Features – The Comics Journal http://www.tcj.com Wed, 22 Feb 2017 18:41:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.2 Copyright © The Comics Journal 2011 editorial@tcj.com (Mike Dawson) editorial@tcj.com (Mike Dawson) 1440 http://images.tcj.com/2011/04/tcj_talkies.jpg The Comics Journal http://www.tcj.com 144 144 http://www.tcj.com/feed/podcast/ The Comics Journal podcast TCJ Talkies is a biweekly creator interview podcast hosted by Mike Dawson at The Comics Journal. Cartoonists and other comic book luminaries will stop by the Talkie-Hut and chat about their creative process, motivation, and careers. Comics, cartoonists, The, Comics, Journal, graphic, novels, sequential Mike Dawson Mike Dawson editorial@tcj.com no no André Franquin: Great or…The Greatest? http://www.tcj.com/andre-franquin-great-orthe-greatest/ http://www.tcj.com/andre-franquin-great-orthe-greatest/#comments Fri, 17 Feb 2017 13:00:46 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98618 Continue reading ]]>

André Franquin in the 1950s © Gaston Servais; Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

Was Belgian Andre Franquin (1924-1997) comics’ greatest draftsman? One colleague who certainly thought so was Hergé. “Franquin”, he declared, “is a great artist. Next to him, I’m only a mediocre pen-pusher.” Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson agreed with Tintin’s creator. “In terms of ultra-classic greatness,” he once wrote me, “Hergé has that abstract line but Franquin has something else. He created the most complete, the most alive, the most absolute cartooniness in comics history.”

A current Paris retrospective, Gaston, shares their views. It also honours a landmark birthday – the sixtieth year of Gaston Lagaffe, Franquin’s most well-known character. Gaston, whose last name means “the blunder”, is an dedicated idler in jeans and espadrilles. While hardly the first antihero of European comics, Gaston was one of their first post-adolescents. Franquin made him into a prototype of subversion.

Over three decades the artist honed Gaston’s interests, showing him to be an inventor, a music fan, a DIY fanatic and an amateur chef. But, if his character exudes a Sixties effervescence it also has the era’s disillusions. As Renaud Defiebre-Muller notes in the show, “Gaston pits personal autonomy against social control: against manners, against respect, against everyday decorum”. Elevated to stardom by Franquin’s graphic brilliance, this rebellion-by-default changed the rules of the bande dessinée.

Gaston at the Pompidou Bpi © Hervé Vérnonèse

Yet, at the start, Gaston was just an in-joke. Franquin and his editor, Yvan Delporte, had envisioned not a strip but a running gag. Their youth weekly Spirou was a Catholic children’s journal which, like its competitor Tintin, stuck to Boy Scout values. Spirou, a red-clad bellboy, wasn’t even its featured star. That role belonged to a daring insurance adjuster, Jean Valhardi.

The magazine published both a Belgian and a French edition so, between them, advertising volumes differed. The pagination problems were solved by using a centerfold but unexpected gaps still cropped up. Franquin proposed filling these with a character, “a BD hero too stupid to fit the mold”. From the start, his concept was a swipe at the magazine’s rectitude.

In Yvan Delporte, he found a receptive ear. Publisher Charles Dupuis had hired Delporte to make Spirou funnier. A comics scenariste with a beard the size of a copse, the editor was a character. He loved jazz, ran a private club and read comics in English. It’s still funny to think about some of his initiatives, like a “spring issue” with violet-scented ink which caused the whole print works to vomit. Franquin’s pitch for a house “blunderer” tickled Delporte’s fancy. He threw himself into it, even naming the character after a shambolic pal.[1]

On 28 February 1957, Gaston appeared with no explanation; he was simply shown opening the door to Spirou. From then on, every week, he appeared to instigate problems. A page might be obscured when Gaston poked his face in the camera or an article lost under ink he had spilled. When an irate Spirou eventually tried to question him, a dialogue worthy of Samuel Beckett ensued. Why was Gaston in the office? Who had actually hired him? The character shrugged; he didn’t know, couldn’t recall and didn’t care. Once in place, Gaston never left.

Gaston La Gaffe, catalogue, Gaston, Bpi © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

If the concept behind Gaston Lagaffe was simple, his actual character constituted an aberration. In that era, kiddie mags starred exemplary heroes like cowboys, aviators and private eyes. Each of them had a “job” which could further improving narratives. Despite his hopeless behavior, Lagaffe likes people. But, from the start, he was indifferent to all the problems he caused them.

At the moment he got the idea for Gaston, Franquin was overworked. Over a decade, as well as the magazine’s cover, he had been producing Spirou and Fantasio weekly. Now he was starting a supplement called Spirou Poche and had just become a first-time father. If that wasn’t enough, there was more one thing. Franquin also worked for the competition, Le Journal de Tintin.

This was a situation just as odd as it sounds. In 1955, miffed by a contract, Franquin had stormed over to his rivals. Once “at” Tintin, he created a new strip called Modeste and Pompon and agreed a five-year contract. Back at Spirou, the boss Charles Dupuis panicked. It took him ten days of pleading and conceding to win back his star. When Franquin returned, he was still stuck with Modeste and Pompon. Deliverance only arrived as it often would for him – via close friends who pitched in to help.

With stories from René Goscinny, Greg, Roba and Peyo (not to mention those of his own mother-in-law), Franquin added Modeste and Pompon to his weekly regimen. If it’s seen as a bit of a relic today, the strip still personifies what was a heady moment. Its slick, hyperactive graphics – later dubbed le style atome – were an aesthetic powered by Franquin’s love of design.

With the exception of one book (Augustin David’s 2014 Franquin et le design), there’s not a lot about the artist’s crush on mid-century style. Yet it informs the whole of his graphic universe. From Spirou and Fantasio’s pad to the Spirou “office” in Gaston, Franquin is always precise about décor. His armchairs, sofas and lights comprise exact homages to names such as the Eames brothers, Pierre Paulin and Eero Aarnio. They were of course reflections of Franquin’s own taste and home. But, in Modeste and Pompon, the style atome marks something else. It stands as a groundbreaking generation’s final nod to America.

3 – Gaston blocks a page of Spirou in the ’50s © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

Franquin had joined Spirou just after the Liberation. The job followed his brief stint as an animator, at a company shuttered when its owner was tried for collaboration. The change to Spirou brought the 22 year-old a lifelong mentor in the person of artist Joseph “Jijé” Gillain. Also a serious painter and a father of three, Jijé was easy-going yet enormously energetic. Working with Spirou’s then-editor, the communist Jean Doisy, he fused his post-War hires into a singular team. Together, they built what became the “Marcinelle school” of comics.

This was a term defined partly in opposition – to the qualities upheld in Tintin by Studio Hergé. While that team stylized reality, Spirou artists spent their youthful energies milking it. Laughter was their chief priority and every path they took to it (slapstick, word games, big noses and funny animals) exuded breeziness and a contemporary air.

At the root of their success was a talented trio: Morris, Franquin and the nineteen year-old “Will” Maltaite. Initially, Gillain lodged and coached all three artists in his home. For Franquin, the only child of older Catholic parents, that arrangement filled “a desperate need to laugh”. He valued it for the whole of his life and it spurred an introvert to explore the joys of collective industry.

In 1948, when Jijé went to America, both Franquin and Morris tagged along for the ride. During their trip, incredibly, Franquin kept up his weekly work for Spirou. Within five years, at the age of 27, he was a pillar at the busy publication. Thanks to his refinements, redirections and additions, Spirou’s character got a much-needed update. What had once been bland adventures now received complex plots, offbeat geographies and an array of fanciful characters. (Franquin also added outlandish animals, from dinosaurs to the invented, monkey-like “Marsupilami”).

When Jijé decided to linger in America, Franquin also inherited his role at the journal. As well as handling much of the magazine’s most critical work, he helped recruit and integrate new artists. One of these, Jidéhem,[2] became his assistant. From 1957 through 1968, he would – fully co-credited – create much of Gaston, working off Franquin’s sketches.

In Spirou and Fantasio, Franquin resuscitated family-friendly values from before the War. But, with Gaston, he exploded them. The key to both accomplishments was Franquin’s way of seeing. Not only did he come at storytelling from offbeat angles; the graphic skills with which he managed it were astonishing. In a golden age famous for its many celebrities – Hergé and Macherot, E.P. Jacobs and Tillieux –  André Franquin was an undisputed star.

One bit of film in the exhibit demonstrates why. It comes from a French television show, Tac au Tac, which was broadcast from 1969 to 1975. Tac au Tac filmed live, improvised cartooning duels. The Beaubourg clip features Franquin, Morris, Peyo and Roba. While music plays, these four artists silently extemporise: taking turns to create a wordless, communal cadavre exquis.  Everyone is quick and funny and every addition beautifully drawn.

Franquin starts it off with a terrified, scrambling rat. Then, everyone chips in: a cat giving chase, a cop madly cycling, a tax collector, a gangster, a cowboy, an angry wife, etc. But, where others use comic tropes, Franquin’s additions are always unexpected. When Peyo inserts a chicken in the chase, Morris follows with a cook waving a cleaver. Without a beat, Franquin adds a sweaty fat man running desperately. He’s just been decapitated and cradles his head in an arm.

There’s always a crowd around this film — watching Franquin at his work is really mesmerizing. The artist, who crams his frames so full of detail you lose your bearings, is a virtuoso when it comes to motion. No one ever rendered it with more advanced or effortless physics. Franquin’s world just won’t wait, won’t sit still and never listens. His characters keep ahead because they keep on going.

There’s another bit of film towards the end of the show. Made in 1994, it features famous cartoonists talking about how Franquin is different. Says Charles Berberian, “Franquin is a great draftsman but he is much, much more. He’s a guy who can capture all the anguish of his character by completely integrating it into the action.” Morris, by then a global star from his Lucky Luke, agrees. “He was always the revolutionary. All of us make bandes dessinées. But Franquin, he’s doing something else entirely.”

It’s a special position the artist holds even today. Marcel Gotlib, who passed away last December, was once asked why no-one has a bad word for Franquin. Gotlib shot back, “A bad word about what? Franquin’s life? His work? There’s nothing to reproach! …Across the whole profession, it’s a total consensus: Franquin is the greatest. In terms of the bande dessinée, in terms of drawing, in terms of ideas.”

In 1962, Franquin had a depressive crisis which was an omen of difficulties to come. In the midst of a story that was already running, he dropped Spirou and Fantasio for more than year. But he continued to work on Gaston. “I think in life,” he said, “there comes an important moment. One when you discover that none of this is a game. That it’s something serious, something where nothing is free, where pleasures are rare and finding satisfaction is difficult. It’s that moment Gaston always helps postpone.”

But even Gaston couldn’t postpone the turbulent ’60s. The riots and strikes that traumatised France in 1968 brought profound changes to all of Francophone culture. Franquin’s was a generation that fell in love with American culture and worshiped postwar design for its optimism. Suddenly they were drowning ina scorn for consumerism.

In Franquin’s case, these critiques were just the tip of an iceberg. Always a serious pacifist who opposed the death penalty, he became more and more disturbed by the state of the world. In Gaston, he mocked hunters, cops, generals – even those model Messerschmitts Spirou sold in the small ads. But his humor grew more and more corrosive.

In 1974, Angouleme held its founding festival. It awarded Franquin awarded the Grand Prize for lifetime achievement. But that comics world he had once shaken up was different now. It had produced names like Marcel Gottlieb (Gotlib), Philippe Druillet, Nikita Mandryka, Claire Bretécher and Moebius. All through the ’60s and ’70s, publishing and art were changed by new publications: Pilote, Hara-Kiri, L’Echo de savannes, Métal hurlant, Fluide Glaciale, Charlie Hebdo. The real action had moved to France ­– and it catered not to kids but adults. In sharp contrast, Spirou still had its “religious counselor”.

Despite his growing sense of isolation, Franquin stayed with Dupuis. He turned down several offers, including one from Charlie Hebdo. Then, in 1975, he suffered a heart attack.

Although it shook him profoundly, Franquin didn’t fall behind. In 1977, he and Yvan Delporte took another new idea to Charles Dupuis. It was a “pirate” publication, one that would appear inside Spirou every week. Delporte would edit and Franquin would manage the art. But they had one condition: total editorial freedom. Somewhat surprisingly, Dupuis agreed. He gave the pair an office for their project, “Le Trombone Illustré“.

Franquin’s cover for Le Trombone illustré on Delporte’s 50th birthday © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

The Trombone roster mixed old friends like Peyo and Jijé with new pioneers such as Jacques Tardi, Enki Bilal and Claire Bretécher. Printed on paper slightly bigger than that of Spirou, what was meant as a centerfold risked dwarfing its host. This soon led to tensions back at the Spirou office. According to Franquin, “We were viciously attacked. Most of the editors really hated us.” Not only were his colleagues furious with their star; many disagreed with the Trombone‘s brand of humor.

One of their main targets was a strip called Idées noires (“Dark Thoughts”). This, along with the supplement’s covers, was Franquin’s contribution. It was a series of one-page gags whose humor was utterly dark, concentrating on death, disasters and despair.

Over the years of drawing Gaston, Franquin had perfected his style. By ’77 he commanded it with a highly cinematic control. But nothing had prepared either the staff or his fans for Idées noires. It looked like, in his own words, “Gaston plunged into soot”. Everything in its drawings was creepily alive; even the outbursts and onomatopoeias writhed. Its landscape was baroque – yet chilling in its prevailing black and furious clouds of crosshatching.

Aside from monsters and aliens, Idées noires has two kinds of protagonist: humans who suffer and humans who relish inflicting hurt. Their figures are either utterly dark or a stark, trembling white. All are feeling their way in a universe deprived of light.

Le Trombone illustré lasted less than a year. But when the exasperated Dupuis finally ended it, Marcel Gottlieb rescued Idées noires. Gotlib gave them a home at Fluide glaciale, the all-adult comics journal he co-founded. There, until 1983, Franquin continued the strip. If he had only drawn Gaston, Franquin would be a legend. But his Ideés noires are a spookily prescient landmark. These grim gags are part Goya, part Edward Gorey. But there’s no disputing the fact they remain almost shockingly relevant.

Would the strip have been born without Franquin’s personal gloom? The artist himself claimed that Ideés noires was just a progression, the logical development of his earlier work. He liked to cite a Spirou sequence from 1966, in which his villain ruins a fingernail while torturing Fantasio. The higher ups, he told a fanzine in 1988, went ballistic over that. “Clearly, I had touched a nerve and that amazed me. I think that stayed in my head and Ideés noires developed from it.”

But the graphics were something he had always wanted to try. “There was one Saturday Evening Post I had seen as a kid which had a strip done entirely with black silhouettes. I always wanted to use that for some sort of dark comedy. Maybe it’s all gallows humor, but it’s humor nevertheless.” Frank knew his new look was unnervingly strong. In 1977, he used it on a poster for Amnesty International.

Detail from Franquin’s 1977 Amnesty International poster © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

Mostly stark black against a bright scarlet, this appears at the very end of the show. It’s a vivid and harrowing piece in which Gaston fantasizes scenes of his own torture. Says Xavier Zeeger, who worked for Amnesty at the time, “Many people were surprised by the strength of feeling in that but it shows how bleak Franquin’s vision had gotten.”

Fluid glaciale has just re-issued Idées noires. To mark the event, they’ve also published a “Golden Edition” replete with extras and graphic homages. Yet Franquin’s own work that still seems by far most modern.

The cover of Fluide Glaciale’s special edition, 2017

Editor Gerard Viry-Babel isn’t surprised. “When these strips were first published back in 1977, Franquin couldn’t have known that forty years on they would still be newsworthy.”

“But it’s exactly like Gotlib wrote when he first published them, ‘From his very first dark thought, it always seemed Franquin was saying, ‘Watch out; this is no longer any laughing matter…”

 

  • The exposition Gaston, Au-delà de Lagaffe (“Gaston, beyond the blunder”) runs through 10 April 2017 at the Centre Georges Pompidou in the Bibliothèque publique d’information Gallery. Admission is free.
  • Il était une fois Idées noires (“Once there were Dark Thoughts“), the commemorative volume, is out now, published by Fluide Glaciale.

[1] Bohemian poet and painter Gaston Mostraet

[2] “As with ‘Hergé’, ‘Jidéhem’ stands for the French pronunciation of the artist’s initials: ‘J.D.M’. They belong to Jean de Maesmeker. Franquin named his Gaston character “Aimé De Mesmaeker”, a boss eternally after contracts, after his colleague’s father.

 

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Jiro Taniguchi 1947 – 2017 http://www.tcj.com/jiro-taniguchi-1947-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/jiro-taniguchi-1947-2017/#comments Wed, 15 Feb 2017 13:00:16 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98716 Continue reading ]]> First off, I’m going to give him his proper titles—Chevalier Jiro Taniguchi, de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Maestro del Fumetto. Because when you are paying tribute to a comic book artist who has been knighted by the French government and titled in Italy, you do him full honors. Of course, those are not Taniguchi’s only awards—he had the usual collection befitting a manga genius, including receiving the Osamu Tezuka Culture Award and the Shogakukan prize—but being named Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and Master of Comics is something special.

You’ve never heard of the esteemed Chevalier Taniguchi? Don’t feel too bad. I had never heard of him either, until several years back when I was still doing manga reviews and hunting around for a publisher willing to take a chance on Shigeru Mizuki. I crossed paths with Stephen Robson at Fanfare / Ponent Mon, who basically said “Have you heard of Jiro Taniguchi?” and sent me a care package full of books. It was one of the loveliest boxes I have ever received. The first one I read was The times of Botchan, followed by The Quest for the Missing Girl. I was instantly hooked.

And slightly surprised that I had never heard of him. Although respected and admired in his native Japan, Taniguchi was not exactly a household name. His quiet, introspective brilliance was not the sort of thing that splashed out from the cover of magazines, or got molded into plastic figures. His voice was much more appreciated in Europe. A Belgian film company produced a live action adaptation of his comic A Distant Neighborhood, changing the setting to Paris. He collaborated with legendary artist Moebius. His work inspired an art movement in France called Nouvelle Manga, led by Frederic Boilet and Benoit Peeters, with whom Taniguchi worked on the comic Tokyo is My Garden.

In recent years, Taniguchi started getting wider recognition in his home country. His work Solitary Gourmet had been adapted into a television series in 2012-2015, and his comic The Summit of the Gods that he did with writer Baku Yumemakura was adapted into a live-action film in 2016. It is some comfort to know that he survived long enough to see this appreciation of this work—for at only 69 years old he died far too young.

Taniguchi was born in Tottori prefecture. That particular slice of Japan seems to produce more than its fair share of giants of manga—both Shigeru Mizuki (Kitaro) and Gosho Aoyama (Detective Conan) hail from Tottori. (A fact not lost on its tourist board, which bills themselves as Manga Paradise. Although while Mizuki and Aoyama have dedicated sites, Taniguchi is largely unrecognized). After graduating from Tottori Commercial High School, Taniguchi moved to Kyoto in 1966 to start working at a textile company. But he had no intention of remaining in that occupation.

In the late 1960s, he met manga artist Kyota Ishikawa and began his training as an assistant. In 1971, he made his debut with The Damned Room in Weekly Young Comic. He continued his training as an assistant to Kazuo Kamimura (Lady Snowblood), before breaking out for a solo career. Taniguchi partnered with writer Natsuo Sekigawa to produce some brilliant hard-boiled crime fiction. While Taniguchi would later be known for his gentle slice-of-life fiction, stories like Hotel Harbor View and Trouble is My Business showed he knew how to draw a man getting a bullet in the face.

In 1987, Sekigawa and Taniguchi launched into what is one of my personal favorites, the 10-volume The Times of Botchan. What began as a simple two-volume exploration of the life of writer Natsume Soseki, blossomed into an exploration of literature in the ever-changing Meiji period. Sekigawa and Taniguchi populated their story with luminaries such as Ogai Mori (Vita Sexualis) and Lafcadio Hearn (Kwaidan).

Taniguchi’s art—his use of simple lines and his ability to capture expression—pushes the work beyond a simple academic exercise. There is a scene where Hideki Tojo appears as a young child that is absolutely chilling, an effect Taniguchi pulls off with minimal distraction and pure clarity of intent.

Over the following years Taniguchi worked with other writers as well on his own. He produced comics in almost every genre imaginable, including crime fiction and funny animals, adventure and fighting, science fiction and young adult. In 1986, he did the comic K with writer Shiro Yosaki, in a genre that Taniguchi would become the undisputed master of—mountain climbing. The story follows a mysterious Japanese man living at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, making his living as a guide to climbers.

Through Taniguchi’s stunning nature scenes, he captured the splendor and terror of climbing these mighty peaks. He followed K with comics like the 5-volume The Summit of the Gods, a work that follows the real-life mystery of George Mallory, who went missing on Mt. Everest. The Summit of the Gods is intense—there is no other word I can think of to describe it. There is no better comic about Mt. Everest.

Taniguchi further combined mystery procedural with mountain climbing in the emotional The Quest for the Missing Girl, which is another one of my favorites. This look into teenage prostitution and corporate cover-ups remains a chilling examination of one of the darkest sides of modern Japan. His research and commitment to portraying realistic climbing is incredible, as well as his ability to portray sweeping mountains scenes. Taniguchi makes you feel the bitter cold and intensity of clinging to a sheer face with only your own strength and equipment to keep you alive.

In 1990, Taniguchi turned his eye away from gangsters and mountain climbers to look inside at his own life with The Walking Man. Here another Taniguchi hero emerged: the middle-class, middle-aged man becoming aware of his own surroundings. This Zen-like, introspective hero would appear again and again, in semi-autobiographical comics like A Zoo in Winter, the fantasy-tinged A Distant Neighborhood, and the foodie comic The Solitary Gourmet.

It is this aspect of Taniguchi that appealed to French readers. His simple, reflective storylines touched a deep cord in France, who resonated with the comics’ appreciation for nature and daily life that are not quagmired in nostalgia.  From 2007-2008 French jeweler and luxury brand Cartier used Taniguchi’s art for a commercial campaign that spread his fame across the country—a bit ironically, considering Cartier is selling a lifestyle completely at odds with Taniguchi’s portrayal of middle-class life. France also loved Taniguchi enough to commission Guardians of the Louvre, a fanciful story about a lone Japanese man wandering through the ancient art gallery, conversing with famous paintings in a mad fever dream. And lest you should think of Taniguchi as only a wise prophet of the nobility of a peaceful life, while he creating these idyllic portraits of modernity he was also drawing Fatal Wolf, an ultra-violent wrestling comic. Taniguchi was a multi-faceted jewel. One of those facets was huge, rippling muscled men attempting to tear each other apart. The guy could draw an exquisite blood stream.

I never met Jiro Taniguchi, but from all accounts he was very much like that person you see in his introspective comics. The word “gentle” is what you most hear in association with him, and that makes perfect sense. Gentleness exudes from his work, although it is gentleness bulwarked by intense resolve and strength. I imagine he was much the same. An artist as driven as he was, and as dedicated to his craft, much of his own character must have seeped into his work. When my hero Shigeru Mizuki died, it was accompanied by the bittersweet knowledge that his death thrust him into the spotlight. Many discovered his works only because of his death. I hope the same thing for Jiro Taniguchi. 

Thanks to Fanfare / Ponent Mon, there is a wealth of Taniguchi works available in English now. I often recommend people start with The Quest for the Missing Girl, which is a good blend of Taniguchi’s humanism combined with the intensity of his climbing scenes. It’s also a single volume story, so not as much of a commitment as The Summit of the Gods—although you will eventually want to tackle that particular mountain. Another book to try is The Walking Man, probably Taniguchi’s most popular work in English.  One description it doesn’t seem so interesting—a man walking around, discovering his own neighborhood—but Taniguchi transforms it into something sublime. Just try not to go on your own walk through your own neighborhood after reading it. Just try. And then see how much your sense of the world has been changed.

After I heard of his death, I pulled my Taniguchi books off the shelf and have been re-reading them, one-by-one. Damn, they are so very, very good. Goodnight Chevalier Jiro Taniguchi, de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Maestro del Fumetto, Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and Master of Comics.

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Sarah Glidden in Conversation with Julia Wertz http://www.tcj.com/sarah-glidden-in-conversation-with-julia-wertz/ http://www.tcj.com/sarah-glidden-in-conversation-with-julia-wertz/#comments Fri, 10 Feb 2017 13:00:23 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98491 Continue reading ]]> [Editor’s note: We asked Julia Wertz to interview her friend and colleague Sarah Glidden on the occasion of the latter’s recent book, Rolling Blackouts. They caught up during a car trip a few months back] 

JULIA WERTZ: Sarah, would you summarize the book real quick for us?

SARAH GLIDDEN: Rolling Blackouts is a book about journalism, comics journalism. The idea came when I was working on my first book. Some friends of mine were in the midst of starting a non-profit multimedia journalism collective. They did most of the reporting in Seattle for different journalism organizations—NPR, Seattle Times, stuff like that. They’d get funding mostly from grants about once a year to do a bigger international reporting projects. So, when I’d go out and visit them, they would always have these great stories about all the reporting they’ve done and all the places they’ve been. It got me really interested in finding out more about how journalism worked. It also sounded really fun. I always wished that I could go with them on one of their reporting trips. I asked them if I could go with them on their next trip and shadow them while they worked and do a book about how journalism works. About how they find their stories and their sources and how they find a translator and things like that. That’s the book.

You were following Sarah and Alex—they were the journalists. Then Dan, who is the Iraq vet, came with you guys. The Globalist was there?

They were first called the Common Language Project, but they rebranded as the Seattle Globalist.

The whole book keeps asking, “What is journalism? What is the point of it?” Do you think their intentions in going to Iraq and Syria … were they naive? Were they well informed? Or maybe too optimistic in getting a story?

I don’t think they were naive. Their idea for this reporting trip was to do some stories about displacement after the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Their audience is a younger audience, and they thought they wanted to look into young Iraqis and Iraqi refugees. What is the fallout from these wars? Who are these people who have been affected by the Iraq war? I don’t think there was anything naive about that. I think they did a good job.

Sarah said that she didn’t know what type of a journalist she was. What are the different types? 

I think she meant more in the abstract sense. Like what is she trying to achieve with her work.

What’s her narrative?

Sure. What kind of journalist do you want to be? Focusing on more newsy things? Clearly, they are a freelance collective, so they aren’t the type of journalists who are backed by Frontline or the New York Times. So, what does that mean? I think that all of us, cartoonists included—what kind of cartoonist are you? What kind of work are you focusing on? 

Yeah, like the different genres of it. How did you friends and family feel when you told them that you’d be taking this trip?

My mom thought it was great. I think everybody was into the idea. I have some Israeli friends who thought that going to Syria would be dangerous and a big mistake. Everyone was supportive.

As your friend, I was nervous. [Laughter.] I think it’s important to point out for the readers, that this was before the …

This was in late 2010.

Before everything went to shit.

It was a very different Syria at that time. It was even a very different northern Iraq. Now there is a lot of tension. ISIS is encroaching on that territory and the Kurdish peshmerga are on the front lines with ISIS. But when were there, we’d see these peshmerga checkpoints. And we’d see military training locations, and say, “What are the peshmerga training for? There’s nothing going on right now.” We felt the same way when we were in Syria. That was very naive. Just to assume that you’re in a place and politically no conflict seems to be going it, that means it’s going to stay that way.

How did you get interested in journalism the comics way? I think we were both kind of late to comics. How old were you when you started?

I was 26, so yeah, pretty late.

Were you interested in journalism before that? How did that even come about?

I think I moved sideways into journalism from autobiography and memoir because that’s how I started. We got to know each other because we were both doing autobio comics …

Bad autobio comics. [Laughs.]

… and posting them on Flickr. I knew you through your Flickr avatar before anything else. You make autobio work about what interests you and what’s happening to you. My first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, was an extension of the autobio stuff I was doing. I thought I’ll go on this trip. It was a free trip, paid for in part by the state of Israel, so I thought it would be a real interesting and weird trip. Then I would just make comics as if I were doing my normal work. Comics about my experiences and what I was thinking and feeling. Lots of feelings. But that also entailed doing a lot of research into the places I was going and that’s just what I’m interested in—trying to figure out why the world is so … interesting. 

You also talk about marketing stories. Her article got dropped by—who was going to do it? They said it was too dark.

Sarah had pitched a story about displaced people living in abandoned [Saddam Hussein?] barracks and prisons in northern Iraq. She pitched it to the World. I think Alex wrote the pitch, and they wrote back saying that it was too dark.

Is that a thing journalists face a lot? Having to pep up sad stories?

I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what that email was. Sarah was paraphrasing and it would have been a creative paraphrasing. But I think that when you’re pitching a story and every part of the journalism process—the reporter and the editor—it’s the reporter’s job to try to find what they think is an interesting story, but then it’s the editor’s job … Let me put it this way: a journalist is closer to their subject and the editor is closer to their audience. Between the two of them, they are compromising on how to give the audience a story that is interesting and important.

Sure. That’s why editors always pick titles for the article.

Right. A lot of times the editor will write the headline, not the journalist, so a lot of times you end up with headlines that make journalist really upset.

You guys talk about the guy who was going to buy a heater and that brought up how journalists have the responsibility to not intervene in their subject’s life. Is that difficult? What is the downside of intervening in an interviewee’s life?

You’re talking about the scene where Sarah was interviewing a guy who was living in a displaced peoples camp and he was complaining about the cold. A friend of ours, another journalist named Kamaran who is Iraqi-Kurdish, was interpreting for us during that interview. The guy was talking about how cold it is and how it family gets so cold and all he really wants is a heater. Kamaran said he would try to get the guy some help. As American journalists, that’s kind of one of the ethical guidelines—you don’t give gifts to the people that you are interviewing because if that was something journalists did, your subjects would be influenced by the promise of gifts. You don’t pay people for interviews. That’s what that was about. But I think for Kamaran, it was like, I’m going to do whatever I can to help this guy.

Is that hard, not to help people?

Sure. Journalists have an impulse …

Especially when the intention is already there to help, to get eyes on the story.

The intention of journalism is not always going out there because you want to help that person. You’re hoping that person’s story that you’re putting out there in the world will help people understand a bigger issue. That story can stand in for something bigger than just one person, and can help them understand a phenomena like displacement or war. Sarah was always talking about making it very clear to the people she was interviewing that she doesn’t believe that this story would necessarily help them directly. That comes from an exchange. A person wants to tell their story because they want their story to be told. That’s all the journalist can offer. You can’t even promise that the story will be told because you do have to deal with the editors and you can publish something and that doesn’t mean people will read it. In the end, you have to have the faith that it’s important to put these stories out there and it’s important for people across the world to understand what people are going through somewhere.

What are the challenges between a freelance journalist doing what you guys did versus someone from the New York Times doing what you guys did?

New York Times and other papers like that used to have foreign bureaus all over the place, but those have been shutting down a lot more. It is a lot harder for someone who’s posted overseas to make the connections and understand the region a little bit better. You end up having freelance reporters going and dropping into places that are new to them. Obviously having that kind of institutional support and the money to send reporters to these places and keep them there for a long time is better. What also happens when you have someone abroad like that is that they might end up going to the same people all the time. They might end up having sources that are closer to the government and that are going to give a certain point of view that a freelance reporter, just by not having those connections, might have to talk to people who are closer to the “everyman.” The people who are actually living in these places and not in control of it. I think both are necessary, but it’s distressing how there’s less and less institutional support for international journalism now at a time we really need to understand the rest of the world a whole lot more than we actually do.

One of my favorite parts of the book is seeing behind the scenes of journalism. When Sam, the guy who was being interviewed, pretended to wake up and go about his routine. You just don’t see that. And also, I liked the part where the little Turkish kids run up and you think they’re asking you for money, but they give you guys candy. Were there any other misconceptions that you or other people had about the people there? Things that turned out different?

Sure. I think you go into a story or a place or a person with some idea of what you think you’re going to get. Finding something different makes it more interesting, but you have to have a baseline to evaluate things off of. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was surprised by how much anger the older Iraqi refugees had.

Directed at you guys. It was harsh at times.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it’s not something you get to see very much with the journalism coming out of the Middle East. You hear about Iraqis being angry, but those are militant taking up weapons against American soldiers. But these are average people. Not particularly political. A lot of anger. You would be angry if some foreign government came in and turned your world upside down. I think it was good for us. I really wanted to include that in the book because I think it’s not a side of things we usually get to see. Often, when someone’s a refugee, it’s tempting to just view them as a victim. Someone who has been wronged. But people who’ve been wronged are allowed to have feelings about it and be angry. And to ask questions back to the journalists like, “Why did your government do this?” It shouldn’t have been surprising, and it really wasn’t, but it’s something we hadn’t been able to hear before.

Yeah, most reporters don’t include that. I thought it was interesting because it made me feel like Americans are so narcissistic. Personally, I didn’t think about that aspect or that the average citizen over there being really mad about Americans coming in. But, of course, they are. Later when you guys are at [The Refugee Processing Center] when she yells at you. I feel like most journalists would cut that. But you actually see the dialogue. When you have them speaking in their native language and then you have the translation of it, how did you decide to do that visually? Their word bubble is behind the translators. How did you decide to do it that way? There are other options.

All the other options seemed to be bad. I thought of putting what the person is saying in Arabic or in Kurdish and then doing what the interpreter in the same panel, but my panels are already pretty text heavy as it is.

That would be laborious.

I stole the idea from documentaries and from radio pieces where somebody is speaking in their original language and it’s overdubbed by the translator or interpreter’s speech. It’s their world balloon and you can kind of see some of the letters of what they’re saying in their original language, then the interpreter’s balloon is on top of it to show that they are translating. There are some moments that aren’t translated because the interpreter wasn’t translating what they were saying, so I just kept everything there.

Walk me through a day of making the book.

For a long time, I was just writing it. I had to transcribe everything. So, all of the dialogue is actual dialogue. I had this digital recorder that was on almost all the time—in the interviews, but also when we were in between the interviews, walking through these towns we were in, having breakfast. And so, I had to transcribe all of that. Probably, I didn’t have to transcribe all of it, but I wanted to. I just wanted to have everything in front of me so I could see what I had to work with.

How long did it take to transcribe everything?

It was about a year of transcribing but I was working on other things. I was working on some short projects, and things like that—and traveling a lot. Writing is the thing that takes longest for me: just deciding what scenes I want to use, and how to edit down a three-hour long conversation to something that won’t last more than five or six pages of people sitting around and talking.

When you got to the drawing part—

Oh, that was the easy part. Once everything was written, then I usually work two pages at a time. I pencil and ink two pages one day, and then watercolor the two pages the next day.

What watercolors did you use?

Winsor Newton.

You only use five colors, right?

Oh, well, like five, six, seven, like…I started adding some new colors as the book went on. But yeah, I use a limited palette. I’m not doing anything colorful and exciting like Lisa [Hanawalt]. [Laughs.]

But it matches the tone. It would be weird if you had a lot of hot pink panels. [Laughs.]

That’s probably true. I studied oil painting in school, so I learned how to paint by mixing my own colors out of very few tubes. So, that’s how I approach watercolor.

It looked like you had a much more complex palette of paint. You must be good at mixing it up. What’s the hardest part about painting?

Night scenes. The darker the scene is, the more paint you use, and the longer it takes. It’s really hard to put down large areas of paint and make it look good. Watercolor is better for lighter colors and for giving more air to things. Any of those night scenes, where there are a whole bunch of layers of really dark blue—and then, if you wait too long and let and edge dry, and then you need to go back into it, it will create these colors butting up against each other, and it doesn’t look very nice. Night scenes are the hardest. They’re also cool lighting challenges. I guess that’s a fun part of doing a night scene, just having to think about, what does it look like when there’s a bunch of buildings at night, and the lights are on, and the TV’s on in one window? They were the most difficult but I also had a lot of fun.

Comics journalism is kind of new, at least to the general public. What do you think of the state of it now, and who’s doing good stuff? Or stuff you like?

I think it’s great! With places like The Nib, which are devoted exclusively to comics journalism. Other websites—or even magazines—which aren’t traditionally into comics, but adding comics journalism. I think there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good work, like Joe Sacco, who’s been doing this for so long. He’s great. And he’s done work for Harper’s, publications that aren’t prone to using comics. But there’s a lot of great new people too. I really like Sam Wallman’s work. He’s an Australian cartoonist. A lot of the stuff on The Nib I think is really interesting.

Is it still a small field? A couple of you working, or do you think it’s a lot bigger than people assume? I assume it’s small.

It’s pretty small, but comics journalism—there’s a range of stuff. Lisa does comics journalism: her restaurant reviews and her movie reviews. She’s done things like the visit to the toy show. That’s comics journalism, also. I actually use her work when I do classes. I use her work as an example of comics journalism too, because I want people to know it’s not just stories about refugees. The things that you traditionally think about are Joe Sacco-style comics journalism.

Right. Very political.

I mean, you do comics journalism. I think that, in that way, sometimes people forget that there’s more to comics journalism than The Nib. Anyone working in nonfiction—basically, the lines can blur between memoir and journalism. I think that’s where New Journalism that started in the 1970s and ’60s comes in. I think that’ lots of things can be comics journalism. I’d be interested to see more movie reviews in comics form, or just like, “Here I am, dropping in to the swap meet for a day, in a new place. What is it like?”

You think it’s more palatable, especially for younger people, to see a comic, versus seeing a textbook or an article?

I don’t know about palatable, but I think that maybe comics can make people take a second look at something. At the moment, we’re bombarded by text and photos all the time. So, drawing and images that are hand drawn are more rare. When you see a comic, maybe you’ll take notice and want to read it, just because it’s different. What will happen when there’s as many comics journalists out there as there are prose journalists, maybe then people won’t really be into it anymore. At the moment, it’s an exciting time, because it is still fairly new. I think people can pay attention.

It’s entertaining, too. I think, for kids, it’s hard to read a textbook of information, but when they can see it, it’s much more entertaining. So, a lot of the content of the book is really difficult and dark. How does that affect your daily life while reporting on it?

While reporting on it, or while writing about it?

Just dealing with the material.

That was hard. While you’re in an interview, you have to hold it together. Especially for me, I wasn’t even interviewing, I was just there, watching. So, I need to just not be intrusive at all. And that meant keeping it together when people are talking about really sad things. But writing about it is tough, and drawing it can be really difficult. That’s when you start to really internalize a lot of the things that people were telling you. Sometimes, when you’re drawing someone making a funny face, you realize that you’re making that face. So, you’ll be drawing someone smiling like a grimace-y smile, and then you realize that you’re smiling that way. So, that works for sad moments, too. If you’re drawing someone telling a sad story, and you’re trying to— it’s a little bit “acting,” like you’re trying to put yourself in their shoes, and trying to get the facial expression right, or the emotion of the scene right. In a way, you’re inhabiting that person. That’s when it can be really tough.

It’s also something like, well, boo hoo, I felt sad when I was working on a comic about something that actually happened to someone. You feel like you’re not even allowed to have those feelings. But it is hard. For some of the people I was drawing, by the time I was drawing them, the war in Syria had broken out, and I didn’t know where everybody was. I’d kept up with a lot of the people we had met there. And, some of them are safe. Like Momo and Odessa, the Iraqi refugee couple, those younger artists, they resettled in Vancouver. I see them update their Facebook almost every day, and I know that they’re fine. But some people you’ve lost track of, or there’s just no way to know where everyone is. So, that’s tough. You’re drawing someone, and you don’t know if they’re OK.

If they’re dead or alive.

Yeah. So, it can be really hard. You feel really powerless. You wish you could just do something, and then this thing, where you’re just drawing them, is the best thing I can do. And, that feels really futile sometimes.

Speaking of helping, though. What would the average person, like me, how can we help the refugee situation?

I think just listening to refugees’ stories. And not trying to hide from the reality of the situation, especially for all refugees, not just Iraqis, and not just Syrians. There are millions of refugees from Somalia, still. It something that I think we don’t really want to look at. There’s a lot of misinformation here.

Like Trump saying the refugees coming in are causing crime.

Right.

Jesus.

He says things like, “We need to vet them properly, we don’t know who they are.” You saw me getting really upset when he said that during the debates, and then, right after that, Hillary said, “Well, we will be vetting these people.” And I’m like, “No. These people are already vetted as much as you can vet someone.” We can’t look into people’s hearts, and know what their intentions are.

That’s why it’s insane when he said, “We can’t be certain of their love for our country.”

You can’t be certain of anyone’s—

Yeah, that’s a ridiculous thing to say.

But, it’s a really stringent process that all refugees go through, especially refugees from Syria. We let in the most vulnerable people first, women and families. It’s not like we’re letting in hordes of single, young men, which are the ones that these people are the most afraid of. I think those guys deserve a chance too, but really, the reality is, only one percent of registered refugees ever get settled. It’s a very, very small number. I think that the average person can educated themselves about that stuff, and demand that their politicians do better, because we could let more people in. We have a fine history, in the U.S., of helping a lot of refugees. We let in many, many Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War, for just one example. We could do better with Iraqis and Syrians.

Do you think people are just afraid, because “terrorism” is such a hot word right now?

Yes. I think people are afraid because people purposely try to make them afraid. People believe when people tell them things [laughs]. I think that journalists, we need to do a better job giving people the real information.

The correct information, too. Trump has incorrect numbers.

Yes. [Laughs.] Just being curious and being informed. I understand that there are a million issues out there. There’s racism, and the treatment of Native Americans. There’s environmental destruction. When you think about all of the stuff that we need to pay attention to, I can understand people being overwhelmed. So, actually, yeah, I don’t know what people can do.

Is there a charity you would recommend, for refugees? A specific one, are all of them all right in general?

I think that everyone needs to do their own research with Charity Navigator, and things like that. I think the UNHCR does good work, but there are some who say that the UN is making a lot of mistakes with refugees. I’m not going to get into that. But, Mercy Corps is an NGO that we talked to a lot when we were over there, I think they have a pretty good record of helping refugees But I think that people can look into that on their own. Charity is always a good thing. It never hurts. But I think really listening, and not just taking the information that you get for granted is a good first step.

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All Inside http://www.tcj.com/all-inside/ http://www.tcj.com/all-inside/#respond Fri, 10 Feb 2017 13:00:08 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98564 Continue reading ]]> Today on the site we have cartoonist Julia Wertz interviewing her friend and peer Sarah Glidden about Glidden’s recent book, Rolling Blackouts. 

Comics journalism is kind of new, at least to the general public. What do you think of the state of it now, and who’s doing good stuff? Or stuff you like?

I think it’s great! With places like The Nib, which are devoted exclusively to comics journalism. Other websites—or even magazines—which aren’t traditionally into comics, but adding comics journalism. I think there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good work, like Joe Sacco, who’s been doing this for so long. He’s great. And he’s done work for Harper’s, publications that aren’t prone to using comics. But there’s a lot of great new people too. I really like Sam Wallman’s work. He’s an Australian cartoonist. A lot of the stuff on The Nib I think is really interesting.

Is it still a small field? A couple of you working, or do you think it’s a lot bigger than people assume? I assume it’s small.

It’s pretty small, but comics journalism—there’s a range of stuff. Lisa does comics journalism: her restaurant reviews and her movie reviews. She’s done things like the visit to the toy show. That’s comics journalism, also. I actually use her work when I do classes. I use her work as an example of comics journalism too, because I want people to know it’s not just stories about refugees. The things that you traditionally think about are Joe Sacco-style comics journalism.

Right. Very political.

I mean, you do comics journalism. I think that, in that way, sometimes people forget that there’s more to comics journalism than The Nib. Anyone working in nonfiction—basically, the lines can blur between memoir and journalism. I think that’s where New Journalism that started in the 1970s and ’60s comes in. I think that’ lots of things can be comics journalism. I’d be interested to see more movie reviews in comics form, or just like, “Here I am, dropping in to the swap meet for a day, in a new place. What is it like?”

You think it’s more palatable, especially for younger people, to see a comic, versus seeing a textbook or an article?

I don’t know about palatable, but I think that maybe comics can make people take a second look at something. At the moment, we’re bombarded by text and photos all the time. So, drawing and images that are hand drawn are more rare. When you see a comic, maybe you’ll take notice and want to read it, just because it’s different. What will happen when there’s as many comics journalists out there as there are prose journalists, maybe then people won’t really be into it anymore. At the moment, it’s an exciting time, because it is still fairly new. I think people can pay attention.

Elsewhere:

Our own Chris Mautner writes about Gerald Jablonski’s new book.

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Something of Value http://www.tcj.com/something-of-value/ http://www.tcj.com/something-of-value/#comments Mon, 06 Feb 2017 13:00:13 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98243 Continue reading ]]> On March 26, 1994, after four days of trial and a deliberation of forty, ninety, or 120 minutes, depending on what you read, a St. Petersburg, Florida, jury of three men and three women, each older than the defendant by at least a decade, declared Mike Diana to be the first American cartoonist officially guilty of obscenity.

The judge, an ex-naval officer, ex-prosecutor, and Rotarian, ordered Diana jailed. Diana’s girlfriend, Suzy Smith, wept.[1]  Diana’s lawyer asked for his jewelry so it would not be stolen by his guards.  Diana spent four days in maximum security while the judge pondered his sentence.  The noise was unrelenting.  The lights were on constantly.  His cell had a metal bed with one blanket.  Sleep was impossible.  His company included murderers and rapists.

Because of pictures he had drawn. 

When Diana returned before him, the judge asked what he had learned.

“I learned I don’t want to be in jail.”

“Is that all?”

“I learned what I did was wrong.” Diana didn’t believe that.  But he sensed the judge wanted more than his previous answer.

The prosecutor demanded that Diana be imprisoned for three years, arguing, falsely, that he had made thousands from his art because the trial had made him famous.                   

The judge placed Diana on three years’ probation.  He fined him $3000, which he was to pay in $100 monthly installments, and ordered him to perform eight hours of public service for 156 consecutive weeks while working full-time.  He was to be psychiatrically evaluated and have up to ten months’ therapy at his own cost.  He was to submit to urine, breath, or blood tests upon demand.  (This requirement was stricken on appeal.)  His residence could be searched at any time without a warrant.  He was ordered to complete a course in journalistic ethics.  He was forbidden contact with anyone under 18.  He could not possess or create – even for his own pleasure – drawings that were “obscene.”[2]

Following his sentencing, Diana, his mother, and Smith went to a seafood restaurant.  The tablecloths were sheets of white paper, and crayons were available for children to draw upon them.  Diana drew fish defecating, then added breasts and penises to them. At his first meeting with his probation officer, he asked if he should give the police a key to his apartment or let them kick in his door?  His P.O.’s attitude seemed, “Let’s just get through it as smoothly as possible.” Still, Diana kept his art in his car’s trunk and worked on it only at night.

                                                                             I

Michael Christopher Diana had been born in New York City, June 9, 1969.  At the time of his trial, he was five-foot-two and fit from running, calisthenics, and weightlifting.  He had light brown, shoulder-length hair, which he had refused to cut despite his lawyer’s recommendation, because he felt it important to his identity as an artist.

His father taught junior high school science.  He gave his son animal skulls and tapeworms preserved in formaldehyde and entertained him by attaching electrodes to a frog and making its legs jump.  Diana’s mother kept house.  He had a younger brother, now married with two children, and a younger sister, who, upon graduating high school, joined the Marines.

