Tuesday, 9 October 2012

4 Reasons To Celebrate Uli Oesterle's "Hector Umbra"

In which the blogger lists in no particular order of priority just a few of the many virtues of Uli Oesterle's "Hector Umbra". Reader beware, there are indeed spoilers in what follows;

So, why is Hector Umbra such an impressive achievement?

1.  Because it's a remarkably tender and compassionate comedy drama concerned with friendship, loss, acceptance and healing. Hector Umbra's search for the missing DJ Osaka Best brings him into contact with the likes of inhuman invasions, bar-rooms in Hell, thought-powered ray-guns, demonic Elvis impersonators and inter-dimensional portals. Yet his journey's ultimately about coming to terms with the ways in which folks often inadvertently harm both themselves and those they're closest to. Osterle's eye for the detail of relationships built on the comradery of shared self-destructiveness is particularly strong. He presents us with the conspiratorial affection that’s expressed in insults and bravado and exultations towards further dissipation, while contrasting that bonhomie with the inevitable secrets, regrets and lies which mark lives based on shared excess and often little else. It's no coincidence that the book begins with an affable gaggle of blokes in a bar who've been up for "three nights in a row getting shitfaced", and closes in a graveyard with three wistful couples toasting absent friends who've been lost to over-indulgence and obsession. Though Hector Umbra never once threatens to disappear up its own angst, Oesterle's bittersweet focus is always with how tough it can be to reject a life that's cocooned and comforted by mindless self-abuse, and of how catastrophic it can be not to do so.

2.  Because the gloriously bizarre absurdities which Osterle uses to discuss his themes of loss and responsibility are grounded in the specifics of life in Munich at the turn of the Millennium. If Hector Umbra is partly an eulogy to friends lost and ill-times endured, it's also an intensely vivid celebration of everyday life in the Bavarian capital. A love-letter to the city's thoroughfares and clubs, parks and churches, lakes and subways and rave culture, Oesterle's Munich is both impressively monumental and touchingly intimate. As such, it suggests an ideal metropolis to live in if only despair and delusion weren't forever threatening to obscure its promise. And yet, there’s nothing of a straight line to be seen in any of Oesterle's expressionistic representations of the city, which creates the uneasy sense that Munich - every bit as much as Hector Umbra himself - is being dangerously undermined by events. Only the fauna of the city's parks and the snow-covered graveyard at the book's end are entirely free of the suggestion that the world's far less substantial than we usually conspire to believe. It's an evocation of uncertainty – now intense, now subtle - which helps reinforce the book’s atmosphere of constant anxiety, and yet, that implied threat to Munich's existence makes the city seem all the more alive and beautiful .

3. Because Osterle doesn't rely on cliché or cruelty to land his laughs. For all its single-minded seriousness of purpose, Hector Umbra's a consistently affable and, at times, exuberantly farcical tale. Frantisek's secret, bed-bowing dalliance with his more-than-substantial and far-from-youthful landlady: the Marxian tale-closing punch-up between cultists and ravers in Munich Frauenkirche: the ludicrously blokish, knock-down brawl between Hector and Lester Birmingham; the super-devilry-by-the-numbers of the Extracerebrals and their other-worldly secret HQ; Osterle’s slapstick is skilfully worked to ensure that mawkishness and portentousness never threaten.

It's true that Osterle's portrayal of a fanatical cadre of elderly Jehovah's Witnesses does at times seem untypically uncharitable. Yet he also suggests that Munich's ravers - its "electro fags and cheap sex slaves" - are just as susceptible to mass hysteria and the corrosive thoughtlessness which it brings. "Teenager's brains", explains the leader of the Extracerebrals, are as "soft as ghost-shit" because of "years of drug experimentation, violent video games and endless energy drinks".

The point's being broadly and playfully made, of course, about both religious and consumption cults. But whether it's the youthful or the predominately decrepit, Osterle always portrays the wilfully mindless, with their "strange inner deadness", as a terrible threat to both themselves and everyone else around them. And it's the distinction between a crowd and a community, blind faith and genuine tolerance, which Umbra has to come to terms with.

But in the end, Hector Umbra is a book that’s entirely sympathetic to even the most loathsome of its - human - cast. There can’t be the slightest doubt that Osterle means for us to despise the likes of the odious shock journalist, “Doctor Mary-Lynn Modem”. But when her final appearance is as a mind-wiped, mouth-frothing, monster-haunted victim, the panel's clearly being used to evoke horror and pity rather than cruel satisfaction and righteous revenge.

