Sunday, August 31, 2014

REVIEW: Now a Major Motion Picture: The Monuments Men

Though I plan to, I haven’t yet seen the film, the Monuments Men. I did, however, have the opportunity earlier this year to read the book on which it's based, by Robert M. Edsel, which I review here.

The story of the plunder and repatriation of art during World War II has received some coverage over the years, but sometimes lost amidst that coverage was the important role that the so-called Monuments Men played in these efforts. This is partly due to the fact that the effort was an ad hoc operation that involved a relatively few number of individuals. Though the group eventually had a chain of command, it was never officially an independent unit and, thus, no official history of the unit’s work exists.

Driving the effort were individuals from the U.S. and Great Britain, primarily from leading museums and cultural institutions, who recognized early on the great risk that works of art and cultural and architectural artifacts faced due to the war. Understandably, allied leaders at first put little stock in such efforts, since they were focused on fighting the war and not interested in anything that might hamper efforts to wage war against an implacable enemy. Over time, however, the importance and public relations value of protecting such works—as well as stopping Nazi Germany’s systematic plundering of them—came to be recognized and appreciated.

An oft-repeated assertion of Hitler’s psychological profile was that he was a failed and frustrated artist. Whether or not this played a role in the Nazis’ methodical cultural ransacking of Europe, it’s clear that Hitler and his henchmen, including Herman Goering and others, went beyond simple war plundering in confiscating some of the great art masterpieces of Europe: they even created a list of works they coveted (including, according to this book, several in the United States!), so that when the war began they mounted a systematic, organized effort to confiscate art, which involved special military and civilian units. The Nazi state even tried to legitimize these activities using legal cover, such as passing legislation that made it illegal for Jews to own art, which they believed gave them the right to pillage the private collections of dealers and private collectors. As foreign occupiers, they believed they were entitled to confiscating the national treasures of other countries with impunity.

Not George Stout
On the flip side of the coin were the museum and cultural leaders—led by a few particular visionaries, including George Stout, an American art conservation specialist and museum director, who recognized early on that artwork and culture around the world were at great risk with the world on the precipice of global conflict. Beginning with position papers sent to the U.S. and British governments that predated the war, these cultural leaders essentially forced the issue. Other than lip service, however, the U.S. and British governments provided little in terms of resources or manpower (Stout used a commandeered German army vehicle through much of the war.) Though the allies gave these efforts low priority, it was enough of an opening for Monuments Men to mobilize themselves and insert themselves into the war.

The Monuments Men initially focused on protecting the great cultural legacy of Europe from wartime destruction. This particularly included minimizing as much as possible unnecessary destruction of art and architecture by the allied military machine, which sometimes involved educating commanders and soldiers in the field, as well as standing up to both the military establishment and line officers who did not immediately understand or appreciate their roles. But as the allies began to see the extent of the Nazis’ plunder of both cultural institutions and private collections, their roles quickly expanded to include extensive detective work as they sought to identify, track down, and repatriate stolen art. As the war wound down, this also extended to protecting Germany’s cultural history. It’s unlikely in the annals of war that any military victor had gone to the extent of the allied armies, with the support of the Monuments Men, to restore and repatriate cultural and artistic treasures that might have otherwise been destroyed or claimed as the spoils of war. (At one point, among the treasures, the allies even found a large part of Germany’s gold reserve hidden away, some of it stolen from the reserves of the countries conquered by Germany. Though some advocated keeping it, the allies took great efforts to protect the gold—particularly from the Soviet Union—for eventual repatriation.)

Not Rose Valland
Of course, the work of the Monuments Men would not have been possible without the work of counterpart museum staff and curators across Europe. Chief among them were Jacques Jaujard, director of the French National Museums, who as early as 1939, at least a full year prior to the invasion of France,  began spiriting away the Louvre’s national treasures to keep them from being confiscated by the Germans; and, perhaps even more crucially, the work of Rose Valland, a low-level staff person personally asked by Jaujard to stay at the Louvre during the war. (Many assumed her to be a collaborator.) Kept on by the Germans and often close to arrest and execution by her Nazi handlers, Valland surreptitiously and doggedly kept close track of the disposition of stolen works, information which became invaluable at war’s end. (It helped, as well, that the Germans worked with their usual Prussian efficiency by keeping meticulous records of their activities and the disposition of the pieces.) And as the war shifted in the allies’ favor, German cultural officials similarly began protecting their art from destruction by bombs and soldiers.

While little needs to be said to expose the level of depravity and psychosis of the Nazi leadership, it even extended to art. As Germany and Berlin collapsed around him, Hitler issued the “Nero Decree” which ordered all German infrastructure to be destroyed so that they could not be used by the allies. Beneath the scorched earth policy was Hitler’s psychotic and narcissistic belief that the German people and its state had failed him and, as such, did not deserve to survive him. The Nero Decree caused much consternation within the inner circle and the ranks, as the “true believers” did their best to fulfill Hitler’s orders—including the wholesale destruction of art—while the more pragmatic (led by Nazi minister and Hitler confidant Albert Speer) sought to stop their peers and soldiers and commanders in the field from carrying out the orders, which would only deepen the misery of Germany and its people. Told in a novelistic style, the book delves deep into obscure papers and interviews to ascertain what actually happened during some of the incidents at the end of the war that led to the near-destruction of some of the greatest cultural treasures of Europe.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Order Rob Hanes Adventures #15 Now!

