Thursday, March 30, 2017

C’est la Guerre: Barefoot Gen

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Barefoot Gen is the howl of the grass under the elephants’ feet, and a heartbreakingly eloquent plea for peace and life in a world consumed by fire.

Cover of Last Gasp’s Barefoot Gen, vol. 1, art by Keiji Nakazawa.


Keiji Nakazawa was six years old when his home city of Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb ever used against a populated target. At the moment “Little Boy” – as the weapon was nick-named – detonated, Nakazawa happened to be standing behind a concrete wall at the back of his grammar school a little over a kilometer away from ground zero. The wall shielded him from both the blinding light and the heat flash that followed, which quite literally melted the skin of tens of thousands of city residents while vaporizing thousands more.

Nakazawa was only lucky to a point, however. His younger brother, older sister, and father were trapped in the family home when it collapsed, and his mother, eight months pregnant, was unable to free any of them before the raging fires that were consuming the city in the bomb’s wake reached their home. She heard her youngest son and husband screaming as the fire reached them, her daughter had, mercifully, been killed when the house fell. As a result of the strain of the day, Nakazawa’s mother gave premature birth to her baby, a girl, but the child died only four months later, whether from radiation sickness or malnutrition, they never knew.

Art and script by Keiji Nakazawa.

Nakazawa survived the A-bomb and the years of hunger, deprivation, and sickness that followed, and became a successful manga artist, and in 1972, he told the story of his family, the A-bomb, and the aftermath in a ten-volume work called Hadashi no Gen, or Barefoot Gen. It remains one of the most powerful depictions of the suffering of the people of Hiroshima ever created, and offers a fascinating look into the complex feelings that poorer Japanese had about the war, their leaders, the Americans, and the bomb. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 2015, Last Gasp launched a Kickstarter campaign to print 4000 hardback copies of Barefoot Gen and to distribute them to as many schools and libraries as possible. As it turns out, my local public library was able to get on their list early and recently received their copies, which I promptly checked out.

Presented in western style (i.e. to be read from left to right) Barefoot Gen is remarkable on several levels. The art is well into the cartoonish end of the symbolic comics’ language, and often has a simplistic, even primitive style. Juxtaposed with the horrific events the books are recounting, the effects can be very… unsettling. The books also read as middle-school level material, and that seems to be the target audience, but again, Nakazawa doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of his subject matter, so parental guidance and pre-reading is really recommended for those who might have tween readers. Beyond the immediate effects of the bomb, and the radiation sickness that struck down people in the days, months, and even years following, postwar Hiroshima was rife with malnutrition, violent crime, rape, prostitution, and human suffering on a massive scale. In fact, the simplicity of the artwork provides just enough distance to the reader from the visceral reality of the time to make continuing with the story bearable.

Art and script by Keiji Nakazawa.

Barefoot Gen is a must have for any war comics collector, historian, or person interceded in the realities of nuclear warfare. It is not an easy read, but it is ultimately a hopeful one, although you should not expect a Hollywood ending – quite the opposite, in fact. The debate about the necessity and ethics of using the atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki is ongoing, and unfortunately is far too often still fueled by racism, jingoism, and nationalism, but Barefoot Gen’s raw cry for peace in the presence of one of the ultimate horrors of war comes from a place beneath all of that. Nakazawa’s work is the voice from below, shouting the realities of everyday people everywhere around the world who just want to live and raise families and have enough food to eat and maybe dandle a grandkid or two before passing on to whatever comes next. Barefoot Gen is the howl of the grass under the elephants’ feet.

Art and script by Keiji Nakazawa.

The edition is beautifully and very sturdily bound, meaning that libraries should be able to get years of good use out of them, with good thick paper, heavily sewn spines, and easily cleaned covers. Copies are also available on Amazon for about $25.00 each, a very reasonable price for this kind of quality binding. Rarely has sequential art taken on a historical subject better than Barefoot Gen does, making the series a classic in every sense of the word.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Ten Percent: Come and See (1985)

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) takes its place in an unusual corner of the Ten Percent. A place for works of art that are so powerful, so honest, and so terrible that they absolutely must be seen, but which are also so psychologically and emotionally intense that they are revisited only rarely. The late Roger Ebert wrote that Come and See “is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead,” while Mark Cousins called Come and See “the greatest war film ever made.” Both are correct.

