In the wake of March 11, artists, writers, letterers and colorists based in Japan and across the globe have been hard at work crafting stories and images of solidarity, concern and, above all, hope for two fundraising books: “Spirit of Hope” and “Aftershock: Artists Respond to Disaster in Japan.”
In his foreword to “Spirit of Hope,” Tim Pilcher, an author on comics and a passionate advocate of the form, describes a project that has been a product of “drive, heartache and — as the title states — hope.” Speaking from his home in Brighton, on the English south coast, he relates how he was “absolutely staggered at the sheer enormity of what happened” and how, in his capacity as chair of the Comic Book Alliance, a nonprofit organization set up in 2009 to promote British comics, he was able to translate his feelings into concrete action.
“I immediately contacted one of our cofounders, G.M. Jordan,” explains Pilcher. “We got our heads together and the most obvious thing with the resources that we had was to put out a call to everyone that we knew in the comics industry to get involved, to contribute their time and energy and do something for free towards a fundraising book.”
The result was a huge response from some of the most established names in the field. “It snowballed incredibly quickly and in the space of about two to three weeks we had enough work,” says Pilcher.
To lead the project they were able to call upon the talents of Alan Cowsill and benefited enormously from his wealth of experience working on such titles as “Overkill,” “X-Men” and “Spider-Man”with companies including Marvel, Eaglemoss and Cartoon Network.
“A lot of the contributors are from my old Marvel UK days,” says Cowsill. “You’ve got people like Liam Sharpe (“Gears of War”), David Leach (“Sponge Bob”) — we started working together as editors at Marvel back in ’93.”
Pilcher leaves no doubt as to the energy that Cowsill brought to the project. “(Alan) took it to heart, embraced it really, and we couldn’t have chosen a better editor. He did a fantastic job and his drive helped get a lot of people involved.”
Describing himself as “a big fan of anthologies,” the project proved to be Cowsill’s toughest challenge to date.
“It was the biggest book I’ve done. I’ve done annuals and books before but at publishing companies you have a lot of backup and a lot of support — it was the first time I’ve edited something like this.”
Given some breathing space from his regular freelancing commitments, he describes a project that became a labor of love and “took over my life for about two to three months.”
From the outset, one challenge proved to be the sheer weight of entries. “The problem with the print edition was that we got so many stories in straightaway. Our original plan was to do it as a 36-page magazine and straightaway it was obvious it was going to be 56 — we could have done a 152-page book!”
With over 90 contributors from around the world, the print edition at final count stands at 114 full-color pages, with an even larger downloadable version also in the works. An initial print of run of 3,000 copies carries sublime cover art by DC Comics’ Jimmy Broxton (“Knight and Squire”), with a further 1,000 limited edition copies featuring a cover illustrated by Michael Allred (“Madman”).
To fund the printing costs, the Comic Book Alliance was able to draw upon funds raised during an auction months before the Tohoku quake. It was, Pilcher says, “serendipitous, tragically so, that this happened and that we had the money that we could actually put into this book.”
Tasking himself to manage what would become a similarly daunting endeavor, Adam Pasion, a resident of Nagoya for the last seven years, knew immediately after the March 11 disasters that he wanted to help but, like many others in the confused days following the quake, was initially at a loss.
“I didn’t have the skill to help out directly, and when I tried to get in touch with people to figure out what to do they just said give money — but I didn’t even have that,” he recalls.
However, as the creator of the comic-book diary “Sundogs” and “RAN,” a Nagoya-based English-language magazine, he used his experience and contacts to launch a collaborative effort that attracted a wealth of talent from as close to the affected areas as Ibaraki (Samuel Mooney) and as far afield as America and Australia (for example, Top Shelf Productions’ Jeffrey Brown and Ben Hutchings of “Picture” magazine).
“I initially offered to donate all sales of my ‘Sundogs’ book and raised a little money that way, though I thought if I made a book that was dedicated to that purpose it would be more sustainable,” explains Pasion.
The result of his enterprise was “Aftershock: Artists Respond” and an online “kickstarter” drive that raised costs of more than $3,500 in the space of just over a week — easily outstripping the original target and a funding term set at one month. This led to a print run of 750 copies for a 135-page edition that features striking cover art by Gestalt Comics’ Skye Ogden and “Crikey!” magazine’s Glenn Fleming.
