SOUTHERN CROSS reviewed by The Honolulu Star Bulletin

Two books take a piercing look at current events

The Honolulu Star Bulletin    |    Burl Burlingame    |    November 11, 2007

That double-edged phrase "may you live in interesting times" seems, on one hand, to be aimed at artists and entrepreneurs, and on the other hand at the rest of us -- but we all benefit or suffer accordingly.

Also, an "interesting time" in the past simply becomes part of the fabric of the present, as will today's events. It's a long view, this continuum business.

Comic books and graphic stories are all about snapshots, though, slices of interpreted reality linked by the literary device called storytelling. The storytelling process is so ingrained in our psyche -- didn't Mom tell you tales when you were a toddler? -- that our brains impose storytelling conventions on random images. That's what dreaming is. More than any other medium, the graphic/comic story has stretched these embedded conventions, and mostly, we're able to go along for the ride.

And so it's interesting to look at two recently published graphic novels, both of which take a lacerating, insightful look at current events, and do so in very different styles and mediums -- and are separated by more than half a century.

"Southern Cross," by Laurence Hyde (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95), is actually a facsimile publication of Hyde's 1951 work. It is a story told entirely in woodcuts -- there was an artistic subgenre in the mid-20th century drawn to the notion of telling stories entirely through pictures, and through classical mass-production techniques like woodcutting, so that small numbers could be "printed" -- and relies on the reader (viewer?) being able to impose a story line on the sequential images. Whether it succeeds is due entirely to the graphic-narrative abilities of the artist.

Absorbing "Southern Cross" is a timeless, rather dreamlike experience. It actually takes more work than reading. The imagination has to be set in gear.

One thing is clear: Hyde's moral outrage. The book is a reaction to American atomic bomb testing in the South Pacific, and the tale concerns some prehistoric Pacific islanders caught up in this peculiarly hellish 20th-century technology. Although it doesn't end well, Hyde leaves the finish conclusionless. That is, he forces the reader to draw their own conclusions, to project their own denouement.

A Canadian artist who worked for the government film board and designed postage stamps, Hyde was hugely influenced by that crusty Yankee lefty artist Rockwell Kent -- Kent's illustrated edition of "Moby Dick" was a prized book of my youth -- and was among those dedicated artists of that era who valued their social conscience. If he had been American, Hyde would likely have created public art with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the 1930s, works of lasting value that remind us of our duties as citizens.

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