The East London Comics Art Festival (ELCAF) is the sort of open marketplace that you can find comics of all different hues. There is much to be tasted visually over the weekend and it is always worth stepping out of your comfort zone and experience something a little strange.
If you fancy a trip down some different path then the publisher Centrala may be well worth your time. A company that specialises in translated comics from Europe and especially Poland they have of recent times become a reliable stall to visit at a number of festivals. I’ve been reviewing their books for a few years now and find many of them to be heart-wrenching, visually brutal, historical, funny and/or all of the above.
To help you navigate to something you might like here are a few choices I’ve enjoyed.
First up is a book that I still revisit over a year since first experiencing it. This, to me, is Centrala’s evergreen graphic novel. A book so good and with so much to say that it should stay on the comic shop and bookshop shelves for years to come.
Here’s what I said about it when I reviewed it in February 2017.
Chernobyl: The Zone
Written by Francisco Sanchez
Art by Natacha Bustos
Published by Centrala
170 x 245 mm
188 pages – Black and white interiors
The Story: This is a story of one of many families that were forced to leave their homes after the tragic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what is now Ukraine. They were told that they could return after a few days, but it was too late – the invisible enemy had already claimed all their possessions and occupied their houses and land for years to come.
It’s been decades since the events of the 26th April 1986, but it’s nothing compared to the tens of thousands of years that will have to pass before the radioactive fallout around Chernobyl is no longer a hazard. This graphic novel is a tribute to those who personally experienced the consequences of nuclear power that got out of control.
In their story – which aims neither to shock nor cause controversy – Francisco Sánchez and Natacha Bustos look from a distance at three characters who, though fictional, could very well be real. The authors make their readers understand what happened in Chernobyl and reflect on its meaning for today’s generation.
The Review: Sometimes a book just hits a chord with you. It has an impact from the first few pages, crying out with both emotion and quality. These books don’t come around too often, but Chernobyl – The Zone hit me like a claw hammer.
I received this through the post on the morning of the first day of the London Super Comic Con. I was getting ready, excited for the weekend ahead. But as soon as I unwrapped the parcel and flipped through the pages, I realised this would not only be an amazing book but also something I would treasure.
26th April 1986 is the day that Chernobyl, the Russian nuclear power reactor exploded. It is described in an eloquent introduction (by author Alvaro Colomer) as the last major news event not to be reported as part of a twenty-four hour news cycle, partly because the disaster precedes the widespread use of the Internet, but more the result of the disaster’s location, behind what we then called ‘The Iron Curtain”.
Much of the story takes place in the town of Pripyat, a busy, family-oriented, bustling town that was completely evacuated and remains so until this day. Stories tell of dogs howling in the town for a week after the event. Then the silence came.
“The world moved on and forgot about us long ago…”
It is this quiet, this still and hollow world that creators Francisco Sanchez and Natacha Bustos recreate on the comics page with such impact. It’s all the more potent because they don’t take a political or scientific standpoint in their storytelling but rather offer a personal point of view.
Chernobyl: The Zone revolves around three generations of a family confused, scared and grieving as the story turns from a gentle soap opera into an apocalyptic disaster story. They are marshalled out of their homes by radiation-suited, gas mask wearing, black and soulless-eyed soldiers. They are put on buses and driven deep into the country, past homes and villages filled with people who are scared of radiation sickness and do not want to take them in.
The dialogue is kept to a realistic minimum and tells more through the artist Natacha Bustos excellent use of expression and scope than exposition and explanation could. The world under the huge sky is cold and stationary; nothing moves, the cold permeates the page and scenes are left to breathe and open up in front of our eyes.
At times, hope leaves the book completely. Even the apparent arrival of a foal in a snow-laden landscape is twisted and subverted by the radiation and the cruel and stupid acts of mankind.
I cannot compliment Natacha and her choices more highly. She uses a clean and solid black line that portrays a stillness. The world around the characters is allowed to stop and look around. We see broad, breathtaking views of nature and destruction intermingling. The people have great character and you can feel their sense of family, friendship and community. The eyes say so much it is heartbreaking.
The last section of the book has a resident returning to his childhood home and haunts and discovering with a camera the devastation on the country. A whole town that people seemingly left at a moments notice, leaving both their possessions and their lives behind.
(Just to emphasise the size of this disaster, it is worth pointing out that it will take 25,000 years for the contamination in this part of Russia to disappear. The impact of this disaster is both incredible and baffling in scale).
While Chernobyl – The Zone will educate you about the awful events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster, it also make you feel something and is breathtaking in both scope and heart.
Soooo, now for something completely different.
Hungry Hansel and Gluttonous Gretel
Created by Zavka.
