Wednesday 27 August 2008

red Colored Elegy (Hardcover) by Seiichi Hayashi published last month by Drawn and Quarterly.
This Japanese work was originally drawn (and presumably published) in 1970/71 and I find my self more inclined to imagine what I would have thought about it then rather than what I think about it now.

It's 236 pages long, but that is beside the point. More germane, it's a long strip cartoon about the stuff of life; it's about sex and love, the attempt to make a living from art, and your parents dying. In 1971 I would have found this inspirational. There was an idea getting around that comic books could amount to something more than routine bouts of costumed pugnacity. When Will Eisner was asked directly in a 1968 intervew whether he thought the idea of a novel in comics form was viable he said he thought the time wasn't right for it. When asked about Gil Kane's His Name is Savage, just released at that time, he he said that he felt that it was not entirely successful. He doesn't make his point clear, but we feel that he meant that it had not set its goal high enough, that it only sought to raise a comic book to the level of a paricularly violent Lee Marvin movie. When he saw his own A Contract With God published ten years later, it was the ambitiousness of his theme that he was most pleased with, a man and his relationship with his God, as he has said often. When he called that suite of short stories a 'graphic novel' he meant to draw attention to this thematic ambition. Neither the form nor the format was the relevant issue. In the same month that book came out (oct 1978) he started a serial in his regular Spirit magazine (Kitchen Sink Press) titled Life on another Planet. He called that a 'graphic novel' too (as printed on the first page). Its serial nature was beside the point. Back then we lived in a world of ideas and possibilities. Today our pinched and mean world is all taxonomies and guys with measuring tapes. Over on the Comics Journal board somebody posits that a so-called 'graphic novel' must have at least 100 pages; elsewhere this week somebody else states that Watchmen cannot be considered a 'graphic novel' because it was first issued in serial form (and in the stupid nature of his cockeyed classifications it must therefore be 'a trade paperback').

Red Elegy is a good read, though this reviewer at amazon says he had trouble making sense of it. I would guess that's because today's reader has a more linear brain than 1970's reader. It reminds me of 'world cinema' in the '60s and of that noble movement in which cinema viewers were expected to be viewing at a somewhat higher level than tv comsumers in their sitting rooms. There was an idea abroad in the world that cinema was the art of our times, absurd in these times now that the whole medium appears to have descended to the level of comic books.

It would have appealed to me at the time particularly for suggesting new pictorial ideas and sequential schemata, which the Kane book and so many others of the seventies, the reputations of which I will not enrich by mentioning them by name, failed to do. If I could, I would have obtained a copy in Japanese and kept it on my shelf, and would have contented myself to imagine what was being said and done. I like the way it indolently takes its time. There's not a great deal of hard information in here, and when there is some, it is delivered obliquely. Some other reviewers have mentioned that characters are not well enough differentiated. In fact there are only two that matter. He and she. And if occasionally you confuse the two of them, well hey, welcome to 1970.