The children were raised Catholic, in Geneva, a city of 15,000 on Seneca Lake.  (Scott LaFaro[3] was born there.)  In nursery school and kindergarten, Diana wet himself during naps.  He was tested and hospitalized and prescribed pills. Surgery on his urinary tract was considered.

Once, assigned to draw his family, Diana portrayed them nude, with genitals.  Once, when his class collected material on the beach for art projects, he brought back a dead fish.  By 2nd grade, his interest in art was so strong, his mother enrolled him in an after-school program. 

When Diana was in fourth grade, his family moved to Largo, Florida, a city of 50,000.  (D’Quell Jackson [4] was born there.)  Diana hated the heat.  He hated church.  (He attended mass and Bible  class until he was 15.) He hated the conformity and culture of a community, primarily elderly and retired, with lawn statues of  flamingos.[5] He hated the schools, where teachers  disciplined students with paddles.  When he was 12, his parents divorced, and he stayed with his father.

Diana liked the Three Stooges.  He liked Tales from the Crypt, “old, bloody, gory, religious art,” and the underground comics of S. Clay Wilson, Greg Irons, Rory Hayes. He had few friends. His only pet was a tarantula, to which he fed lizards and crickets. When it died, he cried for days. His father had taken over a fruit and vegetable store, which sold beer and cigarettes, cheap. Diana worked the register, drinking himself to better engage the customers.

He received A’s in art and failed or barely passed everything else.  Creating art, he felt, gave him the chance to be who he was meant to be.  As part of this art, he made videos featuring himself as a slasher film-like killer.  His mask was a money bag, which he had found in a dumpster and cut eye holes into.  The “blood” he splattered came from corn syrup and food dye.  Once he performed, masked, wearing all black, at a “night happening,” while a duo played electric guitar and bass.  On his belt was an 18-inch dildo, which penetrated a baby doll, from which he had removed the stuffing, and whose head he had filled with heavy cream, which spurted from the eyes and mouth at each dildo thrust.

The crowd was “indifferent.” And his car was towed, costing him $300.

Diana created his first comic at 13.  The cover depicted an eyeball dangling from a skull.  On the second, a creature munched on a baby’s skull. In 1988, with a friend, he created his first zine, meaninglessly entitled HVUYIM.  In 1989, he launched Angelfuck. Then came Boiled Angel.

It ran from 30 to 86 black-and-white pages, and was duplicated on the photocopying machine of the high school at which he was a janitor. He wanted Angel to be “as shocking as possible.” He wanted it to be “more extreme” than the UG cartoonists he admired. When #6 was found in the possession of a fellow busted for marijuana in San Francisco, the police sent it to law enforcement authorities in Florida, and Diana was asked to give a DNA sample to prove himself not the person who had killed five college coeds in Gainesville.

Angel’s circulation never exceeded 300.  Its only sale inside Pinellas County, where St.  Petersburg was located, was to an undercover police officer who wrote Diana claiming to be a fan.  (“Far fucking out,” he called it.  “Tasty.”) Diana sent him issues #7 and #8 (aka “Ate”).

The cover of  #7 depicted a child with one leg amputated and one eye gouged out.  Issue #8 displayed four naked women clutching a decapitated man. Inside, knives and dollar sign-decorated crosses penetrated people’s bodies.  A penis entered a beheaded neck’s stump.  A severed head fellated a cross-wearing monster.  A huge penis entered a child so tiny that it exploded. A chalice cup is labeled “AIDS-infected Blood of Christ.”

Fourteen months after mailing #8 to the undercover officer, Diana was arrested.

Once courts decided that the First Amendment did not mean “no law” when it said “no law”and that some expressions were too sexually dangerous – or “obscene” – to be  disseminated, issuers of these expressions became subject to criminal prosecution. Phrases defining limits were planted like stakes in the ground, and beyond them “speech” could not go. As time passed, courts moved these stakes and expanded this ground, and the public became able  to read Ulysses and watch Carnal Knowledge.  But markers remained.

In 1994, in Florida, a work was obscene if an average person, applying contemporary community standards, found it lacked serous artistic, literary, political, or scientific value, while appealing to prurient interests by depicting patently offensive sexual conduct.  This definition  said nothing about “disgusting” or “sick,” but it is difficult to believe that the jurors who convicted Diana did not feel these thumbs pressing heavily on justice’s scales.

On appeal, Diana’s attorneys argued lack of notice, entrapment, prosecutorial misconduct, that “community” should have been defined to encompass the entire state, and that a jury judging a work four years after its creation could not apply “contemporary” standards to it. I doubt any of these arguments gained traction with the appellate court. I think the guts of the case were “prurient interests,” “patently offensive,” and “serious.” And as with the jury,  I suspect the calculated vileness of the work overwhelmed the court’s sensitivity to jurisprudence.[6] 

Not that it would have had difficulty upholding the verdict.

Take “prurience.” Anyone who has seen the opening credits of Masters of Sex knows proving that is easy.  Mushrooms and champagne bottles, railroad tunnels and crevices in geological formations can appear sexually suggestive.[7] While most people would seem more likely to snap Boiled Angel shut and abandon its vicinity than hunker down beside it with lubricant and tissue, once the state had Sidney Merin, PhD, a neuropsychologist known in local legal circles as “Sid the Squid” for his ability to cloud waters, testify that Angel’s depiction of “pain, mutilation and torture” would sexually arouse members of a “bizarrely unstable” deviant group, that hurdle was cleared.

And “patently offensive” was no barrier either.  Remember the old joke? “Well, Mr.  Jones,” the psychiatrist says, “the test results show you prone to bestiality.”  “What’s ‘bestiality’?” says Jones.  “Intercourse with sheep, cows, pigs, chickens…” “Chickens!  UGH!” says Jones.  If chickens can freak out Jones, what chance did exploding babies have with six average Floridians? No, once “obscene” words and pictures warrant time in the slammer, you can forget “prurience” and “offensive.” You better have “serious value” going for you.

Diana spent much of his five hours on the stand, trying to convey the worth of his work.  He cited the influence on him of Salvador Dalí and Diane Arbus.  He itemized the hours he put into each book.  He explained that the nightly news’s reporting of serial killers and pedophiles, “each channel battling for the bloodiest stories,” had left him feeling people had become numb to murder and sexual abuse and wishing to shatter their indifference.  (His approach, it strikes me, was similar to Pop Artists like Andy Warhol, whose soup cans and Elvises were said to document America’s consumer culture and celebrity worship.  Only Diana was making it confront its lust for blood and perversion.)

But his testimony alone would not do.

In any case where attorneys fear how jurors’ pre-existing inclinations will define the phrases that are key to their verdict, they will provide  “experts” to influence the jurors in the direction the attorneys desire. And since in a country as diverse as ours it is hard to find an issue about which experts will not disagree, jurors of almost any inclination will have an credentialed peg on which to hang it.[8]

During the second half of the 20th century, “obscenity” experts regularly trooped into court rooms to debate the existence of “value.” They included nationally known literary critics (Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin), poets (John Hollander), novelists (Leon Uris), academics (Harry Levin, Mark Schorer), book review editors (Barbara Epstein, Eliot Fremont-Smith), newspaper columnists (Nat Hentoff, Dorothy Kilgallen), as well as eminent priests, ministers, rabbis, sociologists, and a co-author of the Kinsey Report.[9]  

Diana’s prosecutor cleverly cut against this grain.  Both his hardly-household-name experts  came from the Presbyterian Church-affiliated Eckerd College, located in St.  Pete.[10] One, James Crane (Art) testified that magazines “aren’t usually considered as art” since they were often thrown out.[11]  (He also said that, he considered Diana’s work inferior to Prince Valiant and Peanuts.[12]) He conceded Angel might compare to “shock” art, like that of the Dadaists, but noted that once this had shock worn off, their work “didn’t last”; and work must endure in order to be art.[13]                                             

Crane’s colleague, Victor Sterling Watson (Literature) testified that, for a creative work to have value, it must make “sense,”[14] must offer a creator’s “interpretation” of experience, not simply reflect it,[15] and must be “life-affirming… I mean, does it give certain values such as courage, fidelity, beauty, honor, love, friendship, community?” Boiled Angel, he felt, lacked “any context of interpretation.” Nor did it contain an “affirmation of anything that I would consider a positive value…”[16]

A basic rule of obscenity defense, as promulgated by Charles Rembar, who successfully represented Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Fanny Hill, and Tropic of Cancer, is: The less defensible the work, the more “impressive” its defenders must be.  (They might not register with jurors as much as a couple fellows from the local Presbyterian college, but they could disincline appellate judges from linking themselves with the Philistines in bound volumes on law library shelves for future generations to scoff at.)  No disrespect intended, but Diana’s experts did not meet this standard.

One, Seth Friedman, published the San Francisco-based Factsheet Five, a magazine devoted to—and little-known outside of—the world of ‘zines.  The other, Peter Kuper, a cartoonist from New York City, edited the leftist anthology World War 3 Illustrated, whose circulation never exceeded 3000.  Moreover, neither emphasized Boiled Angel’s value as much as they argued that it wasn’t about sex but “victimization.” But it didn’t matter what Angel was about, so long as it prurient appealed to one of Dr.  Merin’s deviants. That could only be offset by social contribution.

Friedman’s and Kuper’s lack of renown and misdirected focus were not their only problems.  Their cities of origin allowed the prosecutor to inflame his closing argument by charging the jurors to protect Pinellas County from what might be “acceptable in the bath houses of San Francisco… (or) crack alleys in New York.” That was a cheap shot, but it made me wonder why the defense hadn’t had a Floridian, past or present, testify.  Had they approached, for instance, Dave Barry, Judy Blume, Edna Buchanan, Michael Connelly, Harry Crews, Carl Hiassen, Duane Hansen, Peter Matthiessen, Tom McGuane, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Joy Williams?  Had they all declined?  Was their price too high?[17]

It also did not help that, at the time of Diana’s trial, the killer of those coeds, Danny (“The Gainesville Ripper”) Rolling was in the news, awaiting sentencing.  This encouraged the prosecutor to call Boiled Angel “the sort of stuff that stirred up… somebody like Danny Rolling…. Step number one [is]… the drawings.  [Then]… you’re into the pictures… [Then] you’re into the movies… [Then] you’re creating these scenes in reality.” In other words, he was arguing that drawing comix was the first step in a march to the turning the imagined scenes into actuality, so that Diana had to be stopped now before he began snuffing women, children, and babies.[18]

After three months, Diana’s lawyers had his probation stayed, pending the outcome of his appeal.  In June 1996, without telling anyone but his parents, Diana moved to New York City.  The day he arrived, his conviction was upheld. 

New York refused to oversee Diana’s probation.  So once a month he reported by phone to Florida. Once a month he mailed his $100.  He completed a journalistic ethics course at NYU.  He delivered food to HIV patients as his community service.  And for the next two years and nine months of his probationary period, he remained forbidden to be in the presence of a 17-year-364-day-old or, I suppose, draw a murderously deployed penis.

                                                                           III.

It will surprise no one who has read my views on transgressive art[19] that I found Diana’s prosecution to have been stupid, cruel, and a waste of taxpayer money.  I am aware of no evidence that any kind of art causes people to act criminally, and even if there was, I do not believe the rest of us should be denied access to material simply because it might detonate our most marginal neighbor.  And I think it beneficial for people to see what words-and/or-pictures disturb them, so they can search themselves to see why that is

To me, Diana’s prosecution seems more like bullying than justice.  He was a single guy, without corporate backing, publishing a barely read comic.  His drawings were crude and off-putting, not seducing or rousing one to action.  His stories were hardly commanding enough to seize control of one’s unconscious. He did not, in detailed prose, describe the nailing to the floor and dismemberment of a woman, like Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho. He did not salaciously link sexuality and automobile accidents – “the erotic delirium,” the semen spilled,  and pubes lacerated – like J.G. Ballard in Crash.[20]  Diana’s aesthetic seems like The Three Stooges Meet Freddy, or Rory Hayes guest-artists Little Orphan Annie, the oddity of the juxtaposition making one chuckle, if ruefully, at the carnage, the continually building how-can-he-top-this bank of outrages fascinating like a playing card tower.  It does not, I say without hesitation, make one think, “Gee, that sounds good.  Where’s my chainsaw?” and head for the local preschool.  Diana was a lone weirdo (in the best sense), a zine-making guy seeking footing in the world, not an author of lit-ra-choor, anchored to important friends in important places.  He was an easy target to beat on.

If the State of Florida was engaged in something beyond a sadistic exercise in PR, a good faith effort, say, in deterrence or rehabilitation, I have some seat-of-my-pants-researched  news for it. In 2012, to accompany a European tour of Diana’s art, Divus published a two-volume slipcased compilation of his work, America.  One volume, Live (400 pp.), was entirely black and white and the other, Die, (128 pp.)  mostly color.  By my calculation, Diana would have been on probation from approximately March 28 through June 28, 1994, and from June 8, 1997, through March 8, 2000. These compilations only give the year of completion of each work,  so I have confined my study to 1998 and 1999.

Live has nine works from this period. In them, a child stabs to death his parents and three siblings, machine guns hundreds of school children, and kills himself.  A teenager blows up a school with 3427 students and teenagers inside and urinates on their graves. Aliens invade Florida and behead and eviscerate naked citizens.  A naked woodsman ejaculates while felling a phallus-resembling tree.  A fellow fearing he has been invaded by insects slices off his own nipple. A skull drips semen after sex with a giant cock.

When Diana’s probation officer would remind him that he could violate his probation by drawing, he would reassure her, “Of course, I’m not drawing.”

But of course he was. 

                                                                            IV

Becoming America’s most shocking cartoonist is a bit like becoming its fastest runner, except that instead of pushing one’s body, one pushes one’s mind.  Both feats test courage and commitment.  To both, upbringing and obsession contribute.

Diana had to identify where our society’s nerves were rawest and squeeze that spot until his knuckles whitened, despite its shouts and screams. This act set him apart at the same time it elevated him. While his prosecution gave him name-above-the-title power in some circles, it also cost him.  People feared that if they asked for his art, it would make their doors a target for the jackboots. So while the tag “Only Cartoonist Ever Convicted…” may ring Diana’s neck like Olympic gold, a Wheaties box was never in his future.

Mike Diana in 2015, via Divus.

At present Diana shares a three-room apartment with two other artists in what had been a party house for Argentine skateboarders in the Fort Washington section of Manhattan.  He scrapes by, supporting himself primarily through his art. His website sells his drawings, paintings, comix, t-shirts, patches.  He contributes work to others’ comix and zines.  He designs the occasional album cover.  He has graphic novels in progress. Manhattan’s galleries elude him, but he has exhibited at them in London, Prague, and Berlin – and at squats in abandoned factories in France. He will have a joint show in Paris with Stu Mead, an American ex-pat painter of sexually explicit works, often involving juveniles.  A documentary about Diana’s trial, to which he is contributing animated clips, is being made by Frank (“The Godfather of Gore”) Henenlotter and Mike Hunchback, the punk guitarist/song-writer.

While writing this article, I had one phone interview with Mike Diana and several email exchanges with him.  At the end, I asked him, “Was it worth it?  If you had it to do over again, would you?”

“Since I was little,” he said, “I wanted to draw things I liked… I wanted to share my drawings with others. When I was in Florida, in my teenage years, I wanted to make shocking art.  The oppression is so heavy there, it makes you want to rebel.  The religious folks there cause this to happen.  I wanted to offend those that needed to be offended, and Largo, where I was living, is overrun with those kinds of people. I never had a feeling that I did anything wrong, I was just using my freedom of speech.  It’s not my fault nobody else in that part of the United States wanted to exercise this freedom.  Yes, I would do it again and again.”

I mentioned that, at artwhore.com, he had advised others to “Draw as sick as you can.” Why, I put to him.  Who or what was being served?

“I was trying to say, if you want to make art that is risqué or that most [people] don’t like or feel is unsavory, just do it, Draw what you want.  Don’t let the bastards that are always grumpy get you down, discouraging you from what you create.  It is important to the artist and this free society we live in.”

I thought about that.

It was, of course, by no means certain that permitting Mike Diana to keep drawing children being fucked to death would have led him to personal growth, or to work that museums would hang, or which would lift civilization further from the mud. It did seem, though, that his continued application of ink to paper had not resulted in any of the state-warned-against conduct on his part or, as far as I knew, triggered anyone else’s felonies.

Mike Diana, 1997

Beyond that, I only found myself thinking thoughts I had already thought and writing words I had previously written. (It was so wearyingly discouraging to think that in the late 20th century we had not progressed beyond the nonsense of State v. Diana. Of course, we are now well into the 21st and look at the megalomaniacal, malicious death cap we have elected president.)

So, seeking freshness, I asked a few people whose work and opinions I respect what they thought about Diana.  Here are their responses.

One thing I hated about the way Mike Diana gets processed by most people is that his comics are awful, that they are beyond-the-pale offensive, and that we defend him anyway because of principle.

I think all this is wrong.

I think Mike’s comics are funny.  I think they’re pretty clearly “white trash shenanigans” stuff more than comics exploring the real terrors of the soul, like Simmons or Columbia do, and I think a lot of his comics art is attractive. –Tom Spurgeon.  Editor of The Comics Reporter

I was inspired (by) his surrealist visuals… (and) unfurled psychedelic id.  Simpler minds may only want to feel appalled by the vileness of his subjects but there is great, eye-popping beauty to his images… He has an innate sense of layout and optical play.  His imagination and attention to absurdity are more commanding of my attention than any institutional artist. -Jon F.  Allen.  Writer, cartoonist and co-editor of Pop Wasteland.

                                                                                  

I see interesting parallels in Mike Diana’s case with the start of the first Gulf War.  Police action against him started the same time [as] the cycle of war and violence conducted by [the] American elite.  And you take draconian measures against the guy who never did any actual harm to anyone and who was only drawing comics and you don’t have any call for legal responsibility for people who were involved in premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people at the same time.  And you have official psychiatric evaluation of “criminal” Mike Diana who was only in charge of his own comics zine but you don’t have any psychiatric evaluation of Madeleine Albright for an example who was in charge of heavily armed superpower… Mike Diana was the victim of the same school of thinking which finds suspect and guilt everywhere but never in themselves.[21] – Wostock.  Filmmaker and cartoonist

One of these people, J.T. Dockery, author/artist of Despair, responded at such length and in such depth that I felt he deserved stand-alone recognition. So here’s…

                             Satan, Mike Diana, At Least One or Two Other Things & Me:

                                                                                          An Appendix by J.T. Dockery

With Mike Diana’s work, I can feel the imagery moving along ley lines of artists before him who charted geography in lands that made the squares twitch and recoil but also sparked an audience–however limited– alternately hungry for subversion and wills to be weird such as: Rory Hayes, S. Clay Wilson, Joe Coleman, along with a soundtrack of lyrics by The Misfits and artist Raymond Pettibon’s Black Flag album covers, I can observe Diana surfing the waves of punk and heavy metal, its subcultural imagery.

It’s not for nothing that the same Florida that begat Diana’s comics also begat the death-metal genre of bands like Obituary, Deicide, and Morbid Angel–with their reveling in blasphemy, Satanism, and at least one or two other things–concurrent with the late ’80s/early ’90s/Diana’s pressure cooker of Boiled Angel that got him in such community-standard-hot-water in the “Sunshine State.” I’m aware that the court would not allow any evidence of context or tradition, so no entering into evidence any previous underground comix, etc. to establish a heritage for the kind of “folk art” that cuts the guts right out of the American apple pie. I would argue that tradition–and Diana’s place in it–is one of the nobler emanations of American arts and letters/(sub)culture.

I also can’t imagine his work being made and distributed outside the context of the ’80s/’90s zine scene, with Factsheet Five serving as central hub for distribution of weirdo print matter traveling across state lines before the rise of the internet, giving Diana an underground/alternative audience outside of his immediate community. And I can’t imagine his prosecutors having any sense of the zine scene, punk rock, heavy metal, or underground comix (even in their own backyards), actively dismissing any context as nothing but degeneracy. (What did one of the Florida prosecutors say about New York crack alleys and San Francisco bathhouses again?)

I would say Diana’s work is evidence that he’s processing the hypocrisy of avowed American normalcy and, furthermore, if he was capable of doing any “actions” delineated in his work, he WOULD NOT be MAKING that work. It’s the repressed and those who fear the shadows full of their own darkness who are the real scary beasts, crouching low and breathing heavy, preying on society/individuals; the old fallacy of failed thinking that if someone makes transgressive art, he or she is, it follows, either capable of performing transgressive acts and/or inspiring the transgressive acts depicted. (Not to mention the reactionary fear that comes from observing an artist drawing the spears that poke the sacred cows of the status quo/decency/the current community standards of any given neighborhood conservative Christian church). It reminds me of the scenario of the elected conservative politician who endorses the most foul homophobic legislation, harping on enforcing his morality crusade, who often seems to be the most likely to end up caught with his pants down engaged in illicit acts with other men. I find myself thinking also of serial killer John Gacy. (Did he ever paint BEFORE he was in prison?) Certainly one can almost regard his strange paintings as the result of an incarcerated killer who is restrained from the option of further murder, with killer coming first, artist second by a wide margin. If Gacy had it within himself to put his murderous impulses into paint, he wouldn’t be a killer. Speaking of Joe Coleman, he’s often said that if not for discovering the outlet/s of art, he thinks he would have become a killer and/or some kind of criminal.

But maybe talking to/about Mike Diana right now is perfect timing, when, somehow, a “reality television” celebrity/smoke-and-mirror-millionaire has been elected (is that vomit I taste in my mouth?) to the highest office of the land. Whether he’s getting caught on a hot mic endorsing sexual assault or generally spouting fragmented ill-formed hate speech, Donald Trump seems like a Diana character to me. Which is to say, a vile/violent walking, talking caricature of himself (either not self-aware, or so deeply cynical that he IS aware, that he’s playing a character for an intended audience). And yet he was recently tossing around, on the bathroom stall of Twitter, that threadbare notion (what year is this again?) of prosecuting citizens for burning the American flag. Which reveals, at best an ignorance and at worst a denial, of what the law of the land protects as freedom of speech.

I think of William S. Burroughs’s “Roosevelt After the Inauguration”. Burroughs had the experience of being prosecuted on charges of obscenity–and it seems to me that casting Trump in the Roosevelt role and adapting/updating Burroughs into a comic, as delineated by Mike Diana, would be–as I imagine the result in my mind’s eye–a perfect summation of the current situation. (I’m not exactly sure why Donald Dump can’t be deemed legally obscene, ha/ugh.)

Of course, invoking Burroughs as positive to the negative example of Gacy, one could argue, subverts my analogy – being that, indeed, Burroughs did accidentally – as the official story goes – shoot and kill his wife. Unlike Gacy though, Burroughs was not a serial killer, and  himself viewed the act, however unintentional, to be the central motivating fact of his career as a scribe, and the corpus of his work as something of an atonement, or rectifying/attempt at redemption for having been an instrument in the bodily death of Joan Vollmer. No matter where one lands on the Burroughs question, I’d venture to say there is no meaning/understanding/criticism of art without including context (and then there’s the issue of not separating the artist from the art, which is to say: seeing value in failed/flawed human beings capable of producing interesting work despite their inherent flaws, as transcendence of flaws and failures, not because of the same).

What’s interesting to me is that 1. Diana was legally prohibited from making art, period (not merely a judgement of specific works in print, but a judgement/censure of any future works) and 2. what that fact means to an artist, how it changes him. On the back end of that, I’m aware that the actions of the prosecuting authorities in Florida ultimately negated their own goals, meaning that as the events were happening other artists and writers and institutions stepped forward to make statements in his defense – (it’s difficult to imagine Neil Gaiman discussing Mike Diana’s work if not for the situation of his prosecution) – and generally making an obscure artist more well-known by the very processes of censuring/censoring him.)

Like anything else, if one can’t take one’s faith being satirized, or one’s country/its leaders being satirized, then what occurs to me is that it is more pudding-proof that one’s religion/government – and humorless faith in such institutions/individuals within those institutions – can’t,  in actuality, BE all that powerful. Not if any reaction to any skewing of the supposed power of faith/government in the form/s of art/the arts is perceived as an attack, a threat, which must be eliminated. As I would say of a government so afraid of its own citizens that it spies on them, that’s playing from a weak position.

 There seems to be a moral/lesson in this story for those in power willing to pursue censorship, for the short term silencing/derailing of careers of artists. History reveals that censoring artists/their works seems to never accomplish much more than making the artist/their works censored/censured more famous and studied than if the authorities had just let them work/satirize/poke the sacred cows in the warm amniotic fluid/peace of freedom of expression.

I think of William Tyndale, put to death in England for illegally translating biblical scripture into the English language, and yet, within a generation, his work was put into the language of the King James translation, the official version, sanctioned by the throne which killed him, ultimately making him as important an architect of the language as William Shakespeare. The Tyndale name is not well known outside of the circles of biblical scholars, yet every time we say a word such as “atonement” or utter a phrase such as “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” that’s all Tyndale/14th century words and phrases from his translation. And they strangled/burned him for his efforts.

That’s a major-league digression. But, hell, Diana is more like Tyndale than his church-going, painfully middlebrow, corn-pone persecutors. At least we don’t torture or kill our artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, etc. simply for doing what they do, and exploring ideas/expressions that run contrary to the status quo and legally protect their freedom of speech. I mean, at least…for now.


Endnotes:

[1].Smith (aka “Suzy Morbid”) had been drawn to support Diana because she had been fired from her job as the hostess of a public access cable TV show after showing a tape of the singer GG Allen urinating and defecating on stage.  She found Diana “nice,” “shy,” “lonely,” and “depressed.”  “He needed somebody,” she concluded.       

[2].Since, arguably, nothing is “obscene” until a judge or jury rules it so, and since the jury had not identified what part of Diana’s work it found criminal, this placed a burden on Diana’s judgment.  It would have also seemed counter-productive to those who believe that if one is possessed by inner demons, which some in the courtroom seemingly believed Diana to be, it lessens the chance of their acting anti-socially if they can release through art the pressure these demons generate.

[3]. Look him up.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. . Largo  recently made national news when its City Commission voted 5-2 to remove its City Manager because she was transitioning from male-to-female.

[6].The only part of the court record I was able to review was Diana’s opening appeal brief, so my understanding of the case may be incomplete.  But since this brief is likely to have recited the facts in the light most favorable to Diana, and since my analysis will focus on his defense’s shortcomings, what I have to say may not be terribly undercut.

[7]. If Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree is to be believed, some men may even find watermelons sexually irresistible.  And at least one serial rapist/murderer is said to have been inspired by Cecil B.  DeMille’s Ten Commandments.  See: Murphy. “The Value of Pornography.” 10 Wayne L.Rev.  668 (1966). 

[8]. Speaking of “experts,” journalists ring them in too when purposes require, and, coincidentally, I have just heard from the always-fascinating Ruth Delhi, PhD, who has been on a lengthy, silent meditation in the mountains of Peru, but read the first part of this article and passed along a hand-written note, via a touring charango player. “What an unusual child!” she said of Diana. “And his parents were amazing. They recognized his interests and encouraged them. They didn’t confuse their son’s playfulness and imagination with pathology, even though his behavior was extreme, but accepted it, removing its negativity, and helped him function.”

[9]. Even cartoonists were not unworthy of such defenders. When the owner of an Oakland gallery was prosecuted in 1970 for displaying the art of UG comix Snatch and Cunt, the Founding Director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum testified on his behalf.

[10].U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it 127th out of 180 liberal arts college in the country.

[11]. So much for newspaper comic strips, comic books, political broadsheets and pamphlets, rock show posters.

[12]. S.  Clay Wilson was not discussed.

[13].This assessment would startle Yale University, which recently celebrated Dada’s centennial with a five-month long exhibition.

[14]. One might cite Pablo Picasso to the contrary: “The world doesn’t make sense.  So why should I paint pictures that do.”

[15]. Or one might cite Andy Warhol’s films, William Burroughs’s tapes, or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to the contrary.

[16]. Watson was not asked about the “courage, fidelity, beauty, etc.” within, say, Louis Ferdinand Celine or Nathanael West, Otto Dix or George Grosz.

[17]. Diana’s attorneys had intended to call a third expert, Shane Bugbee.  After Diana had been charged, Bugbeen had reprinted Boiled Angel #7-8, published a new comic by him, Superfly (a bat-winged skull devours a corpse on the cover), and arranged a gallery show of his work in Chicago.  But Bugbee’s nom de publication was “Mike Hunt” (get it?), and since this was how he was identified on the defense’s witness list, his testimony was excluded due to his identity not having been properly disclosed.

            Not that he would have solved the impressiveness problem, I daresay.

[18]. According to Diana, the alternate (non-voting) juror told him he had been done in by “the serial killer slant.”

[19]. If you haven’t, I refer you to my essay collection, Outlaws, Rebels, Pirates, Free-Thinkers, & Pornographers, Fantagraphics.  2005. 

[20]. I did not watch “slasher” films, so I can’t pull comparisons from them.  I’m sure there are many.

[21]. Wostock’s dating of the war and identity of the Secretary of State responsible are off, but his point is well-taken.

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Preview: Pretending Is Lying http://www.tcj.com/pretending-is-lying/ http://www.tcj.com/pretending-is-lying/#respond Wed, 01 Feb 2017 13:00:47 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97587 Pretending Is Lying, along with a short afterword by its original editor, Jean-Christophe Menu. Continue reading ]]>

On February 7th, our friends at New York Review Comics are publishing Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet. We are pleased to present an excerpt from chapter 1. Following the pages is a text  by Jean-Christophe Menu about the book. 

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TWELVE YEARS OF CORRECTIONS

The Goblette told me about the famous day: the drunk reunion with the “fireman,” the colored pencils that Nikita already had, “Bleeding,” the chest “from when I brought back from when I was with the pirates,” which collapsed, the Turbo injection … “Roger Out!” The whole thing, you know? The perfect scene to begin the necessary autobiography, and to attempt to arrive at, of course, the top floor.

It was 1995. The first pages of the first chapter were as impressive as they were pungent. Each time I saw them, there was oil paint modifying the pages. This troubled me a little, because I saw that black and white wouldn’t suffice for rendering such nuance.  Events transpired which resulted in the autobiography being put on hold on multiple occasions. There were other books, expositions, trips; the autobiography returned, left again, returned.

The method had changed: grey pencils now steadily rendered Brussels and Charleroi, but it was the same story from the pages of 1995, which, for their part, had continued to yellow. Reintegrating their sepia tone and their now-old style with the new-present was a way for Dom to defy time, the true first subject of the book, completed twelve years after it was started. This book smells of oil, grease pencil, humid wood, the disorder of the street market; it exhales twelve years of well-tempered promises, carefully untied and resolutely wrapped up. Pretending Is Lying breathes like no other book — Jean-Christophe Menu, editor of original L’Association edition

 

 

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Jack Mendelsohn, 1926-2017 http://www.tcj.com/jack-mendelsohn-1926-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/jack-mendelsohn-1926-2017/#comments Fri, 27 Jan 2017 13:00:21 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98287 Continue reading ]]> Jack Mendelsohn passed on Wednesday from lung cancer. A cartoonist Zelig, Mendelsohn seems to have touched down at nearly every comics and animation hotspot in the second half of the twentieth century. But his greatest achievement was a quirky comic strip called Jacky’s Diary that ran from 1959 to 1961. The fictional drawn diary of “Jacky Mendelsohn, age 32 1/2,” the strip is told entirely in a faux-children’s prose and picture style, to brilliant effect.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Mendelsohn’s ambition was always to be a cartoonist. His father, Irving, was Winsor McCay’s film agent, and the young Mendelsohn visited McCay numerous times. Mendelsohn also visited his favorite local cartoonist, Stan Mac Govern, and received an original Silly Milly comic strip for his trouble. A high school dropout and Navy enlistee, Mendelsohn began his comics career after World War II as a freelance gag cartoonist for magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, and a script writer for dozens of funny animal, humor, and fantasy comic books, including Felix the Cat. Later, he wrote for MAD Magazine and its sister humor comic Panic. A restless, energetic young man, Mendelsohn moved to Mexico in 1951 and stayed for the better part of the decade, hatching Jacky’s Diary there as well. Mendelsohn was—and still is—a writer by trade. In 1959 he knew he couldn’t sell a comic strip based on his limited abilities as a draftsman, so “I thought if I could do a comic strip as seen through the eyes of a child and drawn in that crude style, I could use my writing to do an ‘endaround,’ bypassing the skills I lacked as an artist.”

The humor in Jacky’s Diary depends on the dissonance between “young” Jacky’s perception and adult reality. Therefore, in Mendelsohn’s masterful comic book version of his strip (only one issue of which was produced), Jacky writes in “A Visit to the Circus” that “The reason lions raw so much is on a count of they feed them raw meat.” And, writing about a tightrope walker: “A man came out & walked on a clothes-line. He must of been real poor, on a count of he didn’t own any clothes. So he did it in his under-where.” The prose is closely observed and often very funny, right down to the comical misspellings and malapropisms. “I made the most use of every panel,” Mendelsohn said. “ I always saw every inch as precious—every inch had to be justified.” Jacky’s Diary was also clearly meant for adults. Mendelsohn noted that he “never at any time considered Jacky a children’s strip. On the contrary, I considered it very adult with the use of wordplay, puns, and satirical observations . . . I don’t think the average child would have fully appreciated what I was doing.” Mendelsohn’s lone solo comic book enabled him to expand his stories across multiple pages, allowing the writing and art to assume a leisurely pace, making this 1960 gem his finest moment.

Mendelsohn’s drawing, despite his supposed limitations, is very effective. He studied books of children’s art in order to channel the look and feel of the work. In a recent interview Mendelsohn described his drawing process as “like a zen state, I would follow the pencil wherever it moved. I made very few changes from the pencils.” It is funny and gracious work, lying somewhere between Henri Matisse and Jean Dubuffet, in its faux-naïvité and straightforward beauty. Mendelsohn’s characters are both expressive and iconic—his reduced graphic language makes them stand out even more, perfectly communicating with just a couple of circles and a line. It is also a surprisingly prescient style—its pared down, whimsical look is now shared by many contemporary underground cartoonists. Check out some originals over the Billy Ireland site and the strip itself at The Fabulous Fifties.

But despite a lot of promotion, a one-shot comic book version, and even two animated shorts, Jacky’s Diary was cancelled in 1961—A Sunday-only comic strip at its level of popularity was simply too expensive for the syndicate to continue. in 2014 the strip was collected in its entirety.

From there Mendelsohn moved into television, writing for Jay Ward’s studio, as well as for animated versions of Beetle Bailey and Krazy Kat, as well as Scooby Doo. In 1968 he was one of writers for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. At the end of the decade Mendelsohn began writing for live-action television with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and then became the head writer of Three’s Company and The Carol Burnett Show. In later years he found success once again in animation, as story editor for The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Jack Mendelsohn received the Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing in 2014. At the time of his passing he’d completed a new Jacky’s Diary book-length story, though I don’t know if publication had been confirmed. 

I met Jack Mendelsohn first via phone back in 2004 when I was researching Art Out of Time (from which the above it taken), in which I reprinted the wonderful Jacky’s Diary comic book, and then later near his Los Angeles home. He was, until then, a cartoonist’s favorite (Mark Newgarden turned me on to the work, as he did so many great comics), and was happy to be rediscovered. I found him to be a wonderful and engaging man, generous with his stories and praise, but as any reader of Jacky’s Diary would know, also a man touched by melancholy and loss. A great, sui generis talent is gone. 

Here’s a great 1965 cartoon from Paramount, which reunited Jack with Howie Post.

 

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The Ted Stearn Interview http://www.tcj.com/the-ted-stearn-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/the-ted-stearn-interview/#comments Wed, 18 Jan 2017 13:00:05 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98037 Continue reading ]]> I’ve known Ted Stearn for about thirty-five years.  He was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design when my future wife Richmond Lewis and I were also there, and we all became good friends in the years thereafter.  I was so intrigued with the paintings, drawings, and sculptures he made over the years—particularly a series of “automatic drawings” that were devised from random mark-making—that I suggested he make a comic for Rubber Blanket, the magazine I was publishing in the early 1990s.  Ted took the challenge so seriously that he is still making comics today—damn good ones, too.

Ted Stearn and David Mazzucchelli. Photo by Richmond Lewis.

His latest book, The Moolah Tree, is the third installment in a saga that began in Fuzz and Pluck (1999) and continued in Splitsville (2008).  Fuzz, a rejected, perennially abused teddy bear with no self-confidence, and Pluck, a poultry-slaughterhouse escapee with self-confidence in (over)abundance, are unlikely companions trying to survive in a world of users, losers, and desperate seekers (not unlike our own).

In this conversation we talk about many of the ideas that power his work, and also touch on his careers as a teacher and storyboard artist.  I encourage you to visit tedstearn.com to see more of his work than can be shown here.  He remains one of my favorite people and one of my favorite artists.

— David Mazzucchelli

THE SMELL OF PAINT

DM: You and I had similar trajectories in art school. We both started off majoring in illustration and then switched into painting. Knowing your work over all these years since that time, and thinking about the things that you wanted to make when you came out of school, I’m curious why you went into Illustration in the first place.

TS: I was paranoid about work and how I was going to get it, and I thought that fine art was too…fluffy. And I remember I called up my parents—I’m sure a lot of readers can relate to this—I called up my parents, it was three months after being in Illustration, and I said “I don’t know what to do”—I was, like, crying—“I don’t know what to do, I—I can’t do this, I don’t like it, I hate the teachers, and stuff’s stupid, uhh….” And I actually said “I wanna go into Painting, but I don’t know,” you know, it’s just too—you just don’t do that, it’s too…impractical. So, they were so sweet, they said “Do what makes you happy. Just go ahead and do it.” And I remember my first tour of the Painting Department and I just felt like “Oh, I belong here. This is great. I like this.” Because everyone was just really into it. I liked the smell, and the freedom… and the Illustration Department, I think you would agree, had serious problems back then.

DM: Well, regardless of problems it may or may not have had, it didn’t turn out to be the place for me either.

TS: What was the reason for that, for you?

DM: I think I didn’t know what illustration was, and I was trying to make what I thought art was, even though in the back of my mind I think I always knew I wanted to make comics. But I was trying to make drawings and paintings, and when I switched out of that department, it became immediately clear to me what illustration was—you’re given a problem and you solve it.

TS: I feel like something can be compartmentalized as illustration and not art when the subject is more important than the actual work. You know what I mean? That’s its job. If it goes beyond that, and it becomes a world within itself, and it becomes this really interesting, complex, other thing, then…you can call it “art,” I guess.

Painting by Ted Stearn, 1988.

DM: With a capital A. What occurred to me was, I embraced ambiguity. In art ambiguity is a good thing, in illustration it’s not necessarily a good thing.

TS: I remember something you said in the studio. You said “You know, now I get it! It’s like the Talking Heads—stop making sense!”

(Both laugh)

TS: You remember saying that?

DM: I do.

TS: Well, it stuck with me, I was like, “Yeah, sure, definitely.” I mean, one of my favorite things about art-making is you have to break rules. I never liked sense too much.

Ted Stearn, self-portrait drawn with “wrong” hand.

AN IMAGINATION ARCHIVE

DM: (Sifting through books and papers) I’m sitting here going through, like, thirty years of your stuff, and it’s really interesting to see the connections between drawings and paintings you were doing about thirty years ago—

TS: (laughing) Thirty years! That’s crazy.

DM: Well, that’s the late eighties, right?

TS: Eighties, yeah.

DM: It’s interesting, ’cause I remember a lot of those paintings very distinctly—

TS: Really?

DM: Yes, very clearly. Well, pretty clearly—

TS: You know, Richmond was an inspiration for me. She really was.

DM: Oh, yeah?

TS: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t want to paint like Richmond, but I remember I would go in your apartment and you would have all the Daredevil stuff out, and I was like “Okay, looks good! I want to see Richmond’s paintings, though!” (laughs)

DM: Her stuff was out too, as I recall.

TS: Yeah, well I kinda went “Oh, David, that’s really cool, you’re an incredible draftsman—let’s go see the paintings, now.”

(laughter)

DM: Smart move. Some of the imagery in the paintings you were doing back then found its way into the first comics you were making.  The “Beach Boy” comic for example [published in Rubber Blanket No. 1]—there was a lot of Coney Island imagery and boardwalk scenes in your paintings before that.

Painting by Ted Stearn, late 1980s.

TS: Right. Well, that was the first comic I did for you, and that was definitely pulling from my obsession with the Jersey Shore (laughs)—before it was a TV show!

DM: And where did that come from—that obsession?

TS: Um, I don’t know. I think I saw a lot of aesthetic stuff that I was really excited about, and so I wanted to reinterpret it as, not a cacophony, but a whole orchestration of shapes and colors and busyness and—

DM: You mean the combination of signs and different typography and different-shaped buildings and things all crammed together, that kind of accumulation?

TS: Yeah, I think it reflects in the comic maybe a little bit? Just how disorienting, if you walk through a boardwalk area? I was very intrigued by that, and I was also intrigued because it’s right next to nature—beach, ocean, complete nature—and then you’ve got this, you know, orgy of the follies of civilization or something. Also, I grew up in that kind of environment—we would always go to the beach in the summer, and as a kid I loved the boardwalk, the ocean, the whole scene. So it had a lot of personal resonance with me in hindsight, and the whole craziness of the boardwalk made me think about that contrast.

DM: There was another painting of the huge orange with human legs—

TS: (Laughs, shakes head)

DM: —that became Sourpuss in the Fuzz and Pluck comics.

TS: Yeah. (Shakes head) I don’t know why, I really don’t. I think it’s best not to analyze too much….

Automatic drawing by Ted Stearn.

DM: The reason I’m bringing it up is that in the drawings that came a little bit later, the ones you call “automatic drawings,” there’s also an animated quality to shapes, so that seemingly random or casual marks get turned into living creatures by the addition of arms or legs or something like that.

TS: All those images that I was creating was kind of like building…an imagination archive that I could pull from.

Automatic drawing by Ted Stearn.

DM: Those automatic drawings are what made me ask you to make comics for Rubber Blanket. Those and the paintings. There were characters and a sense of place and a sense of “something’s going on”—I thought “this guy can make interesting comics.”

TS: I just couldn’t believe how hard creating a comic was.

DM: (Laughs)

TS: So hard. And yet I really wanted it. It took me years and years and years. And some kids just have it and they go ahead and do it. But if you hadn’t asked me…I don’t think I would have done it.

DM: Sorry about that.

SCULPTURE TAKES UP SPACE

DM: Do you see a connection between the work you’ve ended up doing in animation as a storyboard artist and the way you were thinking when you were making kinetic sculptures? 

TS: Uh…. (Pause) No.

DM: (Laughs) Okay.

Kinetic sculpture by Ted Stearn.

A sketch for a kinetic sculpture.

TS: Well, they require different approaches, to me. But I will say, one reason I got into comics, one reason I was making those sculptures, one reason that I’m pretty natural at storyboarding is I have this fourth dimension of time. I mean, all works of art technically would have the dimension of time, but this is like really kind of exploding it in a past and future direction. So, the sculpture is less about movement and more about introducing the element of time. That became very interesting to me, and that’s why I enjoyed all that more than, say, just doing a painting, an image—that became really limiting to me, even though I loved it and I would go back to it easily, but…I felt like I was in a box. I didn’t want to be in that box, I wanted to create worlds and places that kind of just expand as much as I can. There are a lot of influences—music is a big influence on me. In the early nineties I was doing paintings and drawings, but I felt stuck, so I started making drawings that were all over the wall, and then I started building things, making three-dimensional drawings, as it were, and it kind of took off from there.

Sculpture by Ted Stearn.

DM: Right.

TS: You know, Jonathan Borofsky was a big influence on me. I remember seeing his work in 1982, we did a field trip to New York from RISD, and he just blew me away. I was just like, “This is just play, this is just so much fun.” And he had some kinetic sculptures in there.

DM: I remember the “Chattering Men.”

TS: Yeah…(makes hammering motion) the “Hammering Man.”

(Note: there were both.)

TS: But it was the overall-ness of it, it was just like…this huge sculpture here, this painting of a dream leaning against the wall over here—I loved that freedom, the turning yourself inside out. I loved just being able to, uh, not be disciplined about what you’re going to make and just sit down and start making something and see what you come up with. So this was a frontier for me, to build things and construct things, as opposed to sitting and drawing on paper. It was a very different experience. So I’m a really big believer in getting outside of your medium.

A video of Stearn’s 1992 installations. 

DM: Interestingly, after that expansion of grad school, by going into comics you did end up drawing on paper.

TS: I know, can you believe it?? Yeah.

Ted Stearn in his studio, 1990. Photo by Sharon Jandik.

DM: But long before you were making comics you were thinking about characters and settings and worlds and creating these environments and I think it really shows right from the first comics you made that there was this sense of world-building, or atmosphere—

TS: (Nods vigorously) That’s really good, I hadn’t really thought about that a lot, but I think that’s true, and I think the artists and the authors who I admire the most are able to do that. They did reflect on the real world, but they created their own—like, Basquiat did that, and, I don’t know, Goya did that, Charles Burchfield, and a lot of other artists that I admire. They weren’t married to “reality”—you know, so many artists recreating the world in their own vision. That’s what I appreciate about a lot of artists and I guess that’s what I was trying to do, though I don’t think I thought about it consciously, whether it was the sculpture or the paintings or the automatic drawings or the comics…

DM: And Halloween costumes.

TS: Which one was that?

DM: You were always coming up with interesting Halloween costumes.

TS: (Laughing) I don’t remem—

DM: I remember one in particular that cracked me up, it was a shirt with like twenty-foot-long sleeves and your hands were just dragging behind you—

TS: (Laughs) I had rubber gloves at the end. And one was the seven plagues of Egypt— (touching his chest in different places) I just stuck things on me.

Halloween costume, c. 1996.

DM: Richmond remembers you did (miming a large shape around his head) a big head, a big bear head or something—

TS: I did. I did a Fuzz head, yeah.

DM: That was after you had made Fuzz and Pluck?

TS: Of course, yeah. What happened to those days? We used to construct things.

DM: Now we don’t have room to keep them.

TS: (Laughs) That’s true. That was a big element in why I gave up doing sculpture—even though they were meant to be disassembled, I still didn’t have space to put it anywhere.

PARADOX

DM: When you were in grad school, you read the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I think that had an influence on some of your thinking in terms of connecting dots between different things…

Automatic drawing by Ted Stearn.

TS: Actually I couldn’t get through it all, but the concepts were fascinating, linking music, math, and art. If you look at my background, my father was a chess player, he played chess almost every night, with himself or with a computer. And he was a big influence on my thinking. He was a computer programmer, and he was also always debating with us. He would take a devil’s advocate view of something and he would argue with us about, for example, whether the moon landing ever took place. Anyway, he had that book, and when I was about twenty-one I was like, “Oh, what the hell is this? Who cares?” And then later I picked it up again—but it wasn’t just that book, he also had The Annotated Alice, which is about the things that are really going on in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach. I was also tying in Zen Buddhism, which was about similar either/or conundrums. A lot of it had to do with math and a lot of it had to do with logic and a lot of it had to do with paradox, and how a paradox is almost impossible and yet it is possible—(laughs) there’s a paradox in itself. So, that really fascinated me because I really wanted to investigate just how elusive truth is. That was definitely injected into all my work. Like if you think about the automatic drawings—that’s when I just sat there and drew whatever came into my head—to me that’s the nonsense, the non-sense, it’s anti-sense.