4. Because Osterle shows how fantasy can be made to work without resorting to the po-faced, the bromidic or the soulessly post-modern. A casual glance at Hector Umbra might suggest it's a careless mish-mash of styles and conventions, all hurled together for eye-catching effect. Just to suggest that Oesterle draws from noir detective tales, conspiracy thrillers, slice'o'life indy confessionals, Gothic fantasy and pulp sci-fi summons up the wearisome image of a knowing creator far more interested in genre game-playing than telling a truly compelling story. Yet everything in Hector Umbra's pages exists for a specific narrative purpose, and Osterle soon turns out to be almost entirely unconcerned with genre as anything other than a storytelling tool. He simply appropriates whatever he needs from wherever he has to in order to best serve his tale. And so, his playfully fiendish Extracerebrals - see above - are clearly as ridiculous as they're sinister,  and that's exactly how they're supposed to be. They're creatures generated by everyday human obsessions, and they express both how initially trivial and ultimately destructive such phenomena can be. As such, the Extracerebrals aren't there to knowingly conform to or deconstruct what the audience's genre expectations are. Neither are they there as a spectacular if ridiculous distraction designed to pep up the tale for its own sake. Instead, they're on the page because the story of Umbra's unwitting fall from grace and slow, painful redemption simply can't be told in their absence.

Uli Osterle's "Hector Oesterle" is printed by Blank Slate Books in a delicious, affordable hardbacked edition. It should, if circumstances permit and such hasn't happened yet, be purchased immediately.


  1. Thanks for the tip! How did the translation hold up?

    1. Hello CJ:- It's a brilliant translation. I had wanted to have 10 points in the above, but I simply ran out of time. (Hector Umbra isn't an easy book to discuss in a limited number of hours; it's so well worked, so rich and complex and yet apparently effortless and unpretentious, that it's tough to describe. Talking about one aspect of the book almost inevitably been discussing a host of others.) But if there had been just an hour more, I'd have mentioned the translation too. It appears to be very very good. Obviously I can't speak for how well the original has been dealt with, although I think very highly of Blank Slate publishing and trust them to do a good job. Yet just in the sense of whether it reads well and smartly in English; a splendid job's been done :)

  2. Read this, went out and bought the book, half way through it now. Best book bought following reading a review this year. More like this please.

    1. Hello Peter:- I'm glad I didn't betray your trust! I certainly think VERY highly of the book, and even though I'm keenly aware that I fell short of explaining why, I'm glad my enthusiasm at least shone through. I hope the rest of HU was to your liking.

      I've every intention of every Tuesday on TooBusyThinking being totally positive - or almost totally positive! - review of a book worth celebrating. Why not :)

  3. Excuse me for being a bit of an arsehole again (it's what I do best) and point out the obvious. Your bits on US comics get around 20-100 comments. Your few posts about European comics get 2.

    I don't know if I should laugh or cry.

    Well, at least I can take heart in the fact that if you're living in Europe and claim to like american superheroes, you get laughed at. As much as elitism pisses me off, it at least makes me feel some hope for the world. There are cultures strong enough to withstand cultural imperialism.

    Apart from my very own. We should just become the 53rd US state already.

    Oh, wait. No, maybe not. We'd all get executed for being heathen socialists.

    End of rant.

    Thanks again for the tip. Here's some back at you in case I haven't mentioned them already.

    Borderline from Dynamite (get it while it's still in print, a second printing is unlikely)
    Bellybuttons from Cinebook (I challenge you to put it down after the first 20 pages. One book that doesn't shy away from the consequences of class and social heritage)
    It's the War of the Trenches, Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot and West Coast Blues from Fantagraphics. Basically, anything by Tardi is gold, but those are good starters.
    The Comics of Fletcher Hanks 1 and 2 from Fantagraphics (one of the best writer-artists from the Golden Age, I've ever come across)
    Berlin by Jason Lutes
    Borgia by Jodorowsky/Manara
    Requiem Vampire Knight, but I think you might have read it already. :)

    1. Hello CJ:- I cna't deny that reviewing non-superhero books has an effect on visitor numbers. I would say they tend to cut visits by about 90%, but that is understandable. The superhero comics sells so much more than nearly every other other genre/sub-genre. In terms of visits and comments, it could be seen that casting a wider net is a form of cutting a blogger's own throat; less visits means less links means less communication and opportunity. But what they hey! It's only a blog and the reason for my blogging is trying to find a way of improving, no matter how slightly, my writing. Hector Umbra's a terrific comic, but it's also incredibly difficult to discuss. Which means that it's a good book to try to talk about.

      I'm going to stand up for the superbook here. At its best, it's the equal of any other form of comic. The problem, of course, is that there's so much trash that's been published n the cape'n'chest-insignia sub-genre. But the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man and Doctor Strange - to take but two examples - can stand next to just about anything. I was reading them both this past Sunday, and the elitists can go hang. As indeed can the superheroes-and-nothing-else seperatists too!

      Thank you for the recommendations. I will continue to search out the material you suggest.