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THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

Banana Republic cover For my money, the Best Book of 2009 was Kirk Anderson’s Banana Republic, which we reviewed at length at the Usual Place in R&R, Opus 238. Observing Anderson’s bold and tapering line — a line supple as liquid sheen, not to mention the crispness of his stylistic mannerisms, the inherent drama of their composition and the superlative comedic timing of the breakdowns — his wit, his graphic genius, his satirical savagery, I laughed the silvery laughter of pure, unadulterated pleasure at beholding the symphonic beauty of his work, its visual distinction yoked to an intellectual assault on the issues of the day, a ramble engaging both eye and mind — cartooning at its most sublime.

A satire, a newspaper comic strip reprint, Banana Republic also qualifies as a graphic novel as surely as anything Marvel or DC produced serially before compiling the pages into a single volume: Anderson did the work first as a quarter-page newspaper comic strip  for the Minneapolis Star Tribune from October 13, 2005 to November 17, 2007. For over two years, in nearly 100 comic strips, Anderson unflinchingly lambasted the Bush League and its demonstrably unAmerican policies. For that purpose, Anderson invented a “zany Third World dictatorship, Amnesia ... [where] the government engages in roughhousing practices we would consider unconstitutional in our own country — such as torture, warrantless surveillance, and imprisonment without charge!”

Banana Republic page To give his fictional country a cohesive satiric focus, Anderson invented the dictator, Generalissimo Wally, who “may often represent the U.S. president, but on any given week, he may just as likely represent power more generally, or a corporate CEO, or the U.S. government, or Minnesota’s governor. Regardless of whether we think American torture is right or wrong, when it’s Genralissimo Wally melon-balling some poor bastard’s eyes, we know it’s appalling, unAmerican, and proof of his illegitimacy.”

Purely visual comedy often sharpens the satire by reason of its contrast to the grimness being depicted. Dangling by his arms and pestered with the idiotic preoccupations of his torturer, the political prisoner Diego Meza “lightens the mood for his fellow detainees” by trying to swing his eyeball back into its socket — an outright imitation of a child’s game, which might even be called “ball in the socket.”  In another scene in the torture chamber, Anderson resorts to a simple albeit graphically effective visual pun — showing a victim vomiting blood, about which Wally says, “He even speaks in bloodbaths.”

BANANA REPUBLIC Kirk Anderson The last strips in which Rita Meza finally secures the release of her tortured husband deploy breathtakingly inspired visuals. After years of relentless torture, the hapless Diego has been reduced to a liquid, as if his skeletal structure has been completely crushed, mulched. This symbol Anderson exploits for two pages as Rita tries to arouse public indignation — Diego drips from her arms as she carries his limp remains around — all to no avail. Unable to talk, Diego answers his wife’s question about what “they” have done to him with speech balloons the show images of melon-balling, brain removal, and simple beatings. Ugly stuff. But in Anderson’s hands, the ugliness is given an image so grim, so metaphorically accurate, that ugliness is transcended and becomes excruciatingly satirical.

Anderson’s book — his comic strip — makes for vastly entertaining reading. Unabashedly irreverent on every note it strikes, it withholds nothing. There are no sacred cows; no wickedness committed in the name of making the world a better place is ignored, no justification accepted. The book is relentless as well as unflinching. It is also a supreme example of how the arts of cartooning can be assembled for telling satire, satire that is humorous as well as insightful, hilarious as well as inciteful.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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