Monday, November 28, 2016

Conundrum Press: Blackbird

Conundrum International is publisher Andy Brown's imprint where he collects or reprints comics from cartoonists around the world. A particularly fertile source for him is Belgium's L'Employe' Du Moi, which often features cartoonists with deep roots in the zine and minicomics making scenes. Pierre Maurel's Blackbird is a perfect example of such a comic. Originally published in 2011, it's still quite relevant in 2016 in the wake of a trend across both Europe and the US of a hard swing to the political right. Maurel's comic shows how in one stroke of a piece of legislature, people can be turned into outlaws. However, the tone of this comic is not one of inevitable defeat, the Orwellian image of "a boot stamping on a human face - forever", but rather one of inevitable resistance in perpetuity. It also explores the origins of how such laws can push fence-sitters into becoming radicals.

As the story begins, we are introduced to a couple of zinesters going about their rounds: stapling, going to the copy shop, and dropping off their zines at the usual bookstores, record stores, etc. Then Maurel introduces us to a specific kind of conflict: that of the choice of keeping one's independence in making zines and having the opportunity to make a living writing as a professional author. Two partners on a zine called "Blackbird" face that conflict when one is chosen for publication and the other isn't. The one who is chosen finds himself distancing himself from his past more and more as he faces pressure to play respectability politics. When it is announced that the government has passed a law that prohibits all forms of self-publishing, the other zinester is now suddenly a criminal.

The rest of the book follows their other zine-making friends in an attempt at resistance. They steal table-top copiers and toner and keep up their publishing, find underground zine fairs and in general try to keep their ideas going. When one of them assaults someone who won't put up a flyer, that one act of violence enables the authorities to really crack down on the zine-makers, citing them all as violent and dangerous (a classic government tactic used against protesters). A lot of the initial resistance is whimsical and conceptual, like splashing ink on the government members who pushed through the bill and then uploading it to youtube. That was done by a an ex-member of the publishing collective who had walked out years earlier because he felt the rest of the group wasn't radical enough, and now the new law had reunited him with his old friends. What was interesting about him was that the more the government cracked down, the more even he became radicalized. He stopped throwing ink and started throwing Molotov cocktails by the end of the book.

While most of the zine-makers we're introduced to are captured and jailed, everyone else was now radicalized. That includes the bomb-throwing writer who lived off the grid, the now-published author who was pushed to fight what was clearly injustice, and a new, younger set of zine-makers who were ready to go to work. Tellingly, that new group had more women than the old group, because this was very much a male-centric story where the women tended to be sexual partners or potential sexual partners. Maurel does little to glorify that aspect of his characters but instead tells it like it is: it is not unusual for otherwise-enlightened men to exhibit openly sexist behavior in scenes like this.

Visually, Maurel's line is a more detailed and naturalistic version of the scratchy, cartoony art of what I've seen from a lot of Belgian cartoonists who work in black and white. It's lively, expressive and fairly dense & detailed, as Maurel wants the reader to get a sense of life in the city as opposed to solely focusing on his characters. The characters and the city are interconnected, and Maurel reflects that in his drawings squats, alleyways, bookshops, and tiny apartments that the zine-makers find themselves inhabiting. Maurel mostly sticks to a six-panel grid to keep things on a steady rhythm, until there's a tense chase scene. When that happens, Maurel drops the grid altogether and uses an open-page layout, as the action literally spills from one image to the next. The experiences of the white, presumably heterosexual characters in the book reflect Maurel's own understanding, I would imagine, but it's certainly not at all difficult to transfer that to any other group that's going through state-sponsored crackdowns.

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