International Journal of Comic Art blog

News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Book Review: With Great Power: How Spider-Man Conquered Hollywood During the Golden Age of Comic Book Blockbusters.

 

Reviewed by Viola Burlew

Sean O’Connell. With Great Power: How Spider-Man Conquered Hollywood During the Golden Age of Comic Book Blockbusters. Essex, Connecticut: Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2022. http://applausebooks.com/books/9781493066193

            There is perhaps no more iconic character in the Marvel universe than Spider-Man. Over the course of sixty years, various creative teams have depicted the web-slinger as an “everyday” superhero, from the first of his kind to his present-day status as a figurehead of the type. To examine the impact the character has had on superhero culture requires examining the intricacies of multiple versions of the character in print and digital media alike.

            Sean O’Connell’s With Great Power… achieves this feat and more. O’Connell’s work follows the growth of Spider-Man from a comic book fill-in feature to the big screen’s friendly neighborhood, billion-dollar-generating hero.

Decade by decade, he analyzes how different adaptations of Spider-Man have shaped both the character and the superhero film industry itself. He works his way from the 1960s to the 1990s in the book’s earliest chapters, demonstrating how repeated production failures adapting Spider-Man indicated a general apathy towards the comic book film genre. These early attempts to create an on-screen hero lacked a recognizable comic book feel, an element O’Connell argues is necessary to have a successful, and faithful, adaptation, in part due to technological limitations. Financial and licensing issues played their own part in delaying Spider-Man's appearance on the big screen, as O'Connell further details in his discussion of James Cameron's unproduced Spider-Man film of the 1990s. As a result, it is not until the 2000s that a Spider-Man appears with any kind of memorability on the big screen. 

It is from this moment forward, with the development of Sam Rami’s Spider-Man films, that O’Connell can truly delve into the complexities surrounding the on-screen character and subsequent adaptations. O’Connell’s close analyses of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland’s depictions of the character, coupled with detailed accounts of Sony and Marvel’s bargaining over Spider-Man’s rights and marketability, reveal just how crucial Spider-Man was to the creation of the now-popular superhero universes. Strikingly, O’Connell does not pit these films against one another in his analysis. Instead, he traces their progression up to the present day, arguing that each Spider-Man product is a worthy successor to that which came before it. Though he clearly outlines certain missteps, his arc of Spider-Man media points to a consistent rise in quality, with each new film meaning something different to its creators and, crucially, its audience.

While the book is a chronological approach to Spider-Man’s development, O’Connell also offers readers a brief history of the superhero film market itself. He argues that Spider-Man has long been at the center of the genre’s development, with production companies seeing Spider-Man as the character that would launch a great wave of superhero films and sequels. In building these stories around a single character, O’Connell demonstrates that Spider-Man not only “conquered” the blockbuster golden age, but that the genre grew out of and around him.

With Great Power clearly demonstrates O’Connell’s passion for Spider-Man’s character and history. One of the text’s great strengths is O’Connell’s ability to tell these stories with a touch of personal flair—not a bias that privileges one adaptation over the other, but a fondness that seems to stem from genuine care for the character’s legacy. His interest in Spider-Man as a fan could be expanded upon; an occasional weakness of the text is the cursory nature of fan community responses, which undercuts O’Connell’s discussion of Spider-Man reboots and recasting. But this absence is largely secondary in examining the overall depth of O’Connell’s work and his apparent affection for Spider-Man.

This affection is precisely what makes for the most powerful portions of the text. O’Connell shares not only his own personal identification with Spider-Man, but others’ identification as well. He references Rami’s personal connections to Spider-Man, Garfield’s great love of the character, and Holland’s attachment to the role. These moments, in which creative teams find themselves reflecting on their personal relationship with the character, provide the evidence for O’Connell’s richest claim: that “Spider-Man belongs to everyone, and he belongs to no one.” (129) As much as Spider-Man legitimately belongs to the corporations who have battled over him, O’Connell emphasizes that Spider-Man also “belongs” to those that see themselves as embodying some element of his character. Their attachment to him gives them stake in his narratives, in the pieces of themselves they see reflected into him. When these are the individuals creating Spider-Man narratives, this fondness of him is what O’Connell sees as part of each adaptation’s success. While corporations create the need for constant creation and remakes, Spider-Man is at his best when he, even for a moment, “belongs” to someone who cares about his history and his legacy. 

This guiding ideology shapes With Great Power into a character study predominantly about the power of connection and personal truth in adaptation. These emotional moments of recognition, shared among Spider-Man’s many makers, are what make the character truly great. O’Connell reflects on this in his final discussions of the most recent Spider-Man adaptations, Into the Spider-Verse and No Way Home. These final films emphasize the hero’s place among a vast multiverse, where many Spider-people, and Spider-creators, can find themselves reflected in the character’s story. O’Connell concludes his analysis here, with two overarching takeaways: Spider-Man’s history is fascinating, and his legacy is powerful.

