Choosy Beggar Books

Battle of Wits: We Are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards

Posted in International Comics by mvblair on March 11, 2014

Like every other guy on the planet, I consider myself a student of history. I particularly enjoy reading the history of people in turmoil. One topic which I’ve read at least a dozen books about is the Cultural Revolution in China. It was a time of torture, gulag, forced disappearances, and even famine. The most widely documented part of the Cultural Revolution is the anarchy created by the Red Guards, groups of mostly middle and high school students in the cities who organized destructive campaigns against Old Habits, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Ideas in the name of modernity. Mao himself encouraged the Red Guards as a way to rehabilitate his image after the disastrous Great Leap Forward.

Mao created an enormous propaganda campaign that included comic books, which helps give me something to talk about here. “Battle of Wits: We Are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards” is a fifty-four page comic about Xiao Hong, a middle school student who spies on her own grandpa and catches him in a conspiracy to send a university journal to Soviet spies. She goes through his mail, spies on him from above, and eventually gets the military police to catch him fleeing his own apartment in a rush to make a drop. It was all encouraged by Mao and the comic was all relatively mild compared to what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.


45. Suddenly his eyes stopped on “Technological Research”. This was the internal monthly periodical that Xiao Hong’s father edited in the university, containing published reports on electronic industry development and new technological discoveries and achievements. That guy [the Grandfather] quickly opened his back to stuff several books inside.

If you have a chance, read the English translation here at China Smack. As with most propaganda comics, the writing is terrible. It’s the typical “illustrated narrative” style that is easy to do and not exactly a comic: the book does not need the illustrations. Nevertheless, the illustrations are beautiful. The artist used lots of different brushes and pens to create lush pictures that are somewhere between “Little Orphan Annie” and a really good Japanese comic. The writing and story, well, clearly leave a lot to be desired.

On a historical note, it appears this book was published in 1976, the year the Cultural Revolution ended, along with Mao himself. This propaganda was one of Mao’s last breaths, a desperate grab to keep his movement going.

On a literary note, there is a pretty big English translation (via the French) of Chinese communist comics called “The People’s Comic Book: Red Women’s Detachment, Hot on the Trail, and Other Comics.” It’s from 1973. I’ll write a review of it soon now that I’m thinking about it. Terrible comics, but interesting culture.

“Ask not what you can do for your country…”

Posted in Art by mvblair on February 6, 2014


“I am convinced that He does not play dice…”

Posted in Art by mvblair on February 1, 2014
...he plays dominoes.

…he plays dominoes.

British Library to Stage Comic Exhibition

Posted in International Comics by mvblair on January 24, 2014

This is the librarian who decides what comics are good and what comics are not.

In high school, I joined the crusade of fanboys who demanded that comic books be taken seriously. My senior paper described the deft combinations of art and literature that made writers like Will Eisner and the Brothers Hernandez modern day Shakespeares. I demanded the use of the term “graphic novels.” I preached the “comics as literature” gospel as well as Scott McCloud. My parents and teachers, predictably and justifiably, made fun of me. As I moved on to college, comics slowly began to appear on library shelves, something I’d never seen growing up.

The crusade was naive on my part. Today, a huge section of the comics industry has been co-opted by academics, librarians, and, worst of all, publishing houses.  The academics were probably fanboys like me but hard-working enough to get their papers published once they became adjunct professors of communications, and they are now writing a new history of comics.

The industry has never been healthier, but there is a cost. Many new comics or “graphic novels” that we see on library shelves rehash popular scholastic content: history narratives, science-made-fun, and posterized dry literature. The most popular titles that end up in libraries and Christmas packages are neither creative nor innovative. It’s as if the publishers, who co-opted comics, shoot comics out just to appease the library industrial complex. That makes it a mixed bag: there are more comics around, but they aren’t that great.

Enter the ultimate co-opter: the British Library. Home of innumerable stolen treasures from the greatest civilizations, the British Library is now preparing to steal England’s comics history.

Your chance to win 25 pounds rather than lose them.

They’re starting with “Misty,” the supernatural adventure comic, a collage of Gothic stories about ghosts, monsters, and teenage girls discovering demons in their grandparents’ attics. It’s apparently a cult classic in Ye Ol’ Britain that has been forgotten about by all but a few hardcore fanatics until a stuffy academic recently decided it should be filed under “worthy.” The British Library is suddenly jumping on the bandwagon driven by publishing house horses and turning it into so-called “high art.” The people who enjoyed “Misty” during its six year run between ’78 and ’84 are watching academics and librarians run wild with theories as to why people liked it. The fans, of course, are left in the dark.

The British Museum will not display this particular cover as “art.”

Another comic that will be exhibited is “2000 AD,” which was readily available to Yankee colonists during the ’80s and ’90s. The comic gave birth to such characters as Judge Dredd, an extrajudicial judicial branch member who wears an NFL helmet, and Robo-Hunter, an extrajudicial executive branch member who smokes cigars alongside his robot companions, Hoagie and Stogey, who at one point uncover an insidious extraterrestrial plot to obstruct Britain’s robotic World Cup team. I’m not kidding.

