Anniversary Blues

Up and down this year. We commemorated some anniversaries, added some others. Among the first, notably the publication of Einstein’s Specific at its centennial and Hiroshima + Nagasaki at their 60th. And among the second, we’d remember of 2005, the passing of Will Eisner, the suicide of Hunter S Thompson, a Nobel laureate for a nuclear disarmament campaigner and the events taken place in the wake of Katrina’s landfall. ‘Good fortune and bad, twisted together like a rope’, as Kazuo Koike suggested in Wolf and Child’s ‘Flute of the Fallen Tiger’.

As far as emblematic figures of this year go, Einstein would not be a bad measure. His spirit seems to cast a profound shadow. Not only by way of commemorating the centennial of the Theory of Specific Relativity, but also we seem to find his the legend of his spirit scattered everywhere. More than his revolutionary contributions to physics and cosmology, we’ve all been weaned on the portrait of Albert as the unacknowledged grandfather of the century; humorous, insightful, as compassionate as he is intelligent, as wise as he is kind. For years slaving in obscure anonymity only to single-handedly produce a revolution in human thinking, the like of which we have not seen in perhaps the 400 years since Columbus ventured forth. With the passing of Will Eisner, who in recent times has come to enjoy being portrayed by the same mix of warmth, a history of suffering and revolutionary thought, we’ve come this year to recall that image.

But far from the paternalistic mythos, we know Einstein is also the Einstein who endorsed the establishment of a nuclear weapons program, who as a relatively young man in the 1920s had the better part of his theoretical creativity behind him, who time and again expressed regret as to the product of his research. ‘The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking. If only I had known, I would have become a watchmaker’. More ambiguous than he is often portrayed Einstein has in many ways come to fit the bill of this year – uncertain present mixed in with the promise of a new world nearly at hand.

Other anniversaries also. A centennial for both Windsor McCay’s Nemo in Slumberland and the archaeological dig at Vasby on Gotland, and a decade of French poststructuralist thinker, Gilles Deleuze’s suicide. A good part of the year’s reading was therefore, and I knew this going into 2005, commemorative in nature. The reading for this year would be more of a revisiting of the familiar than a finding new things.

With Einstein occupying the ambiguous duality of both creative and destructive genius in his own lifetime, a natural selection for the reading list would be Jim Ottaviani’s Fallout, published in October 2001. Like the Manhattan Project housed at Los Alamos, Fallout is a collaborative project. Motivated by Ottaviani’s research and scripting (a nuclear engineer by training who now works as librarian in his retirement), the book tells the story of the A-bomb from its theoretical design through Alexander Sachs reading Einstein and Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt right through to the dawn of the Cold War.

While the variety of artists and artistic styles has been criticized, it’s this variety that really shines through as the moment of critical for Fallout. The chapters drawn by Vince Locke, Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker capture not only latent themes, but also visually articulate the overwhelming feeling of the pieces.

Lieber for example, is positively Kafkaesque in his depiction of the post-1945 bureaucratic nightmare that Oppenheimer must navigate. We see a comics that is disarticulate, hobbled and downright swamped out by masses of text – exactly the way comics would look in a world overrun by Prozess. The highpoint of Parker’s chapter is of course the detonation at Trinity. Oppenheimer stares into the blast and Photo-shopped into that mushroom cloud is an idol of Kali. On cue Oppenheimer flawlessly recites his famous ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. On the very next page – the same blast with Kali, but appearing in negative. As if the bomb itself reached beyond and warped the entire comics-shaped world. A blast so fierce it actually burned into the world an image of a god. The rough nature of Locke’s penciling, and the clear delineations of paneling point to both the confidence and gnawing uncertainty of 1942.

Ottaviani attempts a number of commercial genre with this book. Which is to say, we’ve heard parts of his story told a thousand times over. Like Moore with From Hell, Fallout is a work strongly reliant on research and references to paint the whole picture. Beyond the scholarly element though, I suspect Ottaviani is at his best when he slips from the rigor and footnotes his writing process. In this way he shows another commercial genre; like Gaiman perhaps, he is a writer who is always tentative about how he might be visually interpreted. And like so many others, there is the story of the trials of self-publication; having the financial risk of publishing a story of great personal value.

