Confessions & Convictions
All of life is finding its way into comics these days, where it always belonged. In the footsteps of R. Crumb’s confessionals and Joe Sacco’s war correspondence, what connects so many of the recent vibrant comics and graphic novels from around the world is their author’s engagement with realities. Their slices of life encompass both the personal through observations and autobiography and political through reportage and exposé.
Nowhere is this more evident than in South Africa. For years under apartheid, most of the indigenous comics culture was stifled by internal censorship and British and American imports. The few local products rarely evolved beyond competent teaching aids or distinctly suspect photo-fumetti.
In the repressive and dangerous climate, it was only via underground channels that any creator-driven expression could eventually be attempted. It took some courage in 1992 for two white Cape Town students, Conrad Botes and Joe Dog, alias Anton Kannemeyer, to found their fiercely critical and controversial Bitterkomix publication in Afrikaans. Their furious, no-nonsense clarity and uncensored gall poked and prodded at the politicos and racists.
For many opponents of the system it was empowering to discover such uncompromised comic strip tracts, privately printed and secretly circulated. Botes’ luscious brush style and historical researches give his stories a somber, persuasive gravitas. Joe Dog appears more playful but is equally merciless, referencing numerous loaded sources from the colonialist trappings of Tintin to the sad allure of Charles Atlas body-building ads.
After the fall of apartheid, the Bitterkomix crew were initially hailed as heroes for their political daring. But once it became clear that they were going to continue to expose hypocrisy and corruption under the new democracy wherever it might be lurking, they were soon perceived once again as seditious undesirables. It’s the status any serious political cartoonist strives for. Ten years since the release of Mandela, Botes and Dog remain as critical and uncompromising of the system and of themselves. They thrive as tireless tricksters, who see no reason to stop antagonising anyone in power and dissecting the most sacred of cows. As Dog puts it, "You brought me up and taught me to fear, to discriminate and hate. And now I must forgive you? No, fuck that."
Living and drawing on another frontline is the Serbian cartoonist Aleksander Zograf. Tapping into a realm somewhere between waking and dreaming, he has been recording his feelings and fears in haunting hypnotic comics that explore the former Yugoslavia’s complex psyche. Using strips and e-mails in his book, Bulletins From Serbia, Zograf brings home the physical and psychological damage on him and his country of the 1999 NATO bombings with vivid intimacy as no other medium can.
Both Zograf and the Bitterkomix joined British and international artists to appear at the 2004 Comica Festival at the ICA in London, brought together under the theme of Confessions & Convictions.
Amid renewed US controversy over gay marriages, José Villarrubia also appeared at Comica 2004 to launch his reinterpretation of Alan Moore’s The Mirror Of Love, originally Moore’s powerful salvo against Thatcher’s homophobic Clause 28.
Moore’s world view are also the subjects of an extraordinary 80-minute documentary which received it’s European premiere at Comica 2004. Directed by Dez Vylenz, The Mindscape Of Alan Moore is a psychedelic journey from his working class childhood through his meteoric rise in comics, to his immersion in magic and shamanism.
Guests with the auto-biographical strand included two of the most original new voices from the USA and France.
Craig Thompson grew up within a strongly religious household, which inevitably shaped his teenage sexual awakening. He has recounted the tentative stages of his first love in the 600-page journal Blankets hailed by Time magazine as the graphic novel of the year and the sort of book that makes you want to wrap yourself inside its life-affirming tenderness.
Family secrets of a different kind run through the first-person comics of David B. With disarming honesty and humour he examines the conflicting emotions he and his family felt as they tried to cope with his elder brother’s epilepsy. I previously raved about the first part of Epileptic; now he has completed the six-volume series in French, release in English by Pantheon/Cape in one bravura 300-page volume.
From Canada comes the nostalgic tenderness of Seth, of Palookaville fame, who will be unveiling a collection of his current serial Clyde Fans, a gracefully melancholic tale of two salesmen’s daily struggle, as well as Bannock, Beans & Black Tea, an illustrated prose novel of his father’s Great Depression memoirs.
Meanwhile, from India arrives Sarnath Banerjee with his hugely successful new graphic novel, a first for Penguin India and already in its second edition. In Corridor, he sweeps you up in the dramas of present-day Delhi street life, revolving around a second-hand bookseller.
Add to all these the genius behind Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware, over again to launch the glorious hardback comics edition of McSweeney’s filled with the cream of North American creators (out in the UK from Hamish Hamilton), plus French superstar duos Dupuy & Berberian and Sfar & Trondheim, Belleville Rendezvous director Sylvian Chomet. Add to this, book launches with Glenn Dakin (Temptation), Carol Swain (Foodboy) and Simone Lia (Fluffy) and movies of Corto Maltese, webcomix and live drawing demos and you haven’t even begun to hear about everything that took place at the Comica Festival 2004.Posted: August 5, 2007
The original version of this article appeared in 2004 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.