Sunday, March 22, 2009

Comics Review: The Joe's Bar Stories, José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo are, rather unfortunately, identified with what most Americans would consider the Heavy Metal generation of European cartooning. Their peers include such talents as Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt, Vittorio Giardino, and others. These cartooning talents didn’t produce work intended for children, but, for the most part, they didn’t stray from such lowbrow genres as westerns, science fiction, or erotica. Their work was a step beyond material like Hergé’s Tintin or René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix, but no one would think of comparisons to Alberto Moravia, Marguerite Duras, or Michel Simon, either. The principal distinction of their work was the extraordinarily high level of the graphics; one often found the material was considerably more rewarding to look at than to read.

There were a few talents who had greater ambitions than their peers. One goal of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s comics anthology series RAW, published between 1980 and 1992, was to give these artists a context among English-language readers that distinguished them from the Heavy Metal bunch. The European talents featured in RAW included Jacques Tardi, Joost Swarte, and the José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo team. Their graphic abilities matched or exceeded those of the others, and their literary focus was more concerned with the human condition than with adventure or other sensationalist material.

The most accomplished work arguably came from Muñoz & Sampayo, an Argentinian artist-writer team who settled in Europe after fleeing the political unrest in their native country. Muñoz’s artwork synthesized the Expressionist approaches pioneered by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and George Grosz in the first half of the twentieth century. He integrated their techniques with a cinematic storytelling style that made narrative cartooning seem a natural progression from the painters’ work. Every aspect of a character’s inner life was suggested by Muñoz’s rendering, and Sampayo responded by providing stories that took advantage of this. The result was material that bore more resemblance to literary fiction than to pulp or juvenile entertainment. For those looking to break comics out of their lowbrow ghetto, Muñoz & Sampayo’s work pointed a way.

The two never abandoned their roots in pulp. Most of their work was in the crime/detective genre, and they made their name with a series of stories featuring Alack Sinner, a New York City private detective. But one gathers they also wanted to tell stories that couldn’t accommodate the Sinner character or otherwise fit comfortably into a crime-fiction format. They hit upon the idea of using Joe’s Bar, the Sinner character’s after-hours watering hole, as the connective for a series of character studies. The stories, published between 1979 and 1984, maintained the authors’ characteristic hard-boiled edge, but violent sensationalism was never the goal.

The first of the Joe’s Bar stories to see print in English was “Mister Wilcox, Mister Conrad,” which was published in the third issue of RAW, and later reprinted in the Read Yourself RAW collection. The story of a hitman who, in spite of himself, develops a close friendship with a fellow he's been contracted to kill, it's the easiest piece in the series to classify as crime fiction. But Muñoz & Sampayo don't exploit the scenario for melodramatic suspense. The story isn't a march towards a murder; it's about two lonely, middle-aged men and the rapport they discover. The story ends on a note of pathos. One realizes the hitman is so closed off from others that his targets provide his only opportunities for human contact.

Muñoz maintains an understated pace throughout. His panels emphasize characterization over action, and the moments of violence are staged in a detached, matter-of-fact way that deprives them of any visceral charge. The drama of Muñoz's visuals doesn't come from what he shows so much as how he shows it: the stark contrasts of black and white, the lines and shadows that seem gouged out of the characters' faces, and the contrast between the intimacy of the two protagonists and the alienating, almost nightmarish world around them.

Those settings are largely defined by Muñoz's depiction of peripheral characters, who generally resemble the grotesques in George Grosz's work. They're the reason Muñoz is often compared to Grosz, but the two artists' goals couldn't be more different. Grosz's art is misanthropic to the core; it all but drips with contempt for anything and everything that he shows. Muñoz sympathizes with his protagonists; the grotesques are used to render their states of mind through contrast. The reader's sense of the rapport between the main characters in "Mister Wilcox, Mister Conrad" is heightened by the their functioning visually as the eye of the storm in Muñoz's panels. He uses this technique to particularly powerful effect in the other Joe's Bar stories, where it dramatizes the protagonists' sense of isolation.