Overall, O’Connell weaves an intricate web through the superhero movie genre with Spider-Man constantly at its center. With Great Power deftly demonstrates not just the power of the superhero film, or the power of a classic character, but the potential for greatness still to come from a character that wields as much power in our universe as he does in his own.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Exhibit Review: Chris Ware

reviewed by Martha Kennedy

Chris Ware. Julien June Misserey and Benoît Peeters. Paris: Bibliothèque publique d’information, June 8-October 10, 2022.   www.bpi.fr/exposition-chris-ware-bpi/

 

An outstanding exhibition that featured the work of Chris Ware ran June 8 – October 10, 2022, at the Bibliothèque publique d’information (Bpi) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It was developed in partnership with the Angoulême International Comics Festival, which honored him with the Grand Lifetime Achievement Award in June of 2021. The exhibition, developed in close collaboration with Ware, celebrated his prodigious talent and inventiveness in comics, an area in which he has pushed expressive and formal boundaries. Prior to this major international honor during his nearly 40-year career, Ware had already received many other prestigious awards including: several Ignatz, Harvey, and Eisner awards, the Guardian First Book Award, an American Book Award, the Prize for the best album at the Angoulême Festival and Critic’s Prize, and Grand Prize of the city of Angoulême.

 

I had the pleasure of viewing this impressive retrospective in person this past summer. The show gave a window into Ware’s prolific, multi-faceted work for which he has won great international acclaim. The exhibition was for anyone interested in his work including those highly versed in it as well as those beginning to discover it.

 

The overarching arrangement was chronological with the following sections: issues of the Acme Novelty Library; three groups that largely feature selected drawings and color enlargements for each of Ware’s graphic novels; and Comics & Co., an area that presents examples of the artist’s work for magazines, posters, and short animated films. Exhibit texts were in French but included some portions in English in smaller type. French editions of Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth, Building Stories, and Rusty Brown, attached to stands, were easily browsed and helped anchor each group of items related to each graphic novel.

 

On entering the Bpi, it was easy to find the exhibition. Just inside the entry were large cases containing numerous issues of The Acme Novelty Library, the ongoing series that Ware began in the 1990s. The differing sizes, formats, and stylistically-changing cover designs hinted at the contents within and several examples were opened to display some of the highly varied comics stories (unsigned and purporting to be by multiple creators), cutouts with instructions for assembly, and articles addressed to readers. Some issues presented versions or portions of comics that eventually became parts of Ware’s graphic novels including Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth.

 

The section devoted to Jimmy Corrigan (2001) included drawings and enlargements that primarily highlight the feelings and musings of Corrigan, the middle-aged, highly introverted protagonist and his eventual meeting with the father long absent from his life. The work is semi-autobiographical in that Ware draws upon his own experience of meeting his own absent father while he was working on his novel. In one drawing Ware shares Jimmy imagining what his father looks like by depicting multiple images of older men’s bald heads shown sequentially in a grid. In an online tour, curators Misserey and Peeters commented that making such use of the page at this time was highly innovative formally. They also mentioned Ware’s interest in evoking nostalgia tinged with sadness and detailed rendering of such architectural settings as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for example. Such interest continued into his work that followed.      

 

The section on Building Stories underscored the unconventional nature of this graphic novel that consists of fourteen separate printed works cased in a box that tell stories about people living in one building.  An exhibit case containing multiple notebooks relating to the graphic novel gave a glimpse into Ware’s creative process. As noted in the exhibit brochure, the stories of people in the building gradually build a portrait of one resident, a woman florist and aspiring artist with one leg. One of the most striking original drawings in this section featured a life-size rendering of the artist’s daughter based on her actual size at the time he drew it. This presented formal challenges in balancing the large form with smaller visual units, a challenge that he handled with impressive skill in composing the double page spread. Misserey and Peeters observed that the drawings and color enlargements in this section demonstrate that Ware had moved beyond a semi-autobiographical milieu to create a world that reflects increasing engagement with others.   

 

Some of the most compelling pieces in the section on Rusty Brown portray the character Joanne Cole, a Black teacher at the school attended by Rusty. To this reader, she is also one of the most interesting and sympathetic characters in the novel. The drawings on view included key scenes in her professional and personal history: we see her seeking to connect with her students, her strong engagement with playing the banjo (an interest shared with Ware), her careful interactions with white colleagues (much of which require repression and self-containment), qualities so well captured in Ware’s depictions. His imagery conveys a broadening of his relationships with others in the world. I agree with Misserey and Peeters who pointed to a growing sense of empathy and compassion toward others that is seen in this work.  

 

Midway through the show, a video of Ware being interviewed in his home and studio provided an engaging interlude. A clip that showed him at work using his straight edges and fine tipped pens conveys some of the intense focus required to achieve the precision, care, and thoughtful deliberation so evident in his work.

 

The section Comics & Co. presented examples of such additional work as a beautifully drawn cover for The Ragtime Ephemeralist, covers for The New Yorker, architectural drawings, and short video animations. Ware’s designs for The New Yorker, in particular, stand out not only as visually arresting but also as full of nuanced, thoughtful perspectives on the state of American society that reference the impacts of heightened socio-political divisions, the pandemic, threats of mass shootings at schools, and more. His architectural drawings also reminded me of how he uses this well-honed skill in rendering Midwestern architecture in Omaha and Chicago, in particular, to evoke a sense of place that contributes to narrative atmosphere and immediacy in his graphic novels.  

