Saturday, December 26, 2009

Early Japanese comics

Kyoto International Manga Museum (photo P. Lefèvre)

The Kyoto Seika University International Manga Research Center invited me to participate in their conference Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Scholarship on a Global Scale (December 18-20) of which next year will be published a bilingual anthology (Japanese/English). It was on the whole an interesting dialogue between Japanese scholars (amongst others Fusanosuke Natsume) and their colleagues from abroad (amongst others Thierry Groensteen and Thomas Lamarre). I presented a paper about the necessities of international collaborations for comparative research. The event took place in Japan's first general manga museum Kyoto International Manga Museum, which features not only interesting exhibitions but has also an impressive library and a research center. The museum is run by the Kyoto Seika University, which was moreover the first Japanese university to set up a proper faculty dedicated to manga. Already on a quantative level it seems to be a huge succes with 852 undergraduate students.
Today in the research center of the museum I had a chanche to browse through some early magazines from between 1900 and 1914 (as Nipponchi and Tokyo Puck). From the few copies of Japanese periodicals I could consult I saw quite a variety in publication formats (though always with soft cover), but all sequential works were drawn in a more or less charicatural style with clear contour lines, mostly with one or more additional color(s). All the characters and locations looked Japanese. On the one hand one can see an important role of politics (as the war with Russia), but on the other hand there is also a lot of purely funny material (as mischief gag comics). I didn't see any translations or reprints of European or American comics - though various magazines clearly refer through their title to 'Punch' or 'Puck'.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New publications

Two new publications about my continuing research on early comics were recently released.

One is in English and focuses on panel arrangements and page layouts of early comics published in Belgium in the five decades before the start of Tintin in 1929. It investigates the degree of standardisation in this pivotal period, in which the old system of graphic narratives with captions evolved to comics with balloons. The years between 1880 and 1929 boasted a variety of publication formats (broadsheets, illustrated magazines for adults and for children, comic strips, artists’ books), within which one can see both similar and different conventions at work.

- Lefèvre, Pascal, 'The Conquest of Space. Evolution of panel arrangements and page lay outs in early comics’ in European Comic Art, in European Comic Art, Vol. 2, N°2, 2009, p.227-252 .

The other article is in Dutch and gives an overview of the publication formats of sequential graphics in Belgium before the 1930s.

- Lefèvre, Pascal, 'Panorama van het vroege beeldverhaal in België (1870-1929)' in Sint-Lukas Galerie Brussel, p. 12-17.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Close up on Busch

The Félicien Rops museum in Namur (Belgium) held this summer an interesting exhibition on Wilhelm Busch in collaboration with the Wilhelm Busch Museum of Hannover. Busch (1832-1908) is widely known as one of the crucial comics artists of the nineteenth century, but as the exhibition showed he painted also extensively (about 1,000 paintings). The artist is of course more known for his humoristic stories such as Max und Moritz. The exhibition showed some original drawings, which Busch executed on a very small format. Nevertheless this small format, every scene is rendered in striking sketchy, loose lines but they do the trick: the pencil drawings are far more curvy and dynamic than the woodcut versions of the broadsheets. The printed version respects largely the original composition, but alters the drawing by using unbroken contour lines, by leaving some elements out (such as the thick hatching on the left) and adding various elements (eg the hatching on the belly of the man). The flat coloring helps in defining various parts or elements that Busch left undefined in his original pencil strokes (for instance the border between the shirt and the trousers of the man).

on the left original pencil drawing by Wilhelm Busch (1870)
on the right printed (wood cut) version of Münchener Bilderbogen (1870)

In the exhibition and the catalogue (only available in French
Wilhelm Busch, de la caricature à la DB) the fact is stressed that Wilhelm Busch was influenced by the new photographic medium and that he - unlike most of his colleagues - did not solely use long shots, but that he included also close ups in his picture stories. Examples can be found in Die Fliege (1861), Der Schnuller (1863), Max und Moritz (1865). Every time he uses the close up for a clear narrative purpose, namely to make some small but important elements bigger: for instance the crushing of an irritating fly under a foot.
So, Busch used close ups long before cinema (
Grandma's Reading Glass of 1900 is often acclaimed to have used for the first time a close up in a short film narrative). Nevertheless it would still take a long time before the insertion of such close ups became a regular practice in various comics.

Die Fliege (1861)

Der Schnuller (1863)

More information and visuals on a website about
Wilhelm Busch
Hans Joachim
Neyer (ed.), Wilhelm Busch, de la caricature à la DB, Oostkamp: Stichting Kunstboek, 2009.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wanted !