Issue 15 of Rob Hanes Adventures is now available for purchase!

Use the purchase button below to place your order immediately (via PayPal) or visit our online store to purchase the newest issue and other back issues (including the full series).

Purchase Rob Hanes Adventures #15:

In the issue, Rob is sent to China to investigate the mysterious death of a German national who was consulting in the construction of a high-speed bullet train and discovers corruption that reaches into the highest levels of the government.

A preview of the issue is available here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Walk, Don’t Run: A Report of the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con

Click here to go straight to the photogallery from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con
"There is no running in the exhibition hall. Please walk to your destination." --repeated announcement each morning at the show's opening
The 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, held July 24-27, 2014 (with the usual preview night on July 23), was another fun and successful show. I sold lots of comics, connected with fellow cartoonists, friends and longtime fans, and made many new ones as well. The event’s footprint continued to expand beyond the convention center, with many official and non-affiliated programs and events now being held at nearby hotels or across the street from the convention center in the Gaslamp District. Even if you didn't have an attendee badge, there was plenty to take in—in fact, when I went out to grab lunch across the street one day, the crowd outside was as shoulder-to-shoulder as inside the convention hall!

Issue 15 of Rob Hanes Adventures debuted at the show, my 11th consecutive appearance as an exhibitor at Comic-Con since 1993 and my 17th overall. As noted in a prior press release, this show also marks the 20th anniversary of the series—admittedly, a slightly arbitrary number since I created and have worked on the title since well before then. The anniversary marks the year that WCG Comics officially launched as a business and released the series as a full-size comic-book, so that is the milestone I celebrate.

As anyone who attends the four-day show knows, Comic-Con is a big tent for all things fannish, pop culture, and geek: Films, books, television, cosplaying, gaming, anime—and, yes, even comics—are all there under one roof, with large, impressive, lavish exhibitor booths sharing the same convention space with small tables and booths like mine.

Though I generally stayed tied to my table, I did occasionally wander around to check out other booths, say hi to friends, and look at the various merchandise on sale, from comics, original art, posters, t-shirts, books, action figures, cosplay outfits and accessories (steampunk!), and more.

A Small Exhibitor’s Perspective
Though sales were in line with past conventions, this year’s Comic-Con crowd seemed a tough sell relative to prior years. As I’ve noted in past Comic-Con reports, unlike the convention’s early days when the show was exclusively about comics, not everyone attending the show  is there necessarily to buy comics, let alone commit to a little known ongoing indie comic-book series. (Some fellow exhibitors have found it necessary to boost their sales with merchandise having nothing to do with their comics—such as t-shirts and prints with cool images or fan-favorite characters.) With so many booths and tchotchkes competing for people’s eyes and a finite amount of disposable dollars, a small exhibitor like myself has to be very proactive to catch people’s attention for a few moments. And even though all my stories are stand-alone, it is always a challenge to convince people to commit to a series now 15 issues and two trade paperbacks in, even though “binge-reading,” like binge-television, is now a thing!

As a result, I was surprised by how many people pulled back from making a purchase, especially when they seemed genuinely excited about and tuned in to my work—an observation that some of my neighbor exhibitors (at least on some days) also noticed.

Nevertheless, it was still heartening to have people instantly connect with the series based on the concept or the sample art on display; or to have others return to buy everything, excited about discovering a new title, after reading a sample issue they picked up the day before. There was also the usual crop of people who had not seen me for years and were delighted to rediscover the series and learn it was still being published. And, of course, the wonderful longtime fans and supporters who stopped by to pick up the latest issue and ask about what was up next.

I genuinely enjoy Comic-Con (as does my family)—it is the major convention in my "backyard," which I have steadily attended since the late 1980s. Comic-Con has done well by me, playing a major role in putting my book on the map when it launched. I have established a presence here and many people know make a point of looking for me to get their latest fix of Rob Hanes Adventures. So though it may no longer be exclusively a comic-book convention, it remains a show I still enjoy immensely.

The Fan Experience 
Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop signing
I rarely have the time or patience to stand in lines for panels or signings. With that in mind, a friend asked me to purchase at Comic-Con the book, The Art of Film Magic: 20 Years of Weta, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the special effects company that rose to prominence supporting filmmaker Peter Jackson’s extraordinary work on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie trilogies, and get the authors' signatures during one of their scheduled signings. (Since I'm a huge fan of the books and movies,it gave me an excuse to visit the Weta booth.)

Though I initially warned my friend that I might not be able to break away to fulfill her request, I was pleasantly surprised to find no line when I went to purchase the book; and not only did I get the author to inscribe the book to my friend, but I was also easily able to obtain the autograph and photo above of the head of Weta, Richard Taylor, as well as the one below of one of Weta's concept artists, Daniel Falconer, who I recognized from the Lord of the Rings DVD making-of extras. These were some of the most  memorable fan moments for me personally in many years!

