A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #27 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 25, 2014-JANUARY 4, 2015

CO-MIX Capers

Art Gallery of Ontario CEO Matthew Teitelbaum (left) in a sit-down interview with cartooning legend and advocate Art Spiegelman (right), December 17, 2014.

Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective

Venue: Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West

Dates/Times: Through March 15, 2015; Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Wednesdays 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.)

Admission/Information: Free with general admission – Adults $19.50, Seniors $16, Students/Youth $11, Child (under 5) and Wednesday nights 6-8:30 p.m. FREE. Call 416-879-6648 or ago.net.

Gallery Review

The Art Gallery of Ontario finally joins the many contemporary galleries of the world in recognizing cartooning as an art form in setting up Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective of the cartooning legend behind his most famous work, Maus and his other revolutionary and oft-polemic material in his lifelong campaign to preserve the medium as much as he is in willing to adapt it for future readers and practitioners.

About 500 works, mostly curated by Spiegelman himself; stretches back about 45 years of his collected works, illustrations, sketches and notes he’s managed to maintain shows a seriousness yet keeping a sense of humour about him as well stated in the parody of the medium-cum-self-portrait “Cover art” of watercolour, ink and collage on paper to open up the beginnings of his career during the underground days of the late 1960s when countercultural artists like Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins and Gilbert Shelton were at their zenith, shows a series of his independent titles Short Order Comix, Hot Nuts: Tiajuana Bible Revival and Skeeter Giant; the vigilante antihero satire The Viper’s “Villie Vetback Visits the City” to adult comic strips he drew for Playboy “Ed Head,” “Shaggy Dog Story” and the split-panel, double entendre gender battle “Jack ‘n’ Jane ‘n’ Rod ‘n’ Randy.”

Adult comic strip “Jack ‘n’ Jane ‘n’ Rod ‘n’ Randy,” Playboy Magazine, circa 1970s.

By the 1970s, a maturity takes hold in technique and with topic in his first attempt at an autobiographical comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” reflecting on his mother’s 1968 suicide done on scratchboard with ink, collage and correction fluid shows a bold German Expressionist influence, which he’d also use in describe his own mental collapse for “Breakdowns: From Maus to Now” and a more innovative usage of materials of the day for “Zip-a-Tunes and Moiré Melodies” with ink and screentone (ah, memories of Letraset flood back to me).

Mocking the long-running soap opera comic strip series Rex Morgan, M.D. is the cartoonist’s “Nervous Rex, The Malpractice Suite” of using collage to manipulate the strip’s imagery and graph it into his own drawing offers a good smirk; the experimental Ace Hole, Midget Detective slaps around the crime noir genre with neo-cubist characters poking fun at that movement by the hard-boiled antagonist in the work.

A large wall display of a gig Spiegelman held for a good twenty years after graduating from the New York High School of Art and Design with the Topps bubble-gum company shows his infamous collection of his spoof of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of the 1980s, Garbage Pail Kids, controversial for its grotesqueness and wordplay as an anathema to the cherub sweetness of the dolls still remains subversive and popular today.

Clockwise: “Cover art”; Selected earlier works of independent titles Short Order Comix, Hot Nuts: Tiajuana Bible Revival and Skeeter Giant and details of the 1980s Topps card collection Garbage Pail Kids.

Also in the same period, covers of RAW Magazine adorn the walls of the publication Spiegelman and wife/partner Françoise Mouly launched as an alternative comics version of MAD back in the 1980s include studies for covers of roughhewn markers on paper that lives up to its title, coloured pencil and ink invokes Hergé in “A Father’s Guiding Hand” as a thinly-veiled discussion on his daddy issues he once had and one striking collaboration with Charles Burns and Ever Muelen uses Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy and religious iconography for “The Passion of St. Sluggo.”

Clockwise: Cover artworks of RAW Magazine; “One Row, from the RAW Color Suppliment” strip; “The Couple” and a sample page from one of Art Spiegelman’s sketchbooks, circa 1980s.

Spiegelman’s masterwork that finally brought him fame and a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Maus, dominates most of the exhibit. Started out as a three-page “bedtime story” in 1972 about his parents’ World War II experiences as concentration camp survivors and personal reconciliation with his upbringing surrounding it and the 13-year odyssey in making the graphic novel – a term he detests as much as the usage of the Holocaust as a cottage industry in certain circles – of his meticulous notes and sketches (even a stuffed mouse as a model), the now iconic “Self-Portrait with Maus Mask” and cover artworks done in pastel crayon and ink and a lithographic graphite sketch “Mom and Me in the Park, 1951 (Maus Revenge),” all give the fullest breadth in doing this epic project is nothing short of remarkable.

