Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Boxers and Saints. By Gene Luen Yang.

Religious people, particularly Catholics, have never distinguished themselves by an ability to see both sides of a story. However, in Boxers and Saints, Catholic Gene Luen Yang proves he is an exception, unravelling the events of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in Beijing from two contrasting perspectives, in two books, sold together as a box set.

'Boxers' tells the story of Little Bao, leader of the rebellion, and 'Saints' the story of Vibiana, a Chinese Catholic girl, caught up in the struggle. Gene Luen Yang shows the same events through different eyes and perspectives, and through the windows of two opposing world views and philosophies.

Yang’s parents were from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and during his early years in America, reinforced their culture by telling him traditional Chinese stories, and you can sense his love and respect for traditional Chinese beliefs, with their gods, customs and rituals, and in 'Boxers' he is able to express this freely, without any Christian commentary.

Yang’s artwork is what I would call ‘Indie’ and sits alongside cartoonists such as Seth and Chris Ware. His drawing is not slick or technically accomplished, and is slightly stylised, using a muted palette of colours. This does not mean the images cannot be beautiful: the full colour plate on page 212 of 'Boxers' is wonderfully composed and expressive, beautifully conveying the blowing wind in the banner and long grass.

The books build to a conclusion where the two tales converge, and some kind of hope and salvation emerges from this bloody tale.

Yang brings both the traditional, Chinese, mythical spirit world together with visions of Christian saints and appearances of talking animals. Both characters are guided by beings from another dimension, as Yang points out similarities between the two cultures and faiths, as well as making for great story telling.

Yang shows that neither side can claim a monopoly on truth, bravery, sacrifice or justice.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com

Corto Maltese. The Ballad of the Salt Sea. By Hugo Pratt

This English edition of the first of Hugo Pratt’s stories about his most famous character, was released 45 years after the original. Loved by Italians and French alike, Corto Maltese has been translated into 15 languages, yet there seem few English editions among them, making this book a most welcome publication.

The story is set in the Pacific, amid factual events from the First World War. Some of the characters are loosely based on historical figures, for example the companion/nemesis of Corto: Rasputin, a ruthless pirate, with whom Corto Maltese shares a strange kind of mutual dependency and begrudging admiration.

Hugo Pratt brings a psychological complexity to a genre, started by RL Stevenson, and developed by Hergé, that often relied on clichés, yet Pratt not only places his stories into real places and times, but his characters are fully rounded as human beings, full of contradictions and surprises, but never less than convincing.

Hugo Pratt combines swashbuckling adventure with meticulous research, into details such as the Polynesian outrigger or the Fijian catamaran or the uniforms of the naval officers. Yet, at the same time, his work is sparse and minimalistic, using a few strokes of a brush or pen to describe a cloud, the sea or a building. His lines and strokes are lively and expressionistic, and it is as much about what he leaves out, as what he puts in.

The publishers have made an admirable effort at colouring Hugo Pratt's black and white cartoons. The colouring has been done by Patritzia Zanotti, the partner of Hugo Pratt, and they imitate his wonderful watercolours: scant, energetic and painterly. However, I do wonder if it would have been better to leave it as close to the original as possible. The artwork was done as black and white, and not intended to be coloured, so, despite an excellent attempt, the colourisation is not so successful.

The artwork has also been changed to fit into a smaller format, with fewer panels on each page, and this interferes with the rhythm of the story. No one would dream of doing this to a painting, so why change this masterpiece of comic art. In terms of the production of the book, I found the attention to detail lacking at times, with some schoolboy production errors, and I wonder if this is down to squeezing of budgets and time spent proof reading.

Despite these irritating mistakes, this book will grace any comic fans shelf, and the wonderful story telling, characters, drama and artwork, continue to shine through.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com