DM: Lewis Carroll is sort of the intersection of logic and nonsense.

TS: Well, that’s what I realized. Alice is not a real girl, she has nothing to do with being a little girl, really. She’s logic. She’s reason in a world that is nonsense and she’s trying to make sense out of nonsense, and the nonsense is telling her, “No, you’re the one who’s nonsense. This is sense.” So everything is turned on its head. So I’m always thinking about, in terms of stories and characters, how can we turn things on their head and make the reader go “Oh, I thought this was gonna be an easy answer, and it’s not.” I have fun playing with that idea—where we think that the right answer or the moral issue or the character’s correct motivation is all based on this very clear line, and I really want to throw a wrench into it as much as possible.


DM: In the new book, The Moolah Tree, at one point the vagabond character makes a comment on what’s going on around him—he says “Boy, everybody is looking for something.” And everybody is looking for something, and practically all the characters find something but it isn’t the thing they were looking for.

TS: (laughs) Yeah, I think one reviewer put it pretty well how I was thinking, he said, “He’s teasing with the idea of ‘money doesn’t buy happiness,’ but he never pulls it out completely in this grand cliché,” and I’m like, “Yes, that’s what I’m saying! I’m saying, I don’t know, maybe we do need it. Maybe we don’t—I don’t know.” But this is how people are dealing with it, and that’s the fun part.

As soon as something becomes a pat answer—and this is in life, too—I have big problems with it, because it never is. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of issues, I’ve changed my perspective on love and life and family and all these things, and so if it’s written in stone, I’m there with my sandblaster. Because our perception of the past is always changing, people are incredibly fickle…. I think there are certain universal truths, but I’m sure not going to tell the reader what they are. To me it’s a conversation. The reader is putting their thoughts in my work and I am throwing out ideas, and I’m saying how about this? So, the reader has to do a little reflection…the reader has to come to a conclusion—which people love, you know, they like that closure. I try to add closure but…with a question mark.

SIDEWAYS INTO COMICS

DM: You came to comics kind of sideways, but you weren’t unaware of comics—you were not a comic book reader the way a lot of people who get into comics are, but certainly you had an affinity for the form. If I’m not mistaken you had a cat named after Ernie Bushmiller—

TS: (Laughs)

DM: —before you were making comics yourself.

TS: I was always interested in comics. My grandfather was a dentist, so we would go to his waiting room and he would have all these Richie Rich and Little Dot comics—I really liked those kind of things—and Donald Duck…I liked the funny ones. Superheroes, I read them but they weren’t a big influence on me.

DM: They weren’t funny.

TS: Yes, you’re right! After I grew out of that, I was like, “I’m a peinteur, I don’t look at comics”—(quickly smiling) no, I’m kidding, I wasn’t like that. I kind of rediscovered them later. I especially liked—now it’s almost cliché—I looked at RAW, and RAW was a big influence in my understanding what comics could be. I also discovered “Little Nemo.” That was really gorgeous stuff—I’d never seen it before, until like 1988 or something.

DM: Eye-opening.

TS: Yes. It was when you asked me to draw a comic, and I thought, “Well I definitely have to give this a try, ’cause I’ve been looking at all this stuff and I find it very interesting.”

DM: But there was also an interest in cartoons, you know, Betty Boop…

TS: Yeah…I guess I always had an interest in comics and animation, and if you look at the paintings, they’re pretty cartoony in a way—when I say cartoony, I mean, I feel like I had an attraction to bold images, something that’s almost iconic, bright colors…I guess we have to define “cartoony!”

DM: That’s why I was talking about these shapes in your drawings with an animating quality to them—these invented characters.

TS: It’s the old trope of marrying popular culture and art, I guess. But it’s so common now. I see it everywhere, I see it in art, I see it in…what do you call it, anthropomorphizing…all these animated cartoons on TV—cartoons just seem so much more pervasive now. Back then, I wanted to really marry cartooniness with  traditional art forms, and today we would say “big deal, what’s new about that?” But back then, back in the early eighties, I thought it was kind of an intriguing idea. I wanted to not be precious and artsy, I really dislike that. That’s one reason I got into comics, I guess. I felt like the art world that I had come to understand was this whole game, and there was a lot of money in it and that kind of tainted it, and the thing I liked about comics was: one, there’s no money in it—

(Both laugh)

TS: —and two, it felt like a frontier, I felt like, “Oh, look at the possibilities!” Now it’s totally different.

DM: Sure. Things have really changed.

TS: When I came up with Fuzz and Pluck, I was thinking of an anti-hero, a paradoxical hero, or something that kind of answers the cutesiness of Disney in the seventies and eighties, and that’s what I was used to. But now I feel like the meaning is kind of lost because [cutesy Disney animals] isn’t really the culture right now. I wanted to do something that was anti-mainstream culture and now I feel like a conservative in some ways—which is scary enough for me—but I don’t feel like I’m on the frontier of anything right now. That makes me confused as an artist. I’m not sure what my next step is.

FEAR = HUMOR

DM: Before you were making comics did you have an interest in telling stories?

TS: No! I’m a terrible storyteller.

DM: I’ll disagree with that.

TS: Well, it’s a lot of work for me. It’s not something that comes naturally. The way I construct a story is just taking different elements and putting them together. I want to keep playing with the reader’s expectations, not just of the plot but of the actual storytelling—and that’s really tricky (laughs). Because a story is built on certain clichés that we’ve built up over the ages—

DM: Let’s call them “conventions.”

TS: Yeah, that’s better—and I became especially exposed to these because I was working in animation where we come up with certain conventions to explain quickly—as in, “Okay, we’re gonna have a scary shot! Okay, we’re gonna look up at the door, annnd the character’s gonna come in and open the door and it’s gonna be a low angle shot and the lighting’s going to be behind him…” These kind of shots that we had to come up with, and they still come up with over and over again, they just got me thinking a lot about how much I despise (laughs), how much I despise clichés because they don’t really come from a genuine place anymore. They’re xeroxes of xeroxes. We don’t realize how conditioned we are to act and react, like, “Okay, this is gonna happen next…” So I see it a lot. “Go close up to show them looking. Don’t show what they’re looking at yet.” And then my favorite is “waking up from a bad dream.” (Leaning back in his chair) There they are in bed having a bad dream, they wake up, (jolts forward) they do a sit-up! Like who ever does a sit-up waking up?

DM: People do it all the time—I’ve seen it in the movies!

TS: Exactly! So, this kind of lack of originality, um, it’s partially laziness, partially habit, because it “works.” And I think that’s based on fear, we’re afraid to go outside of a certain convention, because we don’t really know, it’s uncharted territory. So, when I’m thinking of a story, usually the first idea is gonna be pretty cliché, so I have to go beyond that and that’s the scary part, because it’s like, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen if I try this. Will it work?” Whereas, as you know, the cliché will “work” in the conventional sense.

You know the farting donkey [in The Moolah Tree]—

DM: The flonkey.

TS: —the flonkey—I had a dream. I kept picturing Fuzz and Pluck on a Pegasus, like a flying horse. And I was thinking, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna do a flying horse, Pegasus, no way, I can’t do it.” So I tried to think of things that will serve the same purpose but will be a surprise, will be funny, will be more interesting than the same old thing. That’s what I do with almost all my characters, like the pirates—they’re never called pirates, they’re not dressed like seventeenth-century swashbucklers or something, that’s, aaugh, I could never do that. Anyway, I had a dream about riding a horse with flowers all over it. And I thought, this is really interesting, and so I built the backstory about the flonkey based on that dream and the idea that I wanted a flying horse. Of course, I didn’t want her to just fly—

DM: She had to be propelled somehow.

TS: Yes, we don’t give that away! So that’s how I’m constructing these things, I’m trying to do something that’s never been seen before.

DM: It’s interesting that that’s something you dreamed, because some of the most harrowing moments in the Fuzz and Pluck stories are dream sequences, or hallucinations, and they really take the reader into a much darker place. You also made a few short comics called “The Forgotten Dream of a Melancholy Chef,” and the logic in those comics is definitely a kind of dream logic.

TS: Well, usually I don’t remember my dreams. I would stress this to anyone who’s an artist out there: stop thinking about the subject, and think about the feeling you want the reader to get. Many dreams happen to have that dimension. The fact that it’s a dream or not a dream doesn’t matter, but the effect that I wanted in those cases—I was expressing something and I wanted a certain emotional quality. That was my aim, it wasn’t so much what it’s “about,” that was all secondary. There’s fear and uncertainty in them, but to me… I know what you mean about the dark side and stuff like that, but to me it has to be funny as well.

DM: Absolutely—and they are.

TS: Well, I don’t know. But to me, the absurdism of whatever I’m doing and the feeling that I want to get, it kind of reflects how I see the world, ’cause I think everything in this world is weird and funny.

DM: Sure.

TS: I don’t understand books and stories that don’t have any funny in them, I mean… the world is so absurd and funny to me! I can’t take those comics to an even darker place and have something truly horrible happen, ’cause I see it as the intersection of funny and scary. In 1991, I guess, when I was in my studio, I put a sign up that said “Fear and Humor are Synonyms.” I want it to be creepy and I want it to be funny and I think that’s a paradox within itself. Because if you just go creepy it’s just sad and you wanna take an antidepressant, and that’s not really my point. And if it’s just funny then it’s goofy, silly, weird for the sake of weird—that’s not where I want to go either. I like a little bit of both, I think it makes a nice balance.

DM: The first “Melancholy Chef” comic, which is one of my favorites, where the chef is cold and hungry—even though there’s food right in front of him—and this woman comes out of the sky and says “I’ll take care of you,” and then on the second page there’s this boxer defending him, saying “I’ve handled worse than this” as we see that woman leading a giant toward him—that is the perfect combination of fearful, funny, absurd. But the dream in Splitsville that Fuzz has of sawing up the ferryman—that one is a little less funny.

TS: (Laughing) Yeah. Actually I did think it ended up funny, the way he ends up all cut up, his legs are sticking up…

DM: You’re right, the drawings are painfully funny.

TS: I guess I mean more subtle, coming up with images that are for whatever reason humorous or odd and not dark and heavy. I’m not into dark and heavy. One reason that I started doing comics in the first place is I really couldn’t find what I liked, I couldn’t find that unique feeling that I want the reader to get.

FUZZ & PLUCK

DM: In Splitsville it’s explained that Fuzz and Pluck have ended up together by an accident of circumstance, but then you separate them.

TS: Because you can find out who a character is. A character is primarily a character when they are interacting with another character.

DM: They are of course brought back together by the end of that story, and that tells us why they’re together at the start of The Moolah Tree. But, Fuzz and Pluck are together pretty much because they’re together, right? They don’t have any necessary reason to be together…

TS: Yes. I love it when I read a review and it says, “These two friends, they’re best friends,” and they’re not friends. They’re not. For Fuzz it’s kind of a parental thing: he needs Pluck because he can’t see what to do. He’s not sure, he’s very fuzzy about a lot of things. And Pluck needs Fuzz…as a moral compass, in a way. Well, not so much a moral compass, but to balance his selfishness and “I’m number one” kind of survival mode. But they definitely are the crux of all the ideas I was talking about before. They kind of need each other, but not just because they’re nice. To me that doesn’t work, I think we all kind of use each other. If you read all three books, Pluck is always trying to get away from Fuzz.

DM: He is, and yet he somehow can’t.

TS: Exactly.

DM: And yet he seems to in a certain sense accept his role—

TS: Yeah…

DM: —a little bit—

TS: Yeah, he needs someone to boss around. Fuzz is perfect for that. I mean, it’s not a new formula. It’s Gilligan and the Skipper…

DM: They’re co-dependent!

TS: …it’s Laurel and Hardy, especially. And I wasn’t even really thinking about them, but…the only difference I would say really is that Laurel and Hardy actually call themselves friends. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I feel like it would just ruin everything if I did that, it’s just not working for me.

DM: No, there has to be this strange…

TS: Tension.

THE WORLD OF FUZZ AND PLUCK

DM: There are a lot of what looks like hand-made vehicles and machinery in Fuzz and Pluck’s world. There’s a low-tech quality—I don’t think there’s any technology after like 1970—

TS: (Laughs) Well, I would say that after 1970, many people didn’t understand technology—I mean, they knew what it was, but they didn’t know exactly how it worked.

DM: From your drawings, it looks like you can really understand the technology, and how to fix the thing (both laugh), just from being the reader of the comic.

TS: Part of the influence was making those sculptures. I’m thinking, okay, so-and-so needs this kind of instrument—it’s almost like I’m in my studio building that instrument for them. And it also reflects on my conscious idea of not referencing the outside world as much as possible. It’s almost like they’re in this place that has certain things that work certain ways, no computers, nothing too complicated, because I think the reader actually can relate to it better. I don’t want to reference any company or current event or anything that would make it part of our world.

DM: Also [in Fuzz and Pluck’s world], animals and toys can speak and move as humans do, until the most recent book. Fuzz and Pluck are the only characters who are not human who act like humans. In the previous one, Splitsville, there’s a cast of animal characters, and toy characters, who interact with each other and with humans, and in more cases than not, seem to be in service roles…

TS: Well, I think that’s consistent—animals and whoever’s not human are subservient to humans, and so I kept that. As for the flonkey—she just doesn’t speak English.

DM: (Laughs) But there’s another dog in the comic that just acts like a dog. He’s only in a couple of panels. Was that a conscious decision?

TS: No, I remember putting that in and I thought, “Oh, this kind of breaks my whole—“ Which dog is this?

DM: Just in the background of a scene—

TS: He’s pooping on one of the bills and then walking around. I saw that and I thought this doesn’t really break the rule because…he could talk—

DM: (Laughs) He could, he has nothing to say.

TS: Right! He’s just walking on all fours. No problem there. But that’s very much a part of the world, there’s a subservience going on. I think we feel that way as children, so I’m kind of relating to the child in me. You don’t have your freedom, you have to work for it (laughs) and you have to answer to other people, (shrugs) stuff like that.

DM: In Splitsville you’re very explicit about that with the whole gladiatorial combat thing, which I’m tempted to read as a metaphor for the freelancer’s life.

TS: It’s definitely a metaphor, but I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m telling them this is what it’s about—

DM: Certainly, it could be read as more than just that.

TS: —but basically it’s from working in an animation studio. We all had to work together as a group, and yet we were all competing for the next job. There’s a paradox. So, that’s one issue from my life that I brought in. It has to do with being a freelancer—you’re constantly looking for the next job and you have to be nice and you have to jockey up…uuughh. I’m still doing it. And also, I wanted to show some gladiators, I liked that with some cute little animals.

DM: Well, you draw good animal violence. And when you think about the history of comics—

TS: Well, you did a lot of violence.

DM: I did lots of violence, but the violence I drew was more…bare-knuckled.

TS: Very elegant.

DM: (Wincing) Well…it started off being a kind of…abstracted sense of violence that is more like showing bodies moving at angles across panels, and it turned into more of—

TS: I think of it almost as looking at a choreography of dancing.

DM: But the later stuff that I did turned into drawings of people really slamming their knuckles into other people’s bones. What I’m talking about in yours is a kind of history in comics of people bonking each other over the head with big mallets, that kind of—

TS: It’s called slapstick.

DM: —slapstick, exactly. It’s hilarious.

THE MOOLAH TREE

DM: When you came up with this story, were you thinking more about what you wanted the characters to go through or where you wanted to send them, or were you thinking about what kinds of events would be interesting, or were you thinking about “what kind of things do I want to draw?” Or all of the above?

TS: In all the stories I think about what would be fun to draw, and what—nobody else, just me—what would really be fun to sit and look at and read. So, I think of certain scenarios, really generally, and I came up with this one because I was having a lot of trouble getting work, and I was bleeding money, and, uh, I was kind of scared and nervous, like the characters are. And there was the whole housing crisis—I was actually looking for a house just while the whole thing was crashing (laughs). So I think I wanted to take the idea of economic insecurity and have a fresh take on it. I didn’t want to do something that was too “real” or too dark and sad, I just wanted to play with that desperation that I felt at the time…and I still do, now and then, when I’m unemployed.

Pencils for The Moolah Tree.

Other things like “why pirates?” I think because I really like that lawless adventurer aspect, so I wanted to take that and make that something we’d never seen before. One of my favorite characters that I’ve created is the captain, Dunderhead. He’s pretty complex, he’s not simple. He’s not evil but he’s presented as a “bad guy,” but he’s not, really. He’s just desperate.

DM: He also has a bit of a sad story with a dog who doesn’t speak in this comic, but perhaps can. (Both laugh) You actually do talk about the housing collapse by having the three bankers who show up on Segways. That becomes one of the main lines of the story, that [the character] Despera is losing her house.

TS: Right. Well, it has to do with the theme of money. But every issue or storyline or plotline, they’re kind of McGuffins. What concerns me is how the characters react to issues, not so much what the issue is. And that’s really what’s fascinating to me about people, and how people are so blinded by their beliefs, and they feel strongly about certain things that aren’t true—which, you know, I’m number one guilty of that, but anyway the politics of how people relate to each other and how they relate to issues and problems and making decisions and figuring out who they are—that’s more interesting to me than the housing market. The housing thing is a McGuffin, it’s something they can dance around. The same thing with the money tree, the money tree is of course a symbol. But it’s how they react that I’m interested in, not so much “the issue of greed,” it’s how they deal with greed and selfishness and are they doing the right thing, are they doing the wrong thing? How are they acting? If I can have a very real character—and I don’t mean realistic, I mean a very well-rounded character—then we’re more invested in how they’re gonna act, we empathize with them more.

I was just thinking, one of my favorite comics of the nineties was Hate. I liked what Peter Bagge did. He always had really interesting, complex characters for comics, and it was funny, too. It’s kind of the same thing. I’ve become very interested in the personal politics. In fact my next book, it’s going to be more…it’s gonna have a lot of…personal politics in it (laughs).

DRAWING

DM: Your drawing is beautiful. How do you feel about the drawing and what you’re trying to do with it and what you’re trying to say with the way you depict the world that you’ve created?

TS: Well, I think there are some obvious influences. I like a lot of older comics, like from the turn of the [previous] century, and how they use pen and ink, that kind of thing. The drawing is really fun, because it’s like making music to me. It’s very important for every panel and every page and everything to balance and relate to each other.

A lot of people say “Why do you work in black and white?” I like the electric energy I get from the vibration. I remember I did one comic with some gray backgrounds. But for me, I don’t know, I wanted that vibration for my stories. I missed all the lines (laughs).

DM: All the lines come to the surface more equally in black and white.

TS: I don’t know why I prefer this way I’m drawing, ’cause it’s kind of time consuming, and I could do it much simpler, I could draw little lollypop trees in the background and—

DM: No no no.

TS: Okay, I won’t do that! I could simplify it drastically, but then the world that I’m creating becomes a little bit of a cardboard cutout. And what I love, always loved, is being able to enter into a place, like what you touched on earlier. “Krazy Kat” does that, you know, Herriman does it with…much more economy than I do. I’m like nnnhhh (knocking on his head), how does he do that?

DM: Me too.

TS: I remember reading Stendhal’s The Red and the Black…there are all these people pursuing things. That was an influence on [The Moolah Tree]. They were all in this beautiful Swiss landscape and it was described by the author, but they were oblivious to it. So that’s kind of what I was thinking: nature is beautiful to me, so I’m going to make just a gorgeous place, it’s beautiful and it’s complete but…everyone’s blind to it. For one panel Captain Dunderhead reflects on it, but then he’s back to his own selfish thing. So that is one aspect of how I approached drawing this particular comic. I really enjoyed drawing this comic, I hope it shows.

DM: Absolutely. It’s a real pleasure to go through page-by-page. You flip through this book and you want to read it.

TS: My mom started halfway and read it to the end, she said “I just kept turning the pages!” Well, she doesn’t read comics! (Imitating his mom) “I kept turning the pages, I wanted to get to the end.” I said, “That’s good but start at the beginning, not in the middle.”

HOW TO LOOK AT THINGS

Pencil drawing for The Moolah Tree.

TS: I want to contest one of these ideas that a comic panel should be drawn as fast as it’s looked at. There’s this other idea that you go to a museum and on average one artwork is only looked at for thirteen seconds, which implies we’re not looking long enough. That may be true, but I’m putting it in my memories. I walk away from it, I can remember it for years afterward.

DM: (In “teacher” mode) What you’re talking about is the idea that a comic is not an accumulation of single images that should be looked at equally; it is a flow of images, and so you don’t want the reader to slow down by stopping at each one, or stopping at an inappropriate one; so the drawings have to have a degree of—

TS: Yes, you’re right…

DM: I’m saying, this is the theory: that information has to be taken in quickly enough that you can go to the next panel, except where you want the reader to stop and stay for a while. Of course, no one complains that it takes a year to make a movie that you only watch for ninety minutes.

A sketch for The Moolah Tree.

TS: Yeah, and I think that’s where the actual drawing becomes very much integral with the comic, you have to have it working as a read, and as a flow, definitely. Who did that, um, Laurence Sterne, I think—he just sticks this marbled page, or a squiggly line, and a few others, in the middle of the novel, for sometimes clear reasons, sometimes for mysterious reasons. So I want to put up a couple of dams and say, “Stop and look at this, then keep going.” I also like going back and contemplating, almost like a “Where’s Waldo” thing where you’re just looking at this whole world.

DM: You and I would probably agree that even something that looks simple is much more effective and much more beautiful when you can sense there’s an underlying structural thought given to it in order to place that thing right there.

TS: I try to do that. It’s all planned. Like your Asterios book—every time I go back and look at it I find something different or there’s something that I missed or, I know there are layers in there…so that’s what I’m interested in storywise and visually, and marrying it all together. When it’s successful all the aspects should be inseparable.

DM: How did teaching comics affect the way you thought about making comics? Or the way you thought about teaching?

TS: I taught comics and storyboarding from 2001 to 2004 at Savannah College of Art and Design. I enjoyed teaching immensely, it was never boring. I don’t think it affected my comics much, as I was pretty set on who I was as an artist and what I wanted. One thing I learned from teaching is I shouldn’t get specific about “good” quality and “bad” quality. For example, I don’t care for standard Manga style, but I never let that on, because, as in any style, there is really no applicable criteria to approach why it is or is not “good” quality. So one student was a fantastic Manga artist, not because she drew Manga or not, but because she had a great sense of design and following a narrative. Was it original? Not really, but that’s not really what she wanted. So I tried to develop a criticism technique that applied certain conditions to any style, such as composition, narrative flow, strong drawing, stuff like that. This allowed the student to improve, but kept the elusive “style” issue out of it. I also tried to stay neutral about general impressions of quality, like, “it works,” or “it’s beautiful,” or “it’s weak.” I insisted the students had to articulate why. Sometimes I forgot this myself and didn’t do this! But usually I did try to guide the students to think for themselves.

TENSION

DM: Working as a storyboard artist, you get a script and some notes, and you have to follow that exactly. When you’re making your own comic, (shaking his head) you don’t write a script and then draw it?

TS: I do [write a script], I actually do. But I’m thinking about it, so I’ve kinda got the movie in my head. I do write it all out, and it’s almost backwards though, because I see the characters and what they’re doing and I know visually what’s going on, but I’ll just write it out ’cause—

DM: It’s quicker. Sometimes.

TS: Yeah, it’s quicker, I guess. I want that rhythm of words­—that’s important. But storyboarding has helped me communicate visually more effectively. When I started doing storyboards I was unsure of how to communicate, how to express something—I think that’s just natural—but it was my job to communicate. We had to communicate something really succinctly and quickly and easily in a way that was really readable. At the same time, though, I definitely don’t want to be didactic at all [in my stories]. And I want to ask questions, I don’t want to give answers, I hate stories that give answers (laughs).

DM: They’re the worst. But you’re very conscious of  “I’m gonna set it up so that when the readers get to this panel or this page or this sequence, they understand it in the way I want them to understand it.”

TS: Well, the way I want them to understand it is not one way. It’s kind of like you’re holding the reader’s hand and you’re taking them through a house and you walk into a room and I might see a lamp and a table and ten books, and they might see the dresser and the rug or something. When I’m taking them through, I definitely want them to come into that room but I don’t want to put blinders on them and say “You can only see it this way.” I guess that’s a kind of weak metaphor, but that’s what I’m trying to do, so there’s a balance between giving too much information, being too didactic, and then there’s the opposite problem, which is also common, where the reader really doesn’t know where we’re going. The reader at least needs to believe they’re going in a certain direction, or have some general idea, and when it’s just, you know, one sequence after another—it has to have tension. And I bring that up because I’m a big believer in visual tension, too. It’s Hans Hofmann’s favorite subject. He talks about how all great art must have tension, so I expand that in different directions: everything, even the compositions have to have tension, the character interactions have to have tension. And tension is opposites pulling at each other, or pushing at each other.

That’s just one aspect of what I want in a comic, or almost anything else in art. You have to be really honest with yourself and say “What do I really want to look at? What would really be fun to look at?”—not just draw, but to look at, and read. When I was teaching I always used to think about that. I’d say, in so many words, “We don’t even know it, but we’re so scared to find out who we really are and what we really want.” Because it’s reflected in the work. If the work is completely safe and it’s conventional and it’s got all the bells and whistles of convention, then you’re afraid of something, you’re not really facing who you are. So whenever I see myself going in that direction, going in this kind of safe place, I challenge myself, I think, “Sorry. Come up with something better.”

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Tintin and the Curse of Clarity http://www.tcj.com/tintin-and-the-curse-of-clarity/ http://www.tcj.com/tintin-and-the-curse-of-clarity/#respond Thu, 12 Jan 2017 13:00:10 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97887 Continue reading ]]>
A virtuoso draftsman with an imagination to match, Belgium’s Hergé (Georges Remi, 1907 – 1983) is Euro-cartooning’s nonpareil. Having sold over two hundred million books in a hundred languages, his creation Tintin is known around the world. Hergé’s fame, however, exceeds even the world of comics. When they reach the auction block, his originals now fetch fantastic sums. In 2014, going for €2.65 million, a double-page Hergé spread broke the existing record; last November, a single page went for €1.55 million.

Scrutinized by an army of “Tintinologists”, Hergé’s work also enjoys an impressive bibliography. Expanded yearly, this can range from PhDs to tomes such as last year’s Dictionnaire Amoureux de Tintin. This volume, not atypical, clocks in at 785 pages and features everything from how the artist saw roller skates to his “most overlooked” inheritors.

So how does Paris’ Grand Palais picture the subject of Hergé? Amidst so many competing theories, where does the blockbuster stand? Strictly speaking, it’s a hagiography traced in la ligne claire. Yet by assembling so many riches, they unwittingly let the work speak for itself – and it proves a disquieting tattle-tale.

Although it is worshipped as a “ninth art” in France, the Grand Palais has never before dealt with the bande dessinée. Here their explicit intention is to elevate Hergé and place him alongside Vélasquez, Warhol and Picasso. Critics have made a lot of this but the show was tailored to justify it. Every day, as soon as it opens, the place is packed with crowds aged “from 7 to 77” – Tintin magazine’s summary of its target audience. Yet the show isn’t describing merely a master storyteller or a titan of the bande dessinée.

Its portrait is that of a royal figure, an authorised and reified Hergé. A true peer of the very artists he collected, he is seen as a great whose drawing merits comparisons to Dürer and Da Vinci. For brilliance, scope and artistry, the art on show is indeed singular and it can certainly withstand a little overzealousness. In 450 original pieces from all stages of Hergé’s life, a visitor gets both the creation myth and apotheosis of his ligne claire. As a bonus, he or she also sees private paintings plus an illuminating survey of Hergé’s graphic design.

But all this is deployed in a curious anti-chronology. The expo introduces Hergé via a wall of his paintings, all of which were done during a year in the 1960s. Under the tutelage of abstractionist Louis Van Lint, the artist poured his energies into this different discipline. But the results, while honourable, have little to recommend them. As an abortive outing and a probable source of frustration (if not deep disappointment), they are an odd lead-in.

The paintings introduce a one-room mini-museum stocked with some of the modern art Hergé collected. The contents include six prints by Roy Lichtenstein (an Hergé fan), Jean DuBuffet’s La Cafetière, a Great American Nude from Tom Wesselman and the portrait of himself Hergé commissioned from Warhol. Bolstered by other pieces, including a portrait bust by Tchang Tchong-Jen, the dim room exudes a dusty and dated ambiance. Its real energy comes from the artist’s own work: Hergé’s riveting sketches for the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art.

The expo has ten rooms in all, each with a theme like “The Curious Fox” (Hergé’s Boy Scout name) or “Lesson From the Far East” (the story of the artist’s friendship with Tchong-Jen, how it informed The Blue Lotus and transformed his life). At numerous points in many places, Hergé himself pops up on film. He is always modest, jokey and self-effacing; never does he answer a question with any depth. Whether Hergé is asked about the cinema, his work or his art, he remains anodyne. Yet his diffidence masked a sharp and probing mind. The artist was fascinated, for instance, with Balzac’s Human Comedy – as well as inspired by its recurring characters. He loved reading Simenon and Dickens but also Stendhal and Proust. In 1971, he famously exclaimed to the interviewer Numa Sadoul, “Tintin (like all the others) is me, in exactly the way Flaubert said ‘I am Madame Bovary!’… “.

Yet with regard to the public, as in the lines of his work, Hergé made himself a master of control. Just like his private feelings, the sharpness of his thinking was kept carefully under wraps. The same way he refined his line over and over, so it conveyed only what he wanted, the artist refined and guarded that face he showed the world. This is a tension palpable throughout the show, one that powered his art and helped to forge his style.

What work, however – and what a style! In so many ways, Hergé’s sketches, scribblings and storyboards are magical. At the height of his powers, they simply radiate invention. Hergé kept his energies harnessed via an extreme, labour-intensive process. Once he had decided the basis of a sequence, said the artist, “I use absolutely all the energy in my possession. I draw wildly, furiously, I erase, I scratch things out, I’m full of rage, I swear…I try to give each character’s expression and their movement as much intensity as I can “.

Out of “all these lines that blend, cross, run over and under each other” he refined and re-refined until he chose “the one that looks at the same time the smoothest and the most expressive.” Above the samples, as a wall text, hangs another quote: You can’t know the extent to which all this is long and difficult, it’s truly a manual labour!…It’s as painstaking as a watchmaker’s job. A watchmaker or a Benedictine monk. Or a Benedictine watchmaker.

The resulting line is astonishing in its fluid ebullience and its roots are inspiring. For Hergé was an autodidact with no formal training at all. As a youth who loved images, he explored, imitated and then discarded voraciously. Early on, the artist soaked up everything that attracted him – from children’s illustrators like Benjamin Rabier, Christophe and Oncle Hansi (Georges Colomb and Jean Jacques Waltz) right up to Picasso.

Employed towards the end of his teens by the Catholic paper Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), Hergé also fell in love with task after task: photo-engraving, lettering, photo-montage and page composition. The list of contemporaries whose styles intrigued him was just as varied. Some of them were poster artists, like Léo Marfurt, Cassandre (Adolphe Jean Marie Mouron) and Jean Carlu. But René Vincent –  who had the same Art Deco smoothness – worked in the world of fashion.

Remi already signed himself “Hergé”. From 17, he used this, the French pronunciation of his reversed initials (G.R.). But the man who helped him consolidate the identity was an outspoken, right-wing Catholic priest.

The Abbott Norbert Wallez stood 6’2″ tall and weighed 242 pounds. An imposing figure, he was the head of Le Vingtième Siècle’s publisher. Energetic, opinionated and a fervent fan of Benito Mussolini, the enterprising clergymen had actually managed to meet Il Duce. (He was the proud possessor of an autographed portrait). Hergé, who was a quarter-of-a-century younger, found himself impressed by the worldliness of the voluble priest. Asked by the Church to reinvigorate Le Vingtième, Abbott Wallez was bursting with schemes. One of these was a youth supplement, Le Petit Vingtième. In 1928, he asked his young employee to edit it.

No sooner was the magazine established than Wallez had yet another idea. Remi had drawn a boy and his dog for the Catholic Le Sifflet (The Whistle). Could he not turn them into a series for Le Petit Vingtième? The priest even supplied an idea for their début – a trip to Soviet Russia that would show the horrors of communism.

Soon, he had a keen Remi working twelve-hours a day. In addition to the new Tintin strip, Hergé had responsibility for his supplement’s covers, layout, typography and illustrations. Yet even on the days he needed to skip lunch, the artist made sure he popped in to see the priest. Wallez, he later said, made everything about their daily discussions interesting. “He was the first person who showed me what intellectual life could be”. In 1932, Hergé married his secretary.

Right up until his death the priest would remain a father figure. Wallez served time in prison for collaboration but, to Hergé, he was always a trusted counsellor. Hergé remained grateful for his first vote of confidence. But, says the artist’s biographer Pierre Assouline, he also saw in Wallez, “a spiritual father. Not spiritual in religious terms, but in the deepest sense.”

During the 1930s, as well as postcards and stationary, Hergé frequently designed advertising. From 1931, he signed all such efforts “Hergé Studios”. Then, in August 1933, after a contretemps with the city’s Public Works, Wallez was forced to resign his position. Without his mentor, Hergé became doubtful about Tintin’s future. Instead, he looked to advertising and took action to make Hergé Studios legal. Works from its brief existence – which officially lasted less a year – are lavishly displayed.

But Hergé’s promos for toys and travel prove revealing. Their lines are controlled and clean, their compositions neat and minimal. But, stripped of their period context, they lack genuine punch and brio. Rather like Hergé’s paintings, they are casualties of a missing ingredient: narrative.

One key to this may lie in Hergé’s childhood, wherein art played a slightly unusual role. Dutiful at school yet difficult at home, he was a rambunctious child who often needed “calming down”. His parents learned to accomplish this by giving him tools to draw. (If somehow that failed to work, their next choice was a spanking). In the end, the family communicated largely through drawing.

As an adult, Hergé would say he looked back on childhood “with sadness, morosity and, sometimes, even disgust”. The Remi home lacked colour; it had no music, few books and little overt affection. There was also a secret buried at the family’s heart: Remi’s father and his uncle – twins – were illegitimate. Neither had any real idea about their paternity. Young Georges learned about this mystery only as an adult. As a child, he was simply warned never to ask about or speak of his grandfather.

Remi’s mother was always fragile. Suffering blackouts and depressions, she was frequently hospitalised. Since his business called for travel, Remi Senior charged the young Georges with watching over her. Years later, when she had died in psychiatric care, Hergé was surprised to feel he had never known her. He was 39 at the time and her death triggered the first of several breakdowns.

All Belgian artists of Hergé’s generation endured not one but a pair of world wars. They had been born into an ultraconservative, mainly Catholic country – a colonial power that enjoyed a certain prestige. But in 1914, when Hergé was seven, that world was commandeered by the German Army. Their presence lasted four years, a cold, frightening, hungry period. Even when the occupation ended, shortages continued.

If none of this offered a recipe for happiness, neither did it make Hergé into a rebel. As visitors discover in the expo’s many photos, he always had the appearance of a model character. Every snap shows him as rigid, reserved and smartly dressed. But even a glance at his working pages will disclose another story. Hergé’s drawings are dark with battling versions of even the smallest gesture. Their action spills over boundaries, their faces melt from one emotion into its opposite and the frames are filled as much with hesitations as with decisions.

The art reveals what the exhibition doesn’t state: this was a Boy Scout who slept around on his (first) wife, a writer of adventures with no time to spare for travel, a self-promoter who – even under the Nazis – kept his eye on the main chance. All this and more is present in the work, which suggests the price Hergé paid for all that discipline.

There have been many theories about Tintin’s “adolescence”: an existential form of youth untroubled by sex or family. In the view of Hergé biographer Benoît Peeters, the artist added “very adult qualities to his own vision of childhood”. For the psychologist Serge Tisseron, author of Tintin chez le psychanalyste (loosely, “Tintin on the couch”), “His books are the history of a child who tells you how he sees all the adults around him and who reconstructs how they speak… Even his vistas are seen from the height of a child.”

The artist himself defined Tintin’s status more cryptically. He liked to paraphrase Jules Renard and saying, “Not everybody can have the luck to be an orphan!”.

Two things brightened Hergé’s own childhood: the cinema and the Boy Scouts. Taken from his earliest years to see silent films, he loved losing himself in their mute, alternate world. As an artist, he cited the significance of Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. But Hergé was also influenced by early Westerns and by the likes of criminal mastermind Fantomas. The silent screen helped Hergé learn how to advance a narrative and he always remembered its protocols and etiquette.

If his family were fallible, the boy scouts brought him “camaraderie, nature and adventure”. For Hergé, scouting always remained “the great memory of my childhood.” It gave the artist precepts he felt he should always value, especially those which had to do with friendship and loyalty. After the Occupation, they were his rationale for supporting collaborationist friends.

Was Hergé – as so many critics insist – a Fascist and a racist? Was he anti-Semitic? At Hergé, all such questions go unaddressed. Fourth in the show’s ten rooms is one entitled “Success and Torment” which concerns the artist’s wartime work at a pro-Nazi paper. For Hergé’s career, this choice was critical. During the Occupation, with its controls, restrictions and paper shortages, it kept him visible and enabled his books to appear. Plus (as the artist joked to a friend) right after he joined, the paper’s circulation doubled.

But with the Liberation, things changed radically. Arrested four times and subsequently investigated, Hergé was ruled an “incivique” – a proscribed non-citizen. He was barred from ever again practicing his profession.

It was the lowest point of the artist’s life. Yet, unexpectedly, Tintin came to his rescue. The character, as Pierre Assouline has observed, saved Hergé twice. In the first instance, Tintin kept him out of prison. Many of the artist’s friends and colleagues received serious sentences, others had to flee and a few – like the editor Paul Herten – were put to death. Yet, says Assouline, “You simply couldn’t put Tintin in prison. Anyone who did that would have been covered in ridicule.”

But Hergé’s humiliation was total and public. One resistant weekly, La Patrie or The Homeland, even ran a parody of his strip called “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Nazis”. This pictured his characters rejoicing at their freedom, with Tintin’s faithful dog boasting that Hergé never made him into a German shepherd.

Privately, the artist said death would have been preferable.

The second time, what saved him was Tintin’s market value. One of the character’s lifelong fans was a former resistant named Raymond Leblanc. With a spotless war record, Leblanc found success launching movie and romance magazines. He wanted to enter the youth market, for which he had conceived a weekly called ‘Tintin’. Leblanc searched out Remi and outlined his project. The artist, at an all-time low, was extremely doubtful. But a determined Leblanc soon succeeded in clearing his name. When they launched the magazine in 1946, a grateful Hergé even let him license Tintin products.

The rest of the Tintin saga is history – but its author never recovered. Hergé underwent years of recurrent depression and breakdowns. There was also a certain freedom, a singular spontaneity, that his art could never recapture.

The essence and heart of Hergé’s oeuvre, his most extraordinary achievements, were put in place during the ’30s and ’40s. In the exhibition’s rooms, “A Family on Paper” and “A Myth is Born”, the great treasures are his works from those decades. As the great bédéiste Jacques Tardi maintained, “Nothing has ever been drawn more beautifully than the first black-and-white Tintin books. The soft sensuality of the lines continues to move me.”

Hergé’s best trait is indeed peerless. As his colleague Edgar P. Jacobs observed to Benoît Peeters, ” What always struck me about Hergé’s drawing was the extraordinary vibrancy of his line… a good part of his genius resided in those lines that never stopped moving, whether he was drawing a plan, a piece of furniture or the fold of a garment.”

Yet the universe they delineate is, in many ways, not one for children. Recently Benoît Peeters, speaking on French radio, drew attention to the work’s darker side. “Hergé’s world is also a universe filled with terror… the alcoholism of Captain Haddock, the kind of dreams Tintin can have, the Yeti, the mummy, the suicides, the opium den…” Children can sense, he added, that Hergé never takes them for babies. “As a child, I was terrified by Tintin! I would often skip over pages to avoid a shock.”

Underneath that beautiful line and its pursuit of clarity, the fears one cannot help but sense were Hergé’s deepest. His drawings are explosive; they absolutely erupt with conflict. It’s an intensity best summed up by Remi’s friend Marcel Stahl, who knew him from the 1930s up until the end of his life. “Georges had a kind of anxiety… He didn’t have the knack for happiness. He never knew how to experience life like a normal person. There was always some problem, a well of dissatisfaction that affected everything in his life. And fame changed none of this.”

The Grand Palais blockbuster finishes up with a giant room, a “salon of the selfie”. It’s a space created especially for guests, a backdrop against which they can immortalize the visit. The room is covered by an enormous mural which, in 1973, appeared on the New Year’s card of Studios Hergé. Here are the boy reporter and Milou, Haddock, Thompson and Thomson, Castafiore and Calculus, with all the villains they fought and many of their compatriots. Some hold placards or banners emblazoned with positive sentiments. “Peace”, they read, and “Merry Christmas”, “Control Violence”, “Protect the Environment”. It’s a fixed pantheon, with all the reference points of an exemplary childhood.

Yet Tintin, just like Hergé, was never wholly exemplary and never really a child. Perhaps that’s why, despite the crowds, the room remains empty.

Hergé runs through 15 January at the Grand Palais in Paris; for Tintin fans, the catalogue is a treat

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The Best Comics of 2016 (According to Some) http://www.tcj.com/the-best-comics-of-2016-according-to-some/ http://www.tcj.com/the-best-comics-of-2016-according-to-some/#comments Wed, 04 Jan 2017 13:00:13 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97531 Continue reading ]]>

We asked our contributors to send us their Best of 2016 lists. Many obliged! Thanks to all for doing this. Now onto 2017. -Eds.

Walter Biggins

1) Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian (IDW)

2) Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning (St. Martin’s)

3) Ben Katchor, Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (D&Q)

4) Michel Rabagliati, Paul Up North (BDang)

5) Moebius Library: The World of Edena (Dark Horse)

Honorable mentions:

John Porcellino, King-Cat #76 (John Porcellino)

Gilbert Hernandez, Garden of Flesh (Fantagraphics)

Lewis Trondheim and Keramidas, Mickey’s Craziest Adventures (IDW)

Julie Doucet, Carpet Sweeper Tales (D&Q)

Notes: 3 of my 5 are reissues. Apparently, no women or no nonwhites made my cut until the honorable mentions. I suck. I’ll do better next year. 

Robert Boyd

2016 Favorites

My favorites from 2016. There are still a few on my “to read” pile that might make it—for example, The Greatest of Marlys would almost certainly have made it if I had read it in time.

They are in order from smallest to largest.

Endless Monsoon IV: Very Pleasant Transit Center by Sarah Welch. 56 pages, two-color risograph, 5” x 7”. This is a very slow-moving series about two young women trying to make their way in a world of somewhat straitened circumstances. The art is transmits the humid, sweaty feel of Houston very well.

Blammo number nine by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore Books ). 44 pages, black and white comic book. The two long stories in here are classic ’90s-style alternative comics stories—one is autobiographical (Van Sciver inadvertently offends a sensitive soul at the Center for Cartoon Studies and flashes back to his Mormon childhood) and the other a short story about a museum guard who starts to paint paintings in the style of long dead abstract painter being shown at the museum. Both stories are really good, and I liked especially have despite working in the museum, the museum guard is clearly doesn’t know the social etiquette of being in the art world. Van Sciver shows how difficult it is to cross the class divide because one must know the rules of the other side—it’s like a mini-lesson in Pierre Bourdieu.

What is Obscenity? The Story of a good for nothing artist and her pussy by Rokudenshiko (Koyama Press) 178 pages, 6” x 8.5” squarebound book combining color and black and white pages. This book combines articles and comics to tell the first-person story of a Japanese artist who spent time in jail for producing obscene art—specifically for providing digital file of her pussy for 3-D printing in a crowdfunding campaign. The comics here are straightforward and highly amusing, and her story is utterly incredible.

American Blood (Fantagraphics Books) 208 pages, 5.9” x 8.6” squarebound paperback book printed with purple ink. This book collects various self-contained stories that Marra self-published in his Traditional Comics line between 2009 and 2013, including The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd. I had never read these comics before but they were an eye-opener. Funny, satirical, etc.—if someone could take the best drawings that male high-school stoners from 1976 until now drew on their desks and make comics out of them, they would approach this book in sheer awesomeness.

Scorched Earth by Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books ) 82 pages squarebound, 6” x 9”, black and white). There is a long tradition in narrative art of having utterly reprehensible cads as protagonists: Sebastian Dangerfield in The Gingerman, Harry Flashman in the Flashman books, Withnail in Withnail and I. And now in Scorched Earth, Tom Van Deusen can be added to that immortal parade of assholes. His genius twist on the time-honored genre is to make himself the hateful but hilarious protagonist.

Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics Books) 160 pages, full-color, hardcover. There seems to be a theme with my choices this year—books about self-absorbed partiers. The trip to Amsterdam happens only at the very end, and it’s not any different from their current existence—just colder and wetter. Werewolf Jones descends to new levels of depravity, including making money of his 10-year-old quasi-feral son’s cam shows. But the real annoyance is Owl, the only one who seems to have a job. I find this book repeatedly hilarious.

Demon volume 1 by Jason Shiga (First Second) 176 pages, black-and-white, paperback. The incredibly bloody story of Jimmy Yee, a man who commits suicide over and over. At first it reads like an epic case of gaslighting, but the actual explanation is weirder than I expected. A bizarre concept taken to a logical extreme in a very amusing, violent way.

Founding Fathers Funnies by Peter Bagge (Dark Horse Books) 86 pages, color and black and white, hardcover, 6.5 x 9 inches. I’ve loved Peter Bagge since Neat Stuff (see below) and loved these strips when they first appeared as back-up features in various Bagge comic books. They work best as short stand-alone stories, but I’m very glad to be able to read them collected into a book.

Blubber #2 by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphic Books) 25 pages, 6.5 x 9 inches, black and white. Blubber is Gilbert Hernandez’s one-man anthology of superheroes and monsters fucking. When I read it, I wonder—why hasn’t this been the dominant genre in comics for years? It is my favorite comic book of 2016. I haven’t read issue 3 yet, so I have that to look forward to.

Nod Away by Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics Books ) 240 pages, 7.8 x 10.2 inches, black and white. This ambitious science fiction story (it’s meant to be the first volume of seven) is packed full of ideas and characters and great artwork. Unfortunately it ends on a cliffhanger. Now I kind of wish I had waited until all seven volumes were out before I read it!

The Eltingville Club by Evan Dorkin  (Dark Horse Comics ) 144 pages, black and white and color, 8 x 11 inches. These stories have appeared in various anthology comics, including Dorkin’s one-man anthology Dork, since 1994. The Eltingville Club started at the high tide of Wizard magazine, which at the time seemed like the ne plus ultra of degenerate fandom. Dorkin captured that vibe in his dense, hilarious comics. But fandom, if anything, managed to reach new lows, particularly regarding women fans—see “fake geek girls,” Gamergate, and incessant online and IRL harassment—and in bringing his Eltingville Club members to the present, Dorkin drags them even lower than where they started. It’s cruelly fun to read.