Left-right: Cover art and sketches for Maus Volumes I and II; the original 1972 three-page “bedtime story” concept for Maus and artwork for Maus II: And Here Began My Troubles.

The post-Maus period sections firmly shows how Spiegelman’s not willing to be cubby-holed as “the Holocaust cartoonist” by any means, ranges from his decade-long stint doing covers for The New Yorker, with his stark 1992 Valentine’s Day debut illustration of an interracial kiss between a Hasidic Jew and a African-American woman as his response to the racial rioting of the period done in Gouache and watercolour; some ink and colour comic essays he did for the magazine (his personal analysis on Hitler’s Mein Kamph is an intriguing read), “Abstract Thoughts Is a Warm Puppy, A homage to Charles Schulz” talks about the impact the Peanuts creator had made on postwar cartooning, pop culture and on himself, which includes a personal meeting with Schulz and the insecurities they both shared to The Wild Party, based on the 1928 Joseph Moncure March’s Jazz Age narrative poem, captures all the eroticism with side-by-side studies and scratchboard finals.

Clockwise: “The Forward” from In the Shadow of No Towers; artwork for French experimental author Boris Vian, circa 1980s and “Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still” final scratchboard art and study in marker and coloured pencil on tracing paper from The Wild Party.

Other miscellaneous works run the gamut with doing covers for French experimental author Boris Vian, his own line of children’s books (Open Me…I’m A Dog!; Jack and The Box) shows his lighthearted side, then back to the 2004 part-commentary, part-narrative classic observation on 9/11 America In the Shadow of No Towers and the spooky digital print of The New Yorker September 24, 2001 cover of the event.

The cartoonist’s more current projects that go a bit beyond conventional is his willingness to see the medium’s future beyond print all seen in video shorts in the 2012 glass mural design “It Was Today, Only Yesterday” for his alma mater and theatre collaborations with dance troupe Pilobolus for 2010’s dance/animation production Still Moving and with jazz saxman Phillip Johnston for the 2013 commission WORDLESS!, a lively combo of art, jazz and comics of a bizarre detective story of sorts inspired by early 20th century woodcut novels

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Clockwise: Video clips from “It Was Today, Only Yesterday” mural project; the Still Moving dance performance project with Pilobolus and animated commission WORDLESS! with jazz musician Phillip Johnston.

Even if it nearly closes a little bit on a note of gloom over his lamenting on the slow demise of the print comic strip and daily/weekend comics sections with Lead Pipe Sunday, of one piece done in ink, crayon, pencil and marker on Mylar acetate of an elder Sluggo-like character in shock for “Crash!,” CO-MIX does show Spiegelman’s versatility, dedication and advocacy of the cartooning art form as well as holding out its hopeful future – and managing to shock and titillate us still. Highly recommended.

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Art Spiegelman returns to Toronto for the screening/talk event What the %@&*! Happened to Comics? at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West) on January 26, 2015. Tickets/information: call 647-925-0643 or kofflerarts.org.

War drama more on humanity than inhumanity

Unbroken (Universal)

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamusa “Miyavi” Ishihara, Finn Wittrock

Director: Angelina Jolie

Producers: Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Erwin Stoff and Matthew Baer

Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson; based on the Laura Hillenbrand book

Film Review

For her second directorial jaunt, Angelina Jolie tackles another war story with Unbroken, showing a maturity and rapid evolution in putting a lot of emotion and visual aptitude by doing something that very few American filmmakers rarely do: make an non-jingoistic World War II while remaining inspirational and bringing some sense of humanity in a time of inhumanity flawlessly.

Based on the real-life memoirs of Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) and the bestselling 2010 biography by Laura Hillenbrand, the film traces Zamperini’s humble beginnings as the son of Italian immigrant parents fighting off racist bullies in the dusty Californian city of Torrance outside of Los Angeles during the Depression, getting into the usual schoolboy shenanigans until one day his eldest brother Pete (Alex Russell) sees the potential of him being a long distance runner. With some training and tough love, he becomes a high school track star before long that earns him a scholarship at the University of Southern California and shot at Olympic glory in 1936 Berlin.

