Sunday, 20 April 2014

Die Sonne – 63 Holzschnitte von Frans Masereel

In a second hand book shop in Eton High Street I found a 1927 edition of Frans Masereel’s third woodcut novel, ‘Die Sonne’.

Originally published in 1919, Masereel creates a silent narrative in black and white woodcuts, each 80 x 99mm and packed with detail. Die Sonne starts with an artist falling asleep at his window, with a blazing sun in the sky. As he lies with his head on the table, a little man emerges from the sleeping man, and tries to jump towards the sun, arms outstretched. He tumbles to the ground, and is surrounded by a crowd of people: he points to the sun, and the crowd lift their hands in shock, or laugh at him. As he rushes up a staircase, towards the light the crowd follow him, shaking umbrellas and fists, horrified expressions on their faces.

The crowds are unable to suppress the little man, and despite throwing him in jail, distracting him with sex, alcohol, knowledge and religion, he continues, like a flower climbing towards the sun.

Almost every panel contains the sun, and even panels illustrating the ‘distractions’, a light reoccurs as a motif, emanating from a book, Christ’s halo and the candles in the church, the lamp burning outside the brothel, the fireplace and a lighthouse.

Masereel was a staunch socialist, and before his woodcut novels, he worked on socialist magazines, contributing satirical woodcuts to illustrate left wing articles. During the first world war he refused to fight, and worked as an interpreter for ambulance crews. Masereel was born in Flanders, and aesthetically his work is close to the German expressionists (George Grotz was a close friend), but his work differs from much expressionism, as the message was more political, and his medium reflects his desire to reach the masses, using mass media, rejecting the narrow confines of the art gallery and bourgeois connotations of canvas painting.

His work is more closely related to the cartoon, and with an 80 x 99mm space for his work, his characters, drawn with a few cuts of his tools, are caricatures, by necessity of the medium. The crowds are full of portly businessmen in top hats and umbrellas, the people gesticulate like actors conveying private emotions to a large audience, or a singer performing.

When Masereel was creating ‘Die Sonne’ cartoons were already quite sophisticated, and in America George Herriman was already writing his Krazy Kat strip. Dialogue was already integrated into comics, and literacy, even among working classes, was relatively high in Europe. So, why did he choose to make wordless narratives?

The silent film was at its height at this time, with their simple narratives and exaggerated gestures, Masereel’s work echoes this medium. The stark black and white of his woodcuts also is reminiscent of the strong lighting in ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920), and other German expressionist films.

Masereel had a training as a painter and graphic artist, and these media influenced his work strongly, each image standing on its own as a work of art. Hergé took up to 64 pages to tell his stories, each page with up to 16 panels. Masereel took 63 images to tell the story of Die Sonne, using only two or three panels per scene. Each panel works like a painting, with many different elements contained, and, as with other contemporary painters, he did not feel the need for the written word.

The lack of words keeps the meaning of the text vague, and the interpretation of the story is left to the read. What is the sun? Is it God, love, justice, inspiration or freedom? Many socialist artists have been overly didactic in their work, but Masereel’s work remains relevant and alive today, as the reader can apply their own meaning to the narrative.

Masereel has been an enormous influence on a whole generation of comic book authors and artists. Art Spielgelmann cited him as a major influence, as did Will Eisner.

The book is small in size, just a little larger than A6, printed on soft paper with a yellow tinge (although this may be due to its age). The images are printed with a strong, opaque black, and leave a satisfying imprint, visible on the reverse of the page.

The works were printed in large quantities, up to 100,000 of each, so many copies should still be in circulation. There are also many new editions available, so you should be able to find copies of all of his works.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See

Saturday, 12 April 2014

'The Undertaking of Lily Chen' by Danica Novgorodoff

The Undertaking of Lily Chen starts with an except from the Economist, about a Chinese practice of performing ‘ghost weddings’ for someone who had died single, so they would not spend eternity alone, leading to a spate of body snatching and even murder.

The story starts with a fight – we know nothing about the two young men or what they are fighting over – ending tragically, with one of them pushed into the path of an oncoming car, and killed instantly. As the other runs home, shown in wordless panels, the right hand pages tell in words alone, the 2000 year old story of warlord Caocao, whose young son died before marrying, and as he cries ‘Bring me the body of a woman’, the young man’s mother is shown, as she makes the same request of her youngest son.