A majority of the comics that were published in Belgium before the birth of Tintin in 1929 came from abroad: often the names of the characters are changed and no references to the artists name or the original publication can be found. Therefore I call out to other specialists if they might recognize some of the following characters I found in the Flemish children magazine De Kindervriend early 20th century (unfortunately not dated).

The two characters called in the Dutch text 'Job & Bob' I've already recognized, i
t are the English Weary Willie and Tired Tim by Tom Brown, but does somebody know where and when this gag was first published ?

Tom Brown's Weary Willie and Tired Tim called Job & Bob
in the Flemish children's magazine De Kindervriend (N° 220)

The next panel features some mischievous children, quite resembling to the Katzenjammer Kids. Steve Holland mailed me and suggested that it are: "The Bunsey Boys which appeared in The Wonder in 1901 and continued in The Jester and Wonder when Wonder changed title (but continued its numbering) in 1902. Apparently, the strip was drawn by Leonard Shields when it appeared in the latter, although it is likely he was not the original artist."

from De Kindervriend (N° 221)

Here's another yet unidentified comic character, probably from the British press.

from De Kindervriend (N° 222)

And who's the author and the original of this elephant called 'Jimmy' in the translation by
De Kindervriend.

An elephant called 'Jimmy' in De Kindervriend (N° 214)

So any help with the identification of these comics would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

International Research Society for Children's Literature 2009 conference in Frankfurt am Main

I.G.-Farben-Haus by Poelzig (1930)
today G
oethe University in Frankfurt am Main (photo Pascal Lefèvre)

I've just returned from the largest academic conference I ever attended to, the 19th biennial congress of IRSCL (International Research Society for Children's Literature) hosted by the German Intitut für Jugendbuchforschung at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main. Some 400 delegates came from all around the globe to the modern Westende campus, with the famous building by Hans Poelzig, I.G.-Farben-Haus which was once the home of the production administration of Zyklon B. After the war it served for the American army, but in 2001 the Goethe university renamed the building the Poelzig-Bau. The architect Poelzig (1869-1936) fled in 1936 for the Nazi's to Turkey, where he died. He was not only an architect but also a painter and set designer for the movies (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, 1920)
Anyhow his building is impressive and the campus is quite pleasing. The organisation of the conference was perfect - except for the fact that our half day off was planned on a Monday when almost all the musea were closed. With some plenary lectures (unfortunately Zohar Shavit was too ill to travel, so she sent a videotape) and 15 concurrent sessions during 5 days we had an enormous choice. Furthermore English was not the only conference language, but there were lectures and complete panels in French, German or Spanish, which is in itself a good thing if there's at least a translation available - otherwise one only preaches to the already converted.
Except for keynotes, I attended 19 papers (in four different languages) of the concurrent sessions, so I can't judge the global conference. I chose foremost the comics-related papers, but also talks on early representations of Africa. As always, the level was quite variable: I heard some very interesting presentations, such as Giulia Pezzuolo's talk about extraterrestrials in Italian fantastic literature for children, early 20th century. For her most books aimed to convey the dominant values rather than entertain or develop one's critical mind. Sandra's Beckett's visual exploration of the very different contemporary versions of Little Red Riding Hood was quite entertaining. This famous fairy tale figure can be transposed to virtually any cultural setting: from an African in a leopard-skin to a Japanese in a kimono.
Comics specialists should for certain become more active in these circles of children's literature. Browsing through the program it seems that most academics focus rather on content, translation problems or on cultural, ideological aspects, but for instance very few attention is given to the economical side of children's literature. Most scholars were indeed from education or literary departments. It must be also one of the few fields were women outnumber their males colleagues.
I was in a panel on children's media and (post-)colonialism with excellent colleagues from the Netherlands: Lies Wesseling (on the 'adoption plot' in missionary discourse and children's literature), Sybille Lammes (on post-colonial computer games), Helma van Lierop (on the construction of Africa in Dutch children's literature around 1900) and Astrid Surmatz (on representations of Lappland in two Swedish children's book).
Frankfurt turned out a rather pleasant location with interesting musea such as their Film Museum and the Communication's Museum (which are almost neighbors). This winter the archaeological museum will feature an exhibition on the tapestry of Bayeux in collaboration with the French Centre Guillaume le Conquérant, the National Museum in Kopenhagen and the Viking Ship Museum of Roskilde.

the mischievous Max and Moritz still live on
in the streets of Frankfurt am Main (photo Pascal Lefèvre)

Friday, August 7, 2009

A city symphony from São Paulo

still from site Tampere Short Film Festival 2006

The German Film Museum of Frankfurt screened a rarely shown Brazilian ´city symphony´, namely Rodolpho Rex Lustig´s and Adalberto Kemeny´s São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole (1929, link), because only recently restored by the Fundação Cinemateca Brasileira. The screening was part of a larger program on city symphonies (a.o. also one about Tokyo) curated by a PhD-candidate working on this genre, Chris Dähne.