 

Further evidence of Ware’s multi-faceted interests and talent could be seen in several cases that displayed small wooden objects--figures and toys that he fashioned by hand. While some of these playful objects portrayed characters in his comics, others in a case near the end of the show were made for family events such as birthdays. Including such objects underscored the importance of family as well as work in his life.

 

When interviewed in conjunction with this exhibition, Ware agreed that he identifies as a “full ‘book artist.’” As he draws, writes, and designs his books, he tries to keep in mind the ways in which a human being is like a book in that it has a spine, is “bigger on the inside that the outside,” and can convey the truth about itself (or not.) He also said that a book is “also the only art which pretty much anyone can afford and own.” While the original drawings in the exhibition are one-of-a-kind, Ware also says that they represent “simply one step” in his creative process: “the finished, printed object is the art itself.” This emphasis on the book made the Bpi seem the perfect venue for this artist’s superb retrospective. No matter what aspect of Ware’s work you find most compelling or admirable or challenging, this exhibition shed light on your understanding of his art, him as an artist, and a human being.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Book Review: Tokyo Rose--Zero Hour: A Japanese American Woman’s Persecution and Ultimate Redemption After World War II.

 reviewed by John A. Lent

Andre Frattino and Kate Kasenow (ill.). Tokyo Rose--Zero Hour:  A Japanese American Woman’s Persecution and Ultimate Redemption After World War II. Rutland, VT:  Tuttle Publishing, 2022. 128 pp. US $16.99. ISBN:  978-4-8053-1695-5. https://www.tuttlepublishing.com/japan/tokyo-rose-zero-hour-a-graphic-novel


Those of us who grew up in the 1940s certainly heard about Tokyo Rose but had no idea who Iva Yoguri was, let alone were we aware of the injustices she endured from both the Japanese and U.S. authorities, an unfair judge, a manipulated jury, and shameful reporters the likes of Walter Winchell, Harry Brundidge, and Clark Lee.

Iva Yoguri was a Nisei (born of Japanese immigrant parents and educated in the U.S.) who fulfilled her family’s wishes and visited a sick aunt in Tokyo in mid-1941. Her passage back to Los Angeles was thwarted when war against Japan was declared by the U.S. on Dec. 8, 1941. By November 1943, she was coerced to join Radio Tokyo as an announcer of Japanese propaganda, using the name, “Orphan Ann.” During her broadcasting stint, Iva found subtle ways to change her messages from what the Japanese intended.

After Japan’s surrender, Iva was accused of being a traitor, suffered through a stacked courtroom that sent her to prison for ten years. After serving more than six years, she was released. In 1977, President Gerald Ford granted Iva Yoguri a full and unconditional pardon, and in 2006, she was honored by The World War II Veterans Committee for “her indomitable spirit, love of country, and the example of courage she has given her fellow Americans.”

This is an important story that, like other travesties of injustice and inhumanity, needs to be told (or retold). Fortunately, comics, comix, and graphic novels, in recent decades, have unearthed some of them, such as the sending of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps in February 1942; the brutalization of Native-Americans, and the sad history of African Americans. There are many other injustices or controversial events, both historical or contemporary, deserving to be treated by graphic novels (e.g., the circus-like, 1930s trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping/death of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s child; the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, etc.)

This type of investigative cartooning requires much research and a yeoman effort to get the emotional and cultural modes correct. Andre Frattino was very much aware of these needs--pulling information from “recorded testimonies, personal interviews, and documented statements” and including in his seven-person team, three of what he called “sensitivity” readers. The team provided a few extras to aid in contextual, historical, and linguistic understanding, such as an epilogue, timeline, quotes from actual broadcasts by “Orphan Ann,” and a small bibliography. Letterer Janice Chiang shared her own experience of “straddling two worlds and two cultures,” as Iva Yoguri did, in the Foreword, bringing in issues of assimilation, racism, and xenophobia, while Frattino’s Preface prepared readers to enter the visual story with background.

The publisher, Tuttle, has a long and proud history of bringing awareness to East Asia. Its founder, Charles E. Tuttle, served on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur in 1945, charged with reviving the Japanese publishing industry. He founded the company in 1950, and since then, Tuttle Publishing has brought out more than 6,000 titles, including James Michener’s classic, Hokusai’s Sketches.

Tokyo Rose… is an eye-opening volume, written and drawn simply, but meticulously and authoritatively, making it a book that needs to be read by all who exited an educational system that favored only the America is flawless refrain.