Perhaps drawn in by the zeitgeist, Drawn and Quarterly this year republished Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s 1969 collection of the Push Man and other stories. It is the story of the ordinary life of Japan, at a time when the medium of comics was the weapon of choice to describe unfolding events. Strong, clear lines, simple panel breakdowns and expert use of the masking effect (Hitler’s face in ‘Killer’, or the rats and sewers in ‘My Hitler’) – Tatsumi is able to eloquently communicate what Njabulo Ndebele has termed ‘the rediscovery of the ordinary’ – art that, using the day-to-day as its palette, responds creatively and defiantly to the glut of ideological conflict. It is the rebirth of the art of the simplified, before the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi, before such Yoshiaki Kawajiri and MADHOUSE’s Program (available on the Animatrix), before even the novels Murakami, Tatsumi stands shoulder to shoulder with John Osborne and Vitorrio De Sica. By way of example, one story. In ‘Projectionist’ the protagonist makes a living by traveling the country to show pornographic films at corporate parties. A seedy business that weighs on his conscious, as his sexual dysfunction is testament to. But his moment of healing comes suddenly, in a countryside restroom where he sees graffiti of a faceless woman, her legs spread open. Still life versus moving life, like Dziga Vertov, Tatsumi makes an argument for the constructed nature of human vitality. The story ends with a new job being called in, right after being ‘amazing tonight’.

But why commemorate at all? Why bind ourselves to canon, to History in that way? Perhaps the most important commemoration, in light of this question, is of the 1905 dig in Gotland. It is because of this dig that we have learnt of the Viking culture there to be a seat of multiculturalism. DNA examination has uncovered Hanceatics here as having both European and Asian parentage, in some cases as close as one generation prior. The excavated harbor of Froyle was shown to be the premier trading port between Europe, Russia and Arabia. The uncovered graves and grave-goods found therein show a culture defined by both its craft-making and its violence. And the Medieval Day celebrations at the town of Vasby have, since the dig, been shown to be the celebration of not a victory, but a surrender. While the historical record has held that in July of 1361, the invading Danes conquered a defiant but united Gotland, osteo-archaeological evidence has now come to light to indicate that the merchant class tucked behind the town walls of Vasby simply surrendered to the Danes after the massacre of the farmers. Farmer against merchant, battle-lines were once again drawn in accord with a civil war from 70 years prior.

In this regard, Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is not out of place in any thinking around the commemorative. Using vintage news-strips to mediate his comics used to mediate the trauma of 9/11. Weaving in Outcault’s Yellow Kid, Opper’s Happy Hooligan Herriman’s Krazy Kat, McCay’s Little Nemo and plethora of turn-of-the-century strips, Spiegelman is both adept and poignant in his depiction of the madness and cruelty of the period. The tale of a homeless woman whose anti-Semitic cursing switches from Russian to English, post-9/11 is stopped short with McCay-style final panel: Art, in his Maus-mask and Little Nemo nightshirt, has fallen out of bed, and after a bad dream involving John Ashcroft is being comforted by his mother wearing a gray World War I-style gas-mask.

Between the dig on Gotland and the recurring meditations of Spiegelman, perhaps the truest image for the commemorative lies in the writings of Graham Hancock. Gotland, like the Aztecs, show a high degree of the civilizational existing side-by-side with the barbaric. In Fingerprints of the Gods, Hancock posits a theory that the climb from stone age to industrialization and a slide backwards into barbarism was made more than once. Ours is simply the latest in a long line of civilizational waves. ‘Like a Thief in the Night’ is both title to the book’s final chapter, and the image he invokes to describe the role of survivors who carry the knowledge of the fallen culture. And Spiegelman, as one example of those writers who have directly tackled the problem of comics-as-historiography, has offered up comics as the best-suited medium for what Dylan Horrocks has called ‘the Other History’.

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