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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is That All there Is? Joost Swarte (Writer & Artist). Johannes Van Dam, Art Spiegelman, Frabcoise Mouly, Kim Thompson (Transalation). Fantagraphics Books (2012)

A (nearly) complete collection of the comics of Joost Swarte. This is a curious and engaging collection of comics that are striking, individual and frequently funny. Joost Swarte has a deliberately anachronistic art style that sets up expectations that are neatly confounded and confronted by the actual content of the comics.  "Waiting for Reinforcements" is a story of the destruction of a small force lead by a white European by the Berbers, short, violent and funny it raises some interesting questions. The images of the Berbers, similar to all the non-European characters in the stories are grotesque caricatures. It is entirely a part of the art style of the early 20th century that Joost Swarte uses, in a contemporary context the art  has a distinctively different impact. Artists make choices and so do readers about how to interpret those choices, in this case I think the images can never escape their racist roots and cannot be cleaned or recycled with any amount of irony.
Some of the stories feature Jopo De Pojo, a man wearing Tintin trousers and a fabulous, gravity defying mohawk. Jopo is never lucky, his adventures move in odd directions, often swirling around him without his noticing. In "One Chance in One Hundred Thousand" Jopo becomes unwittingly involved in faked kidnap plot, and finds that rewards are not all they seem.
"Goodbye" is about a police investigation of a rash of suicides, it is consistently unexpected, funny and very sharp. "Babel Revisited", a science fiction story is my favorite in the collection. It is clever, nicely set up and has a great mad science idea all delivered with restrained art that makes the the most of the ideas.
The range of stories is impressive, from long awaited revenge to a crime story about the return of a criminal overlord to the adventures of a used condom.
What unites the collection is Joost Swartes's beautiful art and astonishing design sense. The old fashioned art is done with commitment and care, it is clearly a wholehearted artistic choice. What elevates the art is the way that each panel is filled with details that never crowd out the space or dilute the intended impact of the panel. The way that the art is designed within each panel, the panels designed together and the pages work as a whole is unobtrusively brilliant. All of the elements, other that the visible story elements, do not call attention to them selves, yet they all add depth and clarity to the content, giving strong physical contexts for the action. A whole world is comprehensively conjured up in a single panel at the start of "The Clock Strikes" , the cast at the nightclub are expressive and complete in themselves. It creates exactly the right  tone for the shifting tones of the story that unfolds.
Joost Swarte is a superb comic creator, this collection is a pleasure to read, linger over and savor in spite of some very questionable choices.

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