 

 


Saturday, December 3, 2022

Book Review: Meri Nazaar Mein Pran: A Biography on Cartoonist Pran

 reviewed by John A. Lent

Asha Pran. Meri Nazar Mein Pran. From a Sign Board Painter to Padma Shri Awardee. Creator of Chacha Chaudhary, Cartoonist Pran. New Delhi:  Pran’s Features LLP, 2019. 80 pp. ISBN:  978-81-94070-33-7. https://www.amazon.com/Meri-Nazaar-Mein-Pran-Cartoonist-ebook/dp/B082LV1ZYW/

 

Let me be upfront from the outset. I have known Pran Kumar since 1993, when I interviewed him in his New Delhi home. We had occasions to get together when I invited him to speak at a conference I co-organized in Guiyang, China and at other times when I hosted him in my home in 2006 and he very graciously returned the favor while I was in New Delhi in 2009. He considered me as a friend, and he was mine. Pran was a much more enthusiastic letter writer than I, but I immensely enjoyed his correspondence which always ended with a joke.

Despite these personal connections, I will comment on this small biography written by his wife, Asha. I expected the book to be sentimental and emotional because of the strong bond between the couple; at times, it was—not in an annoying manner but rather to emphasize his traits.

Pran was born in Pakistan and left the country with family members at the time of partition. He told me that seeing bodies of dead Hindus and Muslims lying on the side of the railroad tracks as a nine-year-old boy planted the thought in his mind that his goal should be to make people laugh. Later, he did that through cartooning, developing memorable characters such as Chacha Chaudhary, Billoo, Pinki, Sabu, Bini, Raman, and a host of others that have brought joy to millions of readers in the Subcontinent and the diaspora.

In Meri Nazar Mein Pran, Asha weaves her memories of Pran with those of others, snippets from both Pran’s and her personal diaries, and other sources that were publicly available to reveal much about this private and humble man. She talks about the hard knocks Pran faced, their arranged marriage devoid of any formality, the way he lived his life “playing hide and seek between practicality and emotions,” not accepting compromise, respecting ethics as very important, and practicing transparency. Asha spends a bit more space discussing Pran’s abhorrence of “hypocritical religion” and the immense damage caused historically worldwide by the blind faith in god(s) and his belief that politics has become degraded. Ever a questioner, Pran disagreed that buildings, highways, towns, etc. should be named after politicians; instead, he believed they should carry the names of poets, intellectuals, writers, dancers, social activists, musicians, educators, artists, martyrs, and soldiers.

Blended into these characteristics were the cartoonist’s likes and dislikes. Asha lists among his likes, his fans, children (even naughty ones), the cartoons of Abu Abraham, captionless cartoons, reading, foreign travel, and the mountains. He did not like or pitied those who just count their wealth, arrogant people, and violence and its portrayal.

The book contains additional information not commonly known about Pran:  how he laid the foundation for Indian comics through his more than 600 titles; the high awards he received; his travels; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s inauguration of one of his books; his fastidiousness with time; his family, son Nikhil, daughter Shaili, an unidentified daughter-in-law, and grandson Saraansh, and his dying days and last wishes.

Overall, Asha Pran did a good job relating the life of Pran in just eighty pages. Though her written English could use editing, it is easy to read and reflects, in her own words and with quite a bit of emotion, the fifty-year journey she shared with Pran.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Book Review: Graphic Novels and Comics as World Literature

 
reviewed by John A. Lent

James Hodapp, ed. Graphic Novels and Comics as World Literature. New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. 285 pp. US $130.00. ISBN:  978-1-5013-7341-1. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/graphic-novels-and-comics-as-world-literature-9781501373428/

James Hodapp’s introduction, “Global South on Their Own Terms,” plays on needs this reviewer has called for in writings and teachings in the U.S. and abroad since the 1960s--that South mass communications (and, in this case, comics art) should be looked at from their own cultures, not those of the West; that Western-oriented theories, notions, and research methodologies are not appropriate in the South with these countries’ wide-ranging linguistic forms, reading patterns, and visual literacy levels.

Hodapp gets at these points, stating, that comics studies have “lagged considerably in coming to terms with its Eurocentrism and in offering alternative and better paradigms that place non-Western comics on equal footing with their Western peers.” Much of what he finds lacking harkens to the 1960s-1970s’ debates concerning a need for a new world information order, consisting of a free and two-way flow of information, the ending of cultural imperialism, and media that are accessible and affordable to the masses. Hodapp provides as main tasks of his book, to “conceptualize non-reductive ways of reading and understanding Global South comics in and of themselves without prioritizing Western legibility” and to avoid a “Global South one-size-fits-all singularity of theory and method.” These are worthy goals, but, as mass communications studies have shown, they may be a long time in coming.

Graphic Novels and Comics as World Literature itself, an excellent compendium of comics research dealing with 13 countries and the Francophone Africa region, nearly all in the South, makes a start in satisfying what Hodapp seeks, putting comics in frameworks of “south to south exchange, transculturalism, and translocality.” For example, Jasmin Wrobel, while highlighting women as important to South American comics, focuses on the work of Colombian-Ecuadorian Powerpaola (Paola Gaviria), showing how her comics coincide with some Western successes, at the same time, how they differ; Dima Nasser, describing Egypt’s The Apartment in Bab El-Louk as a series of “visual poems,” points out how the book rebukes the graphic novel form, and Jana Fedke analyzes the Western comic Black Panther and its pretensions to represent African cultures.