Peplum by Blutch (New York Review Comics ) 160 pages, 8.7” x 11.4”, black and white. A picaresque adventure story set on the frontiers of the Roman world, it makes me imagine what David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life would have been like if drawn by Frank Robbins or Alberto Breccia. Peplum is the mysterious story of a young imposter pretending to be a Roman nobleman Publius Cimber is part of an expedition that has recovered a woman frozen in ice. The ice miraculously does not melt despite its long, eventful journey. “Cimber” loves her, which is the source of all his misadventures. Blutch’s chiaroscuro style is breathtaking

Sir Alfred No. 3 by Tim Hensley (Pigeon Press) 40 pages, 9.75 a 13 inches, color. The Adventures of Bob Hope comic book lasted 18 years, and Tim Hensley has aped its format to tell a series of anecdotes about Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of them are familiar stories if you know your Hitchiana, but Hensley rarely just gives you a straight-ahead retellings of them. His humor is oblique; it’s not about a series of gags. That, combined with his pastiche of Harvey Comics drawing style, make this one of 2016’s best.

Neat Stuff by Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books).  488 pages, 9” x 11.6 inches, two volumes, hardcover. This one doesn’t completely count since I read every single issue of Neat Stuff when they came out. Bagge describes his readership as falling in the “lone weirdo” demographic. It has his immortal characters, Girly Girl, Goon on the Moon, Studs Kirby, Chet and Bunny Leeway, Junior and the Bradleys. But it also has a bunch little masterpieces that people may have forgotten, like “Do You Know Where It’s At?!?” and like “The Fall and Rise of Zoove Groover.”

The Nib , edited by Mat Bors, featuring a large variety of cartoonists including Tom Tomorrow, Matt Lubchansky, Emily Flake, Rich Stevens, Jen Sorensen, Keith Knight,  etc. These are all clever, funny political cartoonists, but what makes the Nib great are its journalistic comics such as Jess Ruliffson’s stories of life in the military, Kate Moon’s story on the Great Barrier Reef, and Ben Passmore’s first person “Letter From a Stone Mountain Jail”. Day after day, the Nib provides amazingly good political and journalistic comics. It’s a brilliantly edited site.

Pat Palermo’s Galveston Drawing Diary by Pat Palermo. Daily comics blog. Pat Palermo is a Brooklyn artist who is currently doing a residency at the Galveston Artists Residency in Galveston, TX. Since he arrived in August, he has been drawing a page of comics every day in pencil on lined yellow paper, scanning them, and posting them on his blog. They started off being about a fish out of water—a Brooklyn guy on a sub-tropical Texas island—and that is still a theme he returns to frequently. But his coverage of the presidential campaign and its aftermath slowly grew in importance as time went on. His drawing is fantastic but also has an appealingly casual quality.

Jessica Campbell

Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt

Pioneering Cartoonists of Color by Tim Jackson

Libby’s Dad by Eleanor Davis

Epoxy Cartoon Magazine by John Pham

RJ Casey

What Am I Doing Here? by Abner Dean  

Unwell by Tara Booth  

Blammo #9 by Noah Van Sciver

She’s Done It All! by Benjamin Urkowitz 

One-pagers by Gizem Vural 

Rob Clough

1. Rosalie Lightning, by Tom Hart
2. Blammo #9, by Noah Van Sciver
3. Someone Please Have Sex with Me, by Gina Wynbrandt
4. The Unofficial Cuckoo’s Nest Study Companion, by Luke Healy
5. Exits, by Daryl Seitchik

Anya Davidson

This is random smattering of books and zines I liked in no particular order. Can I say that I think these kinds of lists are arbitrary, because there is a dizzying number of brilliant books out there that I haven’t read, so this is more of a “list of things I read that I greatly enjoyed” than a best of? 

a) Dias de Consuelo by Dave Ortega #’s 2 and 3

Beautifully executed serialized biographical comic about Dave’s grandmother.

b)Perfect Hair by Tommi PG

Dark and funny painted short stories about sex and loss

c) Crim Coblend’s Garage Island #3 by Max Huffman

Snappy strips drawn inventively. Shades of Daniel Torres and Lale Westvind

d) Almost Completely Baxter by Glen Baxter

This is a reprint by New York Review Comics. Absurd and transcendent gags.

e) Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Nick has an uncanny ear for dialogue and is finely attuned to the beauty and pain of the mundane.

Andrew Farago

Rosalie Lightning, Tom Hart 

March, Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

Demon, Jason Shiga

Power Man & Iron Fist, David Walker & Sanford Greene

Hot Dog Taste Test, Lisa Hanawalt 


R. Fiore

New Comics:

  1. King Baby (Kate Beaton)
  2.  Patience (Daniel Clowes)
  3.   Sir Alfred (Tim Hensley)
  4.   Peplum (Blutch)
  5.   The Twilight Children (Gilbert Hernandez and Darwyn Cooke)
  6.   The Boys of Sheriff Street (Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal)
  7.   Nicolas (Pascal Girard)
  8.   The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Sonny Liew)

Old Comics:

  1. What Am I Doing Here? (Abner Dean)
  2.  Trump: The Complete Collection (Harvey Kurtzman et al.)
  3.  Mandrake the Magician: The Sundays Volume 1 (Lee Falk and Phil Davis)
  4.  Tim Tyler’s Luck (Lyman Young and Alex Raymond)
  5.   Moebius Library: The World of Eden
  6.  Complete Crepax Volume 1: Dracula, Frankenstein and Other Horror (Guido Crepax
  7.  Robert Crumb Sketchbook 1964 to 1968                                                                                   *.  Raymond Pettibon: Homo Americanus

In gathering my personal nominations I came across a couple of Amazon orders of forthcoming and just released books I’d made in April that illustrate the sheer profusion of notable comics that came out in 2016.  One was for The Adventures of Dieter Lumpen (Jorge Zentner), Providence (Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows), The World of Edena (Moebius), and Alack Sinner: Age of Innocence (Munoz and Sampayo, still forthcoming); the other was for Red Barry Volume 1 (Will Gould), Mandrake the Magician Dailies Volume 1, Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian (Hugo Pratt), Tim Tyler’s Luck, and Dirty Duck (Bobby London, still forthcoming); not to mention another order I made a couple of weeks later including numbers 1, 5 and 6 on my new comics list and number 1 on my old comics list. 

The ask was for a Top Five, but I stretched it out to encompass what I consider the First Division; books that stood above the rest, that had some quality of revelation to them.  My ground rules were that anything that had its first publication in English in the United States in 2016 was a new book. Numbering is in order of preference, but in the old comics category the order of finish is arbitrary after the top two. The Pettibon is not ranked because quite frankly though I have this brick on the shelf I haven’t tackled it yet, but I can’t imagine this comprehensive retrospective of the Posada of the Los Angeles telephone pole couldn’t be one of the major books of the year.

Getting down to individual cases . . .

Hundreds of discrete choices each made for its own reasons coalesce one on top of another until they form a way of life, one that none would have imagined if they had set out to design a way of life, and yet compliance is nearly universal. One unit of the crowd sidesteps into an alleyway and says, What Am I Doing Here? In his collection of psychic vignettes Abner Dean blazed not a trail but a road not taken. He turned the cartoon caption from a joke into a poetic provocation that interrogates the image. Drawing his characters naked serves to impose awareness that they are creatures from a natural world, inhabiting their own artificial creation. With no intention to that I can discern he also portrays a segregated society, which only admits one kind of person. Dean doesn’t imply that this is a society on the brink of a social revolution, and yet 30-odd years a pop band would be rephrasing the question: “My God, what have I done?”

I lead with my top vintage pick because my top contemporary pick, Kate Beaton’s King Baby, is very much in the Abner Dean tradition. As it deals with happy things Beaton’s book lacks Dean’s sense of quiet desperation, but it has the same quality of seeing commonplace things with eyes both unsparing and enchanted. Where Beaton’s first venture into children’s picture books The Princess and the Pony seemed to strain a bit to bend its tale to its moral, King Baby is a perfectly executed little gem of observation, capturing something fundamental about the strangeness of infancy in an affluent society, from its say-it-all title to its elegant punchline. I think it can be assumed that any expectant mother with a comics-conscious friend can expect to be receiving this book as a baby shower gift for the foreseeable future. They’ll read it themselves and then read it to their children when time comes.

Running quickly through the rest, Patience turns the wish-fulfillment tale on its head with a passion that disintegrates irony, Sir Alfred is another example of perfect execution of a concept on multiple levels, Peplum is as slashing in its narrative as it is in its artwork, The Twilight Children left you wishing that its creators had just had more time, The Boys of Sheriff Street was a prime slice of Charyn American mythopoetics, Nicolas showed the enduring appeal of the Blechman fleck better than Blechman himself, and Charlie Chan Hock Chye was just a shock in its Maus-like encapsulation of an era.

When the modern era of classic comics reprints began you wondered when the bubble would burst. Was there really a readership for all these fifty dollar books, you’d wonder. Now we are coming to the point where we’re running out of classic comic strips. The Complete Peanuts is complete. Mickey Mouse has donned the Bing Crosby hat, which means the good times are just about over. In Dick Tracy we see the first glimpse of Moon Maid over the horizon, which means it’s about to go out in a blaze of lunacy. Little Orphan Annie is still more or less in the middle of its run, but you feel like you’ve seen about every move Harold Gray has, several times. The number of comic strips with wide name recognition and a ready contemporary readership is quite limited, and it remains to be seen whether a readership can be found deeper dig into the likes of Abbie an’ Slats or Barney Baxter. At the same time the addition of Dover Graphic Novels and New York Review to the ranks of retrospective publishers seems to have been a tipping point, and we’ve never had a wider range of comics of the past at our ready disposal. This does not even take into account the print-on-demand samizdat that is bringing us the high-quality likes of Kim Weston’s The Unavailable Carl Barks.

The icing on the cake of 2016 was the long-promised Trump: The Complete Collection (though a more honest title might have been Trump: Both Issues). It’s an exquisitely produced look at a road not taken, Harvey Kurtzman’s dream of a humor magazine with the full production values of a slick magazine that would be fulfilled fourteen years later by the National Lampoon. It is perhaps more notable for what it promised than what it delivered, but what it promised was tantalizing. I ordered Mandrake the Magician: The Sundays in a spirit of speculation, half expecting a mediocrity on the level of Lee Falk’s other strip The Phantom. Fortunately Phil Davis turns out to be a sort of Alex Raymond Light, and the absurd premise of a stage magician operating in the real world as a genuine wizard, evening clothes and all, in practice turns it into a kind of comic strip Weird Tales.

Do you suppose I might get by with endorsing Mandrake without dealing with Lothar issue? Didn’t think so. Racially demeaning characters might be divided into active and passive. The actively demeaning character acts out racially stereotypical traits, as it might be cowardice, ignorance, hedonism, sloth or superstition in such a way as to imply that they are characteristics of a race. In a passively demeaning character the demeaning characteristics are implicit, and depend on the assumptions of the readership. Mandrake’s enforcer Lothar is of the passive variety. He is capable, courageous, and loyal, yet he is a servant and refers to Mandrake as “Master” for no other apparent reason than that it is the “natural” order of things. Since Americans do not normally require their paid servants to address them as Master, the implication is that it’s Lothar’s idea. Lothar’s speech is pidgin, and yet English is not his native language. His adherence to a comic strip version of native dress could be taken as demeaning, and yet it does have some relation to actual African native dress. Namely, to wear a leopard skin is the particular privilege of a Zulu chief. So, potential dignity points for that, but it raises the question, why is this leader of a fiercely independent people calling this fop Master?

Finishing out my list, in Tim Tyler’s Luck you got to see Alex Raymond become Alex Raymond, The World of Edena is as much a feast for the eye as it is a famine for the mind, Complete Crepax Volume 1 is most notable for giving the first long look at Valentina I’ve been able to get, and Taschen’s Robert Crumb Sketchbook 1964 to 1968 presents these seminal early pages without the reproduction limitations imposed on them the last time around. The coming year has a hard act to follow.

Craig Fischer

In the documentary Cartoon College (2012), Scott McCloud argues that comics is now too vast a world for any single person to understand, metaphorically noting that “parts of comics have dipped beyond the horizon line.” And I’m one person presuming to name The Very Best Comics of 2016. My vision is flawed, I can’t see beyond the horizon, but here’s a handful of books from last year that I found moving, significant, funny, and/or edifying, in alphabetical order:

House of Women #3, Sophie Goldstein (self-published). In bringing her science-fiction rewrite of Black Narcissus to a lusty conclusion this year, Goldstein shows off her growth as an artist beyond The Oven and her other previous comics. When the three issues of House of Women are collected into a single volume by AdHouse, Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly—it’s only a matter of time—will the publisher replicate the attention to design and printing (those lavish die-cut covers and molasses-thick spot blacks) that Goldstein put into her self-presentation of the material? I hope so. 

Providence #7-11, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar). Almost a year ago, I wrote a long TCJ article analyzing the first six issues of Providence, and now I’m including the five issues that came out during 2016 on this Best-Of list. It’s remarkable, a deep dive into H.P. Lovecraft that also shows off Moore’s ability to structure a dense literary story in visual form. Providence #11 switches time and space between panels as much as Gilbert Hernandez’s most experimental work and still provides a carefully-planned, satisfying conclusion to the tale of protagonist Robert Black. One final issue awaits us in 2017, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I wish I could say that about other comic books.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, Sarah Glidden (Drawn & Quarterly). Very early in Blackout, Glidden asks an independent reporter (also named Sarah) to define journalism, and she replies, “anything that is informative, verifiable, accountable, and independent.” Makes sense, until the rest of the book reveals how messy and complicated the practice of journalism can be, in ways that are bracing, mature correctives to simple-minded Trumpist post-factualism. Further, Glidden’s tight focus on a tiny cadre of reporters allows them to emerge as fully-formed characters, especially a veteran and defender of the Iraq War who confronts people and places forever changed by 21st-century American foreign policy. “Maybe the question really is: what is journalism FOR? What’s the point?”

Rosalie Lightning, Tom Hart (St. Martin’s Press). Obviously, the drama of Lightning circles around the incomprehensibly sad death of Tom Hart and Leela Corman’s three-year-old daughter, but it has so much more to offer than tragedy and despair. As I re-read the book, I found myself warmed by the gymnastics Tom and Leela go through to sell their New York apartment—they function as a close-knit, loving unit before and after their disaster—and the cascade of allusions (to The Vault of Horror, Louis, Astro Boy, My Neighbor Totoro) Hart uses to represent and process his feelings testify to the power of art to give our lives meaning and hope.

Sick, Gabby Schulz (Secret Acres). I have a friend named Toney who’s a horror film connoisseur, who’s brought movies like Audition (1999) and Martyrs (2008) into my life. When I gave him Schulz’s Sick for a Christmas present, he replied, “This book is almost too pessimistic and grim, even for me.” I get that. It’s harrowingly painful to watch Schulz’s physical illness—his unrelenting fever, his bloody shits—spiral into mental illness, into an anhedonia so black that Sick reads like (to paraphrase Cioran) a barely postponed suicide. But boy, can Schulz cartoon. His drawings of a child choked by a ghoul (a metaphor for domestic abuse) and a tableau of “all the beautiful people enjoying this beautiful world” (a Hell worthy of Bosch) are beautiful in their craft and directness of purpose. Toney again: “It is a singular example of an artist’s angry fist-wave at the cosmos…a totally original work.”

Best book about comics: Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins, Scott Bukatman (University of California Press). Hellboy’s World is an examples of academic comics criticism that is both full of intellectual insight and a blast to read. In lucid, often funny prose, Bukatman describes Hellboy as “a Howard Hawks movie set in an H. P. Lovecraft universe with art direction by Jack Kirby”; traces Mike Mignola’s love of literary occult investigators and characters who deny preordained destinies (like Pinocchio’s refusal to be a puppet); and discusses how Mignola’s bibliophilia influences Hellboy stories and the packaging of those stories into gorgeous library editions. (Bukatman even fruitfully compares Mignola with Yasujiro Ozu.) Hellboy’s World is pretty lavish itself, with full-color illustrations that raise the bar for future scholarly monographs.

Runners-Up:
Bacchus Volume Two, Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf/IDW) / Casanova: Acedia # 5-7, Matt Fraction, Fábio Moon, Michael Chabon and Gabriel Bá (Image) / Comic Book Creator #11-13, edited by Jon B. Cooke (especially #11, devoted to Gil Kane) / Criminal 10th Anniversary Special, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image) / Critical Chips: 10 Contemporary Comics Essays, edited by Zainab Akhtar (self-published) / Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian, Hugo Pratt (IDW) / Epoxy Cartoon Magazine, John Pham (self-published) / Frontier #11 (“BDSM”), Eleanor Davis (Youth in Decline) / Hellboy in Hell #10, Mike Mignola (Dark Horse) / Laid Waste, Julia Gfrȍrer (Fantagraphics) / Patience, Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics) / Sir Alfred #3, Tim Hensley (Pigeon Press) / Talk Dirty to Me, Luke Howard (AdHouse) / The Weight #4-5, Melissa Mendes (serialized online/self-published).

Shaenon Garrity

1. March: Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

2. Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

3. Demon by Jason Shiga

4. Otherworld Barbara by Moto Hagio

5. Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat! by Kate Leth and Brittney Williams

Richard Gehr

Der Räuber, Tilo Steireif & Robert Walser (Haus am Gern)

Smoke Signal #25

Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam and Other Stories, Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics)

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood, Kaz (Fantagraphics)

Patience, Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

R.C. Harvey

Best comics-related (history, biography) books: Tim Jackson’s Pioneering Cartoonists of Color, a much-needed resource; The Life and Art of Wesley Morse, the “lost” artist who produced engagingly rendered 8-pagers and nightclub illustration.

Comics collections: Gag on This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues.

Graphic novel: Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (shows how the form can be expanded and exploited).

Best comic books (in descending order, so you can use the first, which is 5th on my list, and drop the rest; or not): Cage (revitalizing and re-energizing the drawing part of comics), Strange Fruit (no lines in the art; just color—a painted book), Lady Killer (simply outrageous but superbly drawn).

Biggest Disappointment: Tokyo Ghost (brilliantly drawn, but the story is tepid stuff)

Anne Ishii

Bas Jan Ader by Kevin Czap, Ley Lines 8 (Czap Comics)

Fatherson by Richie Pope, Frontier #13 (Youth in Decline)

Yes, Roya by C. Spike Trotman and Emilee Denich (Iron Circus)

Gorgeous by Cathy G. Johnson (Koyama)

Libby’s Dad, Eleanor Davis (Retrofit)

Monica Johnson

1. Rosalie Lightning, Tom Hart

2. The Complete Wimmen’s Comix

3. Disaster Drawn, Hillary Chute

4. Blackbird, Pierre Maurel

5. Don’t Come in Here, Patrick Kyle 

John Kelly

 We Told You So: Comics As Art, by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean

Krazy: George Herrriman, a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand

The Complete Neat Stuff by Peter Bagge

More Heroes of the Comics, by Drew Friedman

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood, by Kaz

Robert Kirby

1. Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart (St. Martin’s)
2. Turning Japanese by MariNaomi (2dcloud)
3. Our Mother by Luke Howard (Retrofit)
4. Band for Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics)
5. Wendy’s Revenge by Walter Scott (Koyama)

Fave self-published minicomics are (a tie) The Warlok Story by Max Clotfelter & Zebediah Part III by Asher Z. Craw

MariNaomi

Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden

Trying Not to Notice by Will Dinski

Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

Virus Tropical by Powerpaola

Handbook by Kevin Budnik

Chris Mautner

Sir Alfred #3 by Tim Hensley

Peplum by Blutch

Laid Waste by Julia Gfrorer

Big Kids by Michael DeForge

Ganges #5 by Kevin Huizenga

Joe McCulloch

10. Hellboy in Hell #10 (Mike Mignola, Dave Stewart, Clem Robins)
9. Puke Force (Brian Chippendale)
8. š! #25 (eds David Schilter, Sanita Muižniece, Berliac)
7. Ding Dong Circus (Sasaki Maki, Ryan Holmberg translation)
6. Ganges #5 (Kevin Huizenga)
5. Laid Waste (Julia Gfrörer)
4. Carpet Sweeper Tales (Julie Doucet)
3. Peplum (Blutch, Edward Gauvin translation)
2. Sir Alfred No. 3 (Tim Hensley)
1. Rosalie Lightning (Tom Hart)

 Jason Miles

These are the 2016 comics that hit me hardest, stayed with me, nagged me.

In no particular order:

Blubber by Gilbert Hernandez

What me worry? These have been the most important comics to me. 

Patience by Daniel Gillespie Clowes

Painfully good. 

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Annie Murphy

Annie does that Alan-Moore-thing; illuminating the most curious and the most common injustices… crimes that we’re all vaguely aware and actively ignoring. Elemental detective work at its finest.

The Future of Art 25 Years Hence by Gary Panter

Beautiful, beatific absorbant. Humbling.

Love and Rockets vol. IV #1 by Beto + Xaime

Love and Rockets is my favorite thing made by humans. It’s more than that. The characters are real. I’m constantly wondering what Hopey’s up to or if I’ll ever find Palomar. Sometimes I hear people complaining that they don’t know where to start. Just jump in! Keep going if you like it and fuck off if you don’t. This is comics.

Providence by Alan Moore + Jacen Burrows 

Brilliant unpacking and resetting of H.P. Lovecraft, trauma, denial and xenophobia.

Urstory by Amy Kuttab

Conjures the timeless dustlight of childhood.

Late Bloomer by Maré Odomo

Holistic record of life. Euphoric.

Ancestor by Malachi Ward + Matt Sheean

Turned me inside out.

Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto

Heartbreaking.

Super Powers by Tom Scioli

Comics and psilocybin. What’s the difference?

#25 and Mr. A #18 by Steve Ditko

New Comic Day.

Scab County by Carlos Gonzalas

I love the way this guy tells a story.

Mostly Saturn by Michael DeForge

I think this may be the first DeForge comic I’ve read all the way through. Obviously his stuff is visually brilliant, but to my eyes, all his comics (the ones I’ve tried to read) amount to a chromatic tribute to ennui… which isn’t my thing. I may reread Mostly Saturn and see it as another tedium trophy, but honestly I’ve been too scared because the result of that first reading was ecstatic! I feel this comic is the first true “Literary Comic.” It’s got this braided, experiential abstraction thing going on that transcends all the usual comic language bullshit. This may be a complete game changer.

Brian Nicholson:

Top five comics of 2016, offered unranked

Big Kids by Michael DeForge, Drawn And Quarterly

There are a couple of things that reoccur in Michael DeForge comics. The first is plots about bodily transformation. The second is that, from story to story, there are changes in the formal language, not just of the storytelling, but in the approach to a figure, working through new ways to cartoon that most identifiable form. Even though the overwhelming majority of these comics have been very very good,  the minor breakthrough of Big Kids is that, by focusing on a narrative of the transformation of the narrator’s perception, the trend in DeForge’s art, towards a more two-dimensional sense of the picture plane, away from depictions that feel grounded in three-dimensional space, can here dive even deeper into abstraction while the narration remains present in intimate emotional reality.

If DeForge’s other comics can be considered body horror, or likened to early Cronenberg, this comic is more like a queer take on the 1998 film Pleasantville, by way of They Live. While those films use color and black-and-white to refer to different levels of “reality,” DeForge sticks to color throughout, but instead uses a more distended and abstracted cartooning of the human figure as a metaphor for coming to terms with a deeper and stranger world. It’s a narrative of self-acceptance, about growing into a mature person rather than remaining a stunted child. While the narrative feels like a metaphor for hallucinogen-induced revelations, drugs, alongside sex and anarchist anti-cop politics are present as plot elements from the very beginning. The arc doesn’t begin at a place of presumed “innocence,” but rather an adolescent’s cynicism. The shift in the drawing is about going beyond the recognizable, the understood and agreed upon, to depict fresh feeling, a new awakening. Through the narrator’s lens, we see things we haven’t seen before, and are told they are depictions of everyday occurrences. It’s a new way of being alive to the commonplace. The conclusion of the book, the narrator’s caption of “I felt a lot of things,” should be echoed in the understanding reader.

Band for Life by Anya Davidson, Fantagraphics Books

One of the immediate pleasures of comics is their accessibility, both in the easy understanding they offer to a reader, and for how the cheapness of the materials needed to make a comic allows for underrepresented viewpoints to be heard. Occasionally, a comic comes along that is funny and true in a way that nothing else has been allowed to be, depicting a worldview unarticulated elsewhere. Anya Davidson’s Band for Life is both indebted to her own autobiography in the noise-rock underground and extends a deep literary and comedic empathy towards all marginalized people. The cartooning language is rooted in John Stanley, Milt Gross, Archie comics, the most accessible work there is. It’s a character-driven comedy for people who are not going to see themselves and their struggles depicted anywhere else.

In collecting a strip originally serialized online, it becomes clear how many characters there are in the narrative, how distinct they are from each other, and how much thought has been put into giving everyone a consistent backstory, and showing how these fully realized figures can be in conflict but still be depicted sympathetically. Using a Simpsons-like approach to building strips around people previously depicted as incidental supporting characters, in time it depicts a world of music-making more inclusive than most arts scene within the real world, an act of utopian idealization that’s a testament to Davidson’s imagination in the face of a widespread lack of it.

Shortly after publication, the way of life the book depicts would begin to feel actively endangered. In a 2016 where the awful outcome of Trump’s election was followed by the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, and the white supremacist alt-right mobilized themselves to use complaints about fire codes to target live-art spaces to evict people from homes on the premise that these are places where radical leftists congregate, this book documents the way people’s everyday lives can be an act of resistance, even if they are primarily fighting to have the energy to make music against all the other pressures in their lives. The climax of the book, an extended sequence that didn’t previously appear online, shows how the band came to initially form. By using this flashback structure, the point is larger than just “life goes on.” The comic’s talking about a noise-punk band, rather than activism, and is a comedy rather than a political tract, but the book’s world building-via-digression allows the book to make the cogent point, denied by the self-interest-obsessed we must collectively overcome, that disparate people can come together to organize into a unit more powerful than themselves individually.

Pushwagner, Soft City, New York Review Comics

This is a gorgeous visionary work, initially drawn in the 1970s, then lost, only to be rediscovered a few years ago, and now finding publication through an English-language publisher. The drawings are massive, composed around repetition, grids, a depiction of a mechanized world. The line flickers with the inconsistencies of real human life. Adults are drawn in a simplified manner, redolent of children’s drawings, while the infant child is rendered deeply enough for us to know we are seeing this doomed world with its eyes. It has this wide-eyed view of the world, taking in cityscapes in all their dehumanizing detail. It’s insane that this book exists, as everything that makes it remarkable, how fraught and anxious it feels, the scale of it, the ambition of it, how much energy is being dedicated to the capture of tedium, feels like it should work against the artist having the focus to complete it. There’s a tension created between seeing some of the best drawings you’ll see all year and becoming bored at seeing page after page depicting long sequences of nothing happening, reminiscent of the way that humans becoming bored of the beauty of the natural world led to a desire for the comforts of technology which then constitute the soul-deadening effect the book describes. It feels remarkably ahead of its time, its masterful one-point perspective and slightly quivering line feeling like a mixture of alien observer, infant child, and security camera shooting in 70mm. Filmic analogies would compare it to 2001, Jacques Tati, or Koyaanisqatsi. The pages create their minimalist score out of the reader’s gasping. Ah. Ah. Awe.

Abner Dean, What Am I Doing Here, New York Review Comics

When this book was first published in 1947, it spoke a recognizable language in an unfamiliar way. There would’ve been some precedent, at least, to those familiar with gag cartoons. The lines are smoothly swooping, the black and white shading done with graceful wash. Still, the characters are naked, but without genitals. The worlds depicted in each panel have no grounding in recognizable situations. The punchlines offer explanatory context only by the fact that the set of feelings they refer to seems to be illustrated by the drawing. There was nothing like it then, and nothing like it followed. It feels like fine art speaking a gag comics language. It ends up aging better than any gags from that era I’ve seen. If the gag panels in a 1950 or 1960 Playboy cartoon feel dated in their gender politics, the naked-but-without-genitals figures here seem to speak only a language of romantic intrigue defined by longing and loneliness, and feel profound and timeless.

Eleanor Davis, Libby’s Dad, Retrofit Comics

Working with the single issue format for a short story, rather than contributing to an anthology, Eleanor Davis stretches out here in ways that allow for changes in tone larger than in any individual story she’s told before. There is a subtle, pitch-perfect control in the way the pages here slowly fill up with the color blue, depicting the shift from day into night by delineating more and more of the characters’ surroundings. The world becomes more defined by darkness, the young characters idyll being disturbed by the reality of the world they’re living in insinuating itself. The things that can be accepted in daylight can become utterly horrifying once the sun sets. The tension and sense of unease that develops is stunning. It’s not a horror comic, but the book hinges on a moment where Davis communicates her characters’ fear, and so demands a level of control from her over her audience that her previous work, based more on a sort of affectless tone of neutrality, didn’t. However, that moment of terror is only used to get to the conclusion, where this open-ended voice returns, and we are meant to read against the characters’ interpretation of events. We’ve been shown that the sense of safety felt in the daylight isn’t necessarily true, because living with fear every night slowly takes it toll, and just because we survive doesn’t mean the darkness should be denied as a force that defines people’s lives.

Tahneer Oksman

There were many books published this year that I loved and that I couldn’t fit onto a top-five list. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this end-of-year exercise I decided to include works that I know I will return to again and again, and those that in some way (formally, emotionally, intellectually) surprised me.

Becoming Unbecoming. Una. Arsenal Pulp Press.

First published by the UK’s Myriad Editions in 2015, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming tells the story of a young girl growing up in Northern England in the late 1970s against the backdrop of the brutal murders of thirteen women (including many sex workers) by a serial killer eventually dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. The book carries its central themes–of epidemic violence against women and the growing pains of adolescence–over a gently narrated landscape that continually changes shape to accurately capture how the personal and political always dynamically interact.

We All Wish for Deadly Force. Leela Corman. Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics.

Like the gorgeous and painful image gracing its cover, Corman’s We All Wish for Deadly Force packs an extraordinary emotional punch. The autobiographical pieces contained in this slim volume, adapting, at times, mythical, biographical, and surrealist slants, tell of longing, loss, rage, and bemusement, all from an incisive, capacious narrating point of view. It would be difficult to overstate the emotional grace of these short comics.

Gulag Casual. Austin English. 2D Cloud.

English calls this book his “first real stab at making art in comics,” and it is quite a tour de force. Reading through Gulag Casual is something like a cross between flipping through an exceptional artist’s private, experimental sketchbook and looking at pieces of art hung up in a Chelsea gallery. The colors, shapes, textures, and narrative snippets are unexpected, and the images and moods depicted throughout somehow appeal through their gruesomeness.

After Nothing Comes. Aidan Koch. Koyama Press.

After Nothing Comes includes a selection of six zines composed by the artist between 2008 and 2014, appended by a brief interview between Koch and Bill Kartalopoulos. This is another collection of experiments: landscapes, geographic and bodily, are pieced together by an artist dabbling in both naturalistic and abstract drawing styles. The pieces contained are image-word play, briefer and longer poems and narrative bursts examining the nature of disconnectedness and loneliness.

The Arab of the Future 2. Riad Sattouf. Metropolitan Books.

Like the first collected volume of his series, Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future 2 is a chronologically narrated story of a recalled upbringing. In this book, Sattouf describes a single year in his life (1984-1985), when he was just six and living in the small Syrian village of Ter Maaleh. Through his careful selection of detailed scenes from childhood shaped by sudden shifts in coloring, Sattouf viscerally evokes everything from the moments of first learning to read the words in his beloved Tintin comics to early imaginings of the sounds his toys made as they moved around at night.

Joe Ollmann

Here’s my list, in no particular order, probably forgetting stuff I loved.

All of Jillian Tamaki’s work on the Hazlitt site.
Patience  by Dan Clowes
Crickets #5  by Sammy Harkham
The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf
Beverly by Nick Drasno 

Sean Rogers

I filed a top five for 2016 with the Globe and Mail, where my picks were Blutch’s Peplum, Chester Brown’s Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus, Anya Davidson’s Band for Life, Julie Doucet’s Carpet Sweeper Tales, and Aidan Koch’s After Nothing Comes. Here are another five that are every bit as good:

Love Nest by Charles Burns (Cornélius). Burns perfects the comic strip as virus—the idiom itself seems infected, contagious, incurable. Like Jack Kamen boiled down and made black and hard as obsidian.

Red Red Rock and Other Stories 1967-1970 by Seiichi Hayashi, edited and translated by Ryan Holmberg (Breakdown Press). Even with Holmberg’s best-in-the-game contextual notes, I’m not always sure what’s going on in Hayashi’s elliptical allegories and psychodramas at any given moment—but, my God, those moments. Some favorites: a rural community sprouting sleek skyscrapers, a girl’s small feet in a faceless man’s brogues, the silhouettes and snow as a woman pleads with the ghost of her husband, all of it haunted and corrupted by memories of war.

Sir Alfred No. 3 by Tim Hensley (Pigeon Press). Along with Deitch’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Blutch’s So Long Silver Screen, and Oshima’s Ninja, this is one of the great cross-pollinations between comics and cinema. Hensley’s limber wordplay is largely absent (though on location in the Alps, Hitch retches: “Pabst!”), but his cartooning and joke-telling have never been more tightly controlled.

Ganges Number Five by Kevin Huizenga (self-published). This one’s about everything—work and death and love and religion and the origins of the Earth—but it’s still remarkably humble and patient and curious and kind. Huizenga maps out what it feels like inside your head better than anyone.

“Kanibul Ball“ by Lale Westvind, from Kramers Ergot 9 (Fantagraphics). Westvind locks onto the maniac frequency that was humming away through the Golden Age, Kirby, the undergrounds, Pettibon—some Jungian, cosmic shit that rips out again here, resplendent and brutish and powerfully American.

James Romberger

Tim Hensley, Sir Alfred #3, Fantagraphics Books

Dan Clowes, Patience, Fantagraphics Books

Kevin Huizenga, Ganges #5, Fantagraphics Books

Mike Mignola, Hellboy in Hell, Dark Horse

Anya Davidson, Band for Life, Fantagraphics Books

Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian, Eurocomics/IDW 

Chester Brown, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, Drawn & Quarterly

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly, Image Comics

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Love and Rockets #01, Fantagraphics Books

John Arcudi/Tonci Zonjic, Lobster Johnson: Metal Monsters of Midtown, Dark Horse

Katie Skelly

Let’s start with Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen by Moyoco Anno. There’s always an element of humanity removed from Anno’s characters. Somewhere in her super deliberate line that gives way to sharp ribcages and scalpel-precise haircuts, there’s also a ravenous urge to consume and fuck. Anno is never really one for middle ground, although it doesn’t rob her stories of personality. Every now and then some funny or playful sensibility can sneak its way in, but to see Anno only for this would be a massive oversight. Speaking of bobbed hair biches, The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories (Volume 1) is the book of revelations. (Full disclosure, I wrote a short essay for this book!) It’s an amazing excerpt from the breadth of Crepax’s career, and a clever move to start with his sojourns into (and perversions of) the horror genre. Like Crepax, Sarah Horrocks works in a language wholly her own and wholly alien to today’s comics tendencies in her series The Leopard, issue 3 of which came out this year. Forgive me, as I know she’s my dear friend and podcast partner, but who else is doing straight body count murder comics right now? (Note: please don’t actually tell me.) Nasty stuff. Conversely, Gina Wynbrandt serves up soul-murder with her humor compilation Someone Please Have Sex with Me, most impressively, resisting the self-affirmations most of the mills crave. But who knew the most life-affirming work this year would be (a) from Julia Gfrörer and (b) about kissing your loved ones goodbye in the plague? It’s there in Laid Waste: see if you don’t come away with a smile after that one, in the same way you feel a wash of positivity after seeing a film like Martyrs. And finally – give me some leeway on this one as I know it came out in late 2015, but my love of it carried through 2016 and nothing else has struck me the same way since: “Queue” by Dilraj Mann (Island #3, ed. Brandon Graham & Emma Rios). Mann swaddles his gelatinous figures in giallo gel lights as they maneuver through the tedium of hookup culture. I like how Mann does alienation through color rather than dialogue or emotional expression, and I love how his figures dominate the panels. There’s a thickness to his figures reminiscent of Jonny Negron but an agency that’s his own. And that was my year!

Leslie Stein

Last Look– Charles Burns

Beverly– Nick Drnaso

Disquiet – Noah Van Sciver

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus – Chester Brown

Nicolas – Pascal Girard

Tucker Stone

5. Red Team Double Tap Center Mass #1 by Garth Ennis

Dude finally changed his haircut, nice

4. Johnny Red #6 by Garth Ennis

Who is that weaseling over there by my garbage cans OH SHIT IT’S HITLER

3. Six Pack and Dog Welder Hard Travelin Heroez #1 by Garth Ennis

Oh man, his kid’s faces are so jacked up

2. World of Tanks #1 by Garth Ennis

“Cor blimey”, a spot of tea, AND a fucking tank?? ’nuff said

1. Red Team Double Tap Center Mass #4 by Garth Ennis

“Shoulda cleared the room, cuz here comes the boom” —Billy Joel.

  

Whit Taylor

This is a list of my favorite comics and minicomics from 2016.

Dad’s Weekend, Pete Toms (Hic & Hoc)

Blammo #9, Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore Books)

House of Women III, Sophie Goldstein (self-published)

Burrow, Marnie Galloway (self-published)

Self, Meghan Turbitt (self-published)

The Unofficial Cuckoo’s Nest, Luke Healy (self-published)

Summerland, Paloma Dawkins (Retrofit)

Diana’s Electric Tongue, Carolyn Nowak (Shortbox)

Your Black Friend, Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket)

Over Ripe, Sophia Wiedeman (self-published)

Our Mother, Luke Howard (Retrofit)

Frontier #11, Eleanor Davis, (Youth in Decline)

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
, Annie Murphy (self-published)

Sir Alfred No. 3, Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics)

Paul Tumey

My Favorite Thing is Monsters – Emil Ferris

A complex, wrenching, beautifully drawn magnum opus from a gifted and experienced artist new to the scene — worthy of the “graphic novel” label in all senses of the word. Delayed until February, 2017, this was supposed to be a 2016 book — and for me, it was: I was able to get a review copy in late October, and was blown away. I reviewed it already  here. You’re gonna love this one when it comes out.

Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Legacy – by Si Lewen, introduced by Art Spiegelman

Soldier-artist Si Lewen’s 1957 wordless story about the glorification of war and the cost to humanity is timeless and speaks to us as much, if not more, today than ever. Art Spiegelman discovered and befriended Lewen through his work on his 2014 “Wordless!” slide lecture/jazz performance tour. This edition presents Lewen’s story, with newly discovered “outtakes,” in an accordion-fold format, perfectly mirroring it’s content. This edition is really two books in one. On the reverse side of the work, Art Spiegelman has written a lengthy, fully illustrated introduction and interview that expands our understanding of Lewen as a warrior turned artist, bravely committed to his art and vision. The color images of his paintings included in the “ghost book” on the reverse side of the accordion book are simply stunning. Lewen died, at 97, a few days after Spiegelman presented him with one of the first copies produced. Ultimately, this book offers a parade of at least three compelling stories: Lewen’s parable, his life story, and the touching friendship between him and Art Spiegelman.

Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand

The first full-length biography of the artist who many, including me, consider to be the greatest comic strip creator in Western culture. In addition to learning the fascinating details of a major cartoonist’s life and career in this superbly written narrative, I came away from the book with a much deeper grasp of Herriman’s work, especially the monolithic Krazy Kat.

Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s, edited by Peter Maresca

The first years of the landmark, super-bizarre comic strip are surveyed in sumptuously restored color Sunday pages reproduced in their original size and colors. The spot-on curation selects four different continuities, and a fascinating selection of other pages, all buttressed by clear-eyed, rigorous scholarship. I would place this volume among my favorites even if I wasn’t a contributing writer, in a small way, to the introductory material. The importance of reading the great American newspaper Sunday comics in their original sizes and colors cannot be overstated — it is essential for gaining the true experience as the artist intended. In this carefully composed book, we get to see Gould’s signature visual style and bizarre vision of the world take shape in front of our eyes, which is thrilling.

Highbone Theater by Joe Daly

Daly did it again. I regard his Dungeon Quest series and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book to be among the funniest, most engaging modern comics I’ve read. Highbone Theater, a modern day, slacker magical realist version of the hero’s journey, delivers the goods again. I laughed out loud many times, and I wasn’t stoned. Like the herbs and chemicals so many of his character’s imbibe to attain mystic visions, Daly’s books take my mind to new places, and I love that about his work. 

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2016 Year in Review http://www.tcj.com/2016-year-in-review/ http://www.tcj.com/2016-year-in-review/#comments Tue, 20 Dec 2016 19:01:19 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97721 Continue reading ]]> Illustration by Mike Reddy.

Illustration by Mike Reddy.

 

We don’t need to tell you what a year it’s been. So let’s get right to an accounting of what you need to read of The Comics Journal from 2016. Certainly there are omissions and mistakes here, but such is life.

Here are some reviews to revisit:

Sarah Horrocks on Peplum.

Monica Johnson on Blackbird.

Nicole Rudick on Carpet Sweeper Tales.

Robert Kirby on Wendy’s Revenge and Trashed.

Kramers Ergot 9 by Joe McCulloch.

Bob Levin on Gulag Casual and Robusto. 

Robert Boyd on Cometbus #57.

Sir Alfred #3 and The Greatest of Marlys by Chris Mautner.

Katie Skelly on Gorgeous,  Queen Emeraldas, and Someone Please Have Sex with Me.

Richard Gehr on Peter Arno.

Greg Hunter on Dream Tube.

Annie Mok on Soldier’s Heart and The Greatest of Marlys.

Rob Clough on 4 Panel Vol. 1, Rosalie Lightning, and Sisters.

Rachel Davies on After Nothing Comes.

For in-depth looks at a variety of topics, we offer you the following:

Joe McCulloch is the true hero of this and every year with his This Week in Comics column, filled with digressions, deep cuts, and great wisdom. Catch up on 2016 right here.

The great Ken Parille on Abner DeanBlack PantherSir Alfred #3, Patience, and comic book editing. 

R.C. Harvey, here on Al Smith and here on Alex Raymond.

Rob Clough on Retrofit Comics and the 60th anniversary meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

Annie Mok interviewed Michael DeForge, Eleanor Davis and Julie Doucet.

John Kelly delved into the early work of Peter Bagge.

Frank Young on the madness of Chester Gould.

Abhay Khosla really summed up 2015 earlier this year. We miss him this year.

Monica Johnson on contemporary feminist comics and Paper Girls.

Alex Dueben conducted a massive oral history of Wimmen’s Comix. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Anya Davidson on Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force.

A Colorist’s Roundtable by Andrea Fiamma.

Peter Bagge interviewed Kaz and Chester Brown, and then J.R. Williams discussed the old days with Bagge.

Noah Van Sciver chatted with Tom Gauld.

Tim interviewed Richard Sala. 

Sarah Lautman, Ginette Lapalme, Jen Lee, Dash Shaw, and Aidan Koch all contributed excellent installments of our Cartoonist’s Diary.

Bob Levin wrote insightfully about Jack Jackson.

RJ Casey interviewed Nick Drnaso.

Kevin Huizenga talked to Ben Katchor.

Todd Hignite caught up with Daniel Clowes.

Robert Kirby talked with MariNaomi.

Ryan Holmberg looked at nuclear manga here and here.

Jeanette Roan went in-depth with Jason Shiga.

Dan got into it with Anya Davidson.

Greg Hunter talked to Gilbert Hernandez about the cartoonist’s incredible recent output and his podcast featured the likes of Gabrielle Bell, Ines Estrada, Anna Bongiovanni, and Eddie Campbell.

Robert Elder chronicled the many appearances of Ernest Hemingway in the comics. Part 1 and 2.

Emily Flake talked about the funny with Glen Baxter.

Ron Rege interviewed the great Dame Darcy.

Paul Tumey delivered a compelling deep dive into the work of Gus Mager, (twice!), a two-part revelatory look at White Boy cartoonist Garrett Price (1 and 2), a look at the early days of minicomix and a twopart chat with George Herriman biographer, and he reviewed the forthcoming My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

And there were sad passings:

Geneviève Castrée

Jack Davis

Richard Thompson

Jack T. Chick

Alvin Buenaventura.

See you in 2017. 

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Fantagraphics vs. Everyone (Part Two) http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-two/ http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-two/#comments Fri, 16 Dec 2016 13:00:07 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97573 We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books, the topics covered include: the uncanonization of a direct sales manager, criticizing Will Eisner, the mole in the Journal, Fiore vs. Pekar, and Capital City vs. Diamond. Continue reading ]]> The following is an excerpt from We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books put together by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. The uncanonization of a direct sales manager; criticizing Will Eisner; the mole in the Journal; Fiore vs. Pekar; Capital City vs. Diamond.

(continued from Part One.)

Thom Powers at his Journal desk, 1993.

Thom Powers at his Journal desk, 1993.


Lighting the Feuds

Powers: There have been so many feuds it makes you wonder if there’s something peculiar to Fantagraphics that causes this pattern. I’m not sure I have an answer for that.

Groth: The Comics Journal was in a particularly contentious period in its contentious history by the beginning of the 1990s. We’d just gotten off of our campaign to shame Marvel into returning Jack Kirby’s art; we’d just won three libel suits in a row; independent publishers were gaining traction; the self-publishing movement was afoot; Marvel and DC were still dominant, of course. I saw the Journal’s mission as continuing to be a provocateur, to shake things up, to continue to challenge the status quo.

A microcosm of the public outcry following Gary's essay, "Lies We Cherish: The Canonization of Carol Kalish".

A microcosm of the public outcry following Gary’s essay, “Lies We Cherish: The Canonization of Carol Kalish”.

I wrote a couple pieces that caused a surprising and to my mind inordinate amount of controversy and condemnation. I wrote an editorial about the public response to Carol Kalish’s death, something I’m still pleased with. I was chewing off my lips for something like two months, because I didn’t want to write what I eventually wrote. Every week, I would get The Buyer’s Guide, and every week I would read these preposterous hagiographic letters and essays about Kalish. They became more and more attenuated reality. There were eventually letters from people who had never met her or even knew who she was, but who were praising her based on previous letters from people praising her, which were based on something Peter David said a month earlier. So, eventually, I decided that the context required me to try to redress the balance. And my objection was less toward Kalish herself than toward these mindless, over-the-top panegyrics about her, unrelated to her real contribution to comics or even who she was. I think that she got more ink after she died than Kirby, Hogarth, Caniff, Kurtzman, all these great artists, did.

I think the reason for that was probably because she was a professional networker. People get praised more because of their networking skills than because they’re great artists, and that offended me; it seemed like an utterly lopsided set of values at work. Fewer people knew and liked Burne Hogarth, so he got virtually no coverage, but because Carol Kalish was the friend of all retailers, she was smothered in praise. So anyway, I don’t know, it seems ridiculous in retrospect, because my piece was like what, 2,000 words, or something like that? It was a short, succinct piece. And you know, the ironic thing is it might have even created more of a shitstorm than my piece on Eisner.

