With Leonard Rifas. Pt.1: Korean War Comics, Second Life and Climate Change

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

Leonard Rifas is partly responsible, with Project Gen, for the first distribution of Barefoot Gen in English translation. As a cartoonist with his EduComicsimprint and working for other publishers, he’s been responsible for All-Atomic Comics, Corporate Crime Comics, Tobacco Comics, Food First Comics, AIDS News and many others. I caught up with Leonard and posed a few questions to learn about his work.war-battles

Andy Luke: What work have you gotten on top of recently?

Leonard Rifas: My most recent work has centered on comic scholarship rather than cartooning. I’m currently updating my MA thesis on Korean War comic books for publication as my first scholarly book.

AL: And comics-wise?

LR: I haven’t drawn any pages since last November, when I contributed two pages to an art show I organized of Seattle-area cartoonists on the subject of climate change. What keeps me most busy has been teaching courses in introduction to film and introduction to comics at Seattle Central Community College.

AL: I noticed you gave a lecture via Second Life around this time last year.

LR: I got involved in the international comics conferences that meet in Second Life because its organizer, Beth Davies-Stofka, invited me. I enjoyed the conferences (despite the technical difficulties I had) because they combine a feeling of gathering together in an exotic location to share our work with the convenience of communicating over the web.

These conferences also have elements of a costume party, but my avatar (“Not Plutonian”) uses only the free options, so I was not much to look at.

I have been interested in virtual environments since the Human Interface Technology Laboratory began at the University of Washington in Seattle while I was a student there in the early 1990s. I continue to be interested in how such environments can become places to store, share and work with information.

I remain much more interested in the possibilities of such environments than in spending time in actual virtual environments. The only times I’ve visited Second Life have been connected with the comics scholarship conferences I participated in there.

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 (Above: ‘Not Plutonian’)


AL:
 I caught your “Feet First” piece on travelling locally. How did that come to form?

“Feet First Comics” was my first experiment in creating comics for the web. My assignment was to promote alternatives to cars for non-commuting trips, and I realized that the key decisions happen, not when people walk out their front doors and decide whether to get into a car or not, but when people decide where to live. I worked with a team of web design students at Seattle Central Community College, and their help allowed me to design the comic so that readers could click on words in the story and have pop-ups come up to add information, and then links in those pop-ups opened the documents that I originally took the information from.
Already, many of those links have died. Also, when I have introduced individuals to the site and watched them go through it, I don’t remember that any of them ever heeded the screen messages that encouraged them to try clicking on the hyper-links in the story.

AL: I’m quite interested in how you and the internet are getting along and where the partnership has been going and might go next.

LR: I have been thinking of web-posting that show that I organized of Seattle-area cartoonists on the subject of climate change. One reason I have been slow to do it has been that I learned from the mistake I made in designing “Feet First Comics” that web-comics attract their readers by having regularly updated material, new strips, like the daily paper. Over 1,000 people visited the physical art gallery when we had the climate change comics show hanging, but I’m skeptical about how much traffic the same show would get as a website.

AL: How did you get started on the web?

LR: Back when websites still felt like a novelty, in the mid-1990s, people used to hire artists to create up to a couple of dozen original graphics for their sites. I had about a half dozen jobs designing icons, banners, illustrations, and animated gif files for non-commercial websites. As the web matured, that kind of work dried up quickly.

These days I spend a huge amount of my time gathering information on the web and reading email. I hope someday to get over my shyness and post a website for EduComics, my educational comic book company.

climate-change leonard rifas by bob rini

Seattle exhibition photograph courtesy of Bob Rini

Comics That Moved Me: Barefoot Gen

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

I trembled cradling Volume 2 between my palms. The pages jittered in response and I could not grab them. The colour drained from my skin and I gen-sunlightstumbled to a bench and found my place.

No comic has ever given me such an unsettling physical experience as Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. These illustrations of the survivors of Hiroshima, trailing their burned flesh behind them, lips barely moving or falling off. Mutated figures crying for the humanity of a glass of water and a grain of rice. A wise artist reduced to a nest for flies and kept a secret by his family in a city of likewise suffering. Destroyed. It’s a difficult comic to not shed tears over, to not feel ill around. As first-hand documentary, it thumps the floor, strikes the chest and the gut, the head and heart in an ultimate way. It’s affect is profound, ask any who have read it.

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“Gen is my alter ego, and his family is like my own. The episodes on Barefoot Gen are all based on what really happened to me or other people in Hiroshima.” (Nakazawa, 2004)
Gen was a child when his father makes his opinion known his country had no business being in the war on the orders of ruling greedy men. A valid argument, that continues to ring out today. The family is shunned by neighbours as un-patriotic, even though Gen’s brother, with something to prove, defies their wishes to fight for Japan.

Nakazawa’s beautiful drawings of Spring serenity of elegant architecture and nature precedes what we know is coming. The atomic bomb turns buildings and bones to dust, sets skin to flame. Chaos scrambles. Father-less Gen must provide for his mother in labour and travels the city of the murdered begging for grains of rice and water. Rain falls and cooks the internal organs of the thirsty. Gen meets a sibling who he saw perish, he is, isn’t he? He looks like him, acts like him, but why doesn’t he know him? Surely he’s just joking about never having met him?

During the 1960s, radical (gegika) manga was widespread in Japan. “Manga artists joined organisations such as the Proletarian Artists League, and contributed to Marxist manga journals..the very act of reading a manga implied making a stand”, writes lecturer Sharon Kinsella. Over time, opposition arrived and by the 1980s, high quality information manga (joho) emerged and artists were recruited into national propaganda roles.

gen the emperorFor a while debate surrounded the media blackout regarding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The occupying US military certainly confiscated film footage of the bombing. In this climate, Nakazawa created the 45 page comic ‘I Saw It’ about his experiences and in 1972-73, created Barefoot Gen for serialisation. By 1979, the first two volumes were translated into English and published in the US by Project Gen, a non-profit small press volunteer organisation. Leonard Rifas, the one-man force behind EduComics believed comics “had their own qualities as an extremely effective democratic tool”, and approached the group about using their translations.

Gen of Hiroshima made its way around the US’s head-shops that stocked Crumb and Shelton and non-comics counter-cultural products, as well as the sprouting comic-book stores.Historian Roger Sabin writes,

“An anti-Vietnam organisation, The War Resisters League with roots going back to 1923 were to distribute them around the US and sell them through radical political bookstores,peace organisations and religious bodies. The books had no advertising behind them.”

The Project is credited with being the seed for translations into French, German, Italian, Portugese, Swedish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. In 1994, Minako Tanabe, a Russian translator with the Project relocated to Japan, and became re-acquainted with fellow volunteers and Last Gasp Publications who ‘picked up the torch’, releasing Nakazawa’s expanded narrative over ten volumes.
Its revitalisation lately is due to these factors and the acceptability of other authors such as Joe Sacco, Art Speigelman and Marjane Satrapi. Perhaps some day the ruling greedy men will get it right, and Nakazawa’s aims will be understood by them.

“I hope that Gen’s story conveys to its readers the preciousness of peace and the courage we need to live strongly, yet peacefully” (Nakazawa, 2004)

I’ll be interviewing Leonard Rifas about his work later in the month here on Alltern8. Keep an eye out for that.

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