Other chapters deal with the acceptance of Japanese “boys love manga” in Chile; the statelessness of Palestinian comics; an overview of the comics scene of Francophone Africa; a rundown of the contained-in-Malaysia Reach for the Stars comic; an allegorical study of the South Korean graphic novel, Grass (dealing with comfort women of World War II) and grass vegetation; graphic reportage overwhelmingly about refugee camps, including in Mexico; Indian graphic novels; the Ramayana epic and its comics adaptation, Sita’s Ramayana; an argument for using the storytelling traditions of Yawuru people of Australia to give an indigenous Global South perspective, and a split narration in a graphic memoir about a perplexed Korean-born boy existing in a Belgian adoption setting.

Though a noble effort to look at the non-Western comics through Global South perspectives, Graphic Novels and Comics as World Literature and its contributors cannot resist depending on Eurocentric comics theories (actually, notions that have not even made it to the hypotheses stage) and research techniques, and mostly taking the word of Western writers (e.g., Hillary Chute is cited on at least 17 occasions).

However, delineating the challenges awaiting Global South comics researchers, which this book does, is the first step towards action. For that, and providing fascinating case studies of comics in every region of the world, James Hodapp must be commended as a pioneering voice.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Book Review Essay: A Colonial Perspective on the Indonesia-Netherlands Comics Connection

Book Review Essay: A Colonial Perspective on the Indonesia-Netherlands Comics Connection

by Rik Spanjers

Ruud den Drijver. Indocomics: de ‘katjangs’ van de stripkunst. Amsterdam: Baltimore Publications, 2022. 9789082654936

 The academic research of comics is inextricably entangled with the work that, in past and present, has been done by makers, collectors, reviewers and fans. Comics research in the United States would not have been the same without some of its initial gestures in the works of Coulton Waugh, Jules Feiffer, Will Eisner, Ron Goulart, Mort Walker, art historian David Kunzle and Jim Steranko. In France, as Ian Horton and Maggie Gray have recently shown in Art History for Comics (2022), comics research started in the 60s from the work done in the Club des Bandes Dessinées and the Société civile d’études et de recherches des littératures dessinées (Horton and Gray 2022, 13). In the Netherlands too, it is impossible to think comics outside the early work of Kees and Evelien Kousemaker, whose Strip voor Strip, een verkenningstocht (1970)[1]  and the slightly later Wordt Vervolgd: Stripleksikon der Lage Landen (1979)[2] laid the foundations for the historiography of 20th century Dutch comics culture.[3]

            Within the context of comics studies, then, it does not make sense to think in terms of professional and amateur research, or research done within the context of academic institutions and independent research. Instead, comics studies consists of many different kinds of research aimed at different publics. In the Netherlands, for example, Joost Pollmann, on the one hand, combines his work as journalist and (comics) reviewer with specialist publications on comics culture such as Letterlijk en figuurlijk: Strips kun je beter lezen (2011)[4] and De Stripprofessor: vijftig colleges over tekenkunst (2016).[5] On the other hand, Kees Ribbens, who in the context of his work as an endowed professor of Popular Historical Culture of Global Conflicts and Mass Violence at Erasmus University Rotterdam has written about comics for several academic publications, has also co-published[6] an overview of the representation of history in comics that has a broader public in mind than his academic work (Getekende tijd: Wisselwerking tussen geschiedenis en strip 2006) [7].

            Just as all papers for academic journals have certain generic commonalities, the first moves of early comics studies in different national context are also alike in specific ways. One of the most important one of these is that, possibly in an attempt to counteract the ghettoization of the comics medium, comics culture is often placed in rather broad art historical contexts. Early comics historians have tied the medium of comics to a rather incredibly wide array of art historical traditions and/or specific works such as caricature, Trajan’s Column, the Bayeux Tapestry, catchpenny prints, hieroglyphics and the cave paintings of Lascaux. And even if I have been recently convinced by Ian Horton and Maggie Gray (or by Kunzle 40 years ago) that this art historical emplacement of comics within broader pictorial traditions is not without merit, I have always been very suspicious of many of the all-to-easy connections that have been established between contemporary comics and some of the more consecrated works and traditions from the canon of European art history. Such comparisons are emancipatory first and foremost, which is why many of them would not endure into a more rigorous historiography of the medium.

              It is exactly in this connection between European art history and comics culture that the recently published Indocomics: De ‘katjangs’ van de stripkunst,[8] unveils its most important claim for Indonesian comics. In the third chapter of his book, “Het ‘katjang’ mysterie,”[9] Ruud den Drijver names the warthog (or pig) painted on the wall of the Sampeang Cave on South-Celebes as the oldest ancestor of contemporary comics characters (den Drijver 2022, 61). He does so somewhat tongue-in-cheek, clearly cognizant of the hyperbole of the assertion that he constructs here. With this one move, den Drijver manages to undermine the now so clearly Eurocentric perspective of many other comics histories. By choosing to compare comics to a clearly Eurocentric conception of art history, these histories restate the emancipatory underpinnings of this comparison. If we really want to investigate comics in a broader art historical context, the Sampeang warthog shows us, it does not make sense to replicate a brand of 19th century Eurocentrism while doing so. This should be the goal of a history of the interactions between Indonesian and Dutch comics culture. Such a history destabilizes existing preconceptions of the differences between “West” and “East” and combats stereotype and essentialism in the depiction of both Indonesia and the Netherlands. Excepting the warthog, however, Indocomics is not such a history.