Gary Groth, “Lies We Cherish: The Canonization of Carol Kalish,” The Comics Journal #146 November 1991:

Of course, her job was to sell as much semi-literate junk to a gullible public as humanly possible. Her gift — or genius — was exploiting markets, manipulating public taste, pandering to the lowest common denominator. She was, in an odd sort of way, forthright about the crassness of her employer’s marketing methods. Once I witnessed a retailer timidly question Marvel’s strategy of filling their comics with sex and violence: Kalish’s reply, which was almost refreshingly free of the specious nod to morality to which less assured marketing tacticians would resort, was that little boys liked sex and violence and Marvel was in the business of selling comics to little boys. Hence and therefore.

Thompson: I understand why people were offended by Gary’s piece, but a lot of the criticism was off base. First, that it was written “too soon” — it was months after Kalish’s death — and second that it was an attack on Kalish herself. I suspect that to this day a lot of people who bear a grudge toward Gary never read the original editorial, just other people’s interpretations of it … or if they did finally read it, their perception had already been so colored by the outrage.

Groth: I reread my Eisner piece not too long ago, and it wasn’t bad. I stand behind it, but my God, it created another shitstorm. Even Jules Feiffer raked me over the coals for it in my interview with him. No one was allowed to say anything critical about Eisner then. I think that’s changed since, but in 1989, he was critically inviolate.

Gary Groth, “Will Eisner: A Second Opinion,” The Comics Journal #119, January 1988:

There are, it seems to me, two Will Eisners: The populist who defends mass-market junk and the elitist who champions comics as a form of literature; a shrewd businessman who prides himself on deal making and market savvy and an artist whose aspirations rise above the marketplace; an artist who uses his (and others’) gifts to package utilitarian products-to-order and an artist who strives to duplicate the human condition.

Feiffer: I thought Gary’s essay on Will Eisner was quite harsh. What was refreshing was that he was one of the few people not enamored of Eisner and didn’t genuflect, but at the same time I thought he went overboard in his judgments. There were all sorts of criticisms of Eisner’s work that I thought were legitimate; I didn’t feel like Gary in some instances was on the money here.

Groth: I wasn’t rabid about Eisner, particularly, but I couldn’t understand why no one else noticed that his graphic novels were really lousy, and lousy in an obvious and pronounced way. It pretty much shot my relationship with Eisner, who never forgave me — another example of naiveté on my part, though I probably never even considered that aspect of it when I sat down to write it.

Gary Groth, “Will Eisner: A Second Opinion,” The Comics Journal #119, January 1988:

These observations were prompted by my reading of The Building, and two blurbs from Don Thompson and Max Allan Collins that Kitchen Sink is using to advertise the book. Uncle Don thinks The Building is “inspirational” and “outstanding,” while Collins thinks it’s a “brilliant, graceful graphic novel” that brought tears to his “cynical eyes.” In fact, The Building may be Eisner’s worst book, a menagerie of clichés and an embarrassingly strident use of a hoary, heavy-handed literary device that could be productively employed in schools throughout the country as an example of how not to write a story, but which wouldn’t fail to impress our average comics reviewer as an example of High Art.

Groth: So again, I wanted to introduce a contrarian point of view to the public discourse. There’s nothing that comics fans hate more than something that upsets their little critical apple cart. I got hell for it; I think Don Thompson said I wrote it out of jealousy. But looking back on it, I would fine-tune it a little bit, but I think I was pretty accurate. God knows, considering what he’s done since then, I think it was probably pretty lenient.

Dave Sim and I went ’round and ’round. My disagreements with Dave — and this is long before he wrote that deranged anti-woman screed — were many. One, I remember, was his adoration of self-publishing irrespective of the quality of the self-publisher. I guess I thought that there was something about Dave’s worldview that was skewed and defective and fundamentally amoral … although I didn’t know how skewed at that time.

Gary Groth defends distributor Bud Plant from Dave Sim.

Gary Groth defends distributor Bud Plant from Dave Sim.

I haven’t looked at this in ages, but I think we had a back-and-forth where I wrote a couple of pieces about him, and he wrote a big piece about me in Cerebus, and naturally I wrote a response and so forth. It was one thing after another. I remember Dave also attacked Bud Plant over some utterly specious nonsense, and I mean Bud is probably one of the few fucking saints in the comics industry. So they had this big brouhaha, and not too long after that, Sim was palling around with Steve Geppi and lifting brewskis and watching football games with him. Earlier he had taken this exhibitionistically moral stance about what an unethical person Geppi was, and then shortly thereafter he’s buddying up to him. So I think he was displaying signs of neo-Ayn-Randian economic models back then that were sort of seeping out of his writing, which I thought were morally dicey. I think I went after that too.

At the time, these were like life-and-death issues and I wrote with that kind of urgency. Looking back, perhaps that was naive, but I wouldn’t mitigate that passion, in retrospect, for anything.

One day someone from Capital City called. I forget the guy’s name, but he was an executive at Capital, and I guess I wrote an editorial where I specifically referred to him as a schlockmeister. So, one day someone who answered the phone in my office buzzed me and tells me, “There’s a call for you.”

I said, “Who is it?”

And he said, “Well, he just said, ‘It’s the schlockmeister.’” So I took the call and this guy just yelled at me for five minutes. He was right in the sense that the reductio ad absurdum of my argument that he was responding to was that he probably shouldn’t have a job, and that 90 percent of the comics that Capital was distributing shouldn’t exist. But he was really personally, deeply offended by this.

That kind of conviction about art and what culture ought to be, and what excellence is and what we should be devoting ourselves to was beginning to be sidelined by an overwhelming commercial ethos.

Image probably had a lot to do with that — empowering mediocrity. That was a revolting spectacle, honorable men running to Image because Image suddenly had lots of money and power and clout. And because it was run by creators and creators were intrinsically the good guys.

I haven’t read the Creator Bill of Rights in a couple decades, but as I recall, I was somewhat skeptical of whether this was going to enhance the art form — and that’s what I wanted to do, that was my primary interest, that’s what I thought it was all about. I found a lot of these reformist or semi-reformist agendas, like Scott McCloud’s and Dave Sim’s, were more about giving shitty artists a bigger cut of the pie than anything having to do with art. In a lot of instances, I was not railing against the corporate mentality as embodied by corporations but the corporate mentality as it had been internalized by the more vocal creators.

I was banging my head against that wall, and the wall was winning. Apathy had taken the place of a more activist kind of agenda on the part of creators.

I couldn’t in good conscience champion the guy who pencils and inks Justice League of America. I mean, he probably makes a very good living. He doesn’t own the work. He knows that going in; it’s all work for hire, I think that you can make an argument that work for hire is intrinsically bad. It is just part of this whole commercial culture that encourages people to divorce themselves from their own work in any meaningful way. But you know, nobody’s going to listen to that argument.

Powers: There was a big break between Gary and Denis Kitchen.

Thompson: Kitchen Sink was falling apart, and not only was it falling apart, there was some weird stuff going on in its relationship with Tundra, with which it was merging. It was the big story at the time, and Gary was adamant that it should be pursued in the Journal, as well it should. Kitchen saw this as an attempt to sabotage him, and his paranoia was exacerbated when the Journal editor of the time, Carole Sobocinski, decided to become a mole for him inside the Journal.

Groth: I had what I would characterize as a collegial relationship with Denis Kitchen through the ’80s. We weren’t close friends, but we both suffered the same tribulations as marginal, alternative comics publishers, and we’d often gossip and commiserate at cons and at parties, and over the phone. I certainly considered him a collegial friend or a friendly colleague. He was always supportive of the Journal’s journalistic mission — he had been a journalist himself briefly — and he often complimented the magazine on its hard-hitting news coverage.

In the early ’90s, Kitchen Sink Press was going through he same miserable financial contractions we were. I think he was circling the drain just as we were. We solved our problem by starting Eros Comix. Kitchen tried to solve his by merging with Tundra, the alternative publishing company Kevin Eastman founded in 1990 and sunk his millions in.

Kitchen issued a press release in 1993 announcing Kitchen Sink’s purchase of Tundra. This was suspicious on the face of it; companies on the brink of bankruptcy don’t buy companies who are three or four times their size. My journalistic bullshit detector went off. This made as much sense as Fantagraphics buying Random House. We proceeded to do our job, which was to dig up the truth, and this put us in direct contention with Kitchen who did his best to prevaricate and hide the truth. As it turned out, according to what Eastman subsequently told me in his Journal interview, he, Eastman, has initially owned 51 percent of Kitchen for a while, and even financed the merger or acquisition to the tune of 2 million dollars — the opposite of how the transaction was portrayed by Kitchen. It became more personal when, during the course of our reportage I thought we were being stonewalled, I had a conversation with Kitchen and he told me he would answer our questions honestly or tell us when he couldn’t answer them, but insisted on the subterfuge that Kitchen had purchased Tundra. All this time, unbeknownst to me, our news editor and news writer were in cahoots with Kitchen to suppress the story.

Roberta Gregory characterizes the state of creators' rights in The Comics Journal #137 (1990).

Roberta Gregory characterizes the state of creators’ rights in The Comics Journal #137 (1990).

Powers: I visited Denis Kitchen back when Kitchen Sink was in Wisconsin, back when I was briefly the executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I visited Denis, stayed at his place, and on the way over people were saying, “Happy birthday, Denis.” In this low-key way he hadn’t bothered to disclose, it was his birthday.

Later that trip he said, “I started a publishing company to control my own work, but now this company controls me.” And I think that’s true for so many entrepreneurs and small businesspeople.

Marc Arsenault, designer and former Tundra employee: 
[Gary] called me up one afternoon, and what he had to say was a bit of a shock. He apologized to me. Apparently, a couple of members of The Comics Journal staff decided that what I and other former employees and associates of Kevin Eastman’s Tundra Publishing had to say about our time there was so horrendous, that — journalistic ethics be damned — it would be a good idea to let Denis Kitchen know what was up, off-the-record comments recorded without my permission or knowledge [in the course of their alleged news writing], and all.

Groth: Over the course of several months when this story was hot, I was increasingly frustrated because the Journal’s news writer simply wasn’t getting the story. He would submit drafts that were woefully feckless and evasive, I would return them for a rewrite with specific notes as to whom to talk to and what questions to ask, I would get another half-assed draft and this would go on and on. The managing editor kept telling me she was on the news writer and couldn’t understand why he was doing such a poor job either. What I didn’t know is that they were both in constant touch with Kitchen, had agreed to sabotage the news story and were feeding him information about how successful they were in undercutting the story.

I only learned about this when an intern working under them whom they had taken into their confidence came to me and confessed the whole cover-up. When I called Sobocinski at home and told her I wanted to meet with her, she never came back to work, and the next thing I knew Kitchen had hired her as his assistant.

Ilse Thompson:
The first collection of The Complete Crumb Comics that I edited started the first years of American Splendor. Because Crumb and Harvey Pekar both own the copyright on their collaborations, we had to get permission from Pekar to publish the work. He was against it. He wouldn’t. Crumb eventually persuaded him, and I got a memo from Gary saying that he had relented. When the book came out, I was arranging for complimentary copies to be sent to contributors, and calling people to confirm their addresses. I called Pekar, who popped a cork when I told him that American Splendor had been reprinted. He had forgotten that he’d OK’d it. “Gimme Groth! I’m going to sue him!” He demanded to speak with anyone in a position above me. I was afraid to tell him that I had edited it, and told him that everyone else was at lunch, because I didn’t want anyone to know I’d pissed him off.

The next morning, Kim told me that Pekar had called to apologize to me, and that I should expect a call from him. When he called, we spent an hour on the phone. He gave me a lesson in Russian literature.

R. Crumb's cover to the first American Splendor collection (Doubleday, 1986).

R. Crumb’s cover to the first American Splendor collection (Doubleday, 1986).

Groth: At first, Pekar refused to give permission to reprint the strips Crumb drew from his scripts. I had to call Crumb and ask him to call Pekar and intercede, which he did. My impression was that Pekar refused permission either because of some feud he was having either with Bob Fiore at the time or an argument I had with his wife Joyce Brabner, but which I remember thinking was a petty reason to deny his collaborator the right to include those strips in his complete works.

R. Fiore: The Harvey Pekar business was one of the more idiotic episodes I’ve ever been involved in. One thing to remember was that it came during that whole period when the move was being made and my return from Seattle, and if you read anything I was writing at the time you’ll see that I was just in a foul mood. You could see it in that ridiculous feud we were carrying on with the Comics Buyer’s Guide, overheated rhetoric mostly provided by me, as if we were in a death struggle with Don Thompson for the soul of the comics, (a) as though they had one and (b) as though it would have been worth having. I am put in mind of Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the Falkland Islands War: Two bald men fighting over a comb.

Thompson: The Fiore/Pekar feud highlights one of the problems, which is that people would inevitably take the writing of one person in the Journal as a company-wide broadside, and generalize their dislike of that person into a loathing for the Journal and Fantagraphics as a whole. So a lot of people hate Gary for nasty reviews of their work that Gary may not agree with, or even have read.

Powers: For years I made pitiful attempts to get Bob to write in other venues. I published my own paper in Detroit in 1993, and I got Bob to write a column for me. Unfortunately, I only published three issues. I once gave copies of the papers to Christopher Hitchens and Hitchens asked me later, “Who’s Bob Fiore? He’s a great writer.”

Fiore: The biggest problem with the position I took with Pekar [re: the reductive use of animals in Art Spiegelman’s Maus] was that Pekar had a point, in that characterizing a people as pigs does have a certain connotation. The real answer to this is that, while it is a problem, Spiegelman defuses it by portraying Poles in a multidimensional way. The thing is, right at the time I was writing that column, I had heard this thing on NPR about Polish collaboration during the Holocaust, and I made this dumbass comment to the effect that, in making them pigs, Spiegelman was being too kind. Needless to say, this was not the way in which Spiegelman wanted to see his work defended. Anyway, having climbed out on this limb, I proceeded in the finest Field Marshal Haig fashion to defend it. What the episode proves is that the things that are most likely to make you look foolish in an argument are ego involvement and emotional involvement.

What impressed me about Pekar is that he actually went out and read The Lost Steps, much more of a commitment than I would have made in the same circumstances. (It actually is a book about a modern man who discovers a primitive society that he finds superior to the modern world and all its conveniences, but Pekar did some selective quotation that made it look otherwise. The dirty cheat.) What burns me up is that I found a quote from Orwell that said that Animal Farm was an allegory of the Russian Revolution, but it was too late. This was the sort of absurd point we went round and round on; Pekar would take a position that was objectively wrong but because of my ego involvement I kept trying to make him admit it, and that’s something he wouldn’t do. And you really have to wonder if someone who can’t see the difference between Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler has any genuine understanding of literature at all. The perverse thing is while artists always complain about being judged by people who couldn’t create art, when artists themselves try to judge a work of art they are immediately subjected to invidious comparisons or accusations of professional jealousy.

Groth: I remember Pekar telling me that he would never, ever allow Fiore to have the last word in that argument and that he would argue for the rest of his life if necessary and that if I ever stopped the argument and gave Fiore the last word, Pekar would continue it in the pages of the Comics Buyer’s Guide. It rampaged over many issues of the Journal and Pekar did indeed get the last word. Until now.

(continued on next page)

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Fantagraphics vs. Everyone (Part One) http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-one/ http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-one/#respond Thu, 15 Dec 2016 13:00:11 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97570 We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited and exhaustive oral history of Fantagraphics Books. This section's leading characters include Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Shooter, Helena Harvilicz, Frank Young, Eric Reynolds, and Tom Spurgeon. Continue reading ]]> The following is an excerpt from We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books put together by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. A tumultuous magazine for a tumultuous industry; Barry Windsor-Smith troubles Jim Shooter’s lower gut; the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest; Helena Harvilicz blows up; Frank Young melts down; and Eric Reynolds and Tom Spurgeon: the non-sociopath years.

Summer 1995 backyard party at Peter and Joanne Bagge's house, names tagged by Jim Blanchard and featuring a cross-section of lcoal comics, music and media folk.

Summer 1995 backyard party at Peter and Joanne Bagge’s house, names tagged by Jim Blanchard and featuring a cross-section of lcoal comics, music and media folk.

The Comics Journal vs. The Comics Industry

Barry Windsor-Smith, cartoonist: In the early 1990s, Jim Shooter, Bob Layton and I were traveling to a downtown restaurant. We were crowded in the back of a yellow cab, and the chat was inevitably about the world of comic books. I wasn’t interested, so I was tuned out, thinking of things other than comics.

But then, the mention of The Comics Journal caught my attention and I briefly tuned back into the conversation as Bob snorted, “Fuckers!” with Jim concurring — “Those bastards.” It’s rare for Shooter to curse. I guess he reserves his expletives for The Comics Journal.

Chiming in, I said, “The Journal is the only real magazine we’ve got.” In that context, where Jim and Bob were openly hostile, my use of the term “magazine” implied an arbiter of taste, criticism and intelligence, like The New Yorker, for instance. They both looked at me briefly, and, turning away, Shooter’s ass tightened so fast that it almost overtook the speed of Layton’s gall bladder stricture — what little air was in the back of the taxi was immediately sucked into each of their lower guts with a thunderous stereophonic whistling sound. Following through, I said, “Damned good thing they keep us on our toes, right?”
The rest of the short journey down Broadway passed in silence. Staring out the window while returning to my private musings, I coined the ungainly term Reverse Fart.

Bill Williingham's inspired, Steadman-esque portrait of industry villain Jim Shooter for The Comics Journal #171.

Bill Williingham’s inspired, Steadman-esque portrait of industry villain Jim Shooter for The Comics Journal #171.

Steven Grant: We felt all the comics-news outlets, not just the Journal, weren’t really serving the needs of the comics-professionals community, and there was really no reason to expect them to. We [WAP!, the freelancer’s rights newsletter] never really conceived ourselves as being in competition with the Journal in any way, though I heard rumors the Journal thought we were positioning the newsletter that way. But there was a general sense of outright hostility from the Journal toward the rank and file of comics professionals — which isn’t to say a lot of the Journal’s assessment of the business wasn’t accurate, just that they often professed their views in ways that were perceived as elitist and confrontational — and there were a lot of professionals who didn’t feel comfortable discussing their issues with the business with the Journal.

Gary Groth: The “industry” at large, of which 90 percent or more consisted of Marvel and DC (and Archie), had schizophrenic views of us. In the early days, we would give Gerber and Thomas and Englehart space to rant about Marvel and Jim Shooter, which they appreciated insofar as comics creators had never had a public forum available to them to voice their grievances; it was really the first time that a magazine would give them that kind of space and allow them to express themselves uncensored. Before that, fanzines toed the company line and the vast majority of creators were frankly too feckless to speak out. And to be fair, the Journal could be perceived as schizophrenic: We’d often run negative reviews of their books while championing their rights as artists. So there was always a tension there. Some comics creators respected our willingness to uphold artistic standards and give even creators we didn’t necessarily believe maintained those standards a place to speak out, and there were other comics creators who despised us for our “attitude.” Our attitude was a big problem.

Kim Thompson: That was the point, I think, at which the unity of alternative-minded mainstreamers and alternative cartoonists started to fray. It was a relationship that just couldn’t hold. They were based on improving the mainstream model, and we were based on bypassing it — or smashing it. There was also a residue of hostility because of all the mean things we said in reviews.

Groth: By the time WAP! showed up, I think the scales had been lifted from our eyes — or my eyes — and I realized corporations like DC and Marvel were not reformable and the only moral option was to not work for them — which was not something the Journal could effect. WAP! was interested in improving conditions so that artists could make more money producing crap rather than get fucked over for producing crap. I saw it as a venue confirming the work-for-hire status quo, which I was increasingly uncomfortable with. I came to the conclusion that producing crap was the problem, not how much one gets paid for it. Of course, self-publishing and indy publishing wasn’t the answer either, but I didn’t think it through that far. If I had, I would’ve realized there was no answer and slit my wrists.

The "I Am Not Terry Beatty's Girlfriend" Contest call for entries.

The “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest call for entries.

Thom Powers: One thing that I think was notable when I was managing editor of The Comics Journal was that it did mark a particularly nasty streak for the magazine. It was issues #117 to maybe #124. It included the apotheosis of our attitude then, the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest, which kind of represented a split between Gary and Kim. I think Kim was really wary of our doing this. Gary and I were giggling over the opportunity.

Joe Sacco: I remember meeting Jim Shooter at one of the San Diego conventions and asking him for a quote about something or other, and him telling me, “I don’t talk to that rag.”

Powers: There are some things that I look back on during that period where I think they were a little too personal, and it doesn’t get any more nasty than the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest. But I have no regrets. We started the Swipe File then. That I feel a little bad about in retrospect.

Thompson: I thought some of it was pointless bullshit and served no purpose other than to undercut the Journal’s reputation and create additional enemies for no good reason. But I had enough of the same inclinations and history that I had no moral high ground from which to speak, so all I could do is grouse about individual instances, to little effect. Thom and Gary tended to reinforce each other.

Groth: Thom edited the Journal briefly and even wrote news. We were very much in accord, editorially and philosophically, in that we wanted to use the magazine to confront entrenched attitudes in the profession and attack the whole ethos of hackery, and we were willing to use ridicule and humor to make our point. Nothing, I should add, was done frivolously. The whole point of the “Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest was to underscore how fatuous it was to defend drek. I still think that was pretty inspired, if I may say so. Although Kim’s own comics criticism could be devastating, he was always a little queasy about such tactics.

Thompson: There was always a lot of hostility towards The Comics Journal and Gary, and it tended to divide itself pretty cleanly. Those who liked and regarded as valid the model and aesthetic of mainstream comics didn’t like us, and those who didn’t like the model and aesthetic liked us. There were people on both sides who went the other way, but that’s kind of the way it broke down.

Thom Powers and Gary Groth, circa mid-1990s.

Thom Powers and Gary Groth, circa mid-1990s.

Groth: I was given more shit for the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest than anything else we did — at least until I wrote an editorial about Carol Kalish. Even in retrospect, I think the “Contest” was pretty editorially inspired. The fact of it, but also the fact that it took balls to do it. One of the criticisms often leveled against us was that we were humorless and stuffy — yet this was about as funny and as incendiary as you could get. It was freewheeling, more in the tradition of, say, The Realist. I wish we did more things like this today.

The “Contest” came out of a predictably negative review of some short-lived and now-forgotten DC comic called Wild Dog written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Terry Beatty. The only two people who wrote in attacking the review and defending the comic were Terry Beatty and his girlfriend (in two separate letters). Before we got their letters, though, Beatty called me up and literally screamed at me for five minutes — livid. The letters were brimming with indignation. I thought this was so funny that I initiated a contest, open to Journal readers, to write in defending the comic; the winner would get a subscription to the Journal. The only criterion was that the contestant couldn’t be Terry Beatty’s girlfriend. We received a lot of entries, as I recall.

The Comics Journal’s Revolving Door

Dale Yarger: Comics Journal editors were a strange breed, as you probably know — they went through like three or four a year for a long time. At least it seemed like that.

Groth: If one of the skills I was looking for in a Journal editor was sanity, I should generally be considered a pretty dismal failure at hiring Journal editors.

Thompson: Some were pretty good but slightly neurotic editors who just eventually snapped, like Helena Harvilicz and Frank Young, whereas others explored the outer limits of office sociopathy.

Robert Boyd: It was a fucking stressful job. Gary was really unhelpful — certainly one of his weaknesses. He was totally hands-off unless he had a problem, then he could be kind of an asshole. I think if he had been a little more helpful and positive when people were doing a good job, they could have accepted his occasionally harsh criticisms a little better. But it was such a difficult job, and people would do it without ever getting a pat on the back. I mean, editors just killed themselves to get this magazine out.

Helena Harvilicz: I used to read The Comics Journal, and I found an ad for the managing editor job in The Comics Journal, and I just sent them a résumé — it was actually a really goofy cover letter that I wrote. I think I tried to impress them with how funny I was, or something. I got quotes from people who knew me, about how great I was. I think it must have impressed them, whatever it was. I’d been out of school a couple years and I had worked in restaurants, and at that point I was working at Georgetown University as a secretary.

Thompson: Helena is a totally hilarious writer, a skill she was never able to really use in the Journal. She later did her own little fanzine, Nut Magnet, which was a masterpiece. She was also a character and a bit of a flake — this tiny, tiny woman who looked like she had barely hit puberty. My wife Lynn told me that she spent one of the first Fantagraphics parties she attended, when she didn’t know too many people, horrified that there was this 13-year-old girl drinking and smoking. “Is she someone’s daughter? Who brought her? Why isn’t anyone stopping this?”

The Comics Journal #132 (1989), cover by Lynda Barry.

The Comics Journal #132 (1989), cover by Lynda Barry.

Harvilicz: I had to fly out and buy my own plane ticket, because they wouldn’t pay for me to come out — at that point they were in L.A. I went out there and I just really hit it off with those guys. It was weird — like coming home in a weird way. We just had the same sensibility, and they just seemed to really like me and I really liked everyone. And then Gary offered me the job, which I was kind of shocked about, and then the salary was so poor he couldn’t convince me to do it. So they hired someone else, I think. I forget how much it was, it was pathetic — I think like $11,000 a year.

And then they hired this guy, Greg Baisden. He went up to Seattle with them, and then I guess as it often happens with Comics Journal editors, he lasted a very short amount of time. I thought Greg was kind of an idiot when I met him.

Groth: Greg Baisden moved up with us from L.A. Greg was an extremely good editor as well as a good news writer, but he also had a mercurial temperament — almost the stereotype of a “good” Journal editor. You had to take the good with the bad and I was willing to do that. Greg’s work habits were extremely erratic, but he was extremely committed to The Mission and that meant a lot. But he was unstable and had a temper, which proved problematic.

Thompson:
Greg wasn’t a bad editor, but he had what one might call anger-management problems. I once saw him throw an entire completed issue of Comics Journal paste-up boards across the room at Dale Yarger, but they fell apart like a poorly-packed snowball and Greg had to pick them all up again.

Groth: Once he even threw something at Dale Yarger’s head. I’m not sure if that or something subsequent was the last straw, but he left the magazine. Helena Harvilicz, who was working in tandem with him, took his place.

Thompson: He went on to work for Eclipse and then Tundra, and we would hear amusing reports from his tenures there.

Boyd: What would happen is that an editor would melt down mid-issue. This happened three times while I was there, first with Greg Baisden. I can’t remember what triggered it, but it had been building for a long time. That was the Kirby issue, and I basically finished it and started the next issue until Helena came on board.

Groth: I had been the primary editor of the Journal for the first eight or nine years (with, first, Mike Catron, then Kim Thompson), but at that point I had to devote more and more of my time to the company’s other publishing efforts and had to hire a managing editor to run the Journal on a day-to-day basis. Basically, the editorial template was there and I was still involved to greater or lesser degrees, depending upon how much time the rest of the company sucked out of me or what was going on in my personal life; sometimes I was very hands-on and sometimes not.

Hiring a new managing editor was always difficult. It requires a set of skills that are, if not unique, pretty rare, and I would often have to compromise because few applicants had them all. If I had to choose between someone with zero social skills and a broad knowledge of the history of comics and someone with excellent social skills and a spotty knowledge of the history of comics, I’d choose the former and reap the consequences in consequent office disruption. The people I eventually hired were usually intense, independent, focused and driven. And eccentric.

Harvilicz: They had remembered me for whatever reason and called me up again.

And at the time, I came across the country with this other guy, Thom Powers, and while we were driving he mentioned that I was going to be editor of The Comics Journal, which I was completely shocked about! I thought I was just going to be a reporter. I was working there for like two or three days, and Gary’s giving me all this stuff to do.

Frank Young: To succeed as managing editor of The Comics Journal, you need the skills of a samurai warrior and the fearlessness of an animal trainer. I doubt there are many people on this planet with both those skill sets and editorial and decision-making abilities. The job asks a lot of anyone.

Harvilicz: I went into his office and it wasn’t a breakdown, but I just looked at him and said, “Gary, I have no idea what I’m doing.” Because I had no experience. And he just looked at me and said, “I don’t want to hear it.” That was his training. At that point in my life it was perfect for me. Nowhere else was I going to get a job where I was going to be given so much control over anything.

Groth: I was still deeply involved in the Journal on a day-to-day basis then, conceptualizing the editorial lineup for each issue, conducting a lot of interviews, determining which books should be reviewed, going over the current possible news stories and determining which ones were important enough to pursue and so forth. Once those decisions were made, the managing editor had to make them happen. It was a dream job if you were so inclined, not so much if you weren’t.

Thompson: We always had a real sink-or-swim approach to employees, particularly the Comics Journal editors. I think in part because that’s how Gary and I had done it, although of course in our case we hadn’t been responsible to anyone else who might come down and yell at us. It was rough on some of them, but the ones who worked out always seemed grateful for the experience, and the ones who didn’t usually seemed to collapse because of character flaws or neuroses that had little to do with the actual skills.

Groth: I was stretched pretty thin by 1992 or 1993 — 15 years after I’d cofounded the magazine, and what I needed was a competent managing editor who could manage. I was still doing a lot of interviews at that time and I was writing for the magazine pretty often into the mid-’90s, but I couldn’t handle the day-to-day flow of … managing. So, the managing editor and the news writer and I would meet formally a couple times a week to discuss the forthcoming issue, and I’d answer questions, give marching orders and let them have at it. I would always give them a lot of latitude, but I have to admit that I felt the need to stand behind whatever feature or review or interview subject they suggested or I just couldn’t approve it. So, I was a little dictatorial that way, I guess, but I didn’t want the editorial core of the magazine to change.

Young: My story with Fantagraphics starts in 1990. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, I was 27 and I was taking care of my mother, who had cancer. It was a pretty grim year for me, and I was feeling kind of trapped. Just for the hell of it, I sent a review of one of the Carl Barks Library sets to The Comics Journal. I had been reading The Comics Journal since I was in high school and I never had any idea that I would be affiliated with the company. By that time, I had 10 years experience as a published writer and editor, for a variety of newspapers and magazines, all in the Southeast.

Thompson: I remember when we interviewed Frank Young he went into great detail about how all his previous jobs were horrible and all his previous bosses were assholes. The ultimate fate of his Fantagraphics employment was laid out right there for us to see and we didn’t put two and two together.

Harvilicz: Gary never did anything with the magazine, except hire that idiot to write those horrible columns! Who is that guy — Ken Smith? You know, I went to Johns Hopkins, and I had a philosophy degree and I couldn’t read that shit. I tried to cut it every issue! Gary was evasive about it, completely. He would never ever answer the question of why is this in here?
I always wanted to make the magazine more lighthearted and funny. And the interviews were great, but they were way too long.

Groth: I’m not sure there was a single Comics Journal editor who didn’t hate Ken Smith’s philosophy column, which made me all the more adamant to run it, of course.

Eric Reynolds' logo for one of Kenneth Smith's occasional forays into column writing at The Comics Journal.

Eric Reynolds’ logo for one of Kenneth Smith’s occasional forays into column writing at The Comics Journal.

Young: I wrote this article basically to take my mind off this miserable situation I was in. I got a letter back from Helena saying that she liked the article, and it got published. I did four or five things for them over the next few months.

Groth: Frank Young — very smart guy who knew comics, had taste and appreciated the form, perfect Journal material. But there was the temperament issue again.

Young: A thing I noticed right away was what a combative and mutually abusive relationship Helena and Gary had. They were meant for each other, because they both could push each other’s buttons. I think to each other they were just giant consoles of buttons that would get reactions. They would have screaming matches. About anything. Helena would just fly off the handle. She was a very competent person, she knew what she was doing, but she had a very chaotic personality at the same time. She would get into arguments with Gary about very trivial things that didn’t really have any importance. And he would just keep pushing her buttons until she would explode. And she would just freak out, and I think it was just great entertainment to him. He didn’t have any emotional investment in it.

Groth: I liked Helena. We had a volatile relationship, but I never took our arguments personally, and I didn’t think she did, though I could be wrong about that.

Harvilicz: I had no friends, I knew no one and I lived in the attic at the office at one point. It was really a crawlspace that I lived in for a couple months.

Groth: At one point, Helena asked me if she could crash in the attic for a while. I said, “Are you sure?” I mean, it was an attic on the same level as the Journal office on the second floor of the house, but the roof slanted down and you literally couldn’t stand up in it. Well, Helena could probably stand up on the far side against the wall, but then she’d have to crouch down if she moved a foot into it. I shrugged and said OK. She lived there for a couple months — rent free, of course; it was, I thought, a temporary measure. She’d make jokes about how any guy who came into her “home” had no other option than to get on his knees immediately.

Boyd: Then Helena quit suddenly.

Harvilicz: As much as I loved working there, mentally I was all over the place back then, and I felt like I’d learned the job. It wasn’t like I was the best magazine editor ever, but I understood it, and I was like: OK, what else is there? I really wanted to move into doing something else for Fantagraphics. Like being an editor — I was sort of lining up do that, and he’d given me a book to work on. And then we had that blowup.

Thompson: Gary and Helena were a volatile combination. Helena was a pretty good editor but she’d have these blind spots and sometimes not think things through, and Gary would get legitimately annoyed with her and call her on the carpet, and he’s not particularly gentle as a reprimander and she was fairly sensitive and argumentative. I could hear them screaming at each other in Gary’s office since we shared a wall.

I remember we were at a San Diego convention, Lynn Johnston was attending, and Gary told Helena to go introduce herself, give Johnston a copy of the magazine and ask if we could do an interview. Of all the issues to give this nice middle-aged Canadian newspaper cartoonist, Helena gave her the recently released “sex issue” of the Journal, which was totally filthy, full of hardcore porn images. Miraculously, Johnston weathered the blow and did eventually agree to the interview, but it led to one of those “Why did you do that?” colloquies in Gary’s office.

Helena Harvilica and Tony Millionaire, circa late 1990s in New York City.

Helena Harvilica and Tony Millionaire, circa late 1990s in New York City.

Harvilicz: Gary and I had a pretty weird relationship. I was always frustrated. People thought that I was attracted to him sexually. They did, because he has this weird magnetism for some women, but that really wasn’t the case. I was very frustrated in the relationship because I did want some kind of, something more from him — I had these really intimate, like, platonic relationships with men, and I knew he wasn’t willing to go there with me. And that was always frustrating for me. Later on, when I lived with Pat [Moriarity], I sort of had that with him, I had a close relationship with him. And then when I moved to New York, I lived with Tony Millionaire, and that was it! It was the perfect relationship I had been looking for with a man. We lived together, there was no sex whatsoever, but it was this intense relationship where we were really close. He’s a wonderful guy.
I really wanted Gary to be kind of like a mentor to me, which was just never ever going to happen. I was a little disappointed. I think Kim was a little more nurturing than Gary — I really liked Kim.

Thompson: Helena and I got along great, but then, I didn’t have to deal with her professionally. I don’t know if I’d have handled the Helena problems better than Gary. I had a mild crush on her, actually, which I confessed to her years later in San Diego when we were both drunk off our asses, and she said she’d had one on me too, but in her case it may have been the liquor talking, or she was just being nice. I don’t know. Of all the oddballs who trooped through the Fantagraphics offices, she’s one of my favorites.

Groth: I really liked Helena, but she was such a goofball that I may not have taken her as seriously as I should have. She would do a very competent job and then make a decision or say something so absurd or foolish or ignorant that I would go crazy and that would stick in my mind more than all the rest of her professional engagement.

Harvilicz: You know, I was feeling like I could take so much shit from Gary, and I really just did not let it bother me at all — a lot of it was shit I deserved. I remember one time he called me in his office after I’d done this interview, and he said, “Sit down — I want you to hear something.” So then he starts playing the tape back of me interviewing this guy — and this goes on for like five minutes. And he goes — “Now, did you notice that every time this guy started to say something interesting, you had to open your mouth?”

Young: Helena quit on Labor Day of 1991. We had just finished issue #144 and something happened over the weekend and she just exploded for the last time. She left a resignation letter that just said, “I have quit. Sincerely, Helena Harvilicz.”

Harvilicz: I remember going into that office and leaving a note — “I’m quitting, I’m going out to get drunk, this is my two-week notice.” And just put it on Gary’s desk. Because of the nature of who he is, or our relationship or whatever, he didn’t really even bother to follow up on it. He was like, “Fine, you quit.” OK. I think maybe if he would have apologized, I probably would have stayed.

You know, he’s one of those people who has to win, no matter what it is. He doesn’t really want to talk about it. He’s right, and whatever. On the one hand, though, it was like that’s great — I never had a boss before that I could go up to and say “fuck you” — you know? At least he takes it. He won’t admit he’s wrong, but he’ll at least listen to you give him shit.

In some ways I kind of regretted [quitting Fantagraphics], because I felt like at that time, I loved comics so much, and I just loved the company and everything.

The controversial "Sex Issue" of The Comics Journal (#143, 1991), with a cover by R. Crumb

The controversial “Sex Issue” of The Comics Journal (#143, 1991), with a cover by R. Crumb

Groth: I remember that Helena and I had an argument over some decision she made or was about to make, and I was frustrated because the decision seemed to me mistaken because it reflected an ignorance of comics history. At one point, she told me she didn’t know shit about comics, and I told her in that case she shouldn’t be editing a magazine about comics and she quit on the spot.

Harvilicz: I got drunk one night after I quit or was fired, I don’t remember what happened. And I called him up and said, “Uh, Gary — I want to come back and edit the Journal.” And he was like, really? I think he was like considering it. And I was like, yeah. And then the next day I sobered up and thought, “I don’t know why I did that, I’m never going back there!”

Young: I was helping someone move that day and afterwards I came into the office and there was a typed note from Kim Thompson on my desk that said, “Congratulations, you’re now the managing editor of The Comics Journal.” Without even asking me. It was quite the promotion.

I definitely had an agenda of making the magazine less threatening to the comics world. I was really excited to come out here and meet all these cartoonists, and as soon as anyone found out I was associated with The Comics Journal they would clam up. It was a little crushing, because, at the time, I had been making comics and was entertaining the thought of taking it seriously, and here I found myself at the epicenter of it and the only person that was really accepting was Pat Moriarity. Of all the people in the Fantagraphics world at the time, he was the most unguardedly friendly. He was interested in seeing the work I’d done and was very encouraging.

But the work schedule I had at the Journal left me with no energy to do anything else anyway. It was an extremely labor intensive magazine because everything was done by hand — all the graphics, color separations and typesetting. They processed photographic material with these foul-smelling chemicals, which gave me some chronic health problems for several years after. I was hoarse for two years afterwards and never have gotten my speaking volume back completely. There were people there like Dale Yarger, putting in these 20-hour days, who used to sleep at the office. That was the one thing that I wouldn’t do, even if I was working till 4 in the morning, I would go home to the insane Greenhouse in Ballard, where I lived with Tom [Harrington], Pat and Helena — the Fantastic Four. Helena began to see me as an old grouch, because I would complain about her ranting and raving at all hours — whooping it up and banging pots and pans and screaming like a gibbon.

Despite all the crazy stuff, I was actually very excited about working on The Comics Journal, but it had gotten a bad reputation as just a soapbox for Gary’s whims, to the point where if I had to do a news story and had to call someone, I’d get hung up on. I wanted to improve that somehow and I know that Gary didn’t like that — he made some passive-aggressive comments.

I have to say, I do like Kim, and of the two of them, I would say he’s the more levelheaded, business-like. He has some real problems with being passive-aggressive, and if Gary would get him going, he would just go along with things. I think Gary’s self-image was like Hawkeye from M.A.S.H. This zany guy that was sticking it to the establishment. The witty, charismatic guy that was putting the screws to the man, and Kim would get caught in the undertow of that sometimes. But on his own, Kim could also be, if overly harsh and critical, also very helpful.

I wasn’t very happy and I wasn’t getting paid very well, but I did like what I was doing on the magazine. It was getting at the idea I had, which was a magazine that was still part of Gary’s psyche, but was not something that people would hang up the phone on.

The straw that broke this camel’s back was the aftermath of the infamous Todd McFarlane issue, the mainstream issue. Dale and I had just busted our butts to get this issue out for San Diego. It was a tall order, but we dug in and delivered the goods on time. After the issue came out, and everyone else was having fun in San Diego, I took four days off — I was putting in 70, 80 hours a week, and just not getting anything back in return.

Gary and Kim called me into Gary’s office and proceeded to play this game of good cop/bad cop with me. Despite the fact that I had done what I thought was superior work for them for lousy pay, it was just the ultimate “fuck you” from both of them. I was just sitting there feeling so shocked and mortified I couldn’t say anything. Basically, they were telling me that I was doing a rotten job, and the Journal really sucked, all of which I knew wasn’t true. And the bottom line was that they wanted to finish up this special Harvey Kurtzman issue I was working on — a pet project of mine I’d been assembling for a year — they wanted to just slap it together as quickly as possible. Most of it was completed, or in the editing stages, but I wanted to finesse it. I just remember feeling so crushed, because they were basically telling me, well you poor pathetic schmuck, you’re just completely worthless and untalented, but no one else is dumb enough to take this job so we’re going to let you keep it. But you’ve got to work even harder and put less care and quality control into your work. And I did something I’ve never done before and never done since — I didn’t even clean out my desk. I just walked out of the place and never came back.

Thompson: The Frank Young thing was weird. The Comics Journal was always battling scheduling problems, but Frank had gotten fixated on the Kurtzman issue and it looked like it was going to take forever, just fuck up the schedule beyond its normal state of fucked-upness, mess up cash flow, advertisers, subscribers … It was like Michael Cimino edits a Comics Journal. We had some sympathy for him wanting to really bust his ass on it, but we weren’t in a position to let it slide for as long as it looked like it was, and we had a meeting where we told him he had to get it out. So far as I remember it was perfectly amicable, which just goes to show you: His perception was that we raked him over the coals for two hours. He sat there and looked at the floor and said “OK,” and the next morning there was a five-page single-spaced letter from Frank, which amounted to, “How dare you ruin my magazine, fuck you, I quit,” and that was the last we saw of him. He’d clearly been saving up his grievances.

Frank ended up working, at least for a while, as an usher at one of Seattle’s main movie theaters, so that was a little awkward, but we’re OK now.

A quintessential Journal issue from the early '90s, which featured the last of several Harvey Kurtzman interviews he gave the magazine over the years before passing away in 1993.

A quintessential Journal issue from the early ’90s, which featured the last of several Harvey Kurtzman interviews he gave the magazine over the years before passing away in 1993.

Groth: Frank was very proud of the issue that preceded the Kurtzman issue, and somehow thought that he earned the right to spend twice as much time on the Kurtzman issue because Kurtzman deserved more time and attention. That’s true, in theory, but you can’t run a magazine that way, so I explained to Frank that, no, he had the usual five to six weeks to put the Kurtzman issue together. The Journal was supposed to be monthly, but it was never monthly, and came out nine or ten times a year. You know, the editor of The New Yorker doesn’t get to put out the next issue two or three weeks later just because the issue he just put to bed was really good. Frank nodded and seemed to accept the logic of it, left and never came back.

Young: I was really upset and I wrote a scathing letter to Kim and Gary. If I had to do it all over again, I would have said these things in person. It was just a year’s worth of bottled-up frustration and rage. I found out later that some of the stuff I said about Kim and the way he treated people had some positive impact — I found out that he was being a lot nicer to people. I regret the harshness of the tone of that letter, but it was the best I could do at the time.

Groth: It’s always the delicate flowers who insist on their sensitivity in the face of the relentless negativity of the Journal office who write the bitter, five-page letters of resignation dripping with venom and bile. Frank Young’s ex post facto letter of resignation was a masterpiece of the genre.

Harvilicz: Then this Carole Sobocinski was hired, and that was like some nightmare that happened with her.

Yarger: Even when we were putting the Journal out weeks and months late, generally editors were a pretty devoted bunch, so I was used to a high level of commitment. They weren’t all as organized as they might have been, but they were committed. And Carole didn’t seem to have that same approach to the Journal, so it made my job a lot harder.

Boyd: I left right before Carole Sobocinski melted down. At first, we really got along, but after a while, I felt kind of used by her. We were barely speaking when I left. I wrote her a memo saying I wanted to keep writing Minimalism. She wrote back a terse note saying, “No, I’m taking it over. Give me all the minis you have to review.” I guess I could have gone to Gary or Kim and asked them, but I thought, “Fuck it.”

I had a huge box of unread minis that I put on her desk. She came down and said, “What do you expect me to do with all these?”
I said, “These are all the minicomics that people sent me. I think some are good enough to be reviewed, but it’s up to you now.” She told me to pull out the ones I thought were good. I laughed and said, “You have got to be kidding. I quit. I don’t work here anymore. You wanted this job, you’ve got it.” Then she gave Minimalism back to me — with a note saying I could continue writing it.

Later, when the whole Sobocinski thing exploded, Kim called me up and said, congratulations. You were the first person here that Carole hated.

Thompson: I’d grown to loathe Carole for several months before the blowup — I thought she was deceitful, lazy and self-serving — and had been urging Gary to fire her, but he stuck with her for some reason. He and I were having some of our periodic issues at the time and I have this suspicion she was playing those. She was very shrewd. What a horrible woman.

Eric Reynolds: I literally started at TCJ the day that Carole Sobocinski cleared out her desk, if memory serves. I may have even taken over her desk. Although we never worked together, her presence loomed that entire summer, as all of her subterfuge slowly came out and into focus.

K. Thor Jensen, cartoonist: I applied for the managing editor position at The Comics Journal in, I think, 1994. Might have been 1995. Of course, since my résumé was a paper route, opening mail on the night shift at the phone company and digging ditches for Labor Ready, I didn’t even get a call back. Prodded by my housemates, I called Fantagraphics and asked to talk to Gary.

When he wasn’t there, the receptionist — I forget who it was — asked if I wanted to leave a message, which I did. As best as I can remember it, it was, “This is K. Thor Jensen and you’re going to regret not hiring me as managing editor of the Journal because I can out-fight, out-fuck, out-type and out-proofread any of the fat-ass Colin Upton wannabes on your staff.”

A few months after that, when I had a strip published in the Journal, I used that as my biographical note.

Young: I don’t know everyone who’s edited the magazine since but I know a lot of people have gone through the same cycle of being the wonder boy or girl at first, and then at the end of their run they’re just the lowest form of scum on the earth and everything bad for the next six months is blamed on them.

Reynolds: The names of TCJ editors who left their position on good terms is a pretty small list.

Groth: I have to admit that I probably didn’t have much patience then — or now, for that matter — for Journal editors retroactively whining over how much work it was to edit the magazine. Was it a lot of hard work? Damned right it was. Is there anything worth doing that isn’t hard work? I don’t remember anyone I interviewed for a managing editor position telling me that the reason he (or she) was applying was because he wanted to put in a minimal effort and have an easy, cushy job. I would be very up-front about it: I told anyone who applied that it was a lot of work, a lot of hours and required a lot of dedication to the mission of the magazine. To me, devoting full time to editing the magazine would be a dream job. You’re given enormous (but not complete) autonomy, you have an opportunity to shape every issue, it’s intellectually stimulating, journalistically courageous and enormously rewarding. Financially, it was admittedly lousy, but it’s not like the magazine was ever a moneymaker and it was an opportunity you’re not going to find much in the real world to exercise your critical and intellectual faculties with few compromises or corporate considerations. Anyone who found this too much of a hardship wasn’t cut out for the job.

