Sarah Horrocks

Mort Cinder: What Remains Without Remaining

ComicsSarah Horrocks
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Mort Cinder is one of the giant works of the comics medium, that for the longest time has been out of reach even as an import.  I’d only ever seen sections of it.  Obviously never in english.  But better late than never.  Alberto Breccia was an atomic bomb to the style of comics.  It actually says a lot that you can see his influence even in American comics without his work really ever being in English.  His students and the people he influenced though were big enough that even with that barrier, you can still say Breccia has touched american comics.  Even if it is more through artists like Jorge Zaffino and Jose Munoz.  But even saying that, there’s nothing like the real thing.  And a lot of what was lost in this translation via Munoz and Zaffino was the incredible texture Breccia works in.  He really does carve light with whatever is at his disposal.  And if Breccia is something of a mystery to the English speaking world, Hector Oesterheld, the writer for Mort Cinder is a complete unknown.  For me the revelation of Mort Cinder isn’t so much Breccia, because I have seen Breccia.  But Oesterheld, and what’s more seeing Breccia in conjunction with the words on the page.  That is what is new for me.  So that’s to say my interest here is the totality that is Mort Cinder.

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Mort Cinder is a series of stories involving the titular character of Mort Cinder and his friend the antique collector Ezra Winston.  The two of them warp through time and genre to tell gothic stories that largely orbit around an explored relationship to Authority.  I think Derrida gives the perfect description of Mort Cinder as a character in his book Cinder where he describes the cinder as “what remains without remaining”.  Cinder is a man who cannot die, and whose life is a constant state of resurrection from his undeadness.  He lives in all of these different eras not as a king or anyone especially glorious.  He is always somehow outside of things.  Even as he is in them.  He is what remains without remaining.  He is death as witness through time, exhausted, coming home to his friend Ezra to tell the stories of his time.

All of these stories involve living with a kind of crushing authority.  Mort never lives the life of a king.  He’s always just below authority.  Just outside of it.  He is both always complicit and always subversive.  He subverts authority by surviving it.  Carrying with him this feeling of complicity.  This guilt.  In “Lead Eyes” our introduction to Mort, he is on the run from the Lead eyed men.  These people whose imagination and memories have been sucked away so a devious hyper mind professor can ride them as he chooses, Get Out style.  In Charlie’s Mother, he’s an infantry soldier blindly charging into battle.  In “the Tower of Babel” he’s a slave, who becomes a master, who then destroys the masters.  In “In the Penitentiary” he’s a prisoner, but he kills escaping prisoners once they become the guards.  In “The Slave Ship”, he’s forced to work on a slaver ship, but then he becomes complicit in the slave trade, then he helps slaves escape, only to again betray one of the slaves--through every story there is this shifting role of resistance, and complicity--there’s a guilt that comes through it all, because Mort Survives it all, and it just becomes more weight that he has to carry as this never dying witness.  He’s a haunted man and Breccia carves him as much out of shadow as he does light.

And while Mort Cinder is not quite as abstract as some other Breccia work like his awe inspiring HP Lovecraft adaptations, there’s a controlled fire here that is truly something to behold.  It’s as if every panel Breccia reinvents the rules of mark making.  His throws everything at the image, like there’s this palpable sense of straining against the limitations of ink itself.  Every image is the truth of itself.  And with that it is still completely coherent.  His mastery of white space or is it his mastery of shadow?  They ebb and flow back and forth between each other, is it the light that made this image or is it the darkness.

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 There is so much being expressed here.  The strain of Mort Cinder’s face here.  The violence underscored by these tire marked hatchings that whip around him like a halo--these smears of ink, and yet the control in the execution of the faces and the muscles--who has ever tried to say so much in a single panel?  The quality of Mort Cinder against any other Breccia work I’ve seen, maybe Perramus is somewhat similar, but less expressive in this particular way,  is that will to be free. To be so in control that you could seem out of control.

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Mort Cinder is like Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster in some ways.  He is this tall behemoth shamble of a man whose presence is so granite on the page that it is hard to believe Oesterheld and Breccia actually invented him, and that they didn’t actually just meet Mort Cinder someplace and decide to tell his story.  That’s the feeling I get from him. He’s somewhat terrifying, but also sad.  He’s a tragic figure.  And there’s something elegiac in his relationship with Ezra Winston.  Ezra is an elderly antique dealer, and in some ways he allows Cinder to express a kind of nostalgic sadness for all he’s seen and couldn’t prevent.  You feel like we are starting at the last chapters of a great man’s life.  Everything is looking back.  Nostalgia comes about because when we reach the end, we are too scared to look forward, to dream forward, the future terrifies us, so we turn our backs to it, and look to the past as the present crumbles down around us.  Cinder is a man who knows dying, but doesn’t know death.  He’s a man who is existentially nostalgic.  He’s neither the fire nor the ash.   

Fuck A Man Booker: My Review of Sabrina

ComicsSarah Horrocks
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So I read the Man Booker prize listed comic, Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso.  When it was first announced that it had been listed for the Man Booker, my reaction was that it looked exactly like the sort of book that people who didn’t like comics would nominate for the first ever comic to get this kind of recognition.  Defenders of the book rushed to tell me that I was mistaken and that this was actually a great book.  So I tried it.  And...I was right. I’m sure for some people this is what they want out of comics, but for me it’s a lot of what I hate.

