I’ll leave the Doug Wright Awards alone soon enough, I promise, but first I wanted to briefly consider each of this year’s winners, since winning an award is supposed to heighten a book’s profile, right? And I try to play into people’s expectations whenever possible. Today we’ll look at Southern Cross and The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, the Best Book category’s honourable mention recipient, and winner, respectively.
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If a vogue ever existed for wordless and woodcut novels—that is, books comprising a narrative told solely through images—it was probably extinct by the time Laurence Hyde began work on Southern Cross in the late 1940s. The book, a parable about the dangers of nuclear testing in the Pacific, has always been outside of its time (especially today, reprinted in facsimile from its 1951 edition). The heyday of the wordless novel ended in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and the concerns of the form feel distinctly interbellum—pro-labour, anti-poverty, pacifist, humanist, but despairing and fatalistic nevertheless. These books share a language with silent cinema, both of which forms, especially in their more serious incarnations, often communicate action and emotion through histrionics, boast an influence from expressionist art, and shoulder a thematic pretension that borders on the sentimental—often harping upon the natures of Man and Modernity, for instance. Such traits tend to remove narratives into the rarefied realm of metaphor and allegory, a heightened register that can take some getting used to. Thus, the plot of Southern Cross begins by coming off something like this:
Behold, there is an island in the Pacific! Its peoples had been content; they worked and played and raised families and were at one with Nature, even at its most ferocious. But such idylls were not to last—for lo, the white man comes, bringing destruction, bringing his Bomb, and he lies and calls it Peace! The story, though, moves into particulars when one specific sailor assaults one specific islander (mmm, symbolism) before the rape is prevented by the native woman’s husband, who kills the sailor. This native family must now hide deep in the foliage of their island, which is being evacuated prior to the atomic tests. Soon they, alongside all the bounteous nature with which they had co-existed, are annihilated when the warmonger pushes his little button. Their infant son, however, survives to cry a single tear—alone, alas! Alone!
In his defence, Hyde’s imagery, rhythm, and mood lend considerable depth to this simplicity, no matter how little they can do to complicate it. His action sequences are tours de force, at least considered among the tableaux encouraged by the woodcut form. Here, moment follows moment and action follows action in a clear and flowing manner. In so doing, unadorned single images—a kicking foot, a thrown rock, a poised finger—assume momentum and weight. The artist also somehow coerces curving lines out of the recalcitrant wood grain, providing each frozen image with a fraught dynamism. These cuts of Hyde’s contrast with the styles of earlier woodcut novelists—Frans Masereel‘s crude, brusque gougings, the sculptural qualities of Lynd Ward‘s work, Otto Nückel‘s raspy textures—in that they have a totemic precision and a mystery that suit his parable well. Particularly impressive is his use of blacks, in landscape and night scenes, which turn clouds, sea, and sky into frightening voids, dwarfing and obscuring the figures trapped between them, inspiring some of the same awe as similar scenes in Murnau’s Tabu. And while Hyde seems to take great pride in the fidelity of his representations of fish and fowl and foliage, it is in his more abstract moments that he truly excels, belying his own claim that “for directness and universal interpretation, pictures … are unrivaled.” An island shrouded in night, hulking against the sky; a woman assaulted, the borders of the image obstructing our view of her head and legs at unfamiliar angles, a tangle of white space commanding our attention; the bomb detonating amid squiggles, swerves, blobs, and scratches—these compositions derive power from their very failure to be direct and easily assimilable.
Though Southern Cross strives admirably, it doesn’t quite attain the heights reached by other woodcut novels—the gigantic mystical ending to Masereel’s Passionate Journey, or the interlocking complexity of Ward’s Vertigo—nor does it gobsmack us with infernal visions of nuclear holocaust as effectively as do more modern works like Gary Panter‘s Jimbo or Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen (Link NFSW). Instead this book delivers an irreproachable message, competently and at times consummately realised, but rarely much more than that. Initially published 20 years after wordless novels and silent films enjoyed their greatest currency, Southern Cross may have always been fated to remain oddly timeless, an urgent warning to the future delivered in a language from the past.
