtful flights of fantasy and Paulo Serpieri’s buxom heroine Druuna. Hmm, I wonder what that says about the interests of English speakers?
When you start looking, you find that Italy has produced quite a number of notable comics in both the adventure and humour/satire genres, although sadly not many of them translated into English. For example, in 1968 the writer and artist Franco Bonvicini (better known as Bonvi) created the popular anti-war comic book Sturmtruppen, which is set in WW2 but (like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H) never had to refer directly to the conflict by name because it is obvious to the reader from the numerous German/Nazi caricatures.


There is also Benito Jacovitti’s hot-tempered, chamomile tea sipping gunslinger Cocco Bill, whose adventures in the Far West are accompanied by his cigarette-smoking, tequila-drinking horse Trottalemme (literally, “trot slowly”). Jacovitti’s style was reminiscent of Asterix co-creator Uderzo, or maybe the English underground cartoonist Hunt Emerson, although he pre-dated these artists by some years.

Then there is the satirical spy comic Alan Ford, first created by Luciano Secchi (writing as Max Bunker) and Roberto Raviola (drawing as Magnus) in 1969, which was laced with surrealistic black humour and sardonic references to contemporary Italian and wider western society. The book tells the story of a collection of spies called “il gruppo TNT” (literally, “the TNT group”) who operate undercover out of a flower shop in New York, and are perpetually broke. The characters are all incredibly smart but also incredibly lazy, and their struggle against people like the criminal Superciuk (“superhick”), who robs from the poor to give to the rich, I understand sometimes results in them defeating him purely by accident.
The books became very popular in Italy, but although editions appeared in French, Danish and Portuguese (primarily for Brazil), it never really caught on in the same way in those countries. It also never appears to have been published in English, despite the fact that Magnus modelled the main characters' appearance on the English actor Peter O'Toole. 


We can only wonder if the way the books were translated had something to do with it, as the only country outside Italy where Alan Ford caught on in a big way was across the Adriatic in neighbouring Yugoslavia, which at that time stood between the capitalist west and communist east with its unique commitment to market socialism and the Non-Aligned Movement it helped create.
When Alan Ford was picked up by the Yugoslavian daily newspaper Vjesnik (“Bulletin”) in 1972, its success appears to have been partly down to its translator Nenad Brixy, who inserted lots of uniquely Croatian references into the strip. The comics’ Italian writer certainly credited Brixy’s work as playing a large part in the books success in the Balkans, and it is clearly a testament to their combined skill that the Ford books remain a cult icon in a number of Yugoslavia’s successor states, primarily Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
The latter even hosted an exhibition “Alan Ford in BiH: yesterday and today” in 2014 as part of its Month of Italian Culture. For its curator Professor Daniele Onori of the Italian Embassy “in the characters and their behaviour, Yugoslav readers found something which spoke directly to them.” Perhaps it was because unlike Batman or James Bond the characters all lived in poverty on the floor of their flower shop, or because Yugoslavs saw in the leader of the TNT group, a man named Number 1, an unintentional caricature of Tito...who knows?
Although Alan Ford and the TNT group have proved most popular in the Serbo-Croatian speaking parts of the Balkans, the villain Superciuk is notable for having inspired the name of a Macedonian punk rock band, and despite the paper Vjesnik having come to an end a few years ago Alan Ford continues to appear in print thanks to the Croatian publisher Agarthi Comics.

On a side note, the paper Vjesnik actually had quite an interesting history. In the west the so-called “underground” press merely referred to newspapers and comics that were published and distributed quite openly, but generally marginalised to outlets like head shops frequented by mainly young people with left-liberal political leanings. They were sometimes targeted for obscenity, like Oz magazine in the UK was in 1971, but were generally allowed to publish unhindered.
Vjesnik however was started during WW2, when Croatia was under literal Nazi occupation/annexation, as a paper of the leftist Yugoslav Partisans (the anti-fascist resistance), only becoming a national newspaper-of-record after the Nazi defeat in 1945. Within this context, printing and distribution must have been quite a challenge.
It seems a shame to me that after the break-up of Yugoslavia the paper came under the control of the Croatian Democratic Union, which was at the time the country’s ruling conservative party, who even changed its name for a while to Novi Vjesnik (literally “New Bulletin”, which to an English speaker reminds me of the same kind of right-wing revisionism that led to New Labour). These moves only led to a terminal decline in readership and the papers eventual closure in 2012.
Fortunately, like most good comic strips, Alan Ford’s cult appeal seems to go far beyond his original platforms.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Hounslow Heath by Bike



In case anyone was wondering where I get my inspiration from, here's a short GoPro video from 2017 of a bike ride I made across Hounslow Heath, close to where we live in south west London. You can see one of the results in the new 'Paintings' section of my website.