Thursday, 3 May 2012

Books: Hector Umbra


Hector Umbra
By Uli Oesterle

Available now from Islington Libraries
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I was brought up in South London. Which was great (truthfully - I'd recommend it to anyone [1]). One of the best things about it was the (for lack of a better word [2]): multiculturalism. You know: my next door neighbours were a mixture of Spanish, Scottish, Jamaican and Irish (amongst others) which gave me a proper deep-down sense that England was not the limit of the world. I mean: I don't want to sound condensing or anything [3] but yeah: when I visit other parts of the country and it's just a sea of white faces: I don't know - it always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable and (dare I say it?) unnatural even. Basically - I prefer it when everything's like a United Colours of Beneton advert [4].

I get the feeling that Uli Oesterle - the writer and artist of Hector Umbra - could relate. His vision of big city life (which is of Berlin not London - but the principle is the same - right?) is exactly how my heart feels it should be: every different race, religion and creed all mixed up and melted together and served with plenty of hustle and bustle: and if it's too much - well: you're too old and maybe you should consider buying a walking stick moving to the countryside?

Yeah - ok: I'll admit it: I'd never even heard of Mr Oesterle (who the internet tells me is German: which would make sense I guess seeing how the book is set - like I said - in Berlin) or his strange little book  until I saw the name pop up on the library system as I was searching around for new stock (so maybe someone else ordered it in or something? I dunno): but hey - I'm always up for trying new things and - to be honest - the fact that it was an European comic book (as opposed to an English or American one) just made me more excited. I mean - to generalize wildly for just a second: I'm of the opinion that the comics they produce on the other side of the channel are just (in art terms at least) massively superior. I mean - just having been in European comic shops and flickering through their stock - it just looks like that for every page - if the Americans and the English take a day to draw one: then the Europeans will spend a week. Everything just looks (much) more detailed and intricate and thought-out. But I dunno - maybe that's just me?

But why mention all this? I mean - a comic is a comic is a comic right? What does it matter where it comes from? All that's important is how much fun you can have when you read the damn thing.

Yeah. Well. But.

I guess all this kind of stuff is in my brain because - well - growing up - I spent a lot of time talking people who didn't have English as a first language [5] and so there's this kind of situation you can get into sometimes where someone is trying to get some point across: and even tho you can tell that they're passionate about it and sincere (or whatever) the fact that neither of you speak the other's language means that what they're trying to say gets a little - well: it gets a little muddled. And: as harsh as this might be: I was kinda reminded of that uneasy feeling of not knowing whether someone was being serious and making a joke (and so all you can do return is just plaster on a fake smile) whilst reading (bits of) Hector Umbra.

You want an example? Well ok then: there's this bit towards the start where there's this person doing a TV show and their dialogue is written in such a way that - well - I couldn't exactly tell who they were making fun of (the person doing the report or the people watching at home or both or neither?): "We want to take part in other people's misery without immediately drowning in pity or ending up with a guilty conscience." I mean: having it written down like that - it seems like it's being satirical - but (for me at least) I can't really put my finger on it's pulse: it's like the wrist is covered in jam or something (ok - so maybe not the best metaphor ever: but you get my point yeah?).

I mean - obviously yeah: it's a problem of translation [6] (no duh) and I guess that is just the price you have to pay to get all the nice lovely artwork (which at points hits the same kinda highs as 100 Bullet's Eduardo Risso - with all the same sort of twisty angles and hard-boiled-style hard-shouldered nastiness: or whatever you want to call it): when me and my literary flatmate have discussed this - he's always been of the opinion that (as translation can never be perfect [7]) that if you want to read a book in another language then - sorry mate - you should learn that language and that anything else (like say - reading a translation) is cheating. Me - well - I'm not that hardcore but I do see his point.

And looking on the plus side: well - yeah - if you ever wondered what a German version of John Constantine would look like then you need wonder no more [8]. And yeah: with a story that makes all sorts of lopsided turns and loops and a smash-and-grab attitude to the paranormal that somehow manages to combine Beetlejuice with underground DJs  - it's basically what happens if you made a cover of Phonogram but with turntables instead of guitars and dirty bad low vibes in the place of all the magic: only much more appetizing than that probably sounds. 

Although overall: coming away from it - I just couldn't shake off that strange feeling of disconnect - like there was a loose wiring somewhere in the story and it was coming through like a bad phone line: with the characters on the other side slipping out of meaning every now and again with things just not quite making sense. But maybe that's just the price you pay. I dunno. 

[1] Although - I guess all human beings have a tendency to bathe their childhood's in a beatific warm glow: it's pretty hard to regret the stuff that made you the person you are today after all. I mean: no one wants to think that they're a bad person right?

[2] I think that there are some people out there who are a little bit allergic to the word "multiculturalism" thanks to - I dunno - the way it's been used by politicians or whatnot - but I'm not one of them.

[3] I mean: I realise that condensation is like my default style. But just this once - that's not the tone I'm going for. Double-promise.

[4] Yes - I realise how dated this reference is and no - I don't care.

[5] And - lordly - I know that this is just stating the obvious - but just in case (so you know I'm not a bigot or anything): I don't think that anyone should be required to speak English or that it's the default language or anything: and yeah - really: if I was going to be more of world-child then I would have (should have) learnt some other languages. But - hey - in my defense: I went to a pretty rubbish school and all the Spanish teachers I had were terrible. So get off my back - ok?

[6] And of this reminds me a lot of this old Stewart Lee article (Lost in translation) which you really should read if you haven't already: "But be assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognise." (and - ha! - it couldn't be pertinent to the subject at hand even if I tried: go me).

[7] And sometimes - like it says in this New York Review of Books Review article (Reading it Wrong): "In short, there is a tension between reader and text that the translator experiences in a special way because, rewriting the text in his own language, he has to allow that tension to happen again for a new group of readers. Becoming aware of how you might instinctively wish to change a text and eliminate the tension is both to understand it better and to understand something about yourself."

[8] Although strangely on the cover (is this just me?) he kinda looks like a younger, skinner version of Elbow's Guy Garvey: I mean - come on

Links: Forbidden Planet Blog Review, Comic Buzz Review.

Further reading: 100 Bullets, Heavy Liquid, Hellblazer: City of Demons, PhonogramBlacksad: Somewhere between the ShadowsThe Manara Library

All comments welcome.

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