Okko: The Cycle of Water (a French graphic novel)

Graphic novels have gained both popular and critical attention over the last two decades.  Titles like The Watchmen, Maus, Sin City, Persepolis and Stitches: A Memoir have changed our expectations of  the comic book format – moving us increasingly farther away from good vs. evil storylines and characters defined as either superheroes or super villains. The artwork is more sophisticated, the plots weightier and the writing more literary than ever before.

It’s reassuring to see that there’s still a place for a variation on the superhero story.  One that is well written and with artwork skillfully rendered.

OKKO is a series of graphic novels written and drawn by the French artist Hub, with colors by Hub & Stephan Pecayo.  Originally published in France by Delacourt, it was translated into English by Edward Gauvin for Archaia Studios Press.  Over the years Archaia has taken the original 3-part, 6 issue series and released them to 12 issues – as well as creating beautiful, dust-jacketed hardcover compilations for each “Cycles”/story arcs.  They released The Cycle of Water in 2006-2007, The Cycle of the Earth in 2008 and The Cycle of Air in 2010.  One assumes that The Cycle of Fire, the logical next part in the series, is still to come.  This review is for hardcover compilation of OKKO: The Cycle of Water.

OKKO: The Cycle of Water introduces the main characters in the series:  Okko, the ronin; Noburo, a giant, kabuki masked warrior; and Noshin, known as the Saki Monk.  The three companions travel through the mythical (and thinly veiled) Empire of Pajan fighting demons.  Tikku  – a boy who comes to them seeking aid – joins them within the first few pages. It is Tikku who, as we learn later in the book, is narrating the stories.

OKKU is for mature readers.  The story in The Cycle of Water is packed full of violence and women’s breasts.  The plot is a fairly typical, if expanded, version of the “buddy” adventure story:  Tikku’s geisha sister (and Noburo’s lover) Little Carp is kidnapped during a midnight pirate raid of the pleasure house where she works.  Naburo & Noshin are there to rendezvous with Okko – and Naburo fights to save Little Carp while Noshin keeps Tikku from harm.  The pirates have with them a secret weapon: a Combat Bunraku, “colossal combat armors handled from within by marionettists”.   The Bunraku overpowers Naburo and the pirates escape with the geishas.  Okko arrives the next morning, dismissing the incident as curious but none of their affair.  Tikku begs for Okko’s aid, pledging his life for their help in finding & rescuing his sister.  Okku accepts and the newly formed foursome begin their adventures together.

Despite the Japanese themes in the plot & characters, the artwork has more in common with Western comic books than Japanese anime.  Hub uses multiple panels per page, incorporating interesting use of the black & white frames and word balloons into the overall page composition.  The figures are realistically drawn – not the wide-eyed caricatures of Akira or Studio Ghibli.  He doesn’t reference U-kiyo-e or other Asian schools of art.   Instead, Hub sets himself apart (from both East & West) by the extraordinary amount of detailed drawing that is put into each panel.  The backgrounds, particularly the panoramic landscapes, are cinematic in quality.  There is a full range of lighting effects – day, night, early dawn, sunset, lantern-lit interiors, leaf dappled forests and underwater scenes – all of which must have taken a tremendous amount of work.  While I was unable to get confirmation from the publisher, I’m fairly certain that the art was hand colored & inked.  How else to achieve the delicate watercolor brushwork in the shadows of the leaves in the page above?

In addition to the artwork, Hub has taken the time to create a fairly detailed universe (complete with map) in which to set his stories.  The Empire of Pajan is “a vast and diversified island, surrounded by a multitude of archipelagoes.  The name is derived from that of its Imperial family”.  It is in the midst of a civil war, the right of the Pajan family to rule is being challenged by three other powerful clans – the Ataku, Yommo and Bashimon.  Like a good fantasy novelist, Hub has warriors, politicians, magicians & engineers all vying for the throne. It leads me to hope that there will be an epic and dynastic sub-plot carried through the other Cycles – allowing the complexity of the story to reach that of the art.

Publisher:  Archaia, Los Angeles. (2009)
ISBN:  978 1 932386 45 5

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Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea, Artwork by Christopher Cardinale (review copy)

Tucked away in a far corner of  BEA was Cinco Puntos Press – an independent publisher based in El Paso, Texas.  They would have been easy to miss if it weren’t for the cover of this book, which sucked me into their booth even though I had to elbow my way past a few other attendees to get at it.  I glanced through the artwork quickly (the reproduction  doesn’t do it justice, the colors are much richer and deeper in person) and originally thought it was a children’s book.  It wasn’t until I had time to look it over at home that I realized it was a graphic novel.

Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea is set in Rosario, Mexico.  The story is narrated by a boy, one assumes now a man, reminiscing about his childhood. It consists of short anecdotes about local events which, at first, don’t seem particularly extraordinary.   And then you discover exactly what it is that makes the town unique:  Mr.  Mendoza – the self-proclaimed “graffiti king of all Mexico”  – whose messages appear on walls, mountains, bridges and even the corpse of a monk.   He uses graffiti as a tool to critique the town and the townspeople.  “Upend hypocrites today.”  “Deflate your pomp or float away.”

Little by little a picture emerges of Rosario.  It’s not necessarily a pretty one, though I can’t say whether or not this was intentional on the author’s part.  Mr. Mendoza has appointed himself Rosario’s conscience – to which no one seems to be listening.  Until one day he decides he has had enough and leaves the town in an unforgettable fashion.

Christopher Cardinale is responsible for the artwork and steals the show (or rather, the book). I wish I knew what medium he used for his illustrations – the effect is of a rough woodblock or linoleum print.  The actual drawing quality can be uneven from section to section, and sometimes gets a bit awkward.  But to me that’s a part of the charm.  Imperfection works with this story.  The rich and vibrant colors are really set off by Cardinale’s use of thick, rugged black lines.  In many ways Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush reminded me of a Diego Rivera mural.

Another thing I pay attention to in graphic novels is the panel layout (i.e. – the composition of the picture boxes/panels on a page).  Overall I felt Cardinale did a good job.  What I was less impressed by was the layout of the text boxes.  They tended to be scattered over the page without rhyme or reason.  Huge, white boxes interrupting the rhythm of the story visually.  I had the urge to use my hand to brush them off the paper so I could get more of the images.

In the end, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush didn’t disappoint.  It’s a solid book… and one that brought Cinco Puntos Press to my attention.  There’s a hot debate going on in the blogosphere (I know, I hate that word too) these days regarding multiculturalism in publishing.  Not to get all preachy, but there’s an inequality in the representation of people of color in artwork and on covers that deserves attention.  Cinco Puntos has a whole catalog of books in fiction, non-fiction, for adults and children – all with a Latino focus.  If this is something you’re even remotely interested in, I recommend stopping by to check them out.

Publisher:  Cinco Puntos Press.  El Paso, Texas.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 933693 23 1

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