The film follows a young, teenage boy named Florya (Alexi Kravchenko) who joins an anti-German partisan group in Belarus in 1943. He meets a beautiful girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova), just two or three years older than he, and the two become separated from Florya’s unit as it is attacked by German dive bombers. Come and See then follows the two teens as they journey into an unrelenting hell. Historians believe that Belarus (at that time called the Byelorussian SSR) was the hardest hit of the Soviet Republics in World War Two, with the Germans destroying 209 of the regions 290 cities, 85% of its industry, and killing between 2 and 3 million people (a quarter to one-third of the total population) between 1941 and 1944. 90% of Belarus’s Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. As the Red Army inexorably began to push the Germans back through Belarus, the Wehrmacht and various SS units, including the notorious 36th Waffen SS Grenadier Division, the “Dirlewanger Brigade,” engaged in a scorched earth policy that eradicated farms, villages, cities, crops, animals, and humans by the tens of thousands.


Glasha (Olga Mironova) and Florya (Alexi Kravchenko) in Come and See.

This is where Florya and Glasha, still innocents despite the world around them, walk. Step by step, everything that is good, beautiful, pure, and innocent in the world is ruthlessly brutalized and then slaughtered by the war, including Florya and Glasha, although both physically survive their experiences. Come and See is horror at its most sublime, and is likely the closest any film has yet come to capturing the realities of war, particularly as it was fought in the Eastern European Theater.

The film’s title is taken from the Book of Revelation 6: 7-8:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, “Come and See.” And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

And this is exactly what the film invites the viewer to see – an utter apocalypse that devours everyone and everything in its path. By the time the end credits roll, Florya and Glasha have learned that things like love and morality and goodness are just tissue-paper in a firestorm, consumed without even being noticed, while ideals of meaning or God are laughable illusions in the naked face of war. There are no other films like Come and See, and the number which can even come close to its unflinching gaze into reality can be counted on one hand with digits to spare. It is a work of art that is almost too painful to endure. It is required viewing – even if only once, for it lies in the darkest part of the Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming A Dream Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, Film, The Ten Percent Tagged: alexi kravchenko, come and see, elim klimov, mark cousins, olga mironova, Roger Ebert, The Ten Percent, world war ii


Thursday, March 16, 2017

C’est la Guerre Review: REDLINE #1

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Redline (Oni Press) presents a darkly hilarious future that looks way too much like our present military quagmires, and is one of the best new comics of 2017.

Redline #1, cover A, art by Clayton McCormack.

So as a comics nerd, I spend an hour or two every month going through Previews Magazine in depth, both to find interesting looking titles from the smaller independents, and to give the owner of my local comic shop a heads up, since Diamond’s distribution system pretty much demands he (and pretty much every other dealer) order stuff three months in advance in order to (mostly) guarantee shipment. So what I’m saying is that I usually do my due diligence and manage to keep pretty well caught up on much of what is coming down the pike.

Recently, however, I missed one. Oni Press’ Redline, written by Neal Holman (Archer), with art by Clayton McCormack (Café Racer, Godzilla: Rage Across Time), and colors by Kelly Fitzpatrick (The Black Hood, Peter Panzerfaust) showed up on the rack at my local shop as a complete and delightful surprise. Billed as a black SF comedy, the first issue also shows a big potential for a not-so-subtle satirical look at America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Set on a dusty, arid Mars after a victorious war with the indigenous species, the human security and military forces find themselves in the middle of an insurgency by the supposedly defeated aliens. 

Redline #1, p. 3.script by Neal Holman, art by Clayton McCormack.

After one such supposed attack, Superintendent Denton Coyle of the AFOSI (A-something F-something Office of Special Investigations?), an, experienced, cynical, and gastrically distressed investigator suspects that the natives may not be responsible after all. The art and future military tech design are tight, and best of all Redline provides some of the best, and wittiest, dialogue that I’ve read in quite some time. The writing definitely has an Archer-esque edge, but it works perfectly in Redline‘s setting of sudden violence, corporate interests, fading distinctions between private and state military forces, and the men and women who have to try and exist in the middle of all of that. 

So I’m going to put Redline on my pull list and hope that my local shop has ordered a least a few of the upcoming issues, because Holman & Co.’s future that looks way too much like our present military quagmires is one of the best new comics of 2017 so far.

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