Various Authors, Dead Herring Comics (2004, Actus Independent Comics)

Spider-Man. Batman. Inu-Yasha. Those are the names that spring to mind when I think of comics. I think of brightly-coloured tights, vibrantly-scrawled action scenes spilling over several pages, and cute teenage boys with superpowers. When I volunteered to review Dead Herring Comics, an anthology of graphic tales published by the Israel-based Actus, arrogant youngster that I am, I was half expecting to open the volume and read the works of Stan Lee or Frank Miller. Needless to say, it was quite a shock when I actually opened the book and discovered a type of artwork I was completely unfamiliar with. However, it turned out to be a rather pleasant shock, all in all. Within the vivid red and yellow cover, I found a jumble of fiction, mostly comics, but with a short story, an interview with underground manga artist Suehiro Maruo, five posters, and a recipe that provides the title for the collection thrown in for good measure. The majority of the comics had to be translated into English, so much of the dialogue and writing style is simple and direct, but the clever artwork and interesting concepts lend a grace to the straightforward prose.

Of course, with a collection compiling the varied works of so many different authors and artists, there are bound to be a few stinkers as well as a few sparkling gems. Among the better comics are "Bitch," by Etgar Keret and illustrated by Rutu Modan, translated by Sondra Silverston; "Bombshell" by Itzik Rennert, translated by Ainatte Inbal; the short story "Fatso" by Etgar Keret with a heading illustrated by Itzik Rennert, translated by Miriam Shlesinger; "Energy Blockage" by Rutu Modan, translated by Noah Stollman; "Compensation" by Batia Kolton, translated by Ainatte Inbal; "Springland" by Itzik Rennert, translated by Ainatte Inbal; and "Case of the illiterate demon" by Blanquet.

In "Bitch," a lonely, widowed tourist in Paris finds peace and redemption when he communicates with the spirit of his dead wife, who currently resides in the body of a French poodle. I found it poignant and sweet, with just a touch of good humour mixed in with the theme of forgiveness and isolation. In "Bombshell," a young girl finds out that her father is not in fact a vet, but the commander of Israel's nuclear power plant. The burden of keeping the secret causes her to sneak into her father's plant and eat spare bomb parts to ease the pressure. The child-like illustrations, along with the silly plot, combine to form an interesting method of portraying the destruction secrecy wreaks on the little girl's psyche.

"Fatso," a warm fable about a man who learns that his girlfriend transforms into a fat man with no neck when the sun goes down, but loves her anyway, is both funny and deeply moving. In the tender "Energy Blockage," two sisters use their mother's mysterious healing powers to start a business, and receive some interesting customers. With "Compensation," the daughter of poor parents finds a wad of cash hidden in her miserly grandfather's bathroom and steals it for herself, only to find out she's been dipping into Grandpa's Holocaust compensation money.

"Springland" mixes the sleek artistry of Itzik Rennert with a tragicomic story of how acts of terrorism have become so commonplace that for the main character, a young copywriter for the Ministry of Propaganda, they are an everyday nuisance that interferes with his search for a significant other. The absurd idea of how he arranges his life around bombings and terror (he calmly picks up a potential mate at the airport while it is engulfed in flames as he assures her, "It might be dangerous out there but at home you'll be safe.") is comedic while the very situation is bleak and saddening. The mixture of the two styles eloquently conveys the potent and brutal message of tense situations in the Middle East. Finally, in the hilariously grisly "Case of the illiterate demon," a video-game-addicted boy is taught a harsh lesson on how important it is to read.

