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18th January 2017 | Ink issue #1
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Welcome to the first Ink newsletter...

... and, potentially, the end of the world.

The plan here is to talk about the comics we love like the fan girls and boys we are, but from a more socio-political point of view that makes us sound like we know things. The world may have gone mad in 2016 but, as survivors, we can start to make sense of our lives again by throwing ourselves into stories and art that represent real people and experiences.

As Donald Trump enters the Big Brother house this Friday, we thought it only fitting to make him the guest of honour at our own inauguration. In our lead feature, “Citizen Trump”, I examine how words mean things and that rhetoric shouldn’t be used lightly, as is beautifully exemplified in Citizen Jack by Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson and Marjane Satrapi’s seminal memoir Persepolis. 

We are also joined by Guardian and Observer cartoonists Simone Lia and Stephen Collins, who talk to us about the challenges of satire. Discussing the pressures and process of dissecting current affairs, they offer insights into the role of cartoons in politics and question if they are enough to instigate real change.

Finally, we review Page 45’s comic book of the month, The Can Opener’s Daughter by Rob Davis. Set in a steampunk-ish other-world where knives rain from the sky and children count down to their death days, this outstanding sequel to The Motherless Oven possibly says more about our society than BBC news.

Graphic storytelling has been around almost as long as we have but in my experience it’s not always taken seriously as a legitimate area of study and enjoyment. Whatever powers are stripped of us in 2017, this is something that we can fix.

Thanks for coming with with us,

Steff

In this issue...

   
"Citizen Trump"
Feature
Simone Lia & Stephen Collins
Interview
The Can Opener's Daughter
Review
 

"Citizen Trump": exploring election rhetoric through comics

The long and absurd adventure that has been the 2016 US presidential election will end this week, with Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th “leader of the free world” on Friday 20th January.

Among the smog of rhetoric that was blasted into the atmosphere during this campaign, there is one term that stands out for its deep irony and denial of public sensibility. “Generation Snowflake” is a reductionist umbrella for “hypersensitive” millennials (an already reductionist term for a generation spanning about 30 years) who have apparently been taught to believe they are “special”.

A stupid criticism for many reasons, the term has become a meme, broadly used to condemn groups as disparate as hipsters, students of the humanities, the mentally ill, and, shockingly, people who stand up to Trump’s nationalist rhetoric.

Putting aside the fact that those who taught the younger generations to think as individuals - through government mandated syllabi and the creation of pop culture that rewards protagonists for breaking free of the status quo - are the very same that now reprimand them for expressing their political opinion, the label itself is a dangerous one.

Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson explore just how dangerous in Citizen Jack, their satirical series about an immature and irredeemable man with little political achievement who sells his soul and runs for president of the United States. Getting ahead through flagrant demagoguery, Jack abuses the patriotism of his country to oppose the “political elite” and bring it back into the hands of “real Americans.”


Making America great again

Although the first issue was released in November 2015, Humphries has said that it was ready to ship in March of that year, pre-dating Donald Trump’s acceptance of the Republican candidacy by four months.

More a parody of the political system than any one person within it, Jack is not really like Trump in background or character, despite several freak accidents of similarity in their campaigns. A failing businessman in a pink dressing gown, a full head of luscious hair framing his fairly generic features, the character is a symbol of something bigger and scarier than Trump alone could hope to be.

The unplanned achievement of the book’s horrific premise is the eerie prescience that the creators show throughout a first volume that was planned and penned before the rabbit hole unfolded into the events of 2016. From the moment the world is introduced to Jack Northworthy as a presidential candidate via a sardonic analogue of Fox News, the book perfectly encapsulates a political climate that appeals to public emotion rather than rational thought.

Standing naked in the Minnesotan snow after voluntarily diving into a frozen lake, Jack declares to the camera that he is better suited to lead America than a “Washington insider” because he has the “stones” for such reckless and unnecessary behaviour. He ends his triumphant entrance into the public eye with the useless slogan, “It’s time for America to get Jacked!”

 

 

It’s never clear whether this banal rhetoric is intended to insult America or pump it up somehow, which is part of Humphries’ brilliance as a writer. The meaningless phrases he puts into Jack’s mouth show that this reprehensible man will say anything to stir people up. Jack isn’t clever - he has his campaign manager and the powers of a scary-ass demon to do the real graft for the election - but he knows what to say to get a reaction out of people.