One sees this on dazzling display in "Fifth Story" and "Pepe, the Architect," which, along with "Rusty Stories" and "Ella," make up the contents of the Joe's Bar trade paperback. "Fifth Story," like "Mister Wilcox, Mister Conrad," uses the grotesque peripheral characters to highlight the rapport between Mike, the teenage protagonist, and his girlfriend. But as Mike's attention shifts from their relationship to his anxiety over the impending death of his father, Muñoz uses his carnival of grotesqueries to highlight Mike's desperation (which finds an outlet in overeating) and feelings that he's all alone in the world. In "Pepe, the Architect," the title character is an illegal immigrant who's fled his native country and is working as a janitor off the books. Muñoz's principal technique powerfully dramatizes the character's paranoia over eventually being arrested and deported. But he's also able to turn the technique inside out, such as the moment when Pepe sees a family on the street and vicariously shares in their happiness. Muñoz's expressionistic rendering can dramatize all the pain of contemporary life, but it can also capture the joys. Even more impressively, Muñoz is able to make it seem all of a piece.

He is occasionally poorly served by his collaborator. Sampayo has a tendency to be overly explicit in his scripting, such as the time he has Pepe think, "...I've got to keep the little sanity I've got left..." His biggest failing is his frequent reliance on hackneyed characters. "Rusty Stories," for example, features a broken-down ex-champion boxer who treats a final, rigged fight as his last chance for glory (shades of the 1949 film The Set-Up). "Ella" is about a young photographer who uses her art to keep life at a distance (think of Blow-Up or the Faye Dunaway character in Three Days of the Condor). Sampayo is also occasionally prone to sensationalistic excesses, such as an extraneous scene in "Fifth Story" in which a character is sodomized during a mugging. Sampayo is essentially a writer of potboiler fiction; one often sees him straining to create material worthy of Muñoz's visuals.

But Sampayo does have his moments, such as in "Tenochitlan," which appeared in RAW #6 and was the last of the translated Joe's Bar stories to be produced. His scenes and dialogue succinctly capture the personality of the protagonist, a megalomaniacal film director. The excesses of filmmakers such as Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Landis were big news stories when the Joe's Bar stories were written. The piece has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to it, but there's nary a false note even after 25 years. Everything that characterizes a Napoleonic artistic temperament run amok--the obsessiveness, the messianic pretentiousness, the criminal disregard for human safety--Sampayo gets it all into the characterization. He ends the piece with an effective bit of irony. At an awards ceremony, the director is shot by a man whose brother and father were killed as a result of the director's recklessness. Ironically, the director is so obsessed with capturing the drama of the moment that he ignores his own injury and screams for the cameramen to focus on the face of the gunman. The scene has to be just so, even in real life. Art trumps everything else.

One wishes it would trump the economics of comics publishing. The English translations of the various Joe's Bar stories have been out-of-print in North America for years. Muñoz & Sampayo's work is now largely known as a key inspiration for Frank Miller's art and storytelling in his Sin City comics. Muñoz's expressionistic rendering techniques have been cheapened into arbitrary chiaroscuro decoration, and his dramatic eloquence has been abandoned in favor of sensationalistic silliness. Miller can't even leave Muñoz's staging flourishes alone; techniques such as having the protagonists in one story appear as extras in another are lifted wholesale. One wishes one could respond to Miller's slick kitsch by saying, look, here's the original, it's still here. Unfortunately, unless one picked up Muñoz & Sampayo's work when it first appeared in English twenty-odd years ago, there's nowhere to point. Fantagraphics Books has announced their intention to publish the complete works of Jacques Tardi, who is one of Muñoz & Sampayo's most prominent peers. Here's hoping they can turn their attention to the complete works of Muñoz and Sampayo as well.

My thanks to Mike Hunter for providing xeroxes of the story "Tenochitlan" for this article.