The sense of confusion about how to respond at the outset of an overwhelming crisis is a recurring theme in both books, in stories such as “Pizza Guys” by Alan Grant and Kev Hopgood in “Spirit of Hope,” and at the start of “Aftershock,” in “How I Feel About It” by Colorado-based artist Sam Spina. It is something that Pasion regards as “the impetus behind the whole book. . . . Sam’s piece summed up what I think everybody felt: Why did I choose to be a graphic (artist)? How does that help when something like this happens?”
In “Spirit of Hope,” this dilemma is further explored in “Numb,” by BBC journalist Martin Conaghan and Vicky Stonebridge. The story considers the dehumanizing effect of news saturation and how consumers’ “compassionate response” suffers as a result.
For Pilcher, comics are a form that can help to bridge this feeling of dislocation. “Comics can explore very personal stories without encroaching on people’s actual personal grief,” he explains. “They can explore difficult subjects and issues in a way that doesn’t upset people but needs to be talked about, and I think that is what we have managed to do with this anthology.”
Sean Michael Wilson, a contributor to both books based in Kumamoto, also draws attention to this emotive quality: “As well as aiding with money and sales, the prime value of comics is the idea that people would make this effort to show that they care and are moved to want to use the art form that they love in a way that shows they want to make some sort of connection with other humans.”
Wilson’s story, “Reaction to Disaster,” illustrated by Michiru Morikawa from Gifu, is a true-to-life account of events. “I thought I would do a very personal story about how it felt for me being in Japan at the time and report on what the situation actually was,” he recalls. “It was only a matter of three days later that I started to write it, and as of finishing the strip the situation was continuing.”
Much of the work in both books shares this sense of urgency, which Pasion sees as a vital quality. “The fact is, we tapped into that nerve when it was fresh and all of us were still feeling kind of confused, not really sure what was going on, and we turned that into images — I think that is a really different perspective”.
For Pilcher, an abiding respect for Japanese culture also accounts for the “visceral, immediate reaction” of the contributors. “I think that Japanese comics, manga and anime, has such an influence amongst creators . . . that is why it spoke to people so close to their hearts.”
This admiration is conspicuous in a wonderful variety a ways unique to the juxtaposition of words and images: in outright love letters to Japan as seen in Jethro Wall’s “Ganbare Japan” and “Pink Rabbit Memories,” a beautiful strip by Ant Jones and Grant and Eva Perkins; in evocations of the history and mythology surrounding earthquakes by Gary Spencer Millidge and Samuel Mooney; in illustrations of Japanese legends in haunting works by Martyn Pick, Noah Van Sciver and Paul H. Birch; in haiku by the hugely gifted Henry Flint, Geoffrey D. Wessel and Emma Flint; in the religiosity of the groundbreaking work by the redoubtable Al Davison; and even with tastefully deployed humor in the strips by artists Simon Taylor, David Leach and Glenn Dakin.
Japanese artists themselves make vital additions to both anthologies. In “Spirit of hope,” Inko, a British-based Japanese artist, beautifully and delicately illustrates a heartbreaking story called “The Ship” by Richard Clements. Wilson’s collaborations with colleagues such as Akiko Shimojima and Morikawa were also, as Cowsill says, “invaluable” in this respect. As Wilson, who works for Kodansha and on the underground “AX” magazine, puts it, “We are talking about what it was like to be in Japan (at the time) and I think that those are really crucial contributions.”
As initiatives aimed at raising cash and awareness for the victims of March 11, both books are indicative of the widespread goodwill that motivated all manner of fundraising initiatives in the wake of the disasters. The anthologies also pay testimony to the versatility and collaborative power of comics to communicate at a very human level, and as such represent distinct achievements that are especially apt given Japan’s deep-rooted love of the form.
Pasion points out that contrary to other media, in comics “the burden of proof is on you to make something worthwhile.” In “Aftershock: Artist’s Respond,” he has achieved exactly that.
Cowsill, meanwhile, is unequivocal about the importance to him of the “Spirit of Hope” anthology: “Of all the things I’ve done in my career it is probably the thing I am most proud of.” And rightly so.
“Spirit of Hope” is available (with choice of cover) directly from www.comicbook.org.uk for ￡14.99/¥1,800 plus shipping, with proceeds going to Second Harvest Japan and the New Zealand Red Cross’s work to aid Christchurch. “Aftershock: Artists Respond to Disaster in Japan” is available directly from www.biguglyrobot.net priced at $12/¥900 plus shipping. A launch party for the book will be held on Sunday, Dec. 11th, from 5 p.m. at Mondo Books in Nagoya (mondo-books.highwire.com) The event will be streamed live at www.ustream.tv/user/MondoLounge