Sabrina is the story of this one dude whose girlfriend is abducted and murdered--so he goes to live with a high school buddy for awhile.  His buddy works for the military, and most of the book is his friend taking care of this first friend as the story unfurls through new videos of the killing(which we aren’t shown)--the guy whose girlfriend was killed and mutilated--he falls down a rabbit hole of infowars style talk radio conspiracy theory bullshit as he becomes increasingly isolated; while his friend, the military guy, is implicated in these conspiracies, and gets called a crisis actor yada yada--military guy deals with all that while trying to reconcile with the mother of his kid who lives in florida(he lives in Colorado).  Whole thing is kind of about the swirling excitement of atrocity and social media insanity that we live in now and how it inflicts itself on our still mundane offline lives.  The story is mostly carried out through a lot of gridded pages of blobs of white people standing under words which rarely are more than the placeholder for people talking.  It’s the texture of dialog. The tone of a murmur. But it’s just that. None of it is really important or clever enough that you couldn’t just skip it once you get the feel for what it is doing in the story as a whole. Intellectually I understand the import of all of this, and the basic gist of what is being said with the work.  And I get why literary types would read this and get excited because it’s about very much now.

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But this is a comic book, and the execution of this stuff in the comic medium is pretty boring.  Every time I turned the page to see another wall of panels and words and talking heads, I cringed.  It was a miserable experience reading, and there was nothing in here to really see.  Zak Smith said on twitter that it was indicative of a literary establishment that was terrified of images.  And I think that is accurate.  There’s a whole scene of people around comics whose idea of a good time is an unchanging white blob across repeated across several panels to convey an imaged depth.  They’re afraid of anything that looks like a comic or a manga, so they sneer down at books that have actual craftsmanship in their images, and actually give you something to go home with on top of telling a good story.  None of them would ever read something like Children of the Sea unless the same story could be told via clip art on a risograph.  

And sure, people are allowed to like what they like, but it’s so fucking middlebrow it makes me crazy.  The worst thing about middlebrow shit is that it thinks it is the epitome of having good taste.  It’s the best picture at the Oscars shit.  They’ve seen every best picture nominee, but never heard of like...Tsai Ming Liang.  It’s so aggravating.  And I know it’s the same people who push neoliberal policies that ruin the rest of the world.  Who continually add fascists to their hashtag resistance as it suits the winds of todays headline. They have no continuity and are human stumbling blocks to meaningful progress for all. They perpetuate the status quo. They  who miss as clear a war criminal as we’ve had since Nixon, in Dubya just because he gave Michelle Obama some candy. Fucking Biden wants to pin a medal on that piece of shit.  These fucking people suffocate the world under the blanket of their milquetoast bullshit.

I can’t stand it.  I can’t stand this book.

I mean this fucking book.  It’s so now right?  But it deftly sidesteps the role white supremacy plays in all of the key elements of its plot.  White supremacy is why our military is in the middle east.  It’s the underlying thing beneath modern conspiracy theory talk radio.  It’s the thing that keeps us an overly armed populace(except for black people of course--where if they have even a toy gun, the police will execute their children without repercussion)--like man...life sure is hard for us white people with the repression of all this social media shit--that when we walk away from it, we still have our white people shit to go back to.  Meanwhile this country is shuffling anyone latinx into detention camps, executing black men on the streets for just...being there, and treating every muslim like a terrorist in a country where to be accused of terrorism means you lose all of your rights and you disappear for forever. There was a fucking serial killer working for ICE kidnapping and killing latinx women across the southern border. But boo fucking hoo about the mostly off camera object of feigned white male tragedy.  

No here’s a comic that gives us the tragedy of another white girl lost.  I mean the impact is 90 percent focused on men with some lip service to the women she was actually related to. But only some.  But institutions like Man Booker reward such a safe and limited perspective?  Of course they do. It’s because this is the kind of fake deep shit that makes people feel good to understand.  There’s nothing about this that really challenges yours or my status quo.  There are no tough questions being asked here.  It’s just...a very narrow depiction of the way things are right now from a very limited perspective. A perspective that is happy just to say “oh wow, shit is fucked right now, right?” without any kind of deeper unsettling truths that could lead its reader to any kind of meaningful action or experience. Everything you get from this book, you can get from being a privileged white person with a social media account.

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Was Prince of Cats up for a Man Booker for giving a beautiful multilayered comic about violence between young black men?  Nah.  Shit looks too good.  I bet the people who pick this shit have never even heard of it. Did they put Prismstalker up for a Man Booker? Even though it expresses deftly the experience of the colonized? Too genre? Too many colors in the palette?

And god forbid they ever pick up a comic from Japan.  Have you seen those eyes?  Too big to be taken seriously!  Nah if those kind of people are going to read any manga it has to be Gekiga type shit, and it can’t look that great.  Sorry Sanpei Shirato.  You draw too well, and your shit is about ninjas.  How could I, the serious literary person, ever consider something like that?  My shelves of books about English butlers would never forgive me!

So yeah. That’s my review of Sabrina. Man Booker should stay the fuck out of comics.

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