(continued on next page)

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“A Fair Bit of Alchemy”: A Q&A with Luke Howard http://www.tcj.com/a-fair-bit-of-alchemy-a-qa-with-luke-howard/ http://www.tcj.com/a-fair-bit-of-alchemy-a-qa-with-luke-howard/#respond Wed, 14 Dec 2016 13:00:30 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96384 Talk Dirty to Me and Our Mother talks about teaching at CCS, anxiety disorders, and his creative process. Continue reading ]]> lukephotowb

Luke Howard is a 33-year-old cartoonist and faculty instructor at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT, where he received his MFA. I first became aware of his comics in 2014, when I read his Ignatz-nominated mini, Trevor, in which he displayed his skill with playful, reality-bending narratives. This spring, AdHouse Books published Luke’s first graphic novel, Talk Dirty to Me, a quirkily funny, melancholy character study about a young woman at a crossroads (my TCJ review is here). This fall his newest comic, Our Mother, was published by Retrofit, and it’s his best work yet: a formally inventive, unique blend of bracingly honest autobiography and fanciful science fiction, imparted with equal doses of humor and sorrow. Spoiler: Our Mother has already made my Best of 2016 list. I interviewed Luke via email in late October and I’m very much looking forward to what he comes up with next.

Kirby: Can you tell me what roads eventually brought you to the Center for Cartoon Studies? (Basically, I’m looking for your cartoonist origin story.) 

Howard: Just like every human being on the planet, I was a cartoonist until I was about 10 years old. I truly believe that cartooning is an inevitable stage of childhood. But somewhere along the way we get too self-conscious and for most of us the cartooning stops. Lynda Barry wrote a whole book about that, right? Well, I was one of the unlucky kids who stopped. I wanted to be either Bill Watterson or Gary Larson when I grew up, and when I was around ten I asked my parents for a real cartooning desk with real cartooning tools. I figured as soon as I got the tools the professionals used I would become a professional and draw like one. So Christmas of 1993, my parents pull out all the stops and get me the real deal: a serious cartooning setup. The desk even angled the way I knew cartoonists desks were supposed to. I was all set to embark on my new career as a professional comics-making machine. But when I sat down for the first time to use it, I was devastated by the fact that my drawings didn’t look as good as Calvin & Hobbes. Somewhere in my stupid, ten year-old mind, I thought having the right tools would mean my artwork would instantly be on par with that level of cartooning. I couldn’t figure out why my drawings still looked awful; my brain neglected to see that I would have to actually practice to get better. So I came to the conclusion that I must not be destined to be a cartoonist and never touched the desk again.

In school I avoided any opportunity to make art and felt completely ashamed about my perceived lack of innate talent. Instead, I focused my creative impulses on film. Filmmaking became my passion and it was what I pursued all the way through college and into the working world. I made short films, I did commercial work, I edited, and I ran cameras. I was making a comfortable living in the film industry when the 2010 flash crash went down, which resulted in the demise of the company I was working for. Suddenly I was unemployed and having a hell of a time finding work. Somewhere in that depression of job-hunting and being creatively impotent my wife Abigail suggested that we try doing a comic-a-day project; she grew up loving manga and wanted to try her hand at it. I agreed to go along, making shitty gag comics each day. At first it was unbelievably painful, I was instantly 10 again and hating what was coming out of my pen. But I pushed through and after a month found myself actually enjoying some of the things I was making, even being proud of them. Here I was, 27 years-old, and I couldn’t get enough of drawing comics; I was neglecting to hunt for a new job because I was so fixated on making my daily comic. I realized this was an impulse I should be listening to. Then I heard about the Center for Cartoon Studies. Three months later we were moving our entire lives up to Vermont so I could attend the school. Man, it still sounds insane when I lay it all out like that. What a ridiculously irresponsible life choice. But it couldn’t be helped.

I have to say that reminds me quite a bit of your protagonist Emma’s struggles to figure out her life path in your book, Talk Dirty to Me. Was that meant to be autobiographical? 

That’s interesting. I never really thought about it in those terms before. I guess in the end it’s impossible for our comics not to be autobiographical to some degree – we’re always drawing from our own emotional experiences in one way or another. If there’s something autobiographical about Emma’s journey in that book it’s probably the fact that she’s so held back by a lack of confidence. Even as a young kid she has a lot of shame and self-doubt that keeps her from being the kind of person she imagines she could be. That resonates with me, even today. And whether that’s me feeling shamed by my shortcomings as a young artist, or Emma feeling shamed by her inability to blossom into somebody who is more secure, it certainly boils down to this idea that often we have a difficult time seeing value in ourselves. So when these liminal situations present themselves, that struggle is definitely what’s at the heart of things. Can you dig deep and find enough value in yourself to push forward? Is your confidence going to be what carries you over that hurdle, or is it ultimately going to be the thing that keeps you down?

Unlike Emma, whose future is still unclear by the end of Talk Dirty to Me, you seem to have found your niche. How is teaching at CCS for you? How does it aid or influence your own comics? Or does it hamper your process? 

It hampers my process in the way any full-time job hampers comics-making. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and a big chunk of energy and time is being eaten up by something that isn’t comics. So what’s the solution? Either make less comics, or work two full-time jobs – your day job and your comics job. For the time being I’ve gone down that second route. It’s rough, maybe not even sustainable in the long run. But there are things about my job at CCS that really keep the fire lit. My two years as a CCS student were the hardest and most productive work years of my life. As a faculty member, being around a tribe of young cartoonists that are going through the same things—pushing themselves to be stronger cartoonists with every assignment, and the constant flow of self-improvement—can be an incredible boon to my own productivity. And I think especially since I’m still relatively wet behind the ears when it comes to comics, being at the epicenter of an education system keeps me hungry for furthering my own education. Heading into my third year as a faculty member, I feel like I’ve almost been through four years as a student, if that makes sense. It’s funny, though, you mentioning that it seems like I’ve found my niche. That doesn’t feel all that true from my perspective. Not to say I haven’t been lucky to have the opportunity to make books with both AdHouse and Retrofit—maybe that is a niche of sorts. From my side of things it all still feels very precarious, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like maybe the next time I sit down to make a comic it’ll be like I’m 10 years old again, and what comes out on the page will feel unacceptable—the spell will be broken. I still feel a lot like Emma does at the end of that story, the future is unclear.

Man, how depressing was that answer? Maybe you can tell confidence isn’t my strong suit. But I’m really trying to work on that. As a teacher I get down on my students about being self-deprecating. I give them guff when they’re not being better champions for themselves. Sounds like someone’s not practicing what he preaches. Get it together, Howard.

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A scene from Talk Dirty To Me (AdHouse Books)

Well, maybe now you can direct your students to this interview! Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about your new comic with Retrofit, Our Mother. I was very impressed with your humorous approach to the material. It really heightened the heartrending reality of your mother’s situation. Can you tell me about your process for writing & drawing it? 

I knew I wanted to do a humorous comic about what it felt like growing up with a mother that had an anxiety disorder. It had a big impact on me as a kid and having inherited the disorder from her later in life, I’d hoped that maybe unpacking that a little might be therapeutic. But I also wasn’t sure I would be able to tackle it in autobiographical form – I’ve always found autobio to be especially challenging—I enjoy the emotional barrier fiction allows. I also knew I wanted to tackle this story through disjointed narrative. I’m really interested in the power of nonlinear storytelling. Authors like Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Vonnegut have always drawn me in with that kind of writing. Something about the abrupt jumping from one thing to the next feels challenging and rewarding. I think it also does a good job of mimicking what life and memory feel like. I mean, whose life actually feels like a three act structure?

I’ve never been really good at sitting down and writing out a whole comic ahead of time. My comics feel more successful (or maybe just more honest?) when I’m doing a lot of the writing as I’m drawing. I tried to come up with some humorous vignettes that weren’t literally a depiction of anxiety, but instead just really felt like that anxiety. What does it feel like to have an anxiety disorder? Maybe it feels a little like being trapped in a giant robot with a guy named Kevin that just won’t shut up and refuses to die. What does it feel like to be going through the stressful process of finding the right medication? Maybe a little like experimenting on a caged animal. What does it feel like to inherit a familial disorder like this? Maybe a little like your family has put a hit out on you. This was how I boiled down the ideas. And after I had the vignettes that I felt best served as a skeleton for the story, I was able to start roughing out my pages and playing around with things as I went along. There’s a fair bit of alchemy in the process for me—like the story starts telling itself as I dig into it. There are a lot of half-penciled pages that get tossed when a certain direction leads to a dead end, and a fair bit of improvisation and unexpected pivots as well.

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I like to pencil on crappy typing paper so that things don’t get too precious. For this project I was working relatively large – I think each page was about 19″ x 28″ or something close to that. I try to pencil through the whole story before I move on to inking. I don’t thumbnail, so the pencil stage is the most difficult link in the chain (and the longest). Sometimes I’ll find that a page I’ve penciled later in the story will require me to go back and re-pencil some previous page. I’m always carving out room in the process for that – it’s almost like a rewriting stage that happens along with drawing. I try to have the entire story locked down in pencil before I move on. I pencil really tight so my pencils usually look fairly close to how the final inks will look. To ink I’ll tape a piece of Bristol paper over my typing paper and use a lightbox to let the pencils shine through. With this particular project I wanted to try inking with radiographs (I’m usually using some kind of nib) and I was happy with the quality of the line.

Finally, I do all my color work in Photoshop. But really, more important than anything else in the process is making sure the story is feeling true and honest. I’d find myself stopping along the way and asking myself “does this feel true? Does this feel honest?” And whenever I could answer “yes” to that question, I knew I was taking the story in a good direction. Anytime I felt unsure or knew the answer was “no” was when I would start throwing away pages. All-in-all this ended up being a really rough story to tell. I mean, it seemed to come out of me relatively easy, but the emotional fallout of having to immerse myself in what these feelings actually feel like made for a very stressful spring. But in the end I found the process to be rewarding because of that. It actually forced me to deal with some deeper things I was doing a good job of avoiding.

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Do you think that it’s harder/more time-consuming to work in this more instinctual way? Does your work with your students include honing their individual work processes? 

Like anything, I think different approaches work for different people. But, yeah, I do think there is something about the approach that you and I are talking about that transfers some of the heavy lifting to further along in the process. I may be getting into the drawing more quickly, but I think it also means I’m more subject to having to edit or even redo pages. Theoretically, fine-tuning a script and really nailing the thumbnails should protect you from as much editing later. But it just doesn’t feel like the right approach for me. I seem to need that spontaneity and surprise to last a little longer. I have trouble slogging through the drawing if I feel like I’m just copying all the decisions I’ve made in an earlier stage – I’d start to feel like a studio assistant to myself. And then I’d get mad at how little I’m paying myself—suddenly I’m going on strike, it’d be a mess.

As far as working with my students to hone their individual work processes? I’d like to work more with them on this sort of thing. Currently I co-teach a course called “Publication Workshop” with Cartoonist Jon Chad, which focuses on the more technical aspects of comics, things like Photoshop, InDesign, bookbinding, cover design, etc. So our class is really about learning all the tools that assist our stories, rather than the writing or drawing of those stories themselves. That said, I like to think the way we structure our class—with some of the philosophies of design and composition—ends up having an effect on how they approach their pages. Since design and narrative are intrinsically linked in comics you end up thinking about all of those things in tandem.

Speaking of design and narrative, I wanted to ask about the section of Our Mother in which you incorporate old family photos instead of drawings. Did going all fumetti come as a sudden inspiration as you were working, or had you planned it ahead of time? It’s one of my favorite sequences in the book. 

 

That is one of the sequences I am most proud of. Originally I had planned to have some sort of scene where a mother character and a child character have a more matter-of-fact conversation about everything that’s going on. Much of the book is more obscure or metaphorical, and I liked the idea of hitting this section and suddenly laying it all out there more directly—I liked how jarring and uncomfortable that could feel. But there was no intention originally to place myself or my own mother into the scene. After all, this was meant to be self-exploration behind the veneer of fiction, right? But just like how it happens in the story, I really did hit a wall when I was trying to conjure up how to end this story. I really did have this conversation with my mother, and I recorded it hoping that maybe some idea might shake out as we were talking. After that conversation I was struck with the strong feeling that I needed to break the fourth wall somehow. It felt like the right choice in that moment.

Throughout the making of this comic I had been spilling over old photographs from my childhood, texting family members, just trying to put myself back there. Now that I was faced with this strange decision to suddenly break out into non-fiction for two pages, it made complete sense to me that the photography would serve as the best indicator that not only is this something different from the rest of the book, but that it is closer to reality than the rest of the book. I also think there is something about old photographs that can be incredibly disarming. Maybe it’s that nostalgia is like the cousin of melancholy. I can’t help but feel a little emotionally exposed when I’m looking at old photos or old home movies. I feel lucky that I was able to stumble onto what this sequence ended up becoming. I mean, without getting too philosophical, it does seem like these things are sometimes given to you from the universe as much as you yourself are conjuring them up (he said, oh so ostentatiously…).

You said earlier that working on the book forced you to deal with things you’d been avoiding. Do you mean it was therapeutic?

Maybe not initially. Initially it was a bit devastating to work on. I don’t even think I realized how much stuff it was going to bring to the surface. After I handed in the final book, I hit a kind of emotional low point. Part of that may have just been the post-project blues, but a lot of it was spending so much time thinking about and digging up the past. My brain wasn’t going to let me turn that off when I was done with the comic – I couldn’t just put the genie back in the bottle. It was clear that I needed to start dealing more with some of the things that I was uncovering. So that’s when I started trying to see a therapist more regularly for a while – as much as I could afford, anyway. Maybe the book itself wasn’t therapeutic while I was making it. But it certainly was the catalyst for something therapeutic. I think making that comic lead to some really important personal growth. It’s funny to admit that a story with giant robots, a talking ape, and a farting hot dog had such a significant role in improving my mental health. But then again, maybe it’s fitting that way.

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So what’s your followup, got anything on the horizon yet?

I have a few small things that I’m working on for the spring – shorter comics in the 24- to 48-page range. There is a longer project that I’ve been tossing around for a bit that I hope to start drawing this winter. It’s got a loosely sci-fi bent and it tackles a lot of the issues that I started getting at with Our Mother. I’m not done exploring mental health in my comics yet.

I also hope in the years to come to tackle a memoir about my childhood, growing up with a father who was in the Air Force and then ejected from the military when he came to terms with being gay. The impact of that situation on my parent’s marriage, the difficulties my father faced as he was forced to abandon his dream of becoming an astronaut because he couldn’t hide who he was anymore, and the trauma that was leveled on my mother as this all started to come out—our inability to accept homosexuality for so long in this society has ruined and/or messed with so many lives. At the same time, if my father hadn’t had to repress his homosexuality for so long, my parents wouldn’t have ever married, and this chubby ginger would never have been born. Anyway, as you can see, there’s a lot to unpack about my familial history. I’m just waiting for the right time.

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“Everything Was in Season”: Fantagraphics from 1978–1984 http://www.tcj.com/everything-was-in-season-fantagraphics-from-1978-1984/ http://www.tcj.com/everything-was-in-season-fantagraphics-from-1978-1984/#comments Thu, 08 Dec 2016 13:00:35 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97414 We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited and exhaustive oral history of Fantagraphics Books. This chapter's topics include the wisdom of Gil Kane and Art Spiegelman and the growth of the Fantagraphics publishing family: Amazing Heroes, Nemo and … comic books Continue reading ]]> The following is an excerpt from We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books put together by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. This particular section covers the late ’70s to mid-’80s, when the company was headquartered in a three-story house in Connecticut, and began publishing comics as well as criticism. Watch out for appearances by Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Jack Jackson, Gil Kane, Art Spiegelman, Heidi MacDonald, R. Fiore, Bud Plant, R.C. Harvey, and Carter Scholz.

Long shot of the second Stamford office house, which was thankfully set back from the road (i.e., hidden from view)

Long shot of the second Stamford office house, which was thankfully set back from the road (i.e., hidden from view)

NEW DIGS

Gary Groth: I don’t remember our move to Connecticut feeling that momentous. Everything seemed impermanent to me back then. The company could have gone out of business two months after we moved to Connecticut; I would’ve just moved on.

Kim Thompson: You have to bear in mind that never in my life up until that point had I lived more than three years in the same house, let alone city, let alone country. So moving to Connecticut was a smaller leap than anything that had come before.

Rick Marschall, comics historian and Nemo editor:
I flattered myself at the time to think that I played a role, or planted a seed, regarding the move to Connecticut. I met Gary, Mike and Kim after I started at Marvel, and I had just moved to Westport for the second time. I remember urging a Connecticut World HQ for Fantagraphics on Gary as a matter of inevitability and pride. Comic-books artists in the stretch between Greenwich and Ridgefield included Gil Kane, Curt Swan, John Byrne. When I later moved from my apartment in Westport to a house in Weston, Bill Sienkiewicz took the apartment; Terry Austin then rented upstairs. Anyway, I have a recollection of urging Fantagraphics’ move to Connecticut for all these reasons — and of course proximity to New York City — and my memory is that Gary said “Connecticut?” in the same way Ralphie asks Santa in A Christmas Story, “Football? What’s a football?”

Groth: I knew nothing about Connecticut, had never set foot in the state before. But, New York was too expensive (although I don’t know if Brooklyn was more expensive than Connecticut at the time) and Connecticut sounded like the kind of place we could rent a house rather than an apartment.

Thompson: The move to Connecticut was a pretty big deal in one way: At that point we both quit our day jobs. I was a general office worker. Gary was doing freelance typesetting. He didn’t so much quit a job as stopped doing it. At that point we realized we had to do this as a full-time job or not do it.

Groth: When we got to Connecticut, we rented a house. It was only the two of us at the beginning. We worked in a basement in the house for about a year, but the basement flooded at least once, causing havoc with comics, files, everything on the floor (which was everything). So, we moved to this huge three-story house, in an exclusive section of Stamford. Everybody thought I was nuts, since I was the one who engineered this move, but I thought we needed more space and I thought it was something of a deal. It had five bedrooms, two living rooms, three sundecks, a ground-level “basement” that wouldn’t flood, a two-car garage. It was in this area surrounded by other huge houses, owned by TV-network executives and doctors and lawyers. We clearly didn’t belong there.

Groth and Thompson in the second floor where the office had grown, circa 1983

Groth and Thompson in the second floor where the office had grown, circa 1983

Dwight Decker, editor: Some people called it the Ski Lodge because it somewhat resembled one, built into a hillside so the second-floor back door was at ground level while the first floor/basement had a front door. It was well back from the street and pretty well surrounded by woods. There were other houses in the area, and I wonder if there was a potential conflict with zoning laws since Gary was running a business out of his house and there were UPS and other delivery trucks making frequent stops.

Kenneth Smith, cartoonist and writer:
Every closet and shelf-system was crammed with reference copies and Fantagraphics publications. The living room was rather shadowy and very amiably laid out, nearly a conversation pit. It must have been a fun place to work, even with hell-on-wheels deadlines over everybody’s heads. In retrospect, I guess I wonder why there weren’t more tables and working surfaces. I know I always have a shortage of unencumbered surfaces, not to mention shelving.

Thompson: It was the same thing, different place. We just lived in a nicer house.

Steven Ringgenberg, editor: It was in a beautiful neighborhood and I liked to go running when I lived there.

Groth: We shared a really long driveway with one other house. Five of us lived in the house. The office was on the ground floor in a large wide-open space, which included a bedroom and a sauna. Yes, a working sauna! The living rooms and the kitchen and two bedrooms were on the second floor and on the third floor were two more bedrooms. Our neighbors put up with us for six years. I don’t know if they knew quite what we did. I think they probably thought it was some drug-dealing operation, and the fewer questions asked the better.

Decker: Because housing was so expensive in Stamford, Gary sublet bedrooms to a couple of people who had nothing to do with Fantagraphics and worked elsewhere (I can’t remember if it was more than one). I can only guess what they thought of the mad goings-on.

Tom Heintjes, Comics Journal news writer:
As the new guy, I got the crummiest accommodation. It was a storage room where they kept boxes of back issues. I stacked the boxes up and laid a mattress on top of the boxes. I had enough room to sidle out and then sidle back in at the end of the day. All I ever did was work and sleep.

Mike Catron: It was a very nice house. It had paper walls, kind of a Japanese design. The upstairs main bedroom where Gary was had a huge sliding door with paper panes. Down in the basement, they had a sauna. It was a redwood booth, with a pile of coals, you’d turn on the electricity and you could get a sauna bath. That lasted until we needed more space and it became a storage area for something or other. Kim was fond of going down there in his little towel and taking a sauna.

Decker: Most of the work was done in the finished basement, which had a drawing table for paste-ups, a typesetting machine and a couple of desks. Somewhere in the rear was a small room where the back-issue stock was stored. Kim had a back bedroom, I seem to recall, but exactly where it was and if I was ever even in there, I’m not sure now. Gary had the master bedroom on what amounted to the third floor, facing a balcony that looked out over the living room. Hours were very irregular, with all-nighters being frequent. Gary in particular had shifted his schedule to the point that he almost never emerged before noon, and he had to struggle if he had a morning appointment in New York City.

Groth: Ernie Bushmiller lived in the house next to the beginning of our driveway. We could see his house from the balcony. I didn’t give a shit about Ernie Bushmiller at the time so I never even knocked on his door. But I remember passing his mailbox every day with his name on it.


THE FIRST EMPLOYEE: PRESTON “PEPPY” WHITE

Thompson: The first person we hired when we got to the new house was Peppy White. We hired him on to do production work. We were tired of doing it all ourselves.

Groth: Peppy moved to Connecticut from Virginia. He was a pal of mine from Virginia. We were expanding and needed another hand.

Preston “Peppy” White:
I moved to Stamford, Connecticut, when I was about 20. Having been friends with Gary since I was 14, and having similar interests in publishing and comics, I guess I was a logical choice to be the first employee.

Thompson: Hiring Peppy also marked the beginning of the period where the Fantagraphics staff was a bunch of our buddies working in the Fantagraphics commune. Tom Mason, a friend of a friend, was hired soon thereafter to supplement the production staff.

Peppy was a great kid. He looked up to Gary. At that time he was three or four years younger than Gary. The distance between 22 and 18, that’s a lot more than between 50 and 46. We got along great.

Heintjes: Peppy was a real character. He was a very high-strung, very energetic, very funny, very cutting and very witty guy. He was older than me. When I came there in my early 20s, he was in his mid-20s. He seemed experienced and worldly.

I always admired Peppy, because he was an art director on a lot of key, early projects.

Thompson: Peppy worked his ass off and was a really sweet guy. He was also kind of a goofball and accident-prone. I still remember the eerie calm in his voice when, in the middle of trimming sheets of cardboard with an X-Acto knife, he said, “Guys … I need someone to take me to the hospital. I just cut off the tip of my finger.”

Groth: He cut the tip of his finger off once with an X-Acto blade. I was about to take him to the hospital and thought I should grab the damned thing to take with us. I looked around for it on the floor and couldn’t find it! Then I noticed my dog, Plato, slinking off. Ooops.

Heidi MacDonald, writer: They once tried to set me up on a blind date with Peppy White. There’s a deep, dark secret for you.

Thompson: He would get into the most bizarre scrapes with girlfriends, other people, the law and household objects. These occurrences became known as “Pep stories,” and would get told and re-told, often by Peppy himself.


GIL KANE’S FRIENDSHIP


Groth:
I spoke to him on the phone once or twice to set it up, but I really met Gil Kane for the first time when I interviewed him for the Journal at a Boston convention. Subsequently, I spoke to him on the phone often. We would have these marathon conversations. In the beginning, I don’t really think he knew who the fuck I was. I would call him, say, “Hello, Mr. Kane,” and he’d be off and running. I would occasionally interject a remark and set him off in another direction. He was so voluble that it was as if he hadn’t talked to anybody else between our phone calls and had to make up for it talking to me. At first I think he just enjoyed talking and I enjoyed listening, so it worked. When I moved to Connecticut, I called him up and we got together.

Thompson: Gary and Gil Kane knew each other before we came to Connecticut. There was a big Kane interview in Comics Journal #38. That interview cemented the beginning of their friendship. Certainly by that time, they were thick as thieves. Gil was a real father figure to him, and they had a warm personal relationship.

Elaine Kane, Gil Kane’s widow:
We lived in Wilton [Connecticut] and they lived in Stamford. They became really good friends. Gary would come to the house. We would go to their place in Stamford; they had big parties and everything. It was an interesting relationship. They were both very intelligent. The conversations were interesting. A lot of time was spent later on with Burne Hogarth as part of the group.

Gil enjoyed Gary and his — how can I put it? — not his odd behavior, but his against-the-grain behavior. Gary did pretty much what he wanted. Gary would come over and we would go to dinner and Gary would be wearing a shirt that said, “Fuck” on it. We would meet people and Gil with a straight face would introduce them and we could see the horror on their faces.

White: Once I went out to dinner with Gary, Gil and Burne Hogarth. Gil and Burne spent the whole night arguing with each other. Gary and I could only sit back and watch these two titans verbally wail away at each other about this point or that point as if the fate of the intellectual universe hung in the balance. Burne would be yelling and pounding the table and Gil would wave his hand in the air dismissively and say, “No, but you see, my boy … ”

We took a drive up to Gil’s house in Connecticut and surprised him on his birthday. He was really touched and had no idea we were going to do that. He had the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. We all had screwdrivers sitting in his studio.

Burne Hogarth and Gary Groth, circa 1984

Burne Hogarth and Gary Groth, circa 1984

Groth: I enjoyed how outspoken Gil was. Most artists of his generation had this unspoken but strictly adhered-to policy of never speaking candidly about their fellow professionals. Gil was willing to criticize publishers, people who wrote his paycheck, and that was enormously attractive to me. I told him once, when I was still in Maryland, that he reminded me of Gore Vidal, who was literally a year older than Gil, with, at that time, the same silver-colored hair, and the same aristocratic bearing. But, he replied that he felt more like Norman Mailer. Mailer was my height and bellicose. I didn’t get it at the time. He explained it to me and it made sense — Gil always felt like the odd man out in comics. Vidal was critical of entrenched power, but he was part of an elite social circle whereas Mailer was always viewed by his peers with skepticism if not outright hostility and occasionally a grudging admiration — just like Gil. So, I was only looking at surfaces when I made the analogy, and Gil was exactly right on a deeper level. Even though he achieved a certain literary respectability, Mailer acted like an outsider.

Gil Kane, circa 1971

Gil Kane, circa 1971

Elaine Kane: They respected each other. They would tweak each other about the business. There was a lot of trust there, too. They trusted each other. They were both great readers; they would read different things and discuss them. It was an interesting time. A very interesting time. They became very good friends based on mutual respect.

Groth: If you’re lucky, you’ll meet a handful of people throughout your life with whom you click. Gil and I clicked on a profound level. We shared so many of the same enthusiasms and admirations and passions. It’s such a pleasure to be with someone with whose values you’re so in synch. And so rare in the context! At that point, in 1979, 1980, we were roughly the only two people in the comics profession who shared these values. Or so it seemed. That would change and change quickly as The Comics Journal gained steam and more and more people who shared those values wrote for it, and more artists joined our cause. But early on, it felt like the two of us against the world.

Gil Kane, “An Interview with Gil Kane,” The Comics Journal #38 February 1977:

The thing in comics are the pictures, the images. Comics are totally a visual form at this point. Its entire appeal is in the emotional impact of those images, of those fantastic images — on the eye and the mind. And they make deep connections, deep emotional connections that keep people rooted to this material long past the time that they’ve gotten tired of the last repetitious comic book.

Groth: He really was a provocateur and attracted genuine animosity from his peers; he wasn’t just putting on an act, he was the real thing, he believed what he said. He was smart, and thoughtful and had theories about cartoonists, all of which made sense to me. He was the only guy in mainstream comics with his brains and ambition who wasn’t living up to them. We talked about it endlessly.


CLICKING WITH ART SPIEGELMAN AND FRANÇOISE MOULY


Art Spiegelman, cartoonist:
I can’t remember when I met Gary. This is the problem of being a memoirist with Alzheimer’s.

Gary Groth at a press conference in Marvel's office, circa 1981

Gary Groth at a press conference in Marvel’s office, circa 1981

Gary Groth at a press conference in Marvel’s office, circa 1981[/caption]Groth: When I went to New York, I’d go to Marvel press conferences and then go to other, more enjoyable social gatherings. I met Art at a party that might have been put on by Marvel or DC, which strikes me, in retrospect, as odd because it wasn’t Art’s context at all. The thing I remember mostly was talking to Art without being very familiar with his oeuvre. Art’s comics appeared in so many different comix that I didn’t quite have a handle on him. An artist-editor named Larry Hama, who was editing or writing some gung-ho military-related comic for Marvel at the time, walked up and started chatting. He and Art got into a big argument.

Spiegelman: I remember Larry Hama. I don’t remember arguing with him, but I guess I’m an argumentative type, so I guess it could have happened.

Groth: I could be wrong about the trajectory of the conversation, but Art must’ve known of this shitty comic Hama was editing, was clearly offended by it and told Hama exactly how he felt. And I remembered being impressed because Art was not pussyfooting around, he was telling him he was pushing a fascistic point of view, which is what I thought as well. It was a memorable confrontation, and you don’t see too many of those at comics parties. I remember being impressed and admiring Art, his willingness to confront someone like that.

Thompson: We knew about Spiegelman. Breakdowns had come out. We knew about Arcade, we knew about that material. We knew about the original Maus, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” and all of that.

Groth: Art wasn’t a prodigious cartoonist. I was familiar with the major underground cartoonists, but I wasn’t familiar with Spiegelman. I had read a few of his things but couldn’t place the name. Kim knew either of him, or Kim might have met him on one of his trips to New York.

Thompson: Spiegelman was a fairly early major interview. As I recall, it was issue #65, and in fact when we first started talking to Art, he was working on the first issue of Raw. The first part of the interview was done before the first issue of Raw came out. The second part was after they had done the first issue of Raw and they were working on the second issue.

Groth and Thompson in a photo taken to accompany their interview in David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview magazine, circa 1981

Groth and Thompson in a photo taken to accompany their interview in David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview magazine, circa 1981

Spiegelman: I was aware of them; I don’t know what happened when exactly. We were monitoring what they were up to. It was all part of, at that time, a small market for weird material.

Thompson: As you might imagine, Gary and I and Art and Françoise clicked very much. Raw Books was a complete inspiration.

Spiegelman: We knew what we wanted to do very early on. It overlapped what was happening in comics. But it wasn’t of it. In some way it still isn’t. I feel somehow in the center of the mix and to the side of it. Even at a point where a lot of people we introduced in Raw are being published by Fantagraphics, I’m still bumbling to the side somehow.

Groth: I liked Art and Françoise, but I don’t think they were an inspiration to me, at least not in terms of publishing. Raw was sui generis and wasn’t really a model for anything I felt we were capable of doing. What I found inspirational about Art was his infectious enthusiasm for greater sophistication in comics. He was always discovering new (or old) cartooning talent. One of the major virtues of Raw was all the European artists it brought to my attention. Every time I would drop by Art’s place in Soho, he’d drag out various artists’ work that he had on hand for the next issue of Raw and proudly display and explicate it. His enthusiasm was absolutely infectious.

Spiegelman: It wasn’t just European comics. It was trying to find a place to stand as the underground comix tide lapped back out towards the horizons. There were a number of interesting cartoonists with no place to go. A good case in point was Charles Burns, who has certainly come into his own in the years since. But when we first met him, we were trying to shoo him away. When Charles showed up at our door after seeing the first or second or both Raws, we were trying to shoo him away since people were ringing our bell every so often because we lived and worked in the same place. We asked him, “Whoever you are, send stuff.” And then when he sent stuff, it was like “Please come back.”

He told us the stories of trying to get published in underground comix. That just seemed mind-blowing to me. It was proof that there was a need for this weird thing we were doing. That Denis Kitchen had no place for him, for example. Certain artists from the Arcade days still needed a home, because they couldn’t find one. Mark Beyer comes to mind as a good example of that. People I was teaching when I was teaching at SVA had no place to go, Drew Friedman and Mark Newgarden and Kaz being examples of that. There wasn’t any construct for any of these things in the 1980s. Anything that was even close became something we’d look over. Our aesthetic and Wendy Pini’s was very different, but Elfquest started at the same time, and we became very aware of that. Similarly with Gary, when he began publishing Lloyd Llewellyn and the Hernandez Brothers, it was interesting. If anything, it took me longer to recognize those artists because it was closer to my ideal of what a mainstream should be.

Groth: We weren’t publishing comics when we befriended Art; we were just publishing The Comics Journal. That was our connection: He was reinvigorating comics and publishing the kinds of comics we wanted to see and we were publishing a critical magazine that could write about them.

Thompson: We admired the literary graphic ambition. The enormous care they took with production. The integration of international work, which was certainly unique to them. They represented everything we wanted to see in comics.

Spiegelman:
We had great conversations about comics from the get-go. That I do remember.


PUBLISHING COMICS

Thompson: Money was always a problem. When funds would run low, we’d try to think of some way out. We had to figure out things that would make us a ton of money. That was the time we did the X-Men Companions, a Focus on: George Perez, a Focus on: John Byrne, an Elfquest companion as well. For all the hostility between us and Marvel and us and DC, they were remarkably accommodating with something like the X-Men Companion. They even shot a shitload of photostats of X-Men pages for us. There was an old idea that fanzines could print as much as they wanted, and it would serve as promotion. It was a little dicier doing a whole book, but they were perfectly amenable to it.

23-focus-on-john-byrneGroth: I cut a deal with Jim Shooter, who gave us carte blanche to use all the X-Men images we wanted to for the X-Men Companion. They even supplied black-and-white stats for us. My gut told me that there was a sort of quid pro quo implied, that we would be nice to Marvel in The Comics Journal as a result of this largesse. I chose to ignore that implication, of course.

Thompson: At that point, we’d also started publishing Amazing Heroes, which took a bit of the edge off our relationship with Marvel and DC. Not only were we publishing a magazine that was friendlier to them, but because of AH, The Comics Journal started focusing less and less on mainstream comics, which means we pissed them off less.

Heintjes: Gary offered me the princely sum of $12,000 a year, which is $12,000 more than I ever made in my life. I thought this was great.

Thompson: We never gave ourselves any money. Gary and I had to give ourselves minimal salaries. I didn’t get any salary for years. I was essentially unemployed. I still get those annual Social Security statements that list your annual salary all the way back to when you were 20 and there’s about five years when it’s literally zero, and then it moves up to $2,500 or something and finally cracks five figures years later. We didn’t buy much. We needed money for gas and food, movies and maybe a couple of books. Temptation only occurs when there’s a period when you’re flush, so that was never an issue with us. We usually had nice houses, but we had a bunch of people living there. In Connecticut we had a gorgeous house. But he lived there, I lived there, we sublet a room, the office was there and so on. There was no money to piss away, though.

Groth: We weren’t set up to publish comics, per se, but back then things were so loose. We had the distribution channels in the growing comics-shop market, and by that time there was Phil Seuling’s Seagate Distributors and Bud Plant and a couple of smaller distributors. We were probably dealing with four or five distributors. There may have been a shitload of them, but they were all pretty minuscule. We had the infrastructure and this inchoate distribution system locked in because of the Journal.

Thompson: Publishing was a logical thing. Gary had already done it. He’d done it with a magazine called Always Comes Twilight. That was more of a graphics thing, less comics, but there were a couple of short comics in it. That was in the late Fantastic Fanzine days. We were also publishing comics in The Comics Journal. We were reprinting the Howard the Duck and Spider-Man newspaper strips. And I think at that point we were publishing some short comics by Grass Green. We ran a few episodes of this utterly weird medieval comic by Don Rosa, years before he became the new Carl Barks.

Groth: Always Comes Twilight was basically a hold-over from my fanzine days, eventually published in 1976, a few months before we started the Journal, but full of the artists I published in my fanzine. I don’t remember why it took so long to publish or even how I managed to do it at that time.

Don Rosa, cartoonist: I don’t recall how the comic strip that I did for Comics Journal #41 came about … But I recall why I did that strip, especially since it was nothing like the comedy-adventure sort of stuff I’d always done. By 1977 I was living in an apartment, eating meals at nearby restaurants and eventually struck up a friendship with a waitress in a nearby Denny’s. I soon learned that she had a slight drug problem, but was very interested in fantasy “sword and sorcery” writing. I thought if she wrote a story for me to illustrate that might help her self-respect or something, anything to get her off needing the drugs.

A page from Don Rosa's fantasy epic "Tagdenah", serialized in the Journal for several issues

A page from Don Rosa’s fantasy epic “Tagdenah”, serialized in the Journal for several issues

So she wrote “Tagdenah”, a short story about a wizard in some medieval land. Never asked how she came up with that name. It was a short piece … maybe four pages, and I did it all with captions like Prince Valiant. She and I did a second “Tagdenah” strip for TCJ, but I don’t recall what issue it was in [#145]. I really don’t recall if there was any reaction from TCJ readers, probably because getting such approval wasn’t the main intention. But it doesn’t matter … I failed at helping the girl get off drugs, and I heard a few years later after I’d moved away that she had taken an overdose of drugs on the day of her little sister’s wedding — depressed, one would assume — and had died. So, the story behind the story has a sad ending.

Thompson: The Flames of Gyro by Jay Disbrow was the first original comic book we did. Disbrow, Hugo, Los Tejanos and Don Rosa’s Comics and Stories — they happened really close to one another. It’s all a blur.

Groth: I may have met Jay at a convention and I don’t remember if he offered to do a comic for us or if I asked him if he would; the former seems more likely. I thought it would be fun to publish an old school Golden Age artist who had dropped out of the field and wanted to come back.

Jay Disbrow, cartoonist:
Gary Groth, he must be in his 70s by now. Is he still publishing? I met Gary Groth at a convention. He remembered my comics for Star Publications. He let me do whatever I wanted, which was science fiction. The comic was called The Flames of Gyro.

Groth: We had a very extensive correspondence beginning in the end of 1978 about The Flames of Gyro. There was a lot of back and forth about this and other projects he pitched. He drew the book on these enormous, two-and-a-half-by-three-feet sheets of paper. Each page was as big as my desk. I’d never seen original art this size before. They stopped drawing them that big around 1952 or so.

Thompson: It was literally, “he was there and he had the book.” He said we could publish it and we said, “Sure!”

Groth: He drove the original art up and left them with us. Flames of Gyro was this goofy Flash Gordon-type science-fiction/fantasy thing. I shouldn’t say “goofy,” because it was dead serious, but that made it even goofier. It had this weird labored beauty to it, because it was drawn in a meticulous wash. That made it a production challenge because it had lettering and wash on the same page, so we had to double-burn it to make the wash reproduce in halftone while the lettering would retain its 100-percent black ink. I remember enjoying it as a learning experience.

Marschall: I was driving somewhere with my wife and kids — maybe to start a vacation — and I stopped in for some reason. Gary and Kim could not wait to show me the artwork that had just arrived. These usually quiet and invariably cynical guys were breathless, watching for my reaction as I looked at each page. I honestly thought they were putting me on. I mean: Disbrow, nice, old-school gentleman and all that; but I really thought it was the craziest junk I ever saw. Gary and Kim were serious; I mumbled some niceties and drove the hell out of there.

Groth: We thought it would be an interesting experiment, to see if we could publish a comic. Jay himself was such an ingenuous guy, a sweetheart, much older than us, though younger than I am now, I think. He had grown up in the very commercial environment of comics, so he was a real professional grown-up but also had a childlike enthusiasm for this work. He drove a big American car — something like an Impala — and smoked a pipe and wore a suit. He was like my dad (except for the pipe). I can’t explain why we published it, really, except we thought it would be fun and we genuinely liked Jay.

Disbrow: I used to work for L.B. Cole and I wrote my own material. But I hadn’t worked in comics on a full-time basis since the big crash of 1954. 80 percent of comics publishers folded after that due to the infamous Dr. Wertham and a congressional subcommittee investigation connecting juvenile delinquency to comics. Only the giant publishers survived that.

I had to go into commercial illustration, which paid more, but it wasn’t the same. With the comics, you have a romantic element, mystery and drama. I knew from the time I was 14 that was what I wanted to do.

Thompson: How many did we print? I don’t know. Maybe 2,000.

Disbrow: I
don’t think it sold very well, because it was a one-time thing. We didn’t do any more. It wasn’t competitive, because it was black-and-white. I’m sure it would have done much better if it had been in color.

Groth: We had copies of The Flames of Gyro for years. It filled our garage. We must’ve printed 10,000 copies. Finally, right before we moved to L.A., I asked Jay if he wanted to pick some up, free. He drove up in this gigantic car — a Caddie or a Buick or something. And we just kept loading the car up, filling the trunk, the back seat, every available space that wouldn’t be occupied by he and his wife, and Jay kept saying, “That’s enough,” and I’d say, “Just another few boxes, Jay.” We didn’t want to haul those damned things to California.

Ad copy for The Flames of Gryo, 1979:

What unholy power throbs within this medallion … that drives men to kill for it … and die for it!? This man knows its secret and has sworn to destroy it … but this man wants it — at any cost! From the freezing void of space … to the raging hellfire of a remote world … theirs is an epic conflict which can only end in death!

Disbrow: After The Flames of Gyro, I did a little bit more in comics and I went to the conventions. I did six years of a strip for the Internet called Aroc of Zenith, 312 pages, but I’m retired now.

Groth: Jay was drawing a sequel to The Flames of Gyro, but, uh, we didn’t publish that.

Bud Plant: I don’t think that sold very well. Maybe it’s time to pull those puppies back out. I thought he was a funky artist back then, but I kind of like a lot of those guys now.

(continued on next page)

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An Interview with Kerascoët http://www.tcj.com/kerascoet-interview-by-alex-dueben/ http://www.tcj.com/kerascoet-interview-by-alex-dueben/#respond Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:00:09 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96865 Continue reading ]]> paulantoinette_coverIn recent years Kerascoët has established themselves as one of the great cartooning teams working today. The husband and wife duo of Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset have created a number of books including two volumes of Dungeon: Twilight and the four book series Miss Don’t Touch Me, which NBM collected in a single volume. In 2014, NBM published Beauty and Drawn & Quarterly published Beautiful Darkness, two very different books, both of which were among the best books published in North America that year.

The two recently visited the United States, where among other things they saw the release of their first children’s book, Paul and Antoinette. It was also just announced that among their many upcoming projects, the pair will be illustrating Malala’s Magic Pencil, a children’s book written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, which will be released next year.

The first thing I read of yours, the first comic published here in the United States, was Dungeon: Twilight. Was that first comic you made?

Marie:  We started Dungeon and Miss Don’t Touch Me at the same time.

When did the two of you start working together?

Marie:  We met in art school and we started at the end of our studies. We lived in a very small space. We only had one desk and so we started working together we couldn’t switch from one thing to another. We heard about a contest to be published and we only had two weeks. We didn’t ask ourselves how to do, we just jumped.

How do you work? Do you both pencil, ink, and color?

Marie:  Yes.

Sébastien:  We don’t draw the same but we are complimentary.

Marie:  We don’t have the same style.

Sébastien:  We don’t separate the work–sketches, inking–like comic book artists sometimes do. It’s more like in animation or some Japanese manga-ka. She works essentially with the characters. I mostly do the backgrounds and things like that. But she also makes the mise-en-scéne, the storyboards, sketches, inking, coloring. It’s always different with each project because we don’t draw with the same style.

Marie:  And we change our process.

Artistically, your books are similar, but they each have a distinct look.

Marie:  Yes we try to change our tools and our process from one project to another. We like to explore different things. We don’t think about style, but it comes from us so there’s the style. Most important for us is to have a book that is coherent.

Sébastien:  When we start a project we make our own rules and constraints. We play with the rules, like playing a game, but we know the rules of the game. When it’s done we move to another thing. We want to always be surprised by our own drawings and process. When we do the same thing for a year it becomes a routine and we don’t want this.

How do you decide what projects to do?

Marie:  It’s hard to agree.

Sébastien:  It’s harder and harder

Marie:  It needs to have meaning and it has to be important for us. We need to have something to tell. Not to just make a book to make a book.

Sébastien:  At the beginning, a lot of it was from meeting people. We met Hubert and we wanted to do something with him. We talked about what all of us wanted to do together. Our projects are always collaborations so it’s not that someone is writing the story and then after gives us the story for us to draw. We work at the beginning with the idea of the project and what we want to do together.

Marie:  As a team

You enjoy complicated narratives.

M&S:  [laughs]

Sébastien:  Not so complicated.

Marie:  We like when stories are intense and very full. I don’t know how to say it. There’s a lot of panels, for example. We want big stories. Dense.

You like stories that are dense and they’re big, but I think about Beauty which kept moving in different directions and it was huge but also intimate.

Sébastien:  In France it’s three books, so when you read the three of them together it’s big.

Marie:  As a reader or spectator, I like to be lost. I don’t like to know what’s going on. I’m for me one of the best movies is Mulholland Drive because I don’t know what I watched. That’s the best thing. You go out of the movie and you want to go back to be in the movie. It’s still with you when it’s over. You carry it with you. That’s what I like in fiction.

missdont-touchme-1One example of that would have to be Miss Don’t Touch Me, which is four books, and the mystery that sets the plot in motion is solved and resolved at the end of the second book.

Marie:  For us the characters are very alive. With Miss Don’t Touch Me, the character is a real person and we wanted to know what’s happening to her after everything.

Sébastien:  When we talk about her, we talk like she’s somebody we really knew.

beautdark_pg59You’re also not afraid to go to dark places. I think everyone who read Beautiful Darkness was shocked by it.

Sébastien:  It’s probably the most intimate book we made because it was Marie’s idea in the first place. We worked with Fabien Vehlmann together because we had so many common ideas and thoughts that we wanted to put in the story. It’s about childhood and death and a lot of stuff. And innocence, I think.

Marie:  But there’s a comic part in it. You can laugh at it, too.

Sébastien:  It was our strange sense of humor.

Where did the idea start originally?

Marie:  I made a lot of sketches. I knew how to start the story. The first ten pages were very clear in my head. Then I met Fabien Vehlmann and we talked a lot about the story and it echoed in his work. It’s very funny. It’s about depression, but in a funny way. [laughs] He’s a very funny guy. When I talked to him about my story I told him I can’t draw it because it’s so depressing but when I told him about the sketches and he looked at them, he was laughing. I was so surprised. So the three of us started to work together.

beaut_dark_cover-fullBeautiful Darkness has a much more painted, lush style. You had that in mind from the start?

Marie:  Yes, that’s what we wanted. We wanted to be in nature and paint nature and have fun with it. We just finished Miss Don’t Touch Me and there’s a lot of backgrounds that are not funny to draw like buildings and cars.

Sébastien:  There was a lot of research.

Marie:  Lots of research. We live in Paris, but we wanted to feel nature and the seasons.

paul_antoinette_int2 paul_antoinetteint1Your publisher sent me a copy of your new children’s book, Paul and Antoinette. How did this come about?