            Instead, den Drijver’s book offers an uncritical retracing of Dutch orientalist stereotypes which imprison the works of comics art that are discussed in it back into a colonial perspective. This does not mean that there is nothing of worth in this book. The work deserves praise for the way in which it maps the influence of what might be called the Indonesian-Dutch comics connection. Den Drijver is right to point to the prominence of Indo-European comics artist in the history of Dutch comics culture; creators such as Eppo Doeve, Thé Tjong-Khing, Aimée de Jong, Paul Teng, Peter van Dongen, and Peter Nuyten have and continue to play a central role in the development of Dutch comics culture.

            But Indocomics is not just an attempt to sketch the individual histories of these comics artists, but is also a search for the “unique mark”[10] that these creators have left on comics culture (den Drijver 2022: 131). The word “unique” gestures towards much that is problematic about the approach that den Drijver pursues in Indocomics. In what way can the (post-) colonial context of Indonesia and the Netherlands be a place to talk about uniqueness? It is already incredibly difficult, if not impossible, as den Drijver himself shows, to offer neatly defined descriptions of the different nationalities of the creators that are discussed in this work (den Drijver 2022: 7). For a long time, birth in the Dutch-Indies did not make one a Dutch citizen, but a Dutch subject. Citizenship was only possible for those who were born in the Dutch-Indies and who had either a Dutch father or two Dutch parents. This complexity disappeared partly after Indonesia’s independence after World War II, but was quickly replaced by a less-formally-anchored, yet just as complicated web of imagined and lived identities, such as Indonesian, Indo-European, Toktok, Molukkan, and Dutch (Oostindie 2011: 26-33). This all goes to show how difficult and dangerous it is to subsume all these different relationships of individuals to the colonial history of Indonesia and the Netherlands into a singular experience, which, in turn, might be characterized by a “unique” approach to comics. The experiences of different Dutch postcolonial subjects have varied substantially, not in the least based on the colors of their skins. What is more, these complexities multiply when one adds the illusionary character of any kind of uniform Indonesian or Dutch national context to it. As Benedict Anderson shows in Imagined Communities (2016), some perceived differences between national cultures are the product of a process of uniformization that started in 19th century Europe. One can try and define Dutch culture positively, but often Dutch citizens cannot venture past cliches such as the struggle against water, the 16th century golden age, “polderen,” pillarization, tulips, directness, and stinginess (Wekker 2016: 20-21). However, if one starts looking at different parts of the Netherlands, or even individual Dutch people, such cliches often are very poor descriptors. For Indonesia, a country that consists of approximately 17.500 islands, 270 million inhabitants, and at least 1300 different cultural communities of different sizes, references to a uniform national culture, or a national character, are even more preposterous.

            Throughout Indocomics, however, to characterize the uniqueness of Indonesian-Dutch comics creators, he makes references to such national cultures:

 

An explanation [of the uniqueness of comics made by makers with a Dutch-Indies background] might be found in the [Dutch] “just be normal”-mentality. Only those who carry within themselves the traces of a different, less sober culture, can extract themselves from this national character. This raises the question whether comics creators with a Dutch-Indies background differentiate themselves from others, and if they do, how this difference is marked. And can connections be made to the Javanese or Balinese culture? (den Drijver 2022: 9).[11]

 

By presenting the Dutch national character as something negative from which creators with a Dutch Indies background can extricate themselves on the basis of a “carried trace” of a different culture, den Drijver seems to be placing Dutch culture in a bad light. Furthermore, by distinguishing between Javanese and Balinese culture, den Drijver at least introduces some diversity into his description of Indonesian cultural history. Describing culture as carried traces, however, reproduces the othering of Dutch persons of color in the Netherlands (Wekker 2016: 7, 15).

            Throughout Indocomics, den Drijver pushes to find difference between comics made by creators who do and do not have a background in the Dutch Indies. In that sense, Indocomics is a strong example of the way in which colonial history is other othered from the national historical narrative, instead of approached as an integral part to it (Wekker 2016, 13). This skewed perspective causes den Drijver to countermand the complexity introduced by the incredibly intricately crosshatched history of Indonesia and the Netherlands with a stylistic analysis based on colonial stereotypes and a binary division between “West” and “East”. Comics creators with a background in the Dutch Indies are described as introducing “sambal”[12] (den Drijver 2022: 11), a “magical” atmosphere through the heavy use of black shading (14), and as referring, both consciously and unconsciously to “East-Indonesian art … famous for its wajang puppet theatre and colorfully painted wall panels” (25).[13] In his attempts to create a separate category within Dutch comics culture for creators with a background in the Dutch Indies, then, den Drijver lapses into colonial stereotyping. For it is only from such a colonial perspective that the category of “Indocomics” gains enough coherency to make sense.