São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole was made by two Hungarian born directors, but who worked in the German film industry after WOI. In the 1920s they emigrated to Brazil, where they were also responsible for the first sound newsreels A Voz do Brasil.
São Paulo was in that period a booming city, by 1930 about 2,5 immigrants had already entered the city . This film was clearly produced before the economic crisis of 1929, because São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole is showing with much pride how well the economy and the government is doing - though the film does not forget the blue collar workers in poor clothings. São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole represents in a categorical organisation various parts of São Paulo´s public and economic live, it´s almost a patriotic propaganda film claiming the coming of an even better society with a ´a better race´(as one of the intertitles says). Remarkably is the long sequence of the city´s new prison. The text explains that crime results from poverty and ignorance, therefore the authorities try to convert the prisoners into better citizens by instructing them manual labour on the fields (´so that they learn to care for plants´), by obliging them to do physical exercises in large groups, drilling them as marching soldiers, educating them (learning to write), and providing - although not obligatory - catholic faith. While the film suggests that we follow one day in the city, from dawn till dusk, this prison sequence proves that it is a condensed montage of various days of filming - in fact the images of this film were taken over a period of two years. Moreover, though the broad composition of the film is categorical, in some sequences there are also small narrative lines interwoven. In the prison sequence we follow a newly arrived prisoner, number 1945: after a introducing aerial shot of the prison, we see number 1945 his fingerprints been taken, superficially examined by the prison doctor. Afterwards number 1945 will reappear in various parts of the prison sequence. While the prisoners are mostly shown as a group in long shots, the camera and the montage sometimes single out prisoner 1945: we see him at the blackboard in the class scene, praying in the church, receiving family visit etc. So, events may be more staged and less documentary than expected. Though the directors largely work with street scenes and with real people, some scenes are not as natural as one could expect from a documentary. Anyhow the directors do not hide this. At a certain point there´s some kind of flash back, we are supposed to see Brazilian soldiers celebrating the indepence in 1822, but the origin of these images remains unclear: were they staged for this film or shot from a contemporary rememberance show or taken from another ´historical film´? Moreover these European emigrant directors must have seen various films from their continent. Of course there´s the influence of other city symphonies (such as Walter Ruttmann´s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt), but there are - however not well motivated - references to abstract films (eg. a turning spiral and animated geometrical shapes), to the kind of shots Soviet directors as Eisenstein made famous (close ups of non identified hands grabbing for money)... The overall rhythm of São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole is rather slow and various sequences are not terribly fascinating. It is for certain a less poetic film than the more famous city symphonies. Sometimes the directors use fancy techniques (as graphic matches, special filters), but seldom in a very consistent way. Their film lacks a coherent stylistic approach.
One could have expected at the end of the film a sequence of the city´s night life (bars, vaudeville etc.), but nothing came. Probably this didn´t fit into the overall idea of celebrating uplifting work for a better society. How bright things may look in this film, history didn´t run exactly in the proclaimed direction, because the economic crisis plunged the city in huge problems and the revolution of 1930 would dethrone São Paulo´s political supremacy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Sadistic Laughter in Mischief Gag Comics

Frank Ladendorf. Le Bon père et la pelote d'épingles
in Illustration Européenne , vol. 29, n° 21, 1899-05-28