With Weta concept artist Daniel Falconer
Fellow professionals I saw at the show included Sergio Aragones, with whom I took a picture (I have a picture with him from many years ago, but couldn’t pass up an opportunity for a newer one!); John Roberts, one of the co-founders of Comixology, which earlier this year was purchased by Amazon (John has been incredibly encouraging of me to finally get on the platform and sent out the tweet below to mark the appearance of my first issue on Comixology; and Barry Gregory of and Ka-Blam and Steven Butler of Gallant Comics, who were there to promote John Aman: Amazing Man, and with whom I discussed at length our mutual admiration for cartoonists Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, and Frank Robbins. I unfortunately heard I missed Usagi Yojimbo writer-artist Stan Sakai who stopped at my table early during the show to say hi. (A book to raise funds to help Stan with medical costs he has incurred due to his wife’s illness was released at Comic-Con.)

Twitter announcement about the release of Rob Hanes Adventures #1 on Comixology

Every Comic-Con, I also spot the occasional celebrity walking by. This year I saw comedian/actor/screenwriter Tom Lennon (Reno 911), actor Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men—in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw Cryer last year!), and actor Deidrich Bader (The Drew Carey Show), most with their families.

Apparently, actor Paul Rudd (for the upcoming Ant Man) and the full cast of the Avengers also visited the Marvel Comics booth on the main floor. Given how crazy it became just for free posters when I walked by a few hours afterwards, I can only imagine how frenzied it was with the actors there!

I half joke each year that I must depend on outside news sources like everyone else to learn what has gone on at Comic-Con. Some of this year's highlights appeared to be Stephen Colbert's appearance as the moderator of the Hobbit panel; the appearance of the Avengers cast at the Marvel Comics booth; and the appearance of the stars of the upcoming Superman vs. Batman film.

Even by my standards, compared to past shows, I really didn’t walk the floor much or attend panels. My main purchase was the first coffee table book sized volume of a projected collection of the Terry and the Pirates comic-strip by George Wunder after its original creator, Milton Caniff, left the strip to create Steve Canyon. I was strongly tempted to purchase some original Johnny Hazard comic strip art dating to the 1960s, but decided to hold off as there were so many good pieces to choose from.

My children are now older and went quite to town with purchases thanks to the generosity of my wife. One of my favorite purchases for my son was a set of steampunk goggles we found for him at a retailer booth.

The kids also exercised more independence exploring on their own—my daughter has become quite a big animé fan in the past year, so she was frequently going to showings, sometimes with her little brother in tow.

Of course, what gets all the attention at Comic-Con are the cosplayers. Some people clearly attend just to be seen, but they of course add to the fun and atmosphere.

It’s always interesting to see what the popular themes are at each show. This year, it was clearly the Disney film, Frozen, with plenty of Princess Elsas on hand. Also popular was Maleficent and Finn (or Fiona) from the animated television show, Adventure Time.

It’s obvious that some cosplayers choose certain characters because they bear some resemblance to them (like here and here from previous years), which occasionally leads to fun appearances. In the photo gallery, you’ll see a steampunk Teddy Roosevelt; characters from Orange is the New Black; and John and Yoko (the Yoko was indeed a dead ringer, not so much John though).

Steampunk continued to be a nifty cosplaying category. It has even begun mashing up with superheroes: I saw a steampunk Green Lantern and Iron Man. See the photogallery for more!

Food and Drink
If I have any complaint about Comic-Con, it's the quality of the food at the show. Concessions appear to be operated by the convention center and consist of a rather unimaginative menu of unappetizing hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, and packaged salads and deli sandwiches. The only outside vendors are Starbucks and Mrs. Fields.

Clearly, they are banking on the fact that attendees simply want to eat and run. Given the long day, however, I like to enjoy a good meal and the only way to do that is to go to the Gaslamp or a nearby hotel. With all the great eateries in San Diego, it seems a shame they can't get better quality and more variety of food inside the convention center or even food trucks (which they did one year).

On top of that, unlike past years, we had bad streak of dinners this year. There are several tried and true upscale restaurants that I have frequented regularly through the years, but this year we decided to explore new places and were somewhat disappointed each time. The quality of the meals were themselves generally fine, but for the money, they seemed a bit skimpy on the portions and one place gave us some of the worst service we ever experienced, by getting our orders wrong and then not getting the correct meals to us for more than a half hour.

Oh, well, you can't have everything!

Anyway, it was otherwise another amazing show. I’ve always given credit to the organizers for their skill at handling a crowd as large as Comic-Con. Every year they make adjustments to respond to issues. In a show this size, problems will always arise, and there are always the scofflaws, but the staff should nevertheless should be complimented for their outstanding work.

See you in 2015!

Click here to go straight to the photogallery from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Special thanks to Rodney Reynaldo, who took some of the photos featured in the photogallery.