            Take, for example, den Drijver’s analysis of Iris (1968) by Hertog van Banda and Thé Tjong-Khing. Den Drijver’s argument is that this comic should not only be read in the context of Pop Art works such as Jodelle (1966) by Guy Peelaert. Because of its use of primary colors, which are supposed to remind readers of Javanese wall panels (den Drijver 2022: 22), it should be seen as a prominent example of the early “Indocomics.” Perceived as a whole, however, Iris is much closer to the work of Peelaert and other sixties counterculture comix, than it is to Javanese wall panel art. One can definitely argue that traces of a Javanese art historical tradition can be found, but by enlarging these influences at the cost of much closer—historically and culturally—inspirations, den Drijver creates a distorted view of the hybrid cultural context in which this work was produced. This distortion, moreover, becomes problematic when den Drijver, in an attempt to enlarge the Indonesian characteristics of Iris, writes, “with an almost ritual dedication Thé Tjong-Khing handles a Chinese pencil” (den Drijver 2022: 25).[14] Besides “sambal” and magic, the “Indocomic” is thus also characterized by the ritualistic way of working of its creators. Den Drijver’s tendency to highlight and enlarge difference using colonial terminology recurs when he compares creators with and without a Dutch Indies background on the bases of the art historical traditions from which these creators are purported to work:

 

The on first sight subtle, but immense difference between all these creators is that they [artists with a “Dutch” background] drew traditionally, somewhat like the classical Dutch masters. The magical lighting of Kresse, Toonder, and Wijn is a ‘clair-obscur’ that is related to Rembrandt, with at the most an exotic outing towards Caravaggio. The indocomics of Thé, Doeve, Kloezeman, van Boxsel en Van Giffen cross naturalistic boundaries in multiple ways. (den Droeve 2022: 28).[15]

 

What does den Doeve mean here? He seems to be pointing to a difference between an artificial, cinematographic form of lighting and the more naturalistic lighting of the painting of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. But can one really argue that the lighting of Rembrandt and Caravaggio is naturalistic? Den Drijver is right to see a slight difference in intensity between the use of shading/lighting in the artists he discusses here. But by connecting this kind of shading, via the detour of Jacques Tourneurs’ Night of the Demon (1957), to the Javanese shadow puppet theatre (30), instead of, for example, the use of shading in the in that time incredibly popular comics of Milton Caniff and Hugo Pratt, den Drijver’s underlines his colonial perspective.

            Besides creators who were born in the Dutch Indies and thus had a firsthand experience of the colonial past, den Drijver also includes works made by artists who were born in the Netherlands, but who had one or two parents or grandparents born in the Dutch Indies. Den Drijver locates and enlarges similar traces of Javanese and Balinese culture in the works of these makers, and notes that this second generation does refer more explicitly to the colonial past, which is something that the artists from the first generation never really did. In his analyses of the works of these more recent artists, his tendencies towards essentialist over-analysis becomes even more clear. The few examples that den Drijver picks from Peter van Dongen’s postcolonial masterpiece Rampokan (1998-2004) are not enough to place it into his previously defined category of “Indocomics.” Instead of fitting neatly within that category, Rampokan shows, in both its clear line drawing style and its narrative, the hybridity of traditions and identities that characterizes colonial history. By looking at this work with an essentialist perspective that tries to tie it down to one coherent tradition or culture, one misses everything that makes this work one of the most important Dutch comics.

            Even with an artist that has as diverse international influences as Aimée de Jongh, den Drijver continues to focus almost solely on her Indonesian roots. While noting that de Jongh’s style is heavily influenced by both the European and the Japanese comics traditions, den Drijver characterizes her page compositions in Days of Sand (2021) as “ancient Javanese and Balinese decoupages and transitions” (den Drijver 2022: 111),[16] without actually offering any substantial proof to back up his claims. I have always seen much more of the thousands of pages of Japanese comics that de Jongh has read and the many she made as a doujinshi artists in her current breakdowns than anything else. Just as was the case with van Dongen’s work, den Drijver misses the blending of different traditions that characterizes de Jongh’s work because he cannot see beyond his self-made category of “Indocomics.”

            Comics are a transnational phenomenon. As Eike Exner has recently reiterated in his Comics and the Origins of Manga (2022), it is impossible to ground manga as uniquely springing from a Japanese tradition. One can only understand manga as a transnational cultural cross-pollination. I believe the same goes for Dutch comics, which cannot be characterized through the paintings of the Dutch masters or catchpenny prints, but is a wonderfully strange amalgam of Franco-Belgian, American, Indonesian, British, and, more recently, Japanese influences. By drawing national lines through comics cultures, we risk repeating a 19th century madness that will only bring scholarship further from understanding the object it studies.