And this is the hypocrisy of the special snowflake dig. The full quarter of the US and UK populations that fall into the millennial age group(s) are purported to be a bunch of emotional cry-babies by people who have had their hearts stolen by nonsense phrases coined to win elections. Individualism dismissed as infantile, the “mature” society must surely rely on tribes. Tribalism, also known as “we-thinking”, divides the population, whether local, global or national, into groups of “us” and “them”.


Us and them

In Marjane Satrapi’s (literally millennial) graphic memoir Persepolis, published in 2000, the creator bears witness to the nature of tribalism as she recounts her experience of national identity as a child growing up in wartime Iran.

Satrapi begins her story as a rebellious and precocious child trying to understand the new restrictions enforced on her public self at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1980. As the daughter of radical Marxists and a direct descendant of Iran’s last emperor, she struggles to find a balance between the freedom to learn, question and discover that her parents make for her at home, and the strict regulations that she faces at school.

As revolution leads to war, language, both personal and political, becomes more important to Satrapi. With her French school closed and a veil enforced upon her and her female friends and relatives, she realises early on that there is dissonance between her understanding of religious faith and the interpretations being used for control. Whereas Citizen Jack’s titular character takes control of a nation through speech, Satrapi’s childhood is defined by her position on the receiving end of such power plays.

Rhetoric’s place in religion is well-established and young “Marji’s" emotional arc, complete in a way that is difficult to achieve in memoir, rests on her understanding that for many people, Muslim, Iranian or otherwise, must portray a different face in public than they do when they’re alone. Unlike the abstract danger of divisive language in Citizen Jack, the clashing interpretations of God’s word by religious extremists and Marxist socialism is often fatal in Satrapi’s world.

 

 

The book details many tragedies, which alone challenge the nationalist narratives of countries that have brought destruction upon innocent people in the attempt to rake in power and money, but this clearly isn’t the purpose of Persepolis. In detailing her flight from Iran to Austria and back again, our narrator tells the story of a nation that has been buried beneath the rhetoric of higher powers. The place and culture that created her comes to life in her description of its pleasures and pain, and shows what can be lost when we narrow our view to “us vs them”.

Perhaps behaviour as petty as name-calling shouldn’t be enough to trigger national division in countries where at least 14 years of education is mandatory. But when patriotism - pride in one’s country - becomes clouded by persuasive tribalism that promises to “make America great again”, urges Britain to “take back control”, or labels bilingual schools in Iran as “capitalist” and “decadent”, the gulf of cultural variation is widened.

“Generation snowflake” is essentially a meaningless term, but the emotion behind it is clear. The people throwing it about are really saying that whatever liberal views are offending them this week don’t matter because the Left lost the election. Unsportsmanlike indeed, the words that put a wall up along the Mexican border, or those that had an entire country regret that they voted to leave the European Union, create an animosity towards any kind of diversity, setting us all back decades of progress.

Steff Humm

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Simone Lia and Stephen Collins are cartoonists 

We talked to comics creators Simone Lia and Stephen Collins about their double lives as cartoonists. Lia is the creator of They Didn't Teach THIS in Worm School! and Collins is the brains behind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. They have weekly cartoons in The Observer and The Guardian, respectively.

Josh Franks: How do you decide the subject matter for your cartoons?

Simone Lia: I have a weekly cartoon in The Observer and the subject matter that I’m most interested drawing in is an exploration of what makes us human. These things are everyday concerns, relationships with others, and ourselves. The concerns that I’m talking about are mostly trivial matters, sometimes these are relatable, sometimes not. What I hope for in making the work is stumbling across or revealing a human truth.

Stephen Collins: The Guardian comics require a subject and an idea to be thought of in a very short amount of time - so that means a lot of sifting the news and what's 'in the air', so to speak. Then there's a lot of other boxes to tick: it has to be funny, be visually appealing or at least drawable, it has to have the right tone, it has to fit the space, it should preferably have some sort of point or weight to it as well as just humour... and of course it has to not be something I or someone else have done before. I also can't do certain things because I have a week's lead time before publication so news gets old by the time it's printed. Or, say, if I drew the Queen, she could die, so doing the Queen is a gamble these days... So all this is before I've even started writing it!

JF: Do you consider your comics to be inherently political? If so, is there a message in mind from the outset?

SL: Not at all. If it ever is political, it’s quite by chance; my focus is on the 'being human’ element. I don’t ever have a pre-planned message that I want to communicate. That approach might work for other people but if I ever try it, everything becomes contrived and unsatisfying. With cartoons and especially longer form work, part of the enjoyment is discovering what will be revealed through the creative writing/drawing process and that is often very different to pre-planned ideas and messages.