The Story - ‘Beyond the seven toadstools and beyond the seven bugs there lived a brother and sister who were always hungry. Unlike Johnny, Maggie does not have a kids’ fascination with larvae. Not having that hobby, one day she steals some keys and opens a story that leads us to an oven, a cake, and a chopped off head.’
The Review - See that cover? How strange is that cover? Yep, that’s exactly what you get inside. A shorter story than Chernobyl (and priced currently at only £4.50) this is one weird ass book! It is also not one for people of a weak constitution or to read if you like eating cheese before bedtime.
But we need weird don’t we?
Zavka is an illustrator, author of comics, and graphic artist. Graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Winner of the prize for the best graphic work in the competition at the Boomfest International Comic Festival in Russia in 2013, and winner of the “Golden Chicken” 2016 – the independent comic prize in the “Drawing” category for the comic Hungry Johnny and Greedy Maggie. She publishes her work in fanzines in Poland and abroad.
Here’s another book that I’ve previously reviewed and enjoyed. It is a kaliedoscope of the abnormal that is lumped in alongside the banality of life. It twists our perceptions of the everyday.
Here’s what I said previously. (I may have been slightly off my nut when I wrote this review - beware!)
Written and Illustrated by Sorina Vazelina
Full Colour – Published by Centrala Books
Something is crawling in to my brain, something colourful and crazy. This is an anthology of work by Sorina Vazelina and published by Centrala books in the United Kingdom.
Beware. I intend to use drugs references throughout!
The book starts off as an examination of growing old and the eccentricities of the world. It has that quality of a codeine-ingested Terry Gilliam animation – you know, the ones where it really seemed like he was losing his mind. The comic has an abstract yet ever-changing and evolving feel to its pages. The world around the eye of the reader shifts throughout and we are exposed and drenched in the different lysergic styles used by the creator. The world in this book references moments that are real events and historical interpretations as well as absurdist and fractured dream like sequences. It’s like a narrative that is written on an LSD soaked blotter, nightmarishly imaginative.
“In recent years the memory shows signs of of rapid deterioration, thus becoming the shredding machine of our neuronal landscape”
Not at any singular point did I understand what on earth was happening in this comic (and neither should I). It is a speculative dive in to the nature of the self in all its different incarnations. The idea of a distant concept is just the beginning of the life of this anthology. It is a book that straddles many styles and approaches to communicating ideas and stories. Some moments appear like sketchbook watercolours and others like clean and intellectual New Yorker Magazine cartoons. The personality on display changes from story to story but retains that experimental edge throughout.
One of my favourite strips describes the peculiar moments of silence experienced by strangers on a train. Sitting close to each other, crammed in to seats but never communicating.
Sorina Vazelina – described on one web site as “a sort of illustrator, cartoonist and graphic designer, with pretzels for brains” – is a chameleon of style and storytelling at a young age, as an original voice that you are likely to read this year an brought to you by a company that brings the best of European art comics to the UK. I read this book over breakfast and somehow suspect that the rest of my day won’t match up. Scattershot absurdist genius!
If I had to find one small problem it would be that the rather subdued cover doesn’t live up to the eye-fuck inside the book.
This collection of short stories is like an amphetamine edged hallucination. It’ll gloriously drag you through a crowd of crazy faced strangers cackling at your freakish features! Watch out for this creator.
• Sorina Vazelina is a full-time illustrator, part-time graphic designer and spare time cartoonist with pretzels for brains. Her scribbles have been published in Esquire, Omagiu and Regard Romania. While at Synopsismedia.com and itseveryday.ro she collaborated on theatre and gig posters, art albums, comic anthologies, magazines and manuals. Her works were featured in Stripburger, exhibited at Next Comic Festival Linz 2014 and Fumetto Festival Luzern 2015.
• Check out her web site at http://vazelina.ro
And finally a book so absurd that it just had to be a true story.
Created by Jan Soeken.
The Story - ‘Two friends are on their way to Ku Klux Klan meeting taking place deep in the forest. It’s just a shame that the instructions in the e-mail were so unclear…’
The Review - The everyday story of two deluded German cops who decide to don their cloaks and wander through the woods looking for a racist gang to join (in this case the Klu Klux Klan). On the way they get savaged by a dog, get terribly lost and constantly argue.
Drawn in a scratchy pencil style that has a real underground feel to it and also looks a little bit like a drawing in the notebook of a deranged student this will combine eye-rolling awkward feelings with chuckles on public transport (well in my case it did anyway). Once again this is one of Centrala’s shorter books (at 40 pages) but also one that I have dipped back into from time to time to remind myself of the crazy story and that some people in the world are just that ruddy stupid!
The world is a nuts place. Let Centrala point out just how nuts it is to you by visiting their table at ELCAF.
Find out more about this company at www.centrala.org.uk or follow them on Twitter @icentrala
Many thanks for reading.