Posted by: John Kane on February 17, 2012
And then I talk about some European comics illustrated by Jordi Bernet and the room gets blue quite quick. It’s not an appealing prospect I know so:
(This being The Internet I’m sure this will work out just great but just in case: I believe you’ll be able to visit me on Wednesdays but they will frisk you and no physical contact will be allowed. I may also be sedated but don’t worry it’ll be for my own good. Bring cigarettes.)
Edited by Manuel Auad
Introduction by Will Eisner
Foreword by Joe Kubert
Art by Jordi Bernet Words by various European writers
(Auad Publishing, 2003, $24.95, B/W)
This handsome book is like one of those dinners where everyone dresses in tux’n’tails and one by one steps up to the podium to talk about how swell the guy at the front table is. Over here that usually happens when someone’s dead but Europe values its artists so this was published while Jordi Bernet was still alive. Which he still is unless I missed something. These celebratory text pieces punctuate the visually splendid stories, sketches, spot illos., advertisements and book covers reproduced here in a valiant attempt to suggest the massive talent whose name is on the front.
Now, I know as much about Spanish comics as they do about me but on this evidence they are very varied. The full stories reprinted here cover cowboys, war, crime, sword & sorcery fantasy, smutty gag strips, sci-fi and each of these has either a horrific or comical aspect which points to a healthy disrespect for conventions. There’s one page here with Batman on and that’s from the U.S. BATMAN:BLACK&WHITE series (words: Howard Victor Chaykin). just in case a super-hero fan wandered in by mistake and was looking for something familiar to cling on to. Truly, all comers are catered for here. If you’re looking for an “in” on the whole Bernet thing this book is the best place to start and if you just like great comic art you should be halfway to your LCS already.
That’s Jordi Bernet up there. Isn’t he just the cutest little rascal! That picture is taken from the brief bio of The Bernet at the front of the book. After some facts it pretty much settles into a list of what comics he’s drawn because apparently sitting in a chair drawing isn’t really the stuff of high adventure. It still manages to be revealing about the great man despite this. As we can see Jordi Bernet grew up when people dressed their kids like it was Awesome Time all of the time. Or at least kids dressed more like grown-ups than grown ups do today. (Ha! You hated that!) When Jordi Bernet was 15 his father, one Jorge Bernet a successful newspaper cartoonist, died and the the bereaved child took over the strip in order to support his family. This tells us three things; unlike me at 15 Jordi Bernet had better things to do than stick pictures of Sybil Danning inside his underpants with nature’s solvent, child labour laws in Spain were quite lax and Jordi Bernet certainly had the motivation and talent to become great. Just how great he became is the whole point of this book as is some idea of how long it took him to become so. Turns out it didn’t take him long at all. There’s work here from 1966 which is good and then he just gets better and better. Once he reaches a certain point (tough to pinpoint but I’ll say the late ’70s?) though the improvements take longer and are harder to see because by that point he is Bernet and improving on perfection is tougher work than achieving it.
Bernet is great and I think I can demonstrate that best by talking about hair. Obviously. Now, hair in most comics is just stuff on somebody’s head. Sometimes it’s black, sometimes it’s not. On the whole about as much attention is paid to hair as there is hair on my bonce (not a lot). When you notice how Bernet draws hair you notice how little care most artists take. I love the way Bernet draws hair. Bernet understands that there are different kinds of hair. There isn’t just Woman hair (long) and Man hair (short). Hair has different textures and qualities depending on the head upon which it resides. If you use products on it hair appears different again. Sometimes Bernet will give his women’s hair a great bold holding line with just the tiniest touch of detailing meant to represent it being blow-dried and lacquered.You don’t see that attention to detail a lot.
When people sweat their hair gets spiky and sticks up and out, when people are active their hair is active too, and, yes, less so if it is lacquered and blow-dried. There is a picture in the book (p.16) of Bernet, Frank Robbins and Bertha Robbins on a beach which might as well be captioned “When Comb-overs Were King!” Bernet knows that it’s important to capture what is important about life if you are going to try and represent it on the page. Hair is important and Bernet is good at the hair but he’s good at everything else. Bernet’s drapery, lighting and staging are all fantastic, informed by his decades of experience. He might be able to just toss that stuff off now but as I’m sure someone more intelligent commented about someone else; that particular picture didn’t take him 5 minutes to draw it took him decades plus the five minutes. (N.B. If someone knows the quote, who it’s from and who it’s about let me know and I’ll edit it in so it looks like I actually worked on this thing properly) Bernet’s great. Don’t get me started on his dry brushing.