SC: I’m of the camp that thinks everything’s political to some extent, so yes. And yes, there is sometimes a specific point I have in mind. The trick is getting it across in a funny way without appearing hectoring or pompous.

JF: What are the challenges in creating cartoons? Do you worry about offending people?

SL: I think that the thing we get offended at is a truth revealed about ourselves. I don’t worry about causing offence but I wonder how palatable some of my ideas will be. My latest cartoon is not something trivial; it’s all about death and how we view it in a Western society. My prediction is that this cartoon won’t be that popular with readers.

SC: On the rare occasions when somebody’s offended, it’s usually because they are the sort of person I wanted to offend, so no. But generally most humour exists in peoples’ echo chambers these days, so it rarely reaches the people it’s meant to dig at anyway. Ho hum.

JF: How much are you allowed to show of your own political views? Have you ever had something sent back as too risqué?

SC: I’m lucky in that I work for the Guardian which is broadly my own political bias anyway, so no, I don’t get stuff sent back for being off-message. I certainly wouldn’t get it sent back for being risqué, the Guardian are pretty liberal and I’m not exactly drawing stuff which is wildly controversial anyway.

SL: For my cartoon and other work I don’t go there in a direct way with any political views. With longer-form written work I have weaved characters and storylines into the plot that are based on political persons and events. The characters are in no way recognisable and in story form they come across as being ridiculous and infantile. Interestingly, the parts of the storyline in my new book where I have done this have been sent back to me for re-writes; the notes given were that one particular character was just too mean and cruel.

I wouldn’t blatantly draw an individual or a group of people in a satirical way -- it can be quite tough not making fun of people. Any weakness or flaw that another person has, I’m sure that, unfortunately, I might have something of in myself. I’d rather make fun of myself rather than pointing the finger at others no matter how awful I think they might be.

JF: What are the main differences between working as a cartoonist for a news outlet and working on your own projects?

SC: Deadlines, of course, and you have to justify it being in the paper. It has to have either a news peg or at least a reason for being in that particular section of that particular newspaper. It should chime with that specific readership, for instance. So it’s about audience awareness rather than pure self expression.

SL: With a news outlet you need to keep coming up with new, ideally quite relevant (no matter how tenuous or vague that is) ideas every week to make commentary. Those ideas somehow need to be neatly rounded up and concluded in the contained space, whereas, with personal projects, a single idea can develop over a much longer period of time and that doesn’t always need to be concluded or resolved.

JF: The current political climate has made for excellent cartoon fodder. Do you see the situation changing at all, or will President Trump be at the mercy of cartoonists for the next four years?

SC: Yes, of course - but he unwittingly parodies himself so much I wonder where to go with it sometimes. He seems beyond satire. But it’s been fantastic to see how upset he is by Saturday Night Live’s sketches lately. Satire clearly is hurting him, so that can only be worth carrying on with.

SL: I’m sure that President Trump will be at the mercy of cartoonists for many years to come. Political satire has always been a thing and at the moment it really is fodder with the material writing itself for artists.

JF: Being a cartoonist has become a controversial and even dangerous profession in the last few years. What makes cartoons and cartoonists so important?

SL: A cartoon, especially a simplified single- or two/three-panel comic can communicate an idea succinctly in an instant. The brain processes image and text much more quickly than reading an article, and this kind of communication in the age of social media is ripe for sharing like-minded ideas. A cartoonist can voice the concerns and angers of a much wider audience and bring about a sense of solidarity and conviction amongst people.

SC: It’s a good question. I don’t feel important as such; it’s hardly brain surgery. But I can appreciate the abstract importance of laughing at say, Donald Trump. It’s a vague sort of value; satire is like wallpaper nowadays, so it doesn’t have the effect it had in the 1960s. But if it went away tomorrow, it’s plausible that someone like Trump would become much more powerful because they would be taken more seriously.

Maybe that’s a bad thing, though. He’s pretty powerful now, and we’ve been taking the piss out of him for two years. Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing at him, but acting instead. You can probably tell I’m not wholly sold on the idea of satire as a powerful thing. All those post-Hebdo 'pens as guns’ cartoons seemed embarrassingly naive to me. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Josh Franks

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The Can Opener’s Daughter

Creator: Rob Davis
Publisher: SelfMadeHero

Teenage angst may be the most unique of universal experiences. As the world opens up and “the future” becomes tangible, measured by the cosmic unknowns of time and identity, life and death, it is the place where selves are built. Scraps of the past, our parents and environment, our values, dreams and predictions of the future, are stacked, shattered and re-built to make what we think is an end product that can defeat those unanswerable questions.