Sebastian:  We started to work with Kirsten Hall of Catbird Agency in New York. She contacted us a few years ago. She was building her own little agency and she looked all over the world for people she wants to represent in the US. So we said, okay, why not.

Marie:  She showed our art book to Claudia [Zoe Bedrick] and she fell in love with a character we made a few years ago–this pig with the big glasses. She asked us to make a story about him and that’s how it started. We want to make more and more children’s books. For me it’s the holy grail of fiction. I’m so happy to see it.

So you had Paul and then gave him a sister.

Marie:  Yes, she said how about make a couple? We thought a strange couple. He looks very clean and strict and so we gave him a sister. [Sebastian] has a sister and I have a brother and when you are two you are very different roles. As a child my brother had glasses and was strict and everything was perfect in his room. I went to his room when he wasn’t there and just opened the door and closed it and when he came back he knew I had opened the door. I don’t know how because I didn’t touch anything. I liked gross things a lot. I ate the grease, the disgusting part of the meat, just to watch him react. I loved the pleasure of watching him react.

Sébastien:  It’s also a way to talk about accepting different people, and accept that people who aren’t like you can bring you something else in your life.

Marie:  I’m so happy with what she did with the book. It’s a beautiful book.

I gave the book to a few people to read who commented that they liked how the typical gender dynamic–that the girl would be neat and the boy would be messy–was flipped.

Marie:  Thank you.

Sébastien:  Most of our characters are female. We like strong female characters. Like Miyazaki.

Strong characters and complicated characters.

Sébastien:  Yes, Blanche in Miss Don’t Touch Me lived through a very difficult thing–her sister killed in front of her–and for us it’s very important that the characters always bring what they experienced in and after they don’t forget it. Sometimes in fiction [characters] live through a horrible thing and two minutes after it’s like, woo! Everything’s cool. I just lost my mother, my sister, my hometown but I’m great. For us, no, it’s not possible. She just lived through something awful. Even if after something nice happens, she’s always affected by this. We were talking a lot with Hubert because sometimes he made her do things and we would say, she wouldn’t do that because she’s not a victim. She will take the best of it and she will fight. When we draw we are always in the heads of the characters. Even when they are pigs.

beauty-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I did especially love the ending of Beauty, because it really made this point about the nature of beauty.

Sébastien:  It was a long process. If we had to write the end of the book when we were just starting the project, it wouldn’t be like that. It was the result of all the things that we did. We were very happy because Hubert’s first ending was dark and there was lot of death and we didn’t want that. We said, we did that, now we need a happy ending. What’s wrong with a happy ending? They fall in love and they are meant to be together so don’t fight against it. He agreed. It was against his nature at the beginning, but at the end he was very happy with it. We were very happy. But it was a fight. [laughs] We don’t want to always make the same kinds of things. If you want to surprise people you have to sometimes think differently.

beauty-2Beauty was the most recent comic that you’ve made which has been translated but I know that you’ve made other books since then.

Marie:  We had a book that just came out called Satanie.

Sébastien:  With Fabien Vehlmann.

Marie:  It’s about a group of people who go into the ground and go too far and they arrive in hell. It’s funny, too. [laughs]

Sébastien:  It’s like an adventure story. A road movie, but a road movie in the ground. It’s also a psychological story about what’s happening in the characters’ brains.

Marie:  The deeper they go, the more they know about themselves

Sébastien:  They’re struggling with their own demons but also real demons. [laughs]

Marie:  I’m working on a strange ABC in France with a friend. That’s my next book. It’s a strange ABC with phrases with all the words starting with the same letter. All the letters are like that. The translation has been very difficult. It’s difficult to make it work in French and English.

Marie:  We have a lot of projects. We are making another children’s story in France. We are working with a French theater to make children’s books from short plays.

Sébastien:  We also have a project in animation with Benjamin Renner who was the director of Ernest and Celestine. We’re working on an adaptation of Les Tchouks, the children’s books we made in France. We’re trying to adapt it for an animated TV show.

 

Thanks to Alix de Cazotte, Program Officer at the Cultural Services at the French Embassy, for arranging the interview.

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The Gift http://www.tcj.com/the-gift/ http://www.tcj.com/the-gift/#respond Wed, 30 Nov 2016 13:00:52 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96677 Continue reading ]]> A grand drawing for Hal Roach, discovered during research for the biography of George Herriman, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White, reveals the deep friendship between the famed movie producer and his resident cartoonist. For a two-part conversation between Paul Tumey and biographer Michael Tisserand, click here and here.

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Chico and Groucho Marx were there. So were Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer and Harold Lloyd. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were guest speakers, as were Jean Harlow and Will Rogers. The master of ceremonies was Charlie Chase. Few could dispute Film Daily’s report that the “Hal Roach anniversary dinner-dance was easily one of the best parties held on the coast in years.”

The party began on Thursday evening, December 7, 1933, and lasted until the next morning. Five hundred invited guests joined Roach at his studio in Culver City to celebrate his twentieth year as a studio head, with thousands more listening to an NBC radio broadcast of the proceedings. “Memory Lane was all lighted up with electrics,” reported Grace Kingsley for the Los Angeles Times. “The place had been fitted up like a palace.”

It’s likely, but not certain, that George Herriman was among those in attendance. Herriman’s friendship with Roach dated back to at least 1920, when they went on fishing trips together. Introductions probably had been made by Herriman’s close friend and former Los Angeles Examiner colleague Harley Marquis “Beanie” Walker, who appears to have begun working for Roach in 1917, writing titles for Harold Lloyd’s “Lonesome Luke” movies. When Herriman returned from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1920s, he set up shop in Walker’s office, and drew “Krazy Kat” while Roach’s comedies were being filmed around him.

Although news accounts of Roach’s party don’t list Herriman, a newly discovered Herriman cartoon is dated the night of the party, and most likely was presented to Roach at the event. It is a grand gift. There are sharp and funny caricatures of stars such as Laurel and Hardy, Will Rogers and Charley Chase, as well as Roach’s behind-the-scenes men, including Our Gang director Robert McGowan; Roach’s old friend Lewis Albert “Al” French; and Beanie Walker, shown “rhapsodizing rhetorically, attempting what might be termed, a ‘script.’” Roach’s father, Charles, and brother, Jack, are seated on a bench, with Officer Pupp, Krazy Kat, and Ignatz peering out from behind them. Soaring over the whole affair is a magnificent Hal Roach himself, riding a polo pony and announcing that he has just cleared his twentieth hurdle. “I do the hurdling, and he gets the credit,” responds his horse, wide-eyed.

Herriman inscribed his gift to “‘Hal,’ dolling,” adding the nickname he seems to have acquired on Roach’s lot: “The ‘Squatter.’” It is a characteristically modest move by Herriman, but the generous drawing is an unmistakable sign of the great affection shared between Hal Roach and George Herriman, as well as how much Roach must have enjoyed having the resident cartoonist drawing “Krazy Kat” on his lot. The full-color original of this gift has not been located; currently the only evidence of it is a black and white photograph that had been carefully preserved in a scrapbook by Hal’s mother, Mabel Roach. It is reproduced here for the first time.

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An Interview with Lawrence Hubbard http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-lawrence-hubbard/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-lawrence-hubbard/#respond Wed, 23 Nov 2016 13:00:03 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96254 Continue reading ]]> real-deal-1
We asked the great Johnny Ryan, author of Prison Pit and Angry Youth Comix to interview one of his favorite cartoonists, Lawrence Hubbard, who has just released the collected Real Deal Comix. Real Deal Magazine was a barely-known but much-loved comic published in the 1990s that contained hardcore gangster, Blaxploitation-influenced comics. It was rediscovered a few years back and written about over at my old alma mater, Comics Comics, and Lawrence did his first public appearance in years in 2010 at Cinefamily with Johnny in honor of my book, Art in Time. So we’ve brought them together again for a conversation about the new book.

Johnny Ryan: At what age did you start drawing? Who were the artists that inspired you? Was there a point early on that you knew you wanted to pursue art as a career? Did you receive any encouragement from your family? Was anyone else in your family an artist or have interest in art?

Lawrence Hibbard: I started drawing at the age of 3. I liked drawing mechanical things like trains, cars, buildings houses, and then I decided I needed to add people to the mix, at that young age I knew I wanted to be some kind of an artist, I loved to draw and couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do. My mother encouraged me very much, my father sometimes, but he was a cold and distant man. My influences were the artist who drew the comics in the Los Angeles Times at the time, Rick O’Shay, Brenda Starr, Rex Morgan MD, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. I liked it because it was violent, characters got killed, I remember one panel where Dick Tracy punched a guy with an upper-cut and his teeth shattered and blood flew out of his mouth! In a Sunday comic strip. I also loved Doug Wildey who drew Johnny Quest. I admired his realism. At that time Disney’s Wonderful World of Color came on Sunday night, and they would do specials about the “nine old men” — their great animators like Ollie Johnson and the rest who worked on Dumbo, Snow White etc., and I decided I wanted to be an animator.

For comic book artist I always loved Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Steranko. Also E. Simms Campbell, an African American cartoonist whose work was in Esquire, Playboy, Stag etc. I would like to do a film about him if I ever get a chance. I was also a big fan of Mad magazine in its prime, Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, George Woodbridge, Jack Davis, etc.

What was your high school experience like? Did you enjoy it? Did you ever have to beat the shit out of some wise ass punks?

My high school years were rough, my father had run out on us three years earlier and we were pretty broke, living on welfare and food stamps. I didn’t have any clothes or other fly gear a lot of my friends had (bellbottom pants, print shirts, platform shoes, cool hats, looking like the Jackson Five). I pretty much kept a low profile, but I always enjoyed my art classes.  After High School, I got a job at a now defunct savings and loan in the stock room, doing shipping and receiving and unloading trucks, no time for college, broke needed money. Over the years I took classes at Santa Monica College, UCLA, Otis Art Institute, but never had time to get a degree, always working and taking care of other people. Funny thing is all my fights took place in junior high school (what they call middle school now) when I was there in the early ’70s the gang bang shit was getting hot and heavy here in Los Angeles, Crips, Brims, Ace Duce, Piru’s (now called Bloods).

And you had a bunch of assholes running around talking that shit who were just wannabes, they would wear the gang attire, talk the talk, but they had never been jumped into “The Set.” These motherfuckers were always talking about jacking somebody, they tried to jack me numerous times. I fought like a motherfucker. I’m proud to say that after three years at Louis Pasteur Junior High I did not give up one cent! I was broke and angry and wasn’t taking any shit! I remember one time I fought 2 guys at once in the boys bathroom, they tried to jack me for my few wretched cents I had, I was like G.C, “Fuck this shit you ain’t taking my money!” It was like a fuckin’ movie! I slammed one dude’s head into the sink, threw an elbow at the other to get him off of me, then went to work on him, I felt no pain, no fear, I started growling, I felt a primal rage! They both said, “Fuck it! It ain’t worth it” and ran out the bathroom! I felt real mannish after that! If I can fight two motherfuckers  at once, one ain’t shit!  Word got around after that, I got my respect! I never fucked with anybody and I never backed down from anybody, when you’re in a fight you go into the zone, your adrenalin is pumping, your in survival mode, you feel the pain of the punches later! If a fool tried to jack me and stepped to me and said  “Homeboy, give me a quarter!’ I’d say “Fuck a quarter, I got a dollar! All you gotta do is take it from me” And they would punk out as usual.real-deal-73

Did you ever use your art to get women? List their names and phone numbers.

The majority of the chicks I have run into over the years don’t care about art that much. Ask me this again when and if I get the “Real Deal Show”!

There’s been some attempts to turn Real Deal into an animated TV show. Can you tell us about that?

A few years back J.J. Villard, the most hardcore Real Deal fan on the planet, got us a pitch meeting with Nick Weidenfeld at Fox Animation. Nick had just been hired as head of a new project called ADHD “Animation Domination High Definition”, and they were looking for new shows. This was the first pitch meeting I had ever been to and I was nervous and sick on the stomach, it was me, J.J. Villard, who had worked with Nick at Cartoon Network, and Adam Weisman, art director for Stussy, who had done a video about me and my work for Stussy.

It was so Hollywood! A cute young assistant ushered us into his office and offered us water, a minute later Nick entered the with his personal assistant, plopped down on the couch and said “What you got for me?” I think J.J. started talking first since they knew each other, then Adam showed him the one minute animated scene of Real Deal on a tablet, Nick smiled and laughed and seemed to be digging on it, then Nick started asking me about Real Deal, for a second my mind went blank — “Real Deal, who what?” Then I just started talking and went into the zone, gave Nick and his man several issues of Real Deal. Nick was smiling and said “I have to have this!” and we had a development deal! I couldn’t believe it! I had heard of people pitching for years and never getting shit! Anyway the money that was offered was so low I’m not going to mention it, but we had a deal.

After many meetings and tables full of sandwiches and drinks it was decided to hire a writer since me and Adam both had full time jobs and JJ was about to go into production with King Starking. After several meetings we decided on a talented young man named Brian Ash. He really studied the material well and seemed to pick up the Real Deal vibe. He wrote a full script and outlines to ten other scripts — good work. Anyway to make a long story short, after about a year we stopped getting phone calls, feedback and requests for comic books. We contacted the studio to find out what was going on, and when were we going into production. They finally got back with us and said some studio big wig in New York thought it was too violent and didn’t want to do it. They we’re sorry and asked if I wanted to come in and talk about it. I felt like someone had ripped my guts out! As usual, I had to say fuck it! and kept on going.real-deal-23

What was the lowest point in your life and how were you able to get through it?

I’ve been through many low points in my life, many deaths, many financial problems, etc. But one of the worst things to happen was when my partner in Real Deal, Harold Porter Mc Elwee, aka RD Bone, died of a stroke and a heart attack in April of 1998. I couldn’t have loved him anymore than anyone could; he was like a blood brother to me. It was devastating, and the fact that our futures were entwined with each other, we were going to have our studios together, comic books, animation, live action etc. Now it’s all gone! It can’t be! I have to keep going!

Tell us about your working schedule. How often do you get to draw? How are you able to balance having a “day job” with being an artist?

I currently work as a security guard in a high-rise building in the Miracle Mile area. I work Saturday through Wednesday, I’m off Thursdays and Fridays. I can only draw on my off days because when I get home on my work days about 11:30 pm I just pass the fuck out. We walk about three miles a day on our patrols  and we stand a lot, dealing with the idiots who come to the building and running out the homeless people who want to camp out in the lobby. It can be very draining. That’s the most frustrating thing about it is not getting enough drawing time, artist are like athletes and musicians, the more we practice the better we get! I worked for years in the IT industry as a Production Control Analyst, Computer Operator, Tape Librarian, Data Control Specialist. All those good jobs have either been outsourced or turned into month-to-month contract jobs with no benefits. I’ve been a licensed insurance salesman, but that’s all commission-based and a hard grind, one week you make money the next you don’t. I suffer for my art.real-deal-45

What do you have to say to those college sucking wimps out there that think your comics are too violent, misogynistic, and racist?

What I have to say to them is “Fuckin’ read Real Deal.” Whenever you have idiots who say that stupid shit, the first question I ask them is, “Have you read it?” Then they always say, “No.” Real Deal is satire and if you don’t get it, put the book down and step away from the table! People are so wrapped up in this politically correct bullshit its like they’re brains are constipated! They’re like Pavlov’s dog. If they see or hear things that aren’t PC, they blurt out certain responses without knowing what the fuck they’re talking about!

I just learned from the Inkstuds podcast that you’re really into conspiracy theories. What are the ones you’re most concerned about? Where do you go to find the most exciting conspiracy theories?  

You know it’s funny that so many things we are told just don’t make any sense if you think them through logically. Sometimes if you bring these things up, the powers that be try to slap you down or destroy you after they give you a chance to get your “mind straight” of course! I don’t want the shadow government coming after me, because I’m ill equipped to do battle with them. But just get into the details of the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, also 9/11, The USS Liberty etc. Many things just don’t add up and there are many coincidences and connections between the people involved that seem improbable, and thanks to the internet I see lots of people are thinking the same things I am. That’s what inspired me to create Real Deal #8 “The Psyop Issue”, it will show how it all fits together, at least in G.C.’s life!

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Edward Sorel on Mary Astor, Hollywood, and Operatic Gestures http://www.tcj.com/edward-sorel-on-mary-astor-hollywood-and-operatic-gestures/ http://www.tcj.com/edward-sorel-on-mary-astor-hollywood-and-operatic-gestures/#respond Fri, 18 Nov 2016 13:00:05 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96863 Continue reading ]]>
mapdNow in his eighties, Edward Sorel has had a career that is the envy of most cartoonists and illustrators. His long career has included a significant body of work for magazines like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Nation, Ramparts and The Realist. He was a co-founder of Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser. He’s a muralist, children’s book author, has illustrated dozens of books, and has been the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

His new book is Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936. The heavily illustrated book tells the story of the actress best known for playing Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. Astor was raised by a nightmare of a father, started working in Hollywood during the silent film era, was married multiple times. Her divorce trial in 1936 featured her “purple diary” which detailed her colorful personal life. It serves as a portrait of a very different time in ways that are both funny and puzzling. Sorel’s book is not just a straight up biography of Astor, but also his story as well and is heavily illustrated with what his fans will recognize.

I loved Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, and it was a revelation because when I think of Mary Astor I think of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, which I think is what most people think of when they hear her name.

The knock that she gets for The Maltese Falcon is that she was too old, or at least that she looked too old. Her alcoholism did age her a bit as she was only 30 when she made the movie, I think. She looked a little older. The real problem I think was that the Hays Office, with their insane censorship, did not allow Huston to show a sufficient amount of sexual passion to make the plot plausible. That final scene where he tells her that he’s going to turn her in, you’re supposed to feel that he’s really torn between turning her in and saving her because he really is passionately in love with her. There was nothing in the movie that showed it or made you feel it. I think there’s one kiss that ends with him looking out the window. So I don’t give her a knock. I think she was plenty sexy. I think it was more the censorship rather than her age that was the problem.

You make the point in the book that she was a good actor, but she made few good movies.

Very few good movies. Aside from Dodsworth, which to my mind was the greatest of all her movies, there are very few. I suppose she always acquitted herself as best she could, but the movies themselves are not worth watching. I was criticized by one person for not including The Palm Beach Story in my book but I thought that was basically a pretty silly movie. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Mary Astor in Dodsworth.

Mary Astor in Dodsworth.

I love Preston Sturges, but I agree with you about The Palm Beach Story. Besides Dodsworth and The Maltese Falcon, Red Dust is interesting but not great, and I love Meet Me in St Louis, but Astor is the mom and she’s barely in the film.

That time was her pre-suicide period. She was continually trying to kill herself because she couldn’t stop drinking. That was one of her mother roles.


You talk about how you learned about this sex scandal in the book, but did you know her work from before that when you were younger?

Certainly not. I remember her when I was 10 years old in 1939 in The Prisoner of Zenda because she was just so beautiful. She had the perfect turn of the century Victorian face. I remembered her in that, but no. When you’re a little boy you’re empathizing with male characters rather than female ones so I was more interested in James Cagney or others.

Throughout your career you’ve shown a lot of affection for that era of film.

Yes. As I intimate in my book, because of the studio system you saw the same supporting actors week after week. There was always Franklin Pangborn or Thomas Mitchell or Edward Everett Horton or any number of supporting actors you saw week after week and they became a kind of family. It was a family that didn’t have any conflict. I was always drawn to movies because there was a great deal of conflict in my family in my expanded family. Politically at any rate. Several members of my family were avid communists and they were always castigating the members of my family that weren’t communists, so there was always that conflict in my family.1-2

You mention in the book that you came upon this story decades ago. Why did it take you so long to write the book?

Because I had to make money. I had four children and had to send them through college. I was lucky enough to have lots and lots of deadlines. I made a surprising amount of money, considering. On the one hand I was very, very lucky to go through life making pictures. On the other hand I made a lot of worthless pictures. A lot of the most haunting work an illustrator gets is for advertising and most of that stuff is just worthless. I was doing a lot of that and then suddenly the field came to an end. As the computer took over and as the internet took over there was less and less advertising in print and then print started to vanish. Ten years ago I suddenly realized there’s not much work out there. I was lucky because I was able to create my own ideas and sell them to magazines, but that didn’t produce much income. By the time it utterly disappeared about five years ago I started thinking in terms of finally doing the book I planned to do fifty years ago. It took my three years to do it including a false start that got rejected, but I finally did it and the rewards were much much richer than anything I had done before. Even the murals that I did, which up until my book were the high spot of my artistic life. The book was even more satisfying than that.

What was the false start? What went wrong?

I was doing it relatively straight. I was telling the Mary Astor story and I wasn’t part of the story. As I walked out of my publisher’s office with my rejected dummy one of the assistant editors said to me, you know if you put yourself in the story, it might work. Once I put myself in the story, it was a breeze. It not only became amusing, but it was fun to write. I was having more fun writing it than I ever did drawing. I’ve always said that the only people who enjoy drawing are amateurs. Once you’re a professional, you have certain standards and certain visions of what the drawing should be and you don’t always come up to it. I can’t say the writing was fun, it was hard work, but I took great pride in it. It was my voice and my opinions and I was able to talk to Mary as long as I was in the book.

As someone who knows your work, the writing felt like the way you draw.

You couldn’t have said anything nicer to me. I have always admired spontaneous drawing and I have always hated my drawings because they occasionally got overworked. I have always admired people like [Ludwig] Bemelmans and Feliks Topolski and Jules Feiffer who have enormous energy in their drawings. I admire drawings that have spontaneity, and I don’t always have that. I think probably because my ideas are occasionally very operatic–they have many people in it and many things to explain. It’s very hard to be spontaneous when you have to do a picture with many elements and they all have to come out in the right place.endpaper_resized

There are lots of illustrations you’ve made over the years which have lots of elements and I’m picturing many. Along similar lines, the endpapers of the book have a nude Mary Astor reclining with the studios in the background and other elements. How did you decide on that image and assemble it?

The truth is that I love detail and I love reference material and I love swipe material. I do a lot of research. One of the reasons I do so many parodies of art that was done in the past is because the old masters were masters of composition. I’ve always considered composition my weakest skill. To have an old master where the compositions are perfect, it’s great fun to parody. When I was looking for something to do for the endpapers I went to Google and looked at hundreds and hundreds of designs and I must have found something that suggested the naked Mary Astor figure. I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember what my swipe material was. I knew the other elements that I wanted, so it was easy after that. There was the plane crash that her first husband died in and the movie studios she worked for. I have no shame about looking to other artists and other art for inspiration.

That differed a lot from all the interior drawings in the book?

I’m always amused when artists talk about where their inspiration comes from. The truth of the matter is that all of us are terribly influenced by photographs. Citadel Books did a whole series of movie books, paperbacks of different actors and actresses, and I have a lot of them. I never got proper training in life drawing and my mind is not a computer that can produce gestures easily. I need to see certain gestures–and convincing gestures. I think to the extent that my drawings are interesting is that the gestures are interesting. That’s what cartooning and illustration is all about. It’s all about gestures because there are no words–unless you’re a cartoonist doing a comic strip–so the gesture has to really tell the story. I work very hard at gesture. I hope it shows. I hope the labor doesn’t show, but I hope the gestures are convincing.

csofy-ew8aa9xdkWhy did you chose to draw the interior illustrations that you did?

The great thing about doing a book is that you can pick the scene you want to draw. There was one scene that I knew I had to do–her father attacking her because of what he considered her lack of ambition. I did a kind of strobe shot of his fist banging on the piano. I knew I had to do that even though it was a very difficult picture to do. Then there were the pictures that had absolutely nothing to do with the book that I did because I wanted to. There’s a picture of Tom Mix with some car that was made in Los Angeles that nobody knows about. I did it because it was fun to draw and I had a picture of it. The book was in my entire life this book was more a labor of love than anything I have done before.

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I know that you went to art school, but you said earlier that you never studied life drawing?

Because it was impossible. I went into art school at the very time when drawing was considered rather old hat. The illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post were condemned as the lowest form of art, illustrated books stopped, the New York school of abstract painting was considered the acme of fine art. I graduated from Cooper Union in 1951. The good thing about it was there were plenty of jobs and the bad thing about it was that I still didn’t know how to draw. My drawing skill–which was not too bad when I was nine years old–had completely atrophied from going to High School of Music and Art and going to Cooper Union. The thing that was valued was design and abstraction. Which interested me not at all. And still doesn’t. Even though I started Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, which was essentially a design studio. I did learn how to do design, but it never really interested me. What I loved was drawing.

You seem to have found a niche of doing illustration fairly early in your career, though. At least that’s how it looks from the outside.

I suppose. Some young people have an image of what they want to become very early in their life. All I ever wanted really was to have my own apartment. When I was a young man I didn’t care how I got the money to get my own apartment, but the truth of the matter is I wasn’t good at anything except drawing. Fortunately I was able to make a life for myself where all I had to do was draw pictures. I was a hack to start out with and gradually became something more than a hack. I regard my early years of working for agencies and working for magazines as being paid to learn. I did what was required and in the process learned how to draw.

10You have been for many years now at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Nation and work that’s above hackwork.

Well above hack work. I like the work I do. I’m proud of the work I do. But it’s the old line, if you want to be the top banana, you’ve got to start at the bottom of the bunch. One of the reasons I learned to work in pen and ink was because the easiest work to get was work from the newspapers. At the time I started out, there were a lot of newspapers. They didn’t pay very much and the only thing that worked in a newspaper was linework so I had to learn how to do line. And I did.

At the end you make the point that you hope someone will write a full-length biography of Astor, reissue the books she wrote, and put her on a stamp.

Yes. [laughs] I make a presumptuous comparison to Felix Mendelssohn who was instrumental in bringing Johann Sebastian Bach to prominence again. He was a largely forgotten Baroque composer until Mendelssohn showed his the magnificence of his music. I too am eager to remind people that Mary Astor did was a great talent, although the thing that must be said against her was that she did not value her talent. She had been offered many times contracts for leading roles but avoided it because she was afraid that it wouldn’t last long. She knew that as a supporting actress she could have a very long career and in fact she did. Supporting actors can have very long careers, but she didn’t do anything about getting good roles for herself. And it’s a pity.

Like I said before I knew her from a few of her films, but having read your book, she is a fascinating character.

Thank you. I thought so.

And more interesting than most of the characters she played on screen.

[laughs] Yes. A friend and I tried to turn my book into a musical but it proved to be impossible because she was a woman who did not take her life in her own hands. Most musicals are about women who are indomitable, like the Unsinkable Molly Brown or Coco Chanel or others. Instead of doing things, Mary had things done to her which made her an impossible subject for a musical. She still might be a good character for a straight play.

She’s just so passive.

Yes, very passive. Her evil father knocked all her guts out of her. She learned to be obedient and do what others told her to do. She kept marrying men who were the same way–who took control of her and very often exploited her and took advantage of her.

You said that this book is the most satisfying project you’ve ever made. Are you trying to write another book?

I’m trying to figure out a way of doing a memoir that’s amusing and yet says something about the political scene. How we went from triumph in World War II to Donald Trump in the 21st Century. I think we did it by having a series of incompetent and criminal Presidents from Eisenhower on. The only person I exempt partially from that description would be Obama, who I think is a decent and well-meaning person. The other Presidents, every one of them, committed vile criminal unconstitutional acts. Everybody forgets that lovable Dwight D. Eisenhower overthrew at least four democratically elected governments while John Foster Dulles was his Secretary of State, and the others that followed him were no better. I’m going to try to do a memoir in which my rage combines with my pleasant memories of those years.3

I’d be interested to read that. Over the years you’ve been willing to step on peoples’ toes.

Only powerful people. [laughs] No point in stepping on the toes of the weak and powerless. But yes, of course. Especially hypocrites. Especially Democrats who say one thing and do another. I had more fun with Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey than even with Richard Nixon although he was really probably the King of the Hypocrites. I’m more critical of those who are supposedly on “my” side than I am of easily recognizable enemies.

Well, Mr. Sorel, I know that you have to go. Thank you so much for taking the time.

You can call me Ed. I may be old, but I’m just a cartoonist. [laughs]

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“Why Draw Comics About Anything Else?”: The Keiler Roberts Interview http://www.tcj.com/why-draw-comics-about-anything-else-the-keiler-roberts-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/why-draw-comics-about-anything-else-the-keiler-roberts-interview/#comments Thu, 17 Nov 2016 13:00:34 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96905 Continue reading ]]> kkKeiler Roberts quickly gained attention for her autobiographical mini-comic Powdered Milk, which explores her life with her family from right around the time her daughter Xia was born into the present, when she’s both a professor and cartoonist. With her bone-dry sense of humor and highly expressive, loose line Roberts pulls no punches in her short vignettes. While Roberts has the instincts of a humorist and structures her comics in that form, it’s her willingness to frankly address issues regarding the postpartum depression she experienced as well as her ongoing issues with bipolar disorder that give her comics power and authenticity. Roberts establishes herself as an irascible protagonist whose interactions with her daughter reveal an important truth about parenting: children are often as terrible as they are wonderful, and often at the same time. Xia functions as an unending source of funny malapropisms, to be sure, but she also reminds Roberts of her responsibilities. Roberts’ artist husband Scott functions as a kind of witty straight man, a source of calm and strength as Roberts goes about her day as best she can.

Roberts is also a keen observer of character dynamics and the humor of awkwardness, as a hilarious strip about a trip to a day spa that involves comparing bodies with a friend demonstrates. Roberts writes a lot about social anxiety and the ways in which she copes with the world, but her strong storytelling and character focus prevents it from being didactic. Her stories are little bursts of truth that trust the reader to make connections, and even the most emotionally wrought situations are tapped for their humor. She won an Ignatz award for Outstanding Series at SPX 2016, a couple of years after she drew strips in which she discussed her dread in potentially attending the show. She addressed all of these topics and many more in this interview, which we collaborated on together in a shared document. I edited it for format and made some minor corrections, as well as reordering some of the questions for clarity and flow.

Robert Clough: Where were you born and raised? How old are you, if I may ask?

Keiler Roberts: I was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Sun Prairie (which is just outside of Madison) Wisconsin. I’m 38.

RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends whom you read comics with?

KR: No, I read the Sunday comics and a few things my brothers had lying around – Mad Magazine and Groo the Wanderer. I never read superhero comics.

RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings or friends?

KR: My three older siblings were all much better at drawing than I was. I drew slightly more than the average kid, but not a lot until middle school. I made dolls and doll clothes. I was too cool doing that to bother reading comics or drawing.

RCDid your parents support you in your endeavors related to art growing up?

KR: My parents always supported me in whatever I was interested in. They never questioned me about what I wanted to do. They weren’t fanatics though. They didn’t come to every event. I never felt like they were hovering. They also allowed me to quit things without question.

RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?

KR: I had a loving family, and we still all get along well. My childhood was full of the stresses that most kids face, though. I had all kinds of insecurities. Kids are cruel, especially girls. When I was around eleven, I think my depression started, as did my body issues. We had a ton of pets, which I loved. I don’t remember my parents ever yelling at me. I was always obedient, though. I wanted to please everyone. My mom is a much better mom than I am. Xia’s probably a happier kid though.

RC: Your mom makes frequent appearances in your comics. What does she think of you putting her on the page, and does she like this version of yourself that you portray for her?

KR: My mom has never said that she likes being a character, but she doesn’t complain about it. She’s a great sport. She says I make her look like an idiot, but I think I’m just making her a likable character. I think people can really relate to her character, but in person she can be very intimidating.

RC: How so?

KR: My mom is very direct and honest. She says what’s on her mind. She has a natural sense of authority. I don’t know if it comes from her voice, eyes, height, or personality, but she makes an impression. She’s really gentle and funny, but I don’t think it’s the first thing you see.

RC: Did you study art in high school or college?   

KR: Yes, I took as many art classes in high school as I could. I went to UW-Madison Wisconsin for a B.F.A. and Northwestern for an M.F.A. I studied painting. When I started college I planned to get a teaching certificate so I could teach high school art. I switched my major when I got involved with the advanced painting class at UW.                                     

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Starting In Comics

RC: Was Powdered Milk the first work you self-published?

KR: No, I illustrated a children’s book that Steve Fiffer wrote called Arctic Bears Chase.

RC: You’ve said that you got into doing comics by taking a class with Aaron Renier. What motivated you to take that class in the first place, and what was it about the class that was so inspiring?

KR: I was working on a blog that had some autobio components. I wanted to work with images and writing in some way, but I knew nothing about indie comics. My husband told me to try comics. He’s the head of Animation at DePaul University. He hired Aaron to teach the comics course and then scheduled it to fit with my teaching schedule. It was the greatest gift he’s ever given me. I was also teaching full time at DePaul at the time and was in Aaron’s class with some of my own students. It was humbling.

Aaron knows everyone in comics. He brought all kinds of work in to show us along with his own pages that he was working on. The assignments had a beautiful structure. They really prepared us for the final project, which was a full minicomic. I made Powdered Milk vol.1. I felt like I was beginning a new life. I had even changed my last name a few months before. I knew then that Scott was right – comics were my replacement for painting, which I’d been struggling with for ten years.

RC: What was it about comics that replaced painting? Why were you struggling with painting? What was it you were trying to express that wasn’t coming through?

KR: I was trying to create a picture of life from my point of view. Painting has so many layers of interpretation based on its history and contemporary art. It’s pretty inaccessible to most people. You have to be trained to “read” a painting. I always felt the need to explain what I was doing but resented having to say anything at all about it. I don’t feel like I have to explain my comics. People understand them, and if they don’t like them it’s probably because their tastes are just too different from mine. I don’t feel the need to defend anything. The physical accessibility is also extremely important to me. I want everyone who wants them to have my comics. If they can’t afford a book, they can read a lot of it online for free, or go to a library.

This is what I think the reasons were, but really I just kept getting depressed from painting. Even when things were going well for me professionally, I didn’t want to be involved with the art world. Since I started making comics, every aspect of it – drawing, writing, reading, meeting people in the field, facebooking, and teaching – continues to open up in exciting ways. I always wanted to make some kind of book with words and pictures and figured it would be a children’s book, but after I did that I knew I really wanted to make something for adults.

RC: Why was it important for you to do something for adults in particular? Was writing for children alone too limiting, not allowing you to express what you wanted to express? Or was it simply the urge to express yourself autobiographically not really fitting into kids lit?

KR: If I had an idea that I really liked now for a children’s book I would do it, both the writing and the illustrating. I assumed, based on the children’s books I’d read, that  I would be very limited in terms of content. Some parents have told me that their children, who are Xia’s age and older, love to read my books. Maybe I could do something for kids with the same structure, style, and content as my books, with smaller changes. It’s actually been on the back of my mind for a while. I wanted to write for adults because I’m the audience I aim to please. I would have to feel the same way about writing for children – that my personal taste guided the project and I wasn’t working to please kids or publishers. I’d have to trust that kids would like what I like.

RC: Why draw comics about yourself, as opposed to other subjects?

KR: Why draw comics about anything else? I’m really interested in what’s true – real life experiences. I only have full access to myself. It’s not because I think I’m especially interesting. I would do autobio from your point of view if I could.

RC: Do you like having a sort of established “cast of characters”, each with their own roles in your story?

KR: I do, but I would like to include more people. I just haven’t found a natural way to do it. I have close friends that have never been in a comic.

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RC: How do your husband and daughter feel about being characters in your work? Have you ever had to self-censor something because you realized it was too personal for them?

KR: They generally feel good about it. Xia laughs her head off when I read her parts to her. I do hold back on their behalf. I don’t write about Scott in ways that would make him look very bad or would reveal too much. He proofreads all my rough drafts if he’s in them. I won’t put anything in about Xia that I think might embarrass her. It’s hard to know exactly what that’ll be with kids though.

RC: Do you ever collaborate with your husband Scott? Are there unique challenges or benefits to living in a two-artist/cartoonist household? Do either of you ever seek out the advice of the other in helping to solve particular difficulties you might be having with what you’re working on?

KR: No. I hate working with him on almost anything. He wanted us to make a birthday card for Xia together and I scowled at him, drew a bunch of stuff very quickly, and said, “You finish it. I’m going to bed.” Of course when I woke up there was this gorgeously ornate card on the counter. He’d somehow covered everything I did in this lace pattern. I just want to get it done. He wants to take forever and consider all the options and then be elaborate. It’s not just him though, I don’t want to collaborate with anyone.

RC: Why?

KR: I’m too paranoid about pleasing the other person. I can’t trust my instincts.

We rarely ask each other for advice. It’s great having an artist partner because we can go to things together and we understand a lot about each other, but we work pretty separately. We share a studio but we’re on different schedules.

RC: Does being an autobio cartoonist in any way impact the way you live your day-to-day life? Do you find yourself “acting” in order to get a good “scene” for later?

KR: I don’t think so. I guess I go into certain situations with an open mind, thinking it might make good material (like King Spa), but I’d never say I’m acting. I’ve always been turned off by people who seem to be performing in life. They aren’t usually autobio cartoonists.

spaRC: The King Spa story is one of your most memorable. Do you remember any awkwardness in the actual moment, because what sets the story apart is the actual ease I sensed in the way you depicted it. Also, when your friend said, “Now we’re really friends”, did you know then and there you had the ideal punchline?

KR: I know there wasn’t ever any awkwardness among my friends who went there together. I don’t remember if I knew at that point that I would use that conversation. I’m generally forgetful about the process that lead to any comic. I’ve always recorded good conversations in my journal – long before making comics, so I may have just written it down to preserve it.

RC: You’ve alluded to dealing with body image issues. Do you find that drawing yourself nude is in any way therapeutic? Do you find it easy or difficult to do so?

KR: Yes, it probably is. I love bodies. One of my favorite things to do is go to the beach to stare at everyone – the more variety the better. I can’t articulate what it is that I love – why I care that some women carry their fat in their hips and others their thighs. My own body issues stemmed from not feeling sexy. I thought if I got thin enough then I would be “dateable.” It’s not hard to see where this perspective came from. My weight yoyo-ed significantly in high school. In grad school I watched a friend of mine flirt, and it dawned on me that personality is sexy. That should’ve made me feel better, but instead I started to worry more about my personality. Anyway, if I think about myself – my body or my personality – in a way that’s separate from sex appeal, I am ok with it all. That’s the way I felt at the spa with my friends. I have this funny body, like almost everyone else, and it’s super fun to draw. I don’t look at myself when I draw by the way. There’s even more nudity in [Roberts’ upcoming book] Sunburning. Scott just shakes his head. I don’t think it would be therapeutic to draw my body from observation. When I imagine things – anything – my body, a memory of an event, a place – I don’t judge it like I do in life. It becomes warmer and more acceptable.

RC: What cartoonists’ work did you look at before starting your own, if any?

KR: I learned of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, and Vanessa Davis in Aaron Renier’s class. I loved them all immediately and they are still at the top of my list of favorites.

RC: John Porcellino was an early champion of your work, selling it through his Spit And A Half distro and generally talking you up. Did it feel immediately validating to have someone you admired support you right off the bat?

KR: I was shocked and deeply flattered. I still am. John is amazing in so many ways. I owe him so much.

RC: How did you settle on your current style, which is both naturalistic and minimalist?

KR: I try to draw without thinking about style at all. Like, if someone said to you, “Draw a little picture of your house so I can see what it looks like, and I’m leaving in five minutes.” I put in all the details that help to tell the story, and I use them to make a good composition, and that’s it.

RC: What cartoonists do you draw inspiration from now?

KR: I don’t know if there’s anything specific that I’m borrowing from their work, but some of the cartoonists I’m enjoying right now are Noah Van Sciver, Lisa Hanawalt, Simon Hanselmann, Carol Tyler, Roz Chast, Leela Corman, and Tom Hart.

RC: Do you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or something else?

KR: I think of myself as an artist because that’s my whole background, but I enjoy the writing part more. It’s easier for me.

RC: Do you enjoy the simple act of drawing apart from working on your own comics?

KR: Yes. I enjoy figure drawing the most, but only short poses.

Teaching

RC: What’s the experience of teaching like? Do you teach cartooning, drawing or something else?

KR: I get Sunday night dread before my Monday classes, but I always enjoy working. I teach Indie Comics at the School of the Art Institute and Beginning Drawing and Figure Drawing at DePaul. I’ve taught all kinds of other classes, but this had been the routine for the last few years. The best part of teaching is getting to know the students. The more diverse the class, the better. I’ve learned that my first impressions cannot be trusted and many of the students who immediately irritate me become my favorites.

RC: How much of your own work do you show your students? How do they react to it?

KR: I usually show them a few stories in the beginning. It’s really awkward if I show them something funny and no one laughs. Sometimes it goes really well though.

RC: Is teaching satisfying on a creative level for you?

KR: I can be as creative as I want to be with teaching. No one tells me what to do at either school. It is satisfying, but I have to make something physical/visual in order to be satisfied in general.

RC: What’s your Indie Comics class like? Do you teach them cartooning, character and storytelling techniques? What texts do you use, if any? What comics do you have them read?

KC: The students do a few short assignments, then make a 24 page mini comic that they print for everyone in the class. I choose different readings every year. This year it was Best American Comics 2015, My Hot Date by Noah Van Sciver, Scab County by Carlos Gonzales, Sec by Sarah Ferrick, and we had two visiting guests – Nate Beaty and Whit Taylor. My husband is coming as a bonus to talk about Risograph printing. I also bring books every week to pass around. I try to select cartoonists that make really different work from each other. I talk with them a lot one on one while they’re developing their final comic. I don’t teach them cartooning, but we talk a lot about content, storytelling, composition, drawing, incorporating the text with the image, etc.

RC: Has Xia shown any artistic inclinations thus far? Is that a path that you’d enjoy seeing her pursue?

KR: Xia is drawing and making things constantly. It’s incredibly exciting to see what she comes up with. She’s more creative and talented than I was at that age, by far. I don’t think I’m hoping for her to become an artist, but I would feel really sad if she didn’t love making art throughout her childhood. It’s wonderful to have that in common. She shows a lot of interest in medical things – passionately playing doctor or vet. And she’s not squeamish like I always was. She’ll probably be a mover though, because she has always loved carrying big, heavy, awkward things around.

Motherhood

RC: Are you in any way motivated by the idea of talking about motherhood in an honest way in terms of detailing both positives and negatives? In other words, is breaking through the societal ideas of what mothers should be like and feel part of your mission as a cartoonist?

KR: I hope to write with honesty about all things, about life. There are positives and negatives and there is no movement in the direction of an answer. I’m annoyed by the depiction of mother characters in picture books. They’re always nice and caring, but rarely funny.They’re almost never a dynamic person/mouse/rabbit/bear with a true personality. I doubt I’ll ever write a children’s book with a fascinating mother character though, because I don’t have a specific mission as a cartoonist. I don’t have a message.

dammitRC: Was a general dearth (at the time) of comics about the experience of being a mother in any way a motivator to write so much about Xia?

KR: No, but I’m always at the edge of a trend, right after a few people become famous for it but before everyone’s doing it. I did a huge sewing project at the beginning of Project Runway, I had a blog right before Julie & Julia was made into a movie, when I still had to explain to some people what a blog was, and then I was diagnosed bipolar when Homeland aired. I have a sixth sense for these things. Now everyone has a comic about motherhood.

RC: Have you read Carol Tyler’s first collection, Late Bloomer? She had postpartum psychosis and goes into a lot of detail about how difficult it was for her as a mother–and this was all in the 80s. As far as I can tell, it’s the first sustained comics narrative about motherhood. It was like another 20 years before I saw more of these sorts of stories.

KR: Yes I did. That story knocked me out, it was so sad. I love the way she told it and the color she used. I’m reading Soldier’s Heart now. I nominated it for the Ignatz knowing it would be great. I wanted to save it so I could read it very slowly and enjoy it after the frenzy of jury reading.

xiaRC: Did any particular writing (comics or otherwise) influence your approach to talking about being a mother, or was this intuitive?  I’m thinking of not only showing all of the ways children are horrible, but finely honing your instincts as a humorist in crafting great gags.

KR: I love the way Louie C.K. talks about parenting. Not that many of my favorite writers/comics/cartoonists write about parenting. Lauren Weinstein, Glynnis Fawkes, and Summer Pierre are great. I’d say my approach to most aspects of comics is intuitive. I don’t go in with a plan. It all evolves while I work.

RC: You tackle a lot of powerful emotions in your strips and don’t pull punches, but there’s always a certain sense of restraint, even detachment in your comics at times. You have a dry wit, for example,  but you also never play up even the most intense emotional scenes. They have the same structure and tone as any other scene, like for example strips where you’re crying, or even strips where you’re angry at Xia. Is this a deliberate strategy or a function of your personality manifesting in your work?

KR: I’d say it’s mostly my personality, but it’s deliberate too in the sense that I’m aware of it and I don’t try to change what’s natural. I think a little detachment can let people in by allowing them to react in their own way. I’m not totally controlling the way it’s read. Some writers over-explain and I’d rather under-explain and risk being misunderstood. Each event is reduced to a small piece that represents the whole.

naughFor example, one page that people respond to in different ways is the one where I’m in the bathroom while naked Xia sits on the toilet. She says “This house is getting naughtier and naughtier.” You can figure out that she’s done something wrong, and maybe I did too. She ends the short conversation with “Don’t hurt me mommy, I’m just a little girl.” Clearly, there’s a lot of context that was left out. Some people laugh at that last line and probably see it as Xia exaggerating. When it happened, it broke my heart. Was she really afraid of me? I probably had forgotten that she was just a little girl and was treating her like a monster. I thought the conversation would have more power out of context, because the context makes it too specific. Many parents probably have a similar moment with their kid, and I wanted it to be relatable.

I use vignettes and unrelated stories that are like snapshots instead of continuous stories. I never lead the reader from one scene to the next.  I use isolated scenes because the stuff in between is cumbersome and boring to write. Also, I think in fragments and they seem related to me, often thematically, not in terms of time and sequence. I’m not trying to build towards a conclusion, so when I think of structure, I’m aware of varying the mood as I go.

22RC: How have you changed your approach in depicting Xia as she’s grown older, and how do you anticipate changing that approach again as she grows older?

KR: I address this with a couple stories in Sunburning. I don’t feel that it’s ok to draw bathroom scenes anymore, unless it’s done very differently. I’m trying not to embarrass her. She can read now, so all the content in my books is in her hands. I’m concerned about her reading scenes about me that don’t involve her. I don’t want to alter the way she perceives me.

RC: Do you intend to keep writing autobio focused on motherhood in short bursts, or is there a longer narrative you want to tackle at some point?

KR: Yes, I plan to continue using the same structure for now. I did write a rough draft of a memoir very recently but decided it wasn’t right for me. I’m pulling some of the stories out and separating everything. Having one theme that connected everything was not the way I wanted to think about that time. I’d rather experience my memories as vignettes. I don’t think in a linear way. There’s also never a resolution in my books, which is something that kind of defines memoir.

Mental Health

RC: You openly talk about having bipolar disorder (BPD) in your comics, though in the past you were reluctant to discuss it much because you weren’t sure you readers were interested. How do you feel about this now?

KR: After I wrote that page a few people (including you) encouraged me to write about it more. I’ve found a few more ways to go about it, but I’m still wary about making what amounts to a list of symptoms. It’s hard to make moods visual rather than verbal. Actually, it’s hard to verbalize them too. If I can find more interesting ways of communicating these things, I will.