Bernet’s realism is concrete enough to apprehend the realistic qualities of the worlds he builds but also elastic enough to accommodate cartoony exaggeration without undermining the ever important verisimilitude. But Bernet never gets bogged down in detail. He manages to solve the problem of continuity which (generalisation) plagues European artists. This is a different continuity problem to the one which plagues American genre comics. It isn’t the one about how every time I see Luke Cage the seedy vision of him having bum fun with Jessica Jones rears up like a terrible recovered memory. No, the European continuity problem involves the continuity from panel to panel. Bernet gives just enough detail to convince but not so much detail that the eye stops and derails the viewing momentum. But then again Bernet’s learned from the best, which of course means he learned from Alex Toth amongst others. Bernet’s kineticism, inventive staging and just damn good storytelling are very reminiscent of Toth. There’s a TORPEDO sequence atop a half constructed building (“I Spit On Your Cards” ,p.83-92) and a whole story involving a plane (“Number One Joe“, p.150-154) which are so Toth-heavy the influence is undeniable. It’s still just an influence though, strong as it is, Bernet’s no copyist; he takes the influence and makes it work with his own talent to produce better work. No, calm down, I’m not saying he’s better than Toth I’m saying he’s better than he would otherwise be for having studied Toth.
Bernet probably had to go out of his way to study American artists like Toth but he certainly never had to go out of his way to study America. Because America is everywhere. Being Spanish and thus lacking a common language Bernet’s impressions of America naturally resort to the primarily visual. And of course his visuals of America are those America provides in the form of its entertainments. Bernet’s America-set work gives you back a reflection of the reflection of America. He sells you back your (you Americans that is) own dream and improves it while he’s at it. Western, crime, sci-fi are all here, all of them set in America, which is The Dream America all we non-Americans mistake for the reality. Well they’re set in America unless there are different parts of Spain that look like America at various points in history. I don’t know I’ve never been.
So good, so fine are Bernet’s individual panels that he can produce work for advertising and book covers that look exactly like panels pulled from a narrative and they still work as individual illustrations. Bernet is able to pick the precise frozen moment in time to capture all the information required of a scene. In a comic narrative that’s skillful enough but to pick the exact moment when Jim Thompson’s Savage Night turns into a book that is going to eternally squat in the dark corners of your mind without actually giving anything away is either genius or chance at work. I’ll give you some help; it isn’t chance where Bernet’s concerned.
Ah, Europe with your sex and your violence, your sexy violence and your violent sex. Now it’s probably in all our interests if I ignore these aspects, yes, that would certainly be healthy but why deny myself the delightful opportunity to be labelled a misogynist or have someone wish that I die in a fire. Ah, Internet. Oh, Europe. Ah. Oh. Ah. Oh. Ohohoh. Ah. O. ! So violence first. Everyone loves violence in their entertainment but not everyone loves violent violence. On these Euro-pages, violence happens a lot just as in American genre comics but although sometimes it’s no less stylized it is less fetishised. Violence in American genre comics is pretty much just presented as action.
Which makes sense as they started out as children’s entertainments and, despite what insecure adults who spend their lives writing about people in pajamas hitting each other (for reasons!) would wish you to think, this largely remains the case. Over in Europe, however they appear to have been producing comics material aimed at a wide range of ages since, well, since they started. As a result in European comics, certainly these European comics at least, violence remains fanged and retains its tang. Unlike most American genre comics which are content to provide nothing more challenging than a gummy nip. Which may be why American genre comics are more comfortable with representations of violence than of sex.
And, yes, there is some sexy stuff in this book. Again, like the violence, it’s a very European sexiness. Looking at the sexy stuff, mostly pin-ups and sketches but some of the stories have “mature” encounters also, here I think it’s presented honestly and openly. There’s just a real pleasure in the human form being communicated by Bernet’s lines on paper and that’s a nice thing I think. I believe there’s a very real difference between a drawing which says, isn’t that nice? and when it is saying hurr, hurr, boobz! One is healthy and one is just bloody tiresome. Bernet’s gaze come across as lusty rather than leering. Sometimes everyone’s two favourite subjects collide and result in a subject very few people enjoy; sexual violence. But don’t worry because there is male on male sexual violence as well as the usual sort so at least they don’t play favourites over in that there Europe. Sex and violence, they seem to nonchalantly inform you, are just parts of life’s sick pageant; so it’s all grist for the mill. I don’t think European comics’ attitudes to these areas is condoning or endorsing anything horrible. At worst it may just be reflecting aspects of our lives we might want to examine. You don’t usually solve a problem by ignoring it after all.