Rob Davis understands this, and is able to convey it better than living memory. In his award-winning graphic novel The Motherless Oven, we were introduced to the sharp menace of society in the Bear Park and the doomed non-life of Scarper Lee, the boy with three weeks to live. The book, extraordinary for its philosophical range and depth of inventive analogy, explores the teenage experience, from the codependent influence of the family unit all the way out to the meaning of a life punctuated by its inevitable end.

With death casually lurking in the periphery, one eye on the clock, Davis’ sequel, The Can Opener’s Daughter, takes us back to the origins of Scarper’s infuriating half-friend Vera Pike. 

Growing up in Grave Acre - a place so distinct from the Bear Park it could be another world - Vera has her own experience of planning for death. When a political scandal threatens her family, she is sent to a boarding school where charting the course of their lives to discover the time and circumstances of their eventual suicide is the priority of the girls’ curriculum.

There is less to learn about how the world functions in The Can Opener’s Daughter so its themes are more readily apparent. Death stays nearby to remind us of the inherent existential crisis, lording his presence over the more intricate questions dropping from his pockets, but death isn’t scary here. The characters think about it too much for it to be anything more than workaday. It’s academic. Bureaucratic.

More important for Vera and her peers, although they don’t fully realise it yet, are Davis’ observations of class, and the mechanical grind of the system. The girls aren’t being taught the truth about the world. They are learning how to plot their course through society until society has no further use for them, made practical in the “free will” suicide. Aside from outsider Vera Pike, the girls have two surnames, which mark their importance in the school, and therefore in society, by how fancy they are. A literal reminder of how our fate is often influenced by our birthright. Luck and money.

Vera is a new kind of protagonist; one that owns up to laziness and denies her role due to lack of imagination. It is only the thought that she doesn’t particularly want to die that starts her momentum within the plot - the same push that she gives to Scarper in the first book.

The idea that we shape our parents as much as they shape us is still present from The Motherless Oven, but takes the mother role and turns it back on the society that pigeonholed it in the first place. Vera and her mother are at odds throughout the book, with her mother working as the true antagonist to our hero’s social rebellion. It is a reminder that the conflict of motherhood outlined in classic feminist texts such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is as relevant now as it ever was. The mother’s role is to nurture her child to adulthood. If she succeeds then she destroys her one purpose, as she is no longer needed as a mother.

 

 

When Vera’s story reaches the current timeline, the book follows Vera and Castro as they try to save Scarper Lee on that fateful Wednesday.

Back in the Bear Park there are further analogous creations that add to the significance of this book as a piece of social commentary. The poster pasters, always one step ahead of the gang, inhabit “the media” as a cynical preserver and predictor of fate. Reporting past, present and future - because it’s “all been done before” - they inevitably secure the road forward.

“Your identity is a matter of typesetting and ink, Pike. You’re not as important as you imagine. We are the medium, Pike, and you… You are our message.”

Within that quote is perhaps the most sinister of ongoing messages. All of the kids, from the Bear Park to Grave’s Acre and whatever is beyond, aren’t “important”, are “narcissists” with no individual thought or experience, despite their rebellion.

Davis’ artwork in this series builds up the world even more than his exquisite sleight-of-hand with the English language, which itself is emphasised in spacious and anarchic lettering.

Utilising black and white to draw attention to shape, there is personality and morality in every object. The teenage characters appeal to the reader with their rounded faces and cartoon-clear features, drawing stark contrast to the hideous and overly-lined authority figures. It is imagery that would be at home in the stories of Roald Dahl and adds a sense of wonder to the whole package that softens Davis’ sharp observations.

He stays within conventional panels, often with nine on a page, so that when he does break free to emphasise space, freedom or chaos the effect isn’t wasted. The detail within each frame is impeccable in both creativity and insight.

As much a coming-of-age story as a political piece,The Can Opener’s Daughter can be interpreted with increasing layers as the reader sees fit. It is, however, a truly astonishing work of art, no matter the social lens under which it’s viewed. As a whole, it neither laments the loss of childhood, nor lets any of its characters thrive on black or white thinking. Instead, it honours the teenage experience and the bigger questions that those who are young or different are bold enough to ask.

Steff Humm

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Images courtesy of Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson, Stephen Collins,
SelfMadeHero, Penguin Random House, Simone Lia.

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