Among the worst of the bunch are "So Far So Good" by Mira Friedmann, translated by Ainatte Inbal; "No Towers" by Art Spiegelman; and "Old Rose" by Anke Feuchtenberger, translated by Christiane Baumann. In the listless "So Far So Good," a reclusive woman witnesses the murder of an important public official, and reconnects with an old flame while she is being intimidated into silence. I felt the story went nowhere, and the dreary black and white illustrations made the story seem even more one-dimensional. The cluttered "No Towers" is more or less an artistic collage of sorts, snippets of comics chronicling the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The narrator of this disorganized comic casserole comes off as both arrogant and irritatingly snide. "I never loved those [Twin Towers], but now I miss the rascals, icons of a more innocent age," he confides, "I mean, it's not like I love the way my nose looks… I just don't want somebody ramming a damn plane into it!" Finally, I can't even begin to summarise the gruesome and bizarre comic of "Old Rose," seemingly scrawled completely with an unsharpened pencil, because even after re-reading it countless times, and then handing it over to my mother to see what she thought of it, I cannot for the life of me discern what the plot is. I have a vague idea that it has something to do with abortion, but fuzzy images of giant eyes, a moustachioed infant on a horse bursting from his mother's womb, and a naked woman chewing on her own hair provide no certain ideas as to what, exactly, "Old Rose" does.

Now that I've covered both ends of the spectrum, all that remains is the middling material, the comics that were neither spectacular nor repulsive. They did nothing for me, but they retain an originality of expression that merits respect, if not favour. Those titles include "Kalman Kolton's Secret Recipe" by Kalman Kolton; "Rodnitzky's Agony" by Yirmi Pinkus, translated by Ainatte Inbal; "Plastic Dog -- Electronic Comic Strips for Palm Handheld Computers" by Henning Wagenbreth, translated by Ellen Bass; the interview "Sweet Pangs of Nostalgia" by Yirmi Pinkus, with translation from the Japanese by Irit Magid; "Strobe" by David Polonsky; "The Amazin' World of Adolescence" by Ruth Gwily; and "Mister Hieronymus Goes Fishing" by Ulf K.

"Kalman Kolton's Secret Recipe" is exactly that -- a recipe for how to prepare dead herring with a marinade. Sounds tasty, but I'm not exactly sure what it contributes -- other than the title -- to this comic anthology. "Rodnitzky's Agony" is an interesting piece about how a depressed accountant's schlubby attitude changes completely after he hires a man named David to live in his house, and do nothing except sit and watch Rodnitzky as he goes about his daily life. It made me think, but without turning up any real answers. "Plastic Dog," on the other hand, is a series of four brief, but highly political Palm Pilot cartoons regarding terrorism, violent video games, poverty, and car maintenance. The attempt to be both sad and funny at the same time falls flat, so the end result is a series of strips that are depressing enough, but not equally humorous, and I don't think that was the point the artist was going for.

"Sweet Pangs of Nostalgia" reveals the motivation behind the underground manga artist Suehiro Maruo. Mildly educational, but is altogether unremarkable. The black-and-white "Strobe" has no concrete story to speak of, it merely offers the readers a glimpse into the points of view of twenty-seven different people during two distinct moments in time. A nifty diversion, but it has no real substance. "The Amazin' World of Adolescence" is three pages of graphic teenage symbolism, including an image of a naked girl slumped over a tree branch with slit wrists, with the caption "The great escape" hovering underneath her, and a nude teenage boy embracing a giant furry rodent over the words "Squeeze the Squirrel". The tone is both satirical and depressing, and it contrasts starkly with the bright, sunny illustrations. However, the use of such a juxtaposition is handled less deftly than "Bombshell," as Ruth Gwily does not succeed in fully conveying her idea of the treacherous nature of puberty.

And finally, "Mister Hieronymus Goes Fishing" is a refreshing, fluffy, silly break from the endless stream of political themes. With no ulterior motives to speak of, Mister Hieronymus is an older, bespectacled, silent version of Charlie Brown. The comic would have been more appropriate had it been squeezed in between strips of "Foxtrot" and "For Better or For Worse" in the Saturday newspaper funnies.

While my initial assumption about this anthology's contents was incorrect, I am thankful for having it, as without my false belief that comics are synonymous with either superheroes or Archie and Jughead, I would never have volunteered to review it. I am glad I did. Like someone who dipped her spoon into an unmarked tub of ice-cream expecting vanilla, only to taste Dark Chocolate Raspberry Ripple instead, my discovery left me surprised and delighted. Vanilla is by no means a bad flavour, but how could I have lived my life having never tasted Dark Chocolate Raspberry Ripple? Sure, there were a few flaky bits in the mix, but all in all, I found Dead Herring to be a delicious visual treat.

[Elizabeth Vail]