That’s all in the general though. Here’s some specific Bernet books containing either sex, violence or sexy violence:
THE BEST OF JORDI BERNET’S CLARA
Drawn by Jordi Bernet , written by Carlos Trillo and Eduardo Maicas
(Big Wow Art and Auad Publishing, 2006, $24.95)
This is a lovely volume that contains a selection of strips from the long running (1992 -?) strip Clara de Noche. These are three-pagers that explore the lighter side of working in the sex industry as we follow the impossibly attractive Clara on her day to day business and learn to laugh with people selling their bodies like bags of crisps. It’s is cheeky fun presented in a looser cartoony style; it’s very Sergio Aragones so it’s no surprise he’s a fan. Even though there are plenty of panels of people at it at no point does it ever look anything less than cute or at least amusing. There’s a sense of humour about the whole sex thing; a vigorous acceptance of the ridiculousness of the whole business. The fact that Clara has a kid might seem to be a tonal mis-step but at least it indicates an attempt to deal with sex-workers on human terms rather than as robotic orgasm dispensers. Okay, the actual jokes aren’t that hot but, y’know, senses of humour are very different from person to person never mind between countries. Mostly it’s humour about what utter tools men are. Which is fair enough.
According to the informative text in the book some people got offended by the kid, but they were probably just upset that they’d have to consider a streetwalker as a mother too, possibly even as a human being, and that might ruin their jollies next time they visited one. I don’t know. I don’t think the actual contents would upset anyone unless they were actually gynophobic or just really poor company to be in generally. Clara’s pretty healthy, I think. Sure, she looks like a straight male fantasy made, er, ink but she does have a personality and a range of emotions far beyond the blow up dolls of North American genre fiction’s female characters. Underneath the unspectacular humour there’s some good character work but I think the best joke is that an unsuspecting reader might be crouched over it enjoying themselves only to have their quiet moment of self satisfaction derailed by a sad eyed kid bemoaning the fact his mother is a prostitute. Clara is titillating stuff with more sensitivity and empathy than you’d expect from the premise. It’s a tricky one to pull of but they’ve got Bernet and Bernet? Bernet makes it look easy.
CHICA Vol.1 and 2.
Drawn by Jordi Bernet, written by Carlos Trillo
(Eurotica, $10.95 ea)
Chica on the other hand is quite clearly a spank mag so to expect it to be anything else would be foolish but, astonishingly, it turns out sometimes fools win because Chica is also an exciting period piece adventure strip. It starts out circa 1929 and proceeds to graphically display the misadventures of our lusty lady with the lust for life whose lust perpetually saves her life. The actual adventure story is pretty engaging and, excuse me while I put on my tall buckled hat, the bits where people start sticking bits of themselves into each other just irritated me by interrupting the narrative. But, as I say this material is for those who enjoy feeling their pants move around like a small warm animal is slowly coming awake in them as they read. Actually that’s being coy, this is definitely for those who prefer to combine friction with fiction. It’s also quite straight stuff there’s plenty of ladies who like ladies because straight men like ladies who like ladies (but really like men) and not a lot of men who like men and when there are this is usually used for comic effect; because straight men also like men liking men dressed as ladies but only if it is a mistake. There’s no poo or wee involved and it’s clearly just nonsense designed to get a reaction; the reaction porn requires you to have. Yes, that one. So I didn’t have a problem with it, really. It’s porn so that’s what it does. It’s nice that it bothers to do something else as well.Bernet doesn’t slack a jot, this is as good as his (excellent) work on Torpedo. It’s just that amongst all the fantastically accomplished and immersive art there’s a lot of genitals and people making monkey noises. I’d attempt to convince you it’s worth reading just for the art but it’d sound like I’m the kind of guy who buys Razzle for the articles.
Now, whether it is crude, exploitative, misogynistic or sleazy that’s purely due to the response of the reader. The response of the reader is neither right nor wrong but it is purely the response of that individual reader. The stuff you’re responding to is just the facts, Ma’am. Or, just the f*cks, ma’am, anyway. And the fact is that some stuff is just sexy and how you react to that is on your head. Or in your head. In the case of this stuff you need to be prepared to be responsible for your own reactions. Porn is a problematic thing and this is porn so don’t bother with it if you’re going to have problems with it. Otherwise have at it, but remember; when there’s just dust coming out it’s probably time to stop. I’m a professional so don’t try this at home unless you want to end up with stacks of soggy paper in your wet right hand (Ding! Ding! WhooOOOOooo!). That’s right, I’m a professional idiot. I’ve heard shame is a natural part of porn but there’s nothing shameful about Bernet’s work here and the only real shame is that the fact it is porn will prevent people from appreciating his usual technical excellence, period detail and smooth storytelling. And dry brushing.
So, there’s some comics adorned by Jordi Bernet’s art. I wouldn’t have read them had they not been but after reading them I think the least I can say is that it’s to the benefit of the entire comics medium and its audience that Jordi Bernet has graced comics with his majestic talents. Talents which are on display in each of these volumes, talents large enough to encompass a wide range of genres and styles and large enough again to meet each of these challenges and both defy and exceed expectations. Judging by the stuff on these pages Jordi Bernet isn’t really a comic book artist he’s an Artist. His presence in comics elevates the entire medium and as such he, his work and all these book are EXCELLENT! Yes, even the ones with tits and dicks in.
Have a good weekend everyone and remember to read some COMICS!
(Christ, that took some doing. I might have next week off.)