The plot is the younger brother’s search for a ‘bride’ for his brother, and the girl he meets, who is fleeing from a marriage she is being forced into for economic reasons.

Artist Danica Novgorodoff’s beautiful watercolours often look like Chinese painting – abstract and painterly, pigment floated onto water, bleeding and running in the grain of the paper, calligraphic brushstokes and earthy colours. The characters are charming and engaging, and I found myself entwined in the story, fearing that Danica would not flinch from a tragic ending, always hoping the protagonists would find happiness.

Her colour palette is limited yet rich, her line energetic and expressive. She has a personal style that is hers alone, and does not ape anything I have seen. Her characters may not be consistently drawn, or proportioned, but this does nothing to diminish the power of the tale, and is more expression and style than lack of technical skill.

The dialogue is confident, naturalistic and economic. Danica moves the story along with seemingly incidental dialogue, but all along we are being pulled into the emotional web she has woven. Lily, innocent and full of vitality, wins the readers’ heart, and Dashiel, taciturn and burdened with the events that have befallen, is just as engaging and believable.

The book is dedicated to Danica’s grandparents, and two of the characters are named after them, Eugene and Ellen. Maybe Danica has Chinese blood, as she certainly has an emotional connection with the landscape and people portrayed.

Author Danica Novgorodoff calls herself an artist rather than a comic book writer, yet, despite such stunning artwork, maybe her greatest talent is as a story teller, eloquently sucking us into her world with a few flicks of her brush.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See

'The Alchemist' by Daniel Sampere and Derek Ruiz

In 1987 a crime was committed in Argentina, the consequences rocking, first France before engulfing the rest of the west. The weapon was best seller The Alchemist, the guilty party, Paulo Coelho, the crime, the deliberate perversion of ancient wisdom and scripture to serve a philosophy of self-servitude.

As if this was not enough, all of creation and every ancient myth and tradition are held to ransom, at the sharp end of Paulo’s pen, and are made to grovel before his vapid ideology. Religion, superstition, occult knowledge and the universe are all cast down at its feet, to acknowledge Mr Coelho as the guru, the rabbi, the teacher and messiah, or our epoch.

His doctrine is that each of us has a ‘personal legend’, which the whole of nature conspires to bring to fruition, if we can only listen to our heart and follow the omens. Self-gratification is thus ennobled, and, a pathway that much of humanity is already on, is dignified. This philosophy is perfect for western civilisation, where self is God.

Mankind does not learn from its mistakes, and in 2010 another crime was committed, this time by comic book artist Daniel Sampere and writer Derek Ruiz. The Alchemist is now available in graphic novel form.

Daniel Sampere does a good job in illustrating the story – well researched, the illustrations are slick, confident and detailed. He is an excellent draftsman, in the mainstream comic book style, and, accompanied with its beautiful colouring, the artwork will satisfy many comic book readers. The adaptation is also good, although it feels at times as if the production was slightly rushed. I do not feel the storyboarding is very accomplished, and as series of images, I have seen much better.

Mainstream comic book style and ‘spirituality’ are strange bedfellows. Two goddesses are portrayed as large breasted beauties, with lush curly hair, cascading down their naked shoulders, and the men are all rippling torsos. However, the more I think about it, if our personal desires are elevated to the spiritual realm, why not include every desire we have. However, if I was commissioning an artist to tackle a spiritual book, I would find someone with a more lyrical style. Apparently Moebius was commissioned to do some pages initially, but Paulo Coelho was not convinced. This is a shame, as I think his book would have been both beautiful and interesting.

In his foreword, artist Daniel Sampere writes that his personal legend was to become a comic book artist. As much as I applaud this ambition, I cannot think of this as spiritual in any way, and if The Alchemist encourages us to elevate our desires and ambitions to this realm, then it has done an enormous disservice to mankind.

I also found the production and typography of the book careless. Some speech bubbles are sitting on top of characters’ heads, and captions seem to be placed randomly at times. Also some image borders are too close to the edge of the page, and are crooked. I also found it odd that images bled off the page, but were done in a rigid grid format. I would have liked to see, either a white border, or a more fluid graphic style employed (like Arkham Asylum for example).

The review on Amazon says that this book “continues to change the lives of its readers forever”. The Alchemist is loved by people who already have this philosophy, and are glad to find literature that justifies this selfish and materialistic way of life.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See