Next week I’ll present in Frankfurt at the
19th Biennial Congress of IRSCL (The International Research Society for Children's Literature) a paper on the early mischief gag comic, based on a case study of this genre in the Belgian weekly Illustration Européenne (1885-1904). It is common knowledge that at the turn of the 20th century the comic strip boomed in the Sunday Pages of the American newspapers, but the magazines were crucial as well. Comics published in Puck and Judge were often translated and reprinted in European illustrated magazines. During the so called Belle Époque Belgian illustrated magazines as Illustration Européenne and Le Patriote Illustré published scores of American comics. One of the popular genres of that time seems to be the mischief gag comic, about children playing pranks on someone else, usually an adult. A mischief gag implies that a child or group of children acts intentionally (for its own pleasure) to cause material, corporal, mental or social distress on their victims. Since the child is physically inferior to an adult, the child will only prepare his prank in the absence of the adult or when the adult is unaware, because he is working, or talking to someone or sleeping. The pranks in comics range from quite innocent deeds as stealing apples to really painful tricks, such as electroshocking the maid.
Famous examples are of course the German Max und Moritz (Wilhelm Busch, 1865) and the American The Katzenjammer Kids (Dirks, 1897), but there are many others late 19th century. Two artists working for American magazines Franklin Morris Howarth (circa 1870-1908) and Frank Ladendorf were quite active in this particular genre of the mischief gag.
The basic formula of the mischief gag is not only typical for the comics medium, but was also very popular in the first years of cinema – especially in American cinema (Tom Gunning 1995). The early cinematographers took their inspiration for short comedy films not only from vaudeville but also from the graphic humor of the illustrated journals and papers. Ladendorfs series Mischievous Willie (The New York World 1898-1903) was already in 1902 turned into a short live action movie (Mischievous Willie’s Rocking Chair Motor) in the Biograph Studios in New York. Also the French film pioneers, the Lumière brothers adapted in 1895 a well known gag from the comics for their L’Arroseur arrosé. For film scholar Tom Gunning (1995:88-89) Lumière’s L’Arroseur arrosé can be described not only as the first fictional (that is, staged) narrative film but also as the first film comedy.

In contrast to Max and Moritz who were executed after a few assaults, most mischievous children in the later (German and American) comics are clearly not punished. Comics historian David Kunzle (1990:249) suggests that “in the late 19th century (…) rebellion was no longer so fearful a concept for the lower middle classes, and so they might safely, vicariously enjoy the power asserted with impunity by the child rebels.” But in the moralistic French popular prints of the late 19th century the disobedient child still gets his punishment or his pranks backfires and the rascal has then to suffer the consequences of his action.
An interesting element is how the reader is implicated in the visual narrative. In practically all cases the reader sees clearly how a child is preparing a mischievous trick. While the future victim is still unaware of his near misfortune, the reader can often anticipate what will happen next. He and the mischievous child are the only ones who have that knowledge; but contrary to the child the reader has to remain a passive witness, he or she can’t prevent the malicious action from taking place. Moreover the reader is generally expected to laugh with the misfortune of the victims and share the sadistic pleasure of the mischievous child. As the French philosopher Henri Bergson remarked laughter requires an absence of feeling, a "momentary anesthesia of the heart". In the case of a gag comic this is not so difficult to do, because the drawings remind the reader of the artificial and fictional status of the scene.

Frank Ladendorf
Les Espiègleries de Bébé. - Comment le grand'papa faillit passer pour un voleur
in Illustration Européenne, vol. 30, n° 24, 1900-06-17

In some specific examples, the formal aspects of the mise en scène are stressing this crucial implication of the reader. In a few comics by Frank Ladendorf (see illustrations) the mischievous children turn towards the reader and look ‘directly’ in the eyes of the reader. This is even more relevant, since none of the other characters of the scene turn towards the reader, they remain completely in the fictive and diegetic space; unlike the young prankster the adult victims seem not to be aware of the extradiegetic space (Lefevre 2008). The gag comic becomes at such moment quite self-conscious. Unlike drama comedy can allow more easily such moments of self-awareness, the illusion of reality is for a comedy of lesser importance than for a dramatic context. I would argue that the direct look of the mischievous child in the Ladendorf’s comics isn’t an incidental feature, but a striking and important device – which seems less used in the mischief gag films of the same period.

Website: IMDb

Bergson, Henir. 2007. Le rire: essai sur la signification du comique. Paris : PUF.

Castelli, Alfredo. 2007. Eccoci Ancora Qui! Here We Are Again. Museo Italiano del Fumetto/If Edizioni.
Gunning, Tom, 1995. ‘Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Pahts. Mischief Gags and the The Origins of American Comedy’, in: Brunosvska Karnick, Kristine, & Jenkins, Henry, Classical Hollywood Comedy, New York: Routledge, pp. 87-105.
Kunzle, David. 1990 The History of The Comic Strip, The Nineteenth Century. Berkely: University of California Press. Lefèvre, Pascal. 2008. ‘The Construction of Space in Comics’ in Heer, Jeet & Worcester, Kenton (eds.), A Comics Studies Reader, University Press of Mississippi, pp. 157-162.
Rickman, Lance. 2008. ‘Bande dessinée and the Cinematograph. Visual narrative in 1895’ in European Comic Art, vol 1, n° 1, spring 2008, pp. 1-19.
Walton, Kendall L. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe. On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.