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I haven’t seen the documentary from which this book is adapted, but it seems to be well liked, and by critics who are often right, too. I can understand why the movie would be warmly received: the story is an engrossing one. Having long heard anecdotes about her famous great-grandfather, filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming began crossing the globe, asking her far-flung family about Long Tack Sam’s now-forgotten past. She discovers in him a star of the international vaudeville circuit; a Chinese magician who married an Austrian and made his home in New York, in Linz, in Shanghai; a global citizen whose omnivorous, world-touring, pan-cultural stage show, and whose very life, demonstrated a fluid sense of identity far ahead of its time. His saga is almost intrinsically of interest, given its vast historical and geographic scope—the Long family found themselves embroiled in both World Wars as well as the Chinese Revolution, due to their ties to Austria and to the small entertainment empire they’d built in Shanghai, while Hollywood, flourishing but offering only stereotyped roles to him and his daughters, was well on its way to usurping the place of the vaudeville stage. But Fleming also marshals an astonishing amount of documentary evidence with which to narrate her great-grandfather’s tale, from handbills and posters to magazine articles and stills from home movies, the sort of fascinating cultural flotsam that can help recreate a milieu that might seem almost alien to us today.
All of which leads me to wonder why this book is in comics form at all. Fleming conveys a wealth of information, and organizes it in a canny and suggestive manner, but undermines its progression in every possible way. She ladens it with text, in grating computer fonts. Panels constantly intrude showing her stand-in announcing and underlining the themes she’d like to draw out (“Do you see how complicated this nationalism/border thing is?”), or inanely commenting on the goings-on (“Is that romantic or what?”). This “stickgirl” substitute robs Fleming’s narration of any expressivity, but worse is the seeming refusal to create a cartoon sequence of anything in the book, opting instead to use video captures from the original movie to string visual information together—often artefacted video captures, at that, and usually with the subtitles left in, making the captions accompanying each panel redundant. Long Tack Sam seems to have been created without a firm understanding of how the comics idiom works—even the “origin” story of Sam, drawn in “the style of the golden age of comics” by Julian Lawrence, ends up being anachronistic not only in its tone, but also by assigning a 1940s comic book format to historical material that’s more contemporaneous with the comic strips of the 1900s and 1910s.
This is not to say that the book is totally without effect, as comics—a charge Fleming seems eager to deflect from the outset, claiming she “couldn’t draw very well” while in art school. The problem isn’t that her stickgirl drawings are bad drawings—though they are that—so much as they’re simply incommunicative drawings. Elsewhere, especially when she turns to figures rather than stick people, her pictures have a naïve charm that results not from how good the drawing is, but from how the drawings are used. Fleming uses what skills she has to find the awkward humour in a confrontation with Japanese troops, or to capture the exuberance of her aunt’s dance, or to detail the impression left by majestic Chinese dress. Her washes, done in shades of pink and grey, are always nicely functional and unobtrusive. On a larger scale, her layouts are often innovative, sometimes dividing the page vertically down the centre, or trailing one caption along the top or bottom of multiple silent panels. Most impressive, though, is the way in which the stiffness that plagues fumetti (or photo comics) gets counteracted by Fleming’s arrangement of historical documents, so that family photos and promotional material and so on knit together to tell this story in a surprisingly organic manner, rather than remaining stagnant on the page. This strategy is enough of a success to make me wish the book were actually even less comic-y of a comic than it already is, perhaps something with just photos and captions, a documentary comic of a type I don’t believe we’ve seen yet.
I think this book wishes it were less of a comic, too. Perhaps The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam deserved to be, say, an art book, where the supporting documents could bear the full weight of the narrative, displayed at a size more commensurate with their appeal—I mean, I could spend all day reading instructional essays from magician’s magazines, or looking at photos of flappers posing next to the Our Gang kids. As it stands, though, the comics form does not flatter Fleming’s celebration of vaudeville, cross-cultural pollination, and self re-invention. Still, I hear the movie’s good…
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(As an aside that may seem too trivial to be included in a discussion of any work’s merits, I’d like to renew the call for some kind—any kind—of copy-editing in the comics world. Long Tack Sam suffers more than most from the lax standards that publishers and cartoonists alike apply to comics. Words are capitalized following ellipses, or they’re not; em-dashes are long, or short, with a space on this side, or that side, or both, or neither; “effect” is used for “affect”; “cemetery” is spelled “cemetary”; reference is made to the “Scope” trial of 1925, and to Duchamp’s “Urinal” rather than his “Fountain”; the Nazi swastika is drawn facing the wrong way—just to name a few. Most difficult to comprehend, though, is how a book based on a movie, created by a filmmaker, contains drawings of individual frames of 16mm film that bear no resemblance to the actual thing.)
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Next: more Doug Wright Award winners (and I even like these ones!).