Zamperini recalls all this, through a useful bare minimum of flashbacks, as he and two of his crewmembers Russell “Phil” Phillips (Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Wittrock) survive a bomber plane crash into the South Pacific during World War II as a means of keeping hope alive. Enduring the elements of nature and trailing sharks for 45 days with little food and fresh water, they’re captured by a passing Japanese frigate and taken to the Omari POW camp outside Tokyo run by its commander Matsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Ishihara), who takes a personal interest in breaking Zamperini’s spirit for the duration of his imprisonment.

Jolie takes a big risk in not only making this story that would daunt a more novice director than her previous effort Blood and Honey, but also in hiring unfamiliar talents to fill the roles with lead O’Connell holding all the grace and dignity of a man facing insurmountable odds in not giving into hatred for his enemies despite the punishing grind and resisting temptation into becoming a propagandist cog for the Japanese dues to his celebrity status, as the young British actors puts in a lot of depth here, a part that will define his career and Japanese rock star Ishihara in his acting debut as the semi-sadist Bird who is strangely confused and humbled by Zamperini’s unwillingness to crumble not out any patriotism, but out of humanity being his saviour; along with Russell, Gleeson, Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund as a fellow brother-like American POW John Fitzgerald are small parts, if necessary bonuses.

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins places the right amount of sepia hues from the comforts of home to the dark grains of the grimy prison camps, the emotive score of composer Alexandre Desplat doesn't clash with Coldplay’s “Miracles” for the end credits song at all to the well written script by the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson keenly adapting Hillenbrand’s book on Zamperini, who spent the last 60 years of his life waiting for his life story to make it to the screen, but lived to see the rough cut of the biopic before passing away last June at age 97 with approval.

Guaranteed, it’s got Oscar bait written all over it with major powerhouses behind it all, yet Jolie and her cast manages to pull it off as their own cornerstones career-wise in doing a honourable war story of a honourable man for Unbroken with such audacity and courage.

Woodsy musical enchants

Into the Woods (Walt Disney)

Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp

Director: Rob Marshall

Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Callum McDougall and Marc Platt

Screenplay: James Lapine; based on the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine stage musical

Film Review

Long gestating in development hell, the classic Tony-winning 1986 Broadway smash musical-comedy fantasy Into the Woods finally makes its cinematic version and it proved to be worth the wait for this fairytale mash-up of characters and stories coming together is as unconventional onscreen as it is onstage in structure and evenness most adaptations don’t ever get to make.

In a faraway kingdom’s village, a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) long to have a child in their lives, until a wicked witch (Streep) reveals the reasons for their lack of offspring due to a curse she placed on their homestead and a deal she cut with his long-gone father (Simon Russell Beale) for certain misdeeds long ago. However, she’s willing to lift the curse if they can get four items before the forthcoming blue moon is full within three nights.

On their list is a pure white cow from Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of the soon-to-be beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood’s (Lilla Crawford) red cape, one of Cinderella’s (Anna Kendrick) glass slippers and a lock of golden hair from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), which all of these are found in the deep, dark woods amongst the many characters they chance upon in their quest, including two vaingloriously handsome princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) both looking for their respective true loves, a vengeful giant’s wife (Frances de la Tour) and one slick wolf (Depp).

Taking a whole new approach in directing for his project after his Academy Award-winning Chicago (and unfairly drubbed Nine) in going with more exterior shots and less staging interiors, Marshall keeps the theatrical aesthetics within and the play’s nadir undertones in part to Dion Beebe’s cinematography and James Lapine making just a few alterations to his original book without gutting it to tailor-fit the pace rightly for a film-watching audience. And yes, Sondheim’s cherished songbook remains as sparkling and charming as ever.

The all-star casting is a plus with Streep, no stranger to film musicals after Mamma Mia!; as the Witch is her finest hour in being beastly and sympathetic that really shines in every scene she’s in, Depp as the Wolf is deviously delightful (pity it’s more like a cameo role) and Corden and Blunt make a fine couple for all their imperfections and insecurities regarding their marriage and parenthood they face. Huttlestone, who won hearts in Les Misérables; does it again here as Jack, although Tracey Ullman almost overshadows him as his materialistic mother and the musical highlights belong to Streep on “Last Midnight” and the princely duet heard with “Agony.” Who knew that Pine could actually sing?

A superbly faithful transition to the screen, the film will find an all-ages audience enchanted by its songs and story parables interwoven with a dark comedy not too heavy for the kids and be thoroughly entertaining like those film musicals of the 1950s and ‘60s were, where Into the Woods can find itself on the same level of excellence.