These happy gents are editing “Punch,” the comics magazine about high society that was sold on street corners by smudgy-faced nine-year-olds while their fathers failed to conquest Afghanistan.

Perhaps an even bigger focus of the exhibition will be Britain’s history with political and social comics, which dates back to the mid-1800s. The comic “Punch” is oft cited by high school fanboys like me as an example of why comics should be looked at as serious literature. “Punch” discussed the many problems that faced members of high society in London, such as unpoached eggs, problems with striking coal miners, and the difficulty finding good estate help. Again, not kidding.

While the British Library was getting diplomats to ransack foreign capitals for copies of antique Korans, original poems, and hand-drawn maps, comics readers were busy collecting magazines back home, saving them for a rainy day. That rainy day has arrived. The publishers, librarians, and museum officials from whom we demanded so much respect in years past have now taken comics from our hands. They are writing their own revisions of this art form’s history.

The crusade, which began as innocent children marching off to Palestine with genocidal visions, has been taken over by the Vatican.

Lone Wolf and Mutton Chops

Posted in Art by mvblair on January 19, 2014


Sanmao: China’s Endearing and Enduring Comic Strip

Posted in International Comics by mvblair on January 16, 2014
While the trees in the park are protected over the winter, Sanmao is not.

While the trees in the park are protected over the winter, Sanmao is not.

Sanmao is one of China’s most popular comic strips. The title has been around for 79 years, longer than most other comics around the world. Published in newspapers, comic book specials, and in other forms of media, Sanmao made an impression on several generations of Chinese readers. Sanmao is endearing, enduring, violent, and political.

Born during the Japanese invasion of China Sanmao was orphaned when Japan attacked China, he wanders the streets of Shanghai as part of an army of skin-and-bones orphans. He is so malnourished, that he cannot grow much hair, thus the name, Sanmao, which means “three hairs.” At the time, street orphans were ubiquitous in China and Sanmao gave them an odd charm. He was kicked around by rich business elites while trying to find bread and a place to sleep.

Zhang (left) inspects the work of his fellow artists working for a state-run newspaper.

Zhang (left) inspects the work of his fellow artists working for a state-run newspaper.

Zhang Leping created Sanmao. He was eminently familiar with the hardships of his character. Zhang grew up during the Warlord Era and saw firsthand the corruption and disregard for life that existed at the time. The quality of Zhang’s early dark comics stands with the best of the other socially criticizing comics that have appeared since then. The artwork is sparse and uncluttered, with fast, moving lines.

Through the years, Sanmao evolved. He joined the army in order to fight the Japanese. During the war, he watched his fellow soldiers and friends die in bloody pages. Smaller, more cunning and more astute, Sanmao evaded death and survived the war. When the war with the Japanese was over, the little boy joined the Chinese Communist Party to fight against the Kuomintang.

Sanmao reads the "diary" of Lei Feng, a mostly fictionalized communist worker who gave his life selflessly for his country.

Sanmao reads the “diary” of Lei Feng, a mostly fictionalized communist worker who gave his life selflessly for his country.

By the time the CCP took over China, Sanmao became a propaganda tool, following his Zhang’s sympathies. Zhang worked for state-run newspapers and periodicals for his entire career. Sanmao would read books by exemplary communist workers and then follow their orders to do the right thing in difficult situations. During the Cultural Revolution, he would gather friends to criticize more sophisticated members of his environment. He would teach children about safe drinking water and sharing food with workers. Later, in less propagandist but equally goody-two-shoes strips, he would throw dirt on drug users, expose petty counterfeiters, and plant trees in public parks.

After the Zhang passed away, his studio was turned into a museum and a typically Western fight for ownership of Sanmao’s copyright occurred and now Sanmao travels in space and appears in less propagandist comics and movies. Since his inception, Sanmao has done well in movies, including cartoons and live action specials.

Sanmao tries to sleep on the streets of Shanghai.

Sanmao tries to sleep on the streets of Shanghai as aristocrats and Kuomintang soldiers pass.

Sanmao’s life during the war is most remembered. It was a turning point in Chinese history, defining generations of activist citizens. Sanmao showed in an honest fashion just how brutal life was in China at the time, for orphans and soldiers, and later the comic boy represented his generation as an ideal communist flag bearer.

Primer on Popular Comic Book Styles

Posted in International Comics by mvblair on January 15, 2014

This is going on two-years-old, but I clicked on an old bookmark of a BBC article about comic book styles from around the world. In no way is it comprehensive, but it’s a quick and fun read.

Odd that there is no mention of this extremely popular genre from the ’80s…

Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, for that is where the fruit is…

Posted in Art by mvblair on January 10, 2014

Trees (11)

…or in this case, the wormy-looking lines.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.