            This does not mean, however, that there are no traces of the national in comics. Of course, it is possible to find parts of Javanese or Balinese visual traditions in comics made by creators with a background, however down the family tree, in Indonesia. But instead of conjuring up the notion that these “traces of culture” have been spoon-fed into these authors in their upbringing, comics scholars should investigate the ways in which creators that work in the present refer back to the colonial past. Den Drijver’s work, in this sense, approaches its objective backwards. Instead of thinking of cultural tradition chronologically, the author could also have started from the present. In that case, the Indonesian heritage of these creators is not an inescapable part of the national character of an artist, but, seen positively, a source of inspiration to tap from the present, and, seen negatively, a past with which they are, because of continuing systemic racism in the Netherlands, forced to relate themselves to on a daily basis. Part of what den Drijver calls “Indocomics” would then not stem from an unbroken chain of tradition, but would be works that consciously engage with the colonial past in order to shed light on it or provide it with new contexts. Much more than as prisoners of an identity defined by others, such an approach would show comics artists with an Indonesian background as cultural tastemakers that use comics to interrogate the complex colonial heritage of both Indonesia and the Netherlands. 

I would like to thank Eeva Langeveld for her critical reading of an earlier version of this piece.

A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 24:2.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Rise and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition). London: Verso. 

den Drijver, Ruud. 2022. Indocomics: de ‘katjangs’ van de stripkunst. Amsterdam: Baltimore Publications.

Exner, Eike. 2022. Comics and the Origins of Manga. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Horton, Ian and Maggie Gray. 2022. Art History for Comics: Past, Present, and Potential Futures. London: Palgrave.

Oostindie, Gert. 2011. Postcolonial Netherlands: Sixty-Five Years of Forgetting, Commemorating, Silencing. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Wekker, Gloria. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham NC, Duke University Press.



[1] Comic by Comic, a Reconnaissance [translation author].

[2] To Be Continued: An Encyclopedia of Comics from the Low Countries [translation author].

[3] Kees Kousemaker was also the founder of the now famous Lambiek comics shop, which was Europe’s first comics shop and is the oldest still operating comics shop in existence. Much of Kousemaker’s work on comics has found its way into the Comiclopedia, an illustrated compendium of over 14.000 comics artists from around the world.

[4] Literally and Figuratively: Reading comics [translation author].

[5] The Comics Professor: Fifty Classes on Comics [translation author].

[6] With Rik Sanders.

[7] Drawn Time: The interactions between history and comics [translation author].

[8] Indocomics: the ‘katjangs’ of comics art [translation author]. The term katjang was used in the Dutch Indies and the later Dutch Indonesian community to refer to a bawdy young boy.

[9] The ‘katjang’ mystery [translation author].

[10] One of the difficulties of presenting a review of a Dutch book in English as that my translations of direct quotes might skew the perspective slightly. In this case, den Drijver writes “de unieke stemple die zij op de stripcultuur hebben achtergelaten” (den Drijver 2022: 131), which I translate as the unique mark which they left on comics culture.” I will paraphrase in the main text as much as possible, but will also note down the original Dutch texts in footnotes.

[11] Een verklaring [van de unieke stempel R.S.] kan worden gezocht in de ‘doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg’-mentaliteit. Alleen diegenen die de sporen in zich dragen van een andere, minder nuchtere cultuur, weten zich aan deze volksaard te onttrekken. Het werpt tegelijk de vraag op of het zo is dat stripmakers met een Indische achtergrond zich onderscheiden van anderen, en zo ja, waaruit dit blijkt. En valt er een verband met de Javaanse of Balinese cultuur aan te wijzen? (den Drijver 9).

[12] Sambal is a, in the Netherlands, famous spicy sauce that is associated with Indonesian cuisine. Den Drijver thus describes comics creators with a Dutch Indies background as spicing up Dutch comics culture.

[13] “de Oost-Indische schilderkunst […], bekend van wajangspelen en kleurrijk beschilderde wandpanelen” (25).

[14] “Met bijna rituele toewijding hanteerde Thé Tjong-Khing een Chinees penseel” (25). On page 33, den Drijver repeats the same colonial stereotype when he describes the rendition of a European sacrificial ritual in Romano Molenaars Roodhaar (2014-2022): “The European, Batavian rites of sacrifice are rendered by him [Molenaar] with a Balinese-sacred dedication that reminds of the precision of Asian rites.” In Dutch: “De Europese, Bataafse offerfeesten worden door hem geportretteerd met een Balinees-sacrale toewijding die aan de precisie van Aziatische rites herinnert” (den Drijver 2022: 33).

[15] Het ogenschijnlijk subtiele, maar immense verschil met al deze tekenaars was dat zij [de tekenaars met een Nederlandse achtergrond] traditioneel tekenden, ongeveer zoals de klassieke Hollandse meesters. De magische belichting van Kresse, Toonder en Wijn is een aan Rembrandt verwant ‘clair-obscur’, met hooguit een exotisch uitstapje naar Caravaggio. De indocomics van Thé, Doeve, Kloezeman, Van Boxsel en Van Giffen gingen in meerdere opzichten naturalistische grenzen over. (den Droeve 2022: 28).

[16] “aloude Javaanse en Balinese decoupages en beeldovergangen” (den Drijver 2021: 111).