RC: Did having post-partum depression (PPD) influence your later decision to talk more openly about being bipolar?

KR: Yes, definitely. The post-partum depression led directly to my bipolar diagnosis. I had a depression every year or so leading up to this, but I never felt as out of control or desperate as I did at that time. I couldn’t be honest about my life anymore if I left out that overwhelming factor of my life.

It was harder to tell people in person than it was to put it out there in writing. There was something about the specific label “bipolar” that I really debated. At first I was just writing about depression, anxiety, and irritability which is all in the normal range for people. Once it’s labelled it often means lithium, psychiatrists, maybe hospitals and delusions. I guess I wanted people to know that it’s not just some bad moods. I do have to work on it every day and my life is more unpredictable because of it.

unnamedRC: Was drawing your strips about PPD at all therapeutic, or did you find it to be grueling?

KR: I think it was therapeutic to be honest and to not have to carry this big, awful secret around. I wrote a few details about it, but I know I didn’t delve into the really dark parts. I can’t stand to think about what it was actually like. I don’t think that would be therapeutic and I imagine people would think I was being too dramatic. One of my biggest sources of shame is my stronger reaction to stress than typical people. I was traumatized by my miscarriage and other people suffer through 5-7 miscarriages or stillbirths before having a baby. There are always those stupid comparisons in my head, making me feel weak. When I had Xia I was very sleep-deprived, which is another major trigger for me. I felt totally crazy, trapped, and alone and I hated myself and desperately wanted to fast-forward or rewind a couple years. I knew I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to be alive in that life either. So, it is therapeutic to write about these things in my indirect way, but I don’t want to vividly imagine myself going through those times again.

RC: Is drawing in general a therapeutic activity for you?

KR: Yes. I love to draw, even though it’s really exhausting. I can feel something good happening in my brain that doesn’t happen otherwise. It’s the best way for me to meditate. I feel happy for a moment when I hear the word “draw.”

RC: For someone with social anxiety, you seem to engage in a lot of “opposite action” techniques. You teach art, you go to conventions and you’re social and you seem to have a lot of friends. Is all of this a concerted effort on your part to combat that anxiety, or it just an intuitive reaction on how to deal with depression & anxiety?

KR: I do engage in opposite action techniques every day. I’ve had cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. I know my anxiety will get worse if I constantly pick the more comfortable option.I think bipolar has its own perverse system of opposite action built in though. If you’re feeling really depressed, it’ll launch you into something else, like rage. There! Now you’re not depressed anymore. How do you feel?  

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I married Scott because I knew he would make me go to things with him. It’s what I’ve hated about him many times, but some of it is good for me. I knew I would never stop being an artist if I were with him. I love him too of course, which I’m sure really comes through in my comics.

RC: It’s the most subtle part of your comic, your relationship with him. One gets a tremendous sense of ease with each other, no matter what.

KR: No one’s ever said that! That’s wonderful to hear. I was being sarcastic because my depiction of Scott is so unsentimental, but we are certainly at ease with each other.

 

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RC: What reactions have you received from other mothers and/or other people with BPD who’ve read your work?

KR: Some moms have said I helped them feel better about what a terrible job they’re doing. That’s a backhanded compliment, but I’ll take it. Many parents have said I’m recording their lives. I have received feedback from three other people with BPD. It’s a pretty small section of the population and a lot of people aren’t open about it.

RC: Obvious question: have you read Ellen Forney’s comic memoir Marbles? It’s all about her BPD, and her take on the experience is different than yours.

KR: Yes, I have. I think her book is a great introduction to what bipolar is. It would be helpful to parents whose kids were just diagnosed. It’s autobiographical, but I still didn’t feel like I knew much about her personally. It’s very focused on the topic.

spx

RC: What was this year’s Small Press Expo (SPX) like for you? You were pretty active in giving out free copies of your latest issue of Powdered Milk and really engaging people. Was this energizing or draining, or some combo thereof? Now that you’ve had time to reflect on it, what was the experience like of winning an Ignatz? I’m especially interested because of past strips you’ve done about SPX  in particular that talk about how anxiety-inducing these shows are for you.

KR: SPX was amazing. I was a judge for the Ignatz this year, so for months leading up to it I had been reading as much as I could. This was the first time I had a table there and was nominated. I made 500 copies of my comic and handed them out on Saturday. I felt very awkward about that, but people were nice and happy to get a free comic. Other than that, all the socializing at SPX was fun and energizing for me this year.

Winning the Ignatz was one of the most shocking experiences in my life. The whole time I was giving out my comics I wasn’t even thinking about winning. I was just using the nomination as an opportunity to publicize my work. I can’t believe I didn’t cry when Gina [Wynbrandt] announced I had won. My senses kind of shut down. I didn’t have anything planned to say and I forgot to thank anyone. The happiness kicked in after the ceremony and I felt pretty high for days following. My brick was taken from me at the airport, but I was too happy for that to even bother me much. When I wrote the comic about not wanting to go to SPX three years ago, I didn’t know nearly as many people in the comics world. Expos were really awkward because it was constant newness and nothing familiar. Now they feel more like reunions. I still don’t like to travel, but the destination is worthwhile.

 

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The Shaky Kane Interview http://www.tcj.com/the-shaky-kanes-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/the-shaky-kanes-interview/#comments Mon, 07 Nov 2016 13:00:33 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96293 Continue reading ]]> On the occasion of Shaky Kane’s new book, Cowboys and Insects, Tim Goodyear asked the longtime British cartoonist a series of questions.

kane-01Tim Goodyear: The Shakyverse is a real place, it transcends the comics.

Shaky Kane: I like to imagine so. There’s a certain familiarity to everything I produce. It’s sort of populated or for want of a better word, furnished by the same stylistic tropes.

The very stuff I spent my time conjuring up onto the cheap sketch pads with wax crayons in my room as a child. It’s genuinely heartfelt. It’s a sincere appropriation of something very American. Something that resonated with me and I’ve kept close to me for the best part of 60 years.

kane-02Insects, especially giant ones; do they gravitate to you?

Giant insects have always held a fascination.When I stayed up watching late night TV, while my father worked nights, the giant ant invasion movie Them! made a real impact.

I thought it was the greatest. Likewise, I was thrilled to see American troops fighting off hoards of giant insects on the Topps Mars Attacks! bubblegum cards which were reprinted in Ireland and distributed over here by a company called A&BC. Giant Insects and GIs were as synonymous as Cowboys and Insects.

kane-03Eating bugs, zebras, hamburgers, human flesh; food plays a roll in many of your comix. Do you ask your collaborators to address diet? 

Well, it certainly isn’t part of my agenda. To be honest I’ve never really given it any thought. Cowboys and Insects, certain features a lot of Big Insect feasting. But that’s what made Bug Town famous.

kane-04In Cowboys & Insects your pages have a denser, fuller feel to them. 

I find it hard to think why this might be the case.

I certainly wanted this to look cool. I always draw big and shrink it down. I wanted the Stag Beetle Tusslin’  scene to look cinematic, I had a pretty clear idea in my head on how all this was going to look. It didn’t take much preliminary work. Soon as I read the script I had it all ticking over.

kane-05I like this page size your using. Could Cowboys & Insects be a counter culture morality tract/Bazooka Joe/Tijuana bible? 

Glad you picked up on the page size, I wasn’t sure if this was clear from the Previews listing. I’ve always liked the way comic art looks shrunk down. As I work on a book, I like to print out the pages as I go, and make up a version using a home printer. That way I can look back over the pages to keep an eye on how it’s going to look as the pages turn. To save ink I print them out smaller than the actual book size and paste the pages together. I’ve always liked the way this looks. With Cowboys and Insects, it being a standalone one-shot, I thought it would look neat the same size as the Minx books that DC brought out, with a paperback book cover. Castellucci and Rugg’s The Plain Janes is one of my all time favourite books.

kane-06You did a cover for Henry & Glenn: Forever and Ever. Do you read any of Danzig’s comix? 

That’s right, I was asked out of the Blue to do a cover for Tom Neely’s Henry and Glenn, Forever and Ever. I didn’t really know much about the book. I take it, that the premise is that Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig are a gay couple, is that right?  Is that even funny? I honestly don’t get it. I’d heard of both Rollins and Danzig. Glenn Danzig was in the original Misfits.  I always liked the album cover art, can’t say I was particularly taken with the music. Does he make comics? I’ll have to do a Google search.

kane-07I believe Danzig did some of the covers for the Misfit records, he doesn’t draw any of the comix. His style reminds me of the Famous  Monsters of Filmland that James Warren designed. Did you get that magazine? 

During the 1960s,  American import magazines and comic books would wind up on a spinner-rack in independent newsagent/ tobacconist here in the UK. The comic books would be at a kid friendly eye level, while the upper half housed Men’s Adventure magazines, True Detective and more adult orientated titles. As a pre-teen I was always viewed with some suspicion by the store owner, while I perused the spinner-rack. I certainly got to see issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland,

I remember how the paper of the books had become brittle during their long boat journey to these shores. Somehow I managed to get hold of a copy of Warren Magazines, DIY Monster Make-Up book. The Dick Smith classic. This would have been later than its American publication date. Rare oddities like this would turn up at indoor markets, along with back issues of comic books, and Alan Class publications. Alan Class comics were black and white repackaged vintage American strips, between full cover covers, with titles like Creepy Worlds and Sinister Tales. I was quite taken by the idea of becoming the neighbourhood creep. To this end I’d spend my allowance on spirit gum, crepe hair and greasepaint. All to less than spine chilling effect.

kane-08

Do you have this Halloween’s costume sorted out already?

I still like the idea of dressing up. I like the way makeup smells. When my son was younger, I used to spend a bit of time putting together outfits. But here in the UK Halloween is always a bit of a letdown. Of course I’ve always got a bowl of treats ready for the Trick-or-Treaters,  who do the rounds. But unless I was going to an organized event, it hardly seems worth the effort. I like the run-up to Halloween. Asda (part of the Wal-Mart  group) in particular always has an isle of great spooky goods. And Poundland, who are the British version of Dollar City or Family Dollar, used to really go to town.

I’ve bought eyeball novelty lights, glow in the dark novelties, and a polystyrene butcher’s tray containing a plastic severed hand. They used to stock a whole seasonal array of B-Movies on DVD, and all for a pound, as the name suggests.

I think that for a time, British stores were hoping to replicate the interest in Halloween that exists Stateside. But it seems to be fizzling out a bit.

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Are you into eco horror, Slow Death/carnosaur type stuff? Are these just Hine-isms? 

 I did actually own a copy of Slow Death. The one where the man is cradling a seal pup, framed by a bloodied club, with the caption ‘Over my dead body!’ on the cover. I loved the EC look of the cover art. I bought it under the belief that it would be an over the top underground read. Turned out to be a bit repetitively preachy. Overstating the message until I sort of lost interest. Bit like comic book ‘Door stopping’.  I got the idea that it was a gateway for the illiterate, as if comic book readers don’t get information from any other sources. I’ve no objection to comic books exploring social issues, but the story has got to be there. In my opinion at least.

kane-10Were you making your own comics before Escape #1? Is that what’s in Beyond Belief?

That’s what I’d always do. I was a very antisocial kid and would spend most of my time in my room drawing, ill thought-out strips, onto sketch pads. I’d color them with wax crayons, I found that if I colored first yellow, then lightly colored over with red, I’d obtain a very pleasing Californian tan skin color.

Red and blue applied in the same way made a perfect Batman body stocking color! My first published strip was of course, Hitler On Ice which appeared in David Hine’s Art college project  Joe Public Comics. This would have been during the early days of UK Punk scene.

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“Hitler on Ice” was around 1977, an underground comix by all accounts; had you read American underground comix at this point? 

Again, these things somehow made their way here from America. There was a link with the American and UK underground press in the very early 70s. Oz, the notorious underground broadsheet started to put out US sized books under the name Cozmic Comics ( with the emphasis on the ‘Oz’). I certainly saw Crumb, Skip Willamson, I think Spain was represented.  There was a similar underground comic movement here in the UK. British creators would share the pages of these books. As well as appearing in the publication Nasty Tales. I was particularly taken by Chris Welch, he drew the biker strip Ogoth and Ugly boot. Welch had a more accessible style, at least to my then unworldly eye.

kane-12Deadline was where I first saw your comics. I got the impression it was a social group not just a magazine. Was it? 

I was actually about ten years older than most of the Deadline contributors. Jamie Hewlett, Alan Marten and Philip Bond came to the magazine straight from Art School. I’d been plugging away since I’d arrived in London. I’d do the odd unskilled work, while contributing single frame gags to The New Musical Express, and taking on any drawing job which came my way. Funny enough towards the end of Deadline‘s run, I went to live in Worthing, sharing a house with Alan Marten. To be honest I rarely saw him, I spent most of my time in my room, chain smoking while driving myself nuts ,while trying to draw idiotic stuff like the poorly received Soul Sisters for Judge Dredd The Megazine. I found it incredibly hard work, and it showed.

kane-13

I’ve noticed you dig the Full Moon Videos, do you watch them all; or are there artists that you follow?

I’m a big fan of the movies Charles Band puts out. It’s very much a comic book world in itself. The Puppet Master and Demonic Toys movies in particular. I never detect that it’s done in a knowing way, a sort of postmodern wink to the audience. I think this guy makes these movies because these are the movies in him to make. That, these movies are as good as they are going to get. Different medium, but it’s exactly the place I come from.

There are people out there making, sort of, kitschy, retro looking art, and comic books which ape the way things looked in the Silver Age. But it always shows, you always pick-up the feeling that it’s ironic or a funny book. When I sit down to draw the pictures happen to come out that way. I’ve been drawing for a while now, I don’t imagine it’s going to change overnight, I’m not going to suddenly become Frank Miller.

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Charles Band’s father made a movie (a couple at least) in the ’50s called I Bury the Living, and he composes the scores to many of the Full Moon movies, were there any comics or art culture in your family growing up?

Ha, that’s something I wasn’t aware of: Like father like son. No I don’t recall any real encouragement from my parents. Although the germ of the obsessions I’ve dwelt on, for the last 50 years or so, certainly have their roots in my childhood. My father worked unsociable hours as a baker. My mother was the biggest American TV fan. Together, we’d watch all the shows that made their way across the Atlantic during the sixties. I recall my mother ironing my dad’s laundered Baker’s ‘whites’ ,with the ironing board set-up in the doorway, so she could watch the TV from the kitchen. The Lucy show  starring  Desi  Arnez Jr.), Hogan’s Heroes, F Troop, The Lone Ranger, The Munsters (I really loved the Munsters), Bewitched, it was a great time to grow up in.

I’d stay up late on a Friday, when my dad worked nights, and watch the monster movies. The Universal Creature Features were a big part of the late night movie schedule here in the UK. At the same time that I was soaking up all these cathode rays, my father started to bring home American comic books and Men’s Adventure magazines from work. Big piles of them, I’ve no idea who gave them to him, but to me, it was like being transported to another planet. This was the early sixties, the books then were the greatest. Being a fairly self contained child, happy with my own company, I’d invest a lot of time trying to make my own versions of the pictures I saw in the comic books.

I’d draw onto anything I could get my hands on. The back of wall paper, card shirt stiffeners, even the packaging from store bought cakes! I was obsessed.

kane-15

Your colors, the pastels and day glows. Do you paint much?

Like everything I’ve ever done, I achieve through pure perseverance.  I like to do things right off the bat. I don’t plan things to look a certain way. A lot of the look comes from working within the limitations of my Photoshop knowledge. I always like comic book colors to look flat. I like mechanical color. The times my art has been ‘professionally’ colored, it’s always jarred to some extent. I like that 60’s look, where the page was made up of overlaid color, I even try to  replicate the miss-registration. I have painted, I’ve always tried to keep that mass produced look in everything I do. I hate to see the ‘artist’s hand’,

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Curt Swan is a favorite of yours, do you have a “Top Swan”, is he still stoking the flames for you today? 

 I still obsess about Curt Swan’s beautifully crafted work. My favorite period being the George Klein collaborations This would have been mid sixties.

DC had a real knack for employing the most shoddy inkers. So many strips were ruined, even fan favorite artist couldn’t escape the horror. When the combination worked it was the greatest. This is the period of American comic art which really set me on a course that I would  follow for over fifty years.

Neal Adams was the guy who changed things. I never really cared for the new realism. There existed a whole bunch of artist who followed his lead. Dick Giordano is a name that springs to mind. And it wasn’t  just the art, the stories were the worse, a half realized world of angry Hippies in horrible fringed buckskin, I didn’t even ring true, I really didn’t care for it. Towards the end of his career at DC, Curt was pressured into adopting the new house style. It was a shame to see his art losing what made it special in the first place. It didn’t gel and it soured his legacy.

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Shaky 2000 is very visceral, grim, bleak, and disquieting. There is a literal cry for help, what was going on at this time? Was Shaky 2000 a mask, or possibly just a statement of employment? 

This came from a particular time in my life. I dwelt a little too much on the darker side of life. I was a 2000 AD contributor, we were known collectively as Art Droids. The name was a play on this, this feeling of dehumanization. The scripts I were asked to draw never played to my strengths as an artist. Like Jamie I was seen as the token weird guy.

The work I did outside of Fleetway, particularly the work for late period Deadline, again this is going back a while, was influenced by to some extent by the work of Richard Kern, and the cinema of transgression. It was fairly bleak and self indulgent. I don’t know how it impacted on the reader.

kane-18Through many of your comix there has been the scene, of a corpse being pulled from the harbor waters on a hook, to a dock. Is this autobiographical?  Dose Exeter have gruesome docks?  

The Drowned Cop! In The Shakyverse it’s usually a jetty. Jetty is a great word. There certainly are docks in my home town. A body being pulled from the river, is a constantly recurring local newspaper story, particularly during the summer months. Of course the docks and the quayside in general, have been turned into visitor attractions, and dining experiences over the years. The image of the hook and the drowned hero comes directly from a late sixties issue of Captain America, initially drawn by Kirby, but I’m sure I’ve seen a similar image by Steranko. I work from memory rather than reference images. It’s the gut feeling of things that I try to capture in my drawing.

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Was the end of your stay at 2000 AD in step with your moving out of London and returning to Exeter? Was this when you became a father? Your comics output has increased dramatically since the turn of the century.

When I returned to Exeter, I was still a regular contributor to 2000 AD, regularly working for Fleetway. This was before the internet was the accepted form of communication. I’d phone into the office and receive typed scripts through the mail. During this time I’d moved away from the clumpy Kirby styling and felt like I was finding my feet as an artist.

Hand coloring the art, I was still unable to produce the flat mechanical color I was looking for, but  it was certainly getting a lot closer to how I wanted it to look. I was a family man, we had a young daughter, we’d sold our North London flat and had bought a house in Exeter, things were looking good. And then a management shuffle took place at Fleetway. Dave Bishop took over as editor, he wanted to make changes, I suppose make the books fit in with his vision, whatever that was.

I was out of work over night. Two days later I was washing dishes at the Post Office canteen. I signed up with a temporary employment agency and spent the best part of two years drifting from one low paid unskilled job to another, while my marriage fell apart. It was a fairly dispiriting experience, you might say.

It was after running into David Hine, at Bristol Comic Expo, over 10 years later, that I formulated the basis of Bulletproof Coffin. David was the one who actually took the project to Eric Stephenson at San Diego Comic Con, for this I’m eternally grateful. It was this, and of course the growth of the internet, which opened up a whole new world of opportunity.

kane-20Was Monster Truck created as a single image, then spliced into pages?  At what point did you stop creating the finished page on paper?

Monster Truck came from a strange period in my life. I was no longer working in comics and had found a job as in-house artist at a community paper. The editor made the decision to shut the magazine down, but in an unrivaled act of philanthropy, suggested that I used the office space to draw a ‘Graphic Novel’.

The deal was that I would still be paid for coming into the office, three times a week, and all he wanted in return were the first 50 copies of the print run of 500, that he could give out as Christmas presents that year. The offer coming out of the blue, I had no idea what to draw. I had a ‘filing cabinet’ of ideas stored away in my head, but no workable idea for the book. So I decided just to set to work. I’d let myself into the empty office and I drew whatever popped into my head.  I’d draw dinosaurs, big bugs, custom cars, all researched from frequent visits to the local library.

I’d draw them fairly big, get them shrunk down on a Xerox printer and manually paste them onto page sized templates. Where the images ran over the border of the page, I’d simply slice them and keep going, formulating the idea of the continuous loop as I worked.

Once I’d produced a batch of pages, I’d write a stripped back narrative, from the viewpoint of the driver, describing the journey as it might appear in a travelogue.

kane-21Has Shaky Kane’s Monster Truck ever been displayed in its full panoramic form?

In fact there is a version of Monster Truck out there, where the whole book glides past the screen. It’s quite a treat.

kane-22Michael Waspman, was he a novelist? Is there any of his work to be found?

This was someone overzealously editing my Wiki page. While I was working for the community paper, I’d spend a lot of time by myself. I always get struck by ideas, when I’m left to my own devices. I started to write them down in a notebook and built up a whole universe set in a fictional 1980s Charlotte. I chose Charlotte as the setting because Charlotte is such a common name for an American town that I needn’t be geographically accurate.

It was quite a yarn. It centred on the legend of The Man who walks The Tracks. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of little Bethany Tyler.  How to appease the spirits. Blood sacrifice and peep freaks.  It was about Ginger Palmer, Joey Dimebar, and Magic Tattoos. In fact I wrote this stuff before Kick Ass, and came up with the idea of comic fans becoming vigilantes wearing homemade superhero costumes.  It was about the desire to become invisible and ‘slip into other people’s live, naked and buzzing with pubescent  hormones’.

It was about a lot of things. I typed it all up naming it Charlotte [IN-VIS-IB-LE] under the pen name Michael Waspman, which to me sounded like an American pulp novel horror writer’s name. My times been taken up drawing, but I’d really like to one day get it all in order and tie up the loose ends. As a matter of fact, David was keen to do a comic book version before we settled on Bulletproof.

kane-24Aside from the convenience, was there a reason you stopped lettering your comix? I’m a big fan of your hand lettering. No disrespect to Richard Starkings.  

Over the years I’ve often heard people say how they liked the hand lettering on my older strips. The truth is I was never really that happy with it. It was never uniform enough for my own personal taste. I found it a real chore. The only time I’ve been happy with the way my lettering has looked, was when I hit on the method of writing out the captions with my left hand and then inking over it, cleaning up as I went. Sounds a crazy way of working, but it gave the letters a unique ‘spook house’ look, which didn’t attempt to mimic professional lettering.

I’ve picked up a few tricks over the years. When I’m looking to produce a title font, I often print out the text in a straight Microsoft Word font. Print it out fairly big, then trace around the outline of the words. Gives it that classic hand lettered, mid sixties, Artie Simek look. A style I’ve never seen bettered. Richard (Starkings) has actually produced a Shaky Font. With the repetition of letters you get in a typed font, it certainly looks an improvement on my own undisciplined hand.

kane-25When you visited the USA was it as you had hoped? Did you discover anything that added to your comix?

I already pretty much had the whole place mapped out in my head before I arrived. So it didn’t really come as much of a surprise as sorts. I stayed for a couple of summers running in South Boston, which is I was informed a ‘blue collar’ area. I liked the things like going into Mom’s Laundry, Brooke’s Pharmacy, and Stop and Shop. Although similar to British stores, it was as if someone had taken all the goods out and replaced them with similar items. Walkers crisps becoming Frito-Lays chips, yet retaining the familiar logo. I liked looking at the goods on the shelves. I liked the way they sold cigarettes in the pharmacy.

What struck me most of all, was the easy way that strangers would enter into conversation, and the general good will that was extended to me as a visitor. Genuine curiosity as to what my impression of the country was. Really the nicest people.

kane-26Did you find the comics culture much different in America, did you visit any comic shops?

When I’m away from the computer, comics seem to retreat. I’d just seen the movie Hatchet, where the lead character wore a Newbury Comics ‘Tooth Face’ logo T-shirt.  So I set off to Newbury Comics. I was a bit surprised that instead of comics, the store mostly sold punk / heavy rock CDs, Horror DVDs and Boston Red Sox memorabilia! The comics were tucked away on a fairly short stretch of shelving. I did manage to get a copy of The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen trade paperback, which was a bit of a treat.

The Hatchet souvenir shirt was out of stock, so I settled for a regular Tooth Face shirt.  I actually featured the shirt along with a drawing of the Hatchet movie poster in the second issue of Bulletproof Coffin. Newbury Comics picked up on this, and when I told them the story about visiting the store looking for the Hatchet shirt, they sent me one free of charge! Isn’t that the best result? If you look up Newbury Comics on Wiki, under the references in culture section, it mentions how the store features in the opening credits of the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and how the logo appears in Bulletproof Coffin!

kane-26Last Driver is another new comic you’ve got coming out, what can we expect? 

This was a new thing for me. Last Driver is funded by a Kickstarter campaign. At the time of writing it’s overshot its goal, so it seems like a good idea to me. Last Driver is published by Dead Canary Comics who are a UK based independent comic book company. Chris Baker wrote it as a homage to 80s video store rental movies.

John Carpenter springs to mind, but this is a wilder ride than any movie I’ve seen. In a way that’s the thing that drew me to producing comics in the first place. Imagination is the only budget constraint.

In a nutshell the story, which is a very linear tale, centers on the adventures of Frank Sudden, who embraces the end of the world and sets off across the post apocalypse wasteland in his boss’s ‘borrowed’ car.

Along the way he encounters a mind boggling array of giant creatures, scream queens and double crossing scavengers, before fighting for his life in a makeshift arena where he is pitted against, amongst other abominations ( You guessed it ) giant ants.

It’s quite a yarn, Chris peppers the text with witticisms and observations from Frank’s peculiar singularly optimistic point of view.

I was given free rein on the actual character design, and I spent the best part of a year drawing all this up. I’m really happy with the look of this one, it’s got some of my career best artwork in it.

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Last Driver offers a different view on the Shakyverse than Cowboys and Insects, Cap’n Dinosaur comes to mind as a Last Driver level of jubilant pop-sploitation. Is your relationship with Last Driver and Cap’n Dinosaur different than the other books?

Last Driver arrived as a fully written script. Written by Christopher Baker resident scribe at Dead Canary Comics. What was so much fun about putting these 60 pages together was the total trust that Chris put into me as the artist. Certain details, for instance the car featured in the script was a specific Chevrolet model, and the look of Frank Sudden, being a sort of John Carpenter video rental  mix of Rowdy Roddy piper and Kurt Russell, were very much part of the brief.

The actual look of the assorted monsters and the supporting characters was left to my judgement. I had worked with Chris on a previous strip. A great future shocker, entitled Campaign, featuring an atheist robotic president and a fundamentalist  robotic assassin, which in itself is an awesome idea.

So we already had a cool working relationship. I’m sure we’ll be back with a new project, just as soon as I’ve got a suitable sized hole in my schedule. Cap’n Dinosaur was very much my own project.

The Bulletproof Coffin characters, although not fully realised at this time, mostly came from ideas for characters I’d collected over the years. I had a vague notion of a cast of undead characters, who would exist in a comic book limbo. Somewhere between perceived reality and the actual comic book pages that imprisoned them. A vague idea. Cap’n Dinosaur came from these early drawings, although in a much more reptilian “When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth” guise.

Following Bulletproof‘s moderate success, I was looking to produce a strip that rather than following the meta path of the original series, was presented as a straight adventure strip. Of course most of my characters were tied to Bulletproof, Dave being, quite rightly, the co-creator of the book. So the only character I was free to use was The Cap’n.  In a way I would have liked to have produced something with the Coffin Fly. I had an idea at one point of a 80 page giant, like the old DC books, featuring each of the characters. But of course these things have to be by mutual agreement and it didn’t come to anything.

The script itself was written by a British writer named Kek-W. In fact he scripted one of my more successful strips for 2000 AD. A resurrected GI zombie yarn entitled Nightmare Patrol, the true inspiration for Bulletproof’s combatant cadavers The Hateful Dead.

It always feels as if everything I do, ties together to build a much bigger picture, a Shakyverse!

kane-28Cowboys & Insects, a comic wrapped in the lullaby of mid 20th century America. Is it real, the human nightmare?

David’s script on this book, which is a self contained entity, works on a number of levels. There’s a certain early Movie Monster giant insect trope, referencing movies such as Them! A theme I’d touched on in Monster Truck where The Kane gang are glimpsed rustling up oversized ‘critters’. Where there’s big bugs there’s big bucks to be made. There’s the Teen Romance tenderness played out in the unsure relationship between Chip the Rancher’s son and Cindy the girl outsider.

Then there’s the unquestionable authority of The Knights of the Head. A group of masked Klan-like vigilantes, culled from the small community of Bug Town, who bring down justice on those who go against the natural order of things. In this case a deviant vegetarian family. There’s a very telling line towards the end of the book where a rider voices the Donald Trump-like remark “You say you love insects? Let’s see how much they love you”

Certainly ticks the boxes of the human nightmare.

kane-29What’s on the drawing board now?

Right now? I’m working on two books. I work, alternate days on each one. I’m ten pages into a Bulletproof Coffin one-shot.  In this one we’ve gone back to the format of the first series and the comic book within a comic book. Again Dave’s come up with a real neat idea. There’s some great backstory on the inhuman nature of the original Coffin Fly.

There’s a real sci-fi B-Movie vibe to the featured comic book, which is entitled Hypno Vampires From The Stars! Plus there’s a look at the events immediately following Hine and Kane’s sell-out to the mysterious Shadow Men. It’s a lot of fun.

At the same time I’m close to finishing issue three of Richard Starkings’  long-time coming Beef series. Somehow events transpired to halt production for the best part of a year. But it’s back in production, and this is a real personal statement for Richard as a committed pacifist vegetarian. It’s a tale of wholesale animal slaughter, small town bigotry, contaminated beef and  wild mutation. And it features the rawest, beefiest, most messed-up avenger since Toxie. The Beef! This guy is literally made out of pulsing, living meat!

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Would you write a comic for David Hine to draw? 

Now, that’s not such a bad idea. You got me figuring now.

 kane-31

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Ink in His Veins: An Interview with Benjamin Marra http://www.tcj.com/ink-in-his-veins-an-interview-with-benjamin-marra/ http://www.tcj.com/ink-in-his-veins-an-interview-with-benjamin-marra/#comments Fri, 04 Nov 2016 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96277 Continue reading ]]> So, I just wanted to start this off by saying that I am a huge Benjamin Marra fan. I’ve been following his work for years – finding him first, on the now antiquated site Flickr, just before he started his own publishing imprint, Traditional Comics.

When I first saw his moleskin drawings I was blown away…  The drawings were how I wished I could draw.  Slick, tuff, and beautiful…  I’d never seen work that distilled cool into single images so perfectly. The work was an immediate fascination for me.  I was hooked and I wanted more.

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Luckily, he’s prolific as fuck and since those early images online, I’ve watched as he’s forcibly taken over the comics landscape with the pure insanity of his skills, which have grown sharper and more refined thru his series of black and white, wildly creative and lurid self-published epics; all of which lead him to the Magnum Opus, Terror Assaulter: OMWOT which was released by Fantagraphics last year.  He’s easily become one of my favorite creators working and is also just a genuinely good dude and friend.

Now his newest book, American Blood, (his second book with Fantagraphics) collects those wildly creative self-published B&W comics into one densely packed tome of visceral joy and violent glee!!  I’m psyched for the chance to talk to Mr. Marra and ask him a few questions about his work. Lets dive in.

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American Blood. Good title. What does it mean to you?

Ata, who runs Autsider Comics, my publisher in Spain, came up with the title. He wanted to publish a collection of my work in Spain and called the book Sangre Americana. I sent it to Fantagraphics and we basically did the same book and we kept the title as an English translation. Ata designed both logos for both books. He’s an excellent designer. I thought it was an appropriate title for a foreign translation of my stuff and the name just stuck. My work usually explores themes of America: sex, violence, race, gender. And one day: football and religion, which might be the same subject.

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Violence is a key theme in a lot of your work. You use it in various ways from satirically, to perfectly timed comedic beats, and then sometimes seemingly just for bad-ass-ness.  What role does violence play for you in your work? Why is it necessary in your narratives? 

I get asked this question a lot. I’m not exactly sure why violence takes center stage in my work. It could be because of the genres that influence me directly: action movies, crime fiction, film noir, exploitation movies. I think it also may go back to the earliest times when I was drawing. When I was very young I believed there were things I was not allowed to draw, including violence. I read Darick Robertson’s black-and-white 1980s comic, Space Beaver, when I was a kid and there was a pin-up in the book of Space Beaver standing over a wolf guard he slaughtered with a knife. The pin-up was titled “Bloodlust” and Beaver was covered with his enemy’s blood, dripping down from his chest fur. I never forgot that image. It scared me as a kid. As a kid I was desperately afraid of violent acts. I think I may have started to draw violence as a way to have power over my fear of it. 

 91

Sex is also a key component to a lot of your work and just like your use of violence, you use it to various effects from sexy renderings of the human form, to titillating hardcore pounding, to the absurdly awkward, verging on disturbing…  Is it a send-up of the genres you’re satirizing or are you trying to say more with these depictions of sex? 

Yes, it is a send-up of the way sex is handled in genre and American visual storytelling. It makes me think about the power images hold. If my work were prose and I were writing about sex I don’t think it would get the same kind of attention, but because the sex is depicted it somehow becomes more significant. I think sex is a very human act but for some reason it’s largely missing from a lot of visual stories in the U.S. In television that appears to be changing. Television is a lot more daring these days with the themes it explores. It’s obvious to state, but in many feature films graphic violence is accepted where sex is not. One theme is about the destruction of life, what tears us apart as humans. The other is about creation, feeling alive, and what we share as humans. It’s strange, but also a very human fault to be obsessed with doom rather than salvation. 07Another aspect of your work I appreciate and what I feel that gives it such power is the level of absurdism you play with. From the depictions of over the top violence to the stunted narration & dialogue, and protagonists whom wear their motivations/emotions on their sleeves, you seem to be making fun of reality at all times. What is it about life that you find so absurd?

Perhaps all of it. Especially living in the U.S. and then living outside the U.S. and seeing it from a new perspective. The mere fact that we exist is pretty strange to me. Sometimes even looking at the design of the human form is absurd to me.
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Sometimes lost in the sex, violence, and absurd nature of your work is the fact that your comics are genuinely funny and sometimes outright hilarious. How does humor play a role in your work? 

Humor is a byproduct of the stories I tell. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s never been a specific intent for me. But I guess it’s a part of my storytelling instincts of what I feel works. I want to tell serious stories sometimes and when I try, the result is humor. I’ve just accepted it as part of my vision.

180

You seem very preoccupied with power and masculinity: the physical form of your muscular protagonists and their trails of strength or in terms of how it’s wielded by those in control (evil dog catchers, lizard men overlords, and crooked government officials).  You play with the archetypes of masculinity, both inflating it as well as inverting it. What is it about being a man you’re trying to say with these depictions of strength and power? Does this come from your need to assume a form of power of your own thru the making of your comics? 

Initially when I started making comics it was a reaction to the comics that were coming out at the time. I wasn’t into the portrayal of male heroes in mainstream comics. They all seemed burdened with doubt and despair. I felt like this was inconsistent with how heroes should behave. I chalked it up to writers attempting to inject depth into their male heroes by giving them a new dimension of sadness and self-doubt. It was too obvious of a creative choice to me. I understand comic writers are under punishing deadlines, but to me it was a lazy choice. On the other side, independent comics I was seeing a lot of sad-sack neuroses in male characters. It was a celebration of being a spineless, self-obsessed, wimp, or of anti-masculinity. I felt there could be an alternative to how male characters could be portrayed in comics. So it started as a motivation to do something different. Something I felt wasn’t occurring in comics at the time. It seems to have become an exploration into what it means to be a man.

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I feel you have that rare ability to make comics that are enjoyable at face value as a visceral explosion of graphic ability, while also having a real depth of meaning, often verging on satire. I feel like you’re saying something with each of your comics without allowing the message to get in the way of the comic itself. Is this something you strive for, this dichotomy of idea? Or is it just a natural development from how you create your work?

It’s a natural development. My first and only real intention is to tell a story that works. Story is my biggest priority. It’s might be my only priority. All other decisions or intentions are secondary. But I think each of the comics I make are also about what comics are as a medium. They’re a declaration of what comics should be, or maybe just evidence of what they could be, what power they can hold. When I make comics or develop stories I try to access parts of my imagination that are pure and raw. It’s similar to my drawing approaches. I try to be as decisive as possible with my choices and preserve unfiltered moments of creative energy. I think that leads to more inherently personal work that is more meaningful. At the same time, the content of my work is very basic. I’m inspired by things lacking depth, like action movies, pulp science fiction novels, or TV shows like Walker: Texas Ranger.

I consider you a subversive artist because of this. Because you do “sneak” in deeper issues into your work.  Do you consider what you do to be subversive? Do you think everyone gets it? Does it matter if they don’t?

I can understand why the work would be considered subversive. It wasn’t a conscious intention when I started making comics or continues to be. It’s sort of like the humor in the work. It’s not important to me if people get it. I’m surprised when readers connect with my work.

43

You have such a strong and confident creative voice.  Do you ever suffer from self-doubt while working? Do you ever question whether what you’re creating is too out there and might miss the mark??

I don’t suffer from self-doubt. The work I make is a product of training myself to eradicate self-doubt. What is difficult a difficult challenge is perfecting my process when it comes to drawing. That is always going to be an eternal struggle. I don’t really question whether what I’m working on is too out there and I think I miss the mark constantly. The results of missing the mark is what could be called my style.

Do you think of an audience while creating? Do you think that is necessary to creating good work or do you let your inner voice “and the stars” guide you?

I don’t think of the audience when I’m creating content. But I do think about the reader when I’m considering formal storytelling choices. It’s sort of like if I were a prose writer, I’m not thinking about the audience with regard to the meaning of a sentence. But I want the sentence to make sense and be clear. I think it’s necessary not to consider the audience to make good work. It’s important to listen to what guides you from within. If you let an illusory external audience dictate creative choice, you’re not making art.

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A small minority of loud people online have come out questioning whether a white artist should be creating works of fiction in a “black” world.  And that a white man parodying the rap world (Gangsta Rap Posse) or telling the story of an American slave (Lincoln Washington) is inherently racist. What are your thoughts on such criticism?

I don’t think too much about criticism. If you make things there will always be a portion of the audience who disagree with it. When I started making comics I never thought anyone would read them. There’s a ton of content out there and I’m thankful if anyone chooses to read my stuff. If people start talking about it then that’s even better. And if there’s a conversation about the work I make, then there are going to be multiple perspectives. I have a compulsion to make comics. It’s up to the readers to discuss them. It’s not my place.

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You wear your love of D&D, fantasy adventure and barbaric protagonists on your sleeve, making several comics within that sort of world (Orion, Blades and Lazers, Naked Heroes). Does this go back to adolescent fixations? What is it about monsters, magic, power stats, and manly mayhem you love so?

It goes back to reclaiming something I didn’t experience as a kid. I didn’t play D&D or other RPGs much as a kid. For one, I didn’t know anyone older than me who knew enough about the game to run it. Secondly, my mom sort of believed in the whole Satanic Panic back in the ’80s and thought D&D would turn me into a devil worshiper. The art, as with comics, in early D&D is what pulled me in. The fact that I couldn’t play it made it that much more mysterious. I started playing and running RPGs about a decade ago and have multiple games going at once. What I enjoy about it is the cooperative, improvisational group storytelling form as well as the genre and tone of the games themselves. There’s nothing else that ignites my imagination the same way.

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Rereading your The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd I found it played with similar ideas as OMWOT. Government conspiracies, over the top sexualization and uber violence in the name of America, all seem to be there, just representing opposing sides of the coin. Was that comic the seed from which Terror Assaulter grew from? Or am I waaay off base?

The Maureen Dowd comic definitely wasn’t what I was thinking of when I conceived Terror Assaulter. But you’re right on; they do share a lot of themes and ideas despite being very different comics. When I made The Incredible Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd. I’d been reading a lot of Vince Flynn books and those had a big influence. Terror Assaulter was more inspired by movies, witnessing 9/11 and the decade of NeoCon foreign policy that followed, and conspiracy theories I’d been exposed to.

102You’ve worked with a lot of musicians over the years doing record covers and posters as well as a comic for the New York band, Naked Heroes. You also have used music in your comics (which is very hard) in extremely gratifying ways, like the rhymes Gangsta Rap Posse kick and the Ripper and Friends theme song (all of which I feel should be recorded at some point).  What role does music play in your work? Is it a major influence on you creatively?

I love music, but I don’t listen to it much. I put it in my comics when the story demands it, but I don’t actively try to weave it into my work. Music isn’t a huge influence on me creatively. However, music does offer a wonderful opportunity and canvas for illustration. I really enjoy working on album covers. When it’s working it feels great.

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I am openly jealous of your fashion sense and your ability to look good even as a Centaur. You’ve played with your “image” throughout the years, having posed for several amazing “artist/author” photos with many of your books and I was very happy to see these collected in American Blood also. Too many cartoonists take themselves too seriously. Is it important to you to take a piss like that and not take yourself so seriously? 

Yeah, it’s important to me not to take anything too seriously. When I did take art very seriously I found myself creating mental walls that I eventually had to knock down. I found myself creatively paralyzed and a perfectionist. I’m very serious about not taking things too seriously.

This is your second book with Fantagraphics, what has it been like working with them? Was this a relationship you sought after? Do you have plans to continue working with them?

It’s been a dream working with Fantagraphics. It’s not something I sought after. Working with Fantagraphics happened pretty organically over a few years. I do have plans to continue work with them. I’m working on my next book for them currently. I hope to have a large library of books with them in the near future.

 What are some of your favorite comics happening right now? Who are some artists you’d like to shine a light on that your audience might dig?

I mostly mine the comics of the past, so I don’t know about too much that’s going on these days. But I did love Wendy by Walter Scott. The next volume is due out next month if I’m not mistaken. Artists who’s work continually blows my mind are Ken Landgraf, as well as his collaborator John Jacobs, and Lawrence Hubbard, who’s Real Deal collection just came out. I saw some of Lawrence’s originals over the summer and I think seeing them in person forever changed me as an artist.

Do you have any dream projects (however unlikely) involving other people’s characters or properties?

For example I want to write a series of Troma comics involving several of their properties that various artists would then draw. Is there anything out there you wish you could get yer hands on? 

Not really. It would be fun to work on Jim Valentino-era Guardians of the Galaxy book, but I’d rather work on my own stories. I’ve got a queue of them in my brain and they all need to get out. I’d rather realize my visions than help someone else realize theirs.

night-business-cover

What’s next for Benjamin Marra?

Night Business. I’m finishing the series right now as a single, complete, 10-chapter volume. It’s due out next fall.

One last question… What is best in life?

Obviously, “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women,” as Conan said. There is no other answer.

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A Chat with Anya Davidson http://www.tcj.com/a-chat-with-anya-davidson/ http://www.tcj.com/a-chat-with-anya-davidson/#comments Wed, 02 Nov 2016 12:00:36 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96228 Continue reading ]]> band-for-life-1

I am an unabashed fan of Anya Davidson’s work, which I first read in 2007. I loved working with her as an author, and published her first book, School Spirits, in 2013. Then, as now, she makes incredibly observant, funny, and generous comics. That last part is important. In all her many comics and zines, Anya seeks the best and most interesting of us and the world, though with an eye out for all that’s fucked up and mortifying. It’s a very delicate balance, and she never fails (no pressure there). Anyhow, I’m always amazed at how much she has to say, and doesn’t mind us listening, about her seemingly omnivorous set of interests.  Moreover, her comics are a joy to look at. Her thick-thin strokes dance on the page and her characters are always-recognizable graphic icons. Hers is a Kurtzman-esque cartooning technique that she can apply to any scenario of her choosing, though often with a SF undertone.

I read her new and wonderful book, Band for Life, in a few giant gulps. It charts the fortunes of the band Gun Tit, which is really an armature for her musings on culture, sex, money, love, and the weather. I love it. Anya will be at this week’s Comic Arts Brooklyn with a new zine, Golden Chimes and a new comic book, Lovers in the Garden. Go out and get her books.

Since we began talking about it a few weeks back in Chicago, I want to hear more. Tell me about your horse in Nova Scotia. And that lady, the one who looked after you.

I grew up on Prince Edward Island, which is near Nova Scotia-similar vibe but even smaller. Telling a Canadian you grew up on PEI is like telling an American you grew up in Arkansas. It’s not cool. I met a woman named Yogi Gamester. Actually, my parents must have met her and I’m not sure how. She’s incredible. She grew up exercising racehorses, traveled all over Canada. Ended up on PEI with a young child in a bad marriage. Got a divorce, was given some land in the settlement and built her own house. Then she started rescuing horses. On PEI, harness racing is a big deal, but any kind of racing is really brutal on horses. They start them too young, when their bones and tendons aren’t fully mature. They get terrible injuries and are sent to the slaughterhouse. Yogi started rescuing horses from the track, and taking in all kinds of unwanted horses and ponies. Last I knew she had over twenty. She teaches kids in the community to handle and ride the horses for practically nothing. My friends and I would ride all over the island on trails and dirt roads. We had complete freedom by age 9. We’d fall, we’d get fucked up, all the girls I met at Yogi’s grew up to be tough as nails. Yogi funds the whole thing with her own money, and a few donations. She works at the vet college in the shipping department, and I remember her taking us to the college to learn about horse parasites. We’d look at these giant jars full of parasites in formaldehyde, and watch movies about animal husbandry and eat pizza. She would often take in Dutch vet students. The Dutch are really serious about agriculture I think, which is why a lot of them come over to Canada. I’m starting to dredge up really old weird memories. Goddamn it, Dan. I’m conjuring up a handsome Dutch icthyologist and now I’m going to move on to another question. Oh, but you can check out her website here.

When did you discover music and begin performing?

I grew up crazy about music. First it was oldies, then it was ’70s hard rock, then it was grunge. Once I hit grunge, around age 12, I started reading about the bands I loved and learning that they’d been heavily influenced by punk. There was a record shop on the Island, Back Alley Discs. Chaz who ran the place started recommending me punk records. I had a best friend, Erin, who was obsessed too. Her mom worked at a nature store, and I remember we went down in the basement of the shop, where Erin would often hang out, and we put on Plastic Surgery Disasters. That was the first time I heard the Dead Kennedys. After that we went to a lot of shows, and started ordering 7-inches that sounded cool from distro catalogs. The zine Slug & Lettuce was huge for me. There was a small but active scene on the island. I didn’t start playing in a band (although I’d had some guitar lessons) until I was 18, and I moved to Chicago (from Nashville Tennessee. Long story.) for school. I met the members of Coughs, the band I was in throughout most of my 20s, at Food Not Bombs. They had a try-out and I became their singer.

What was the arc of Coughs? Sometimes people tell me Coughs was/is legendary. Tell me more.  

27338-500I’m not sure who you’ve been talking to. Did Ethan D’Ercole (killer screenprinter!) tell you Coughs was legendary? We were around for about six years, and we definitely had fans in Chicago, who were mostly other musicians who played in bands that we were fans of. We were on Load Records, with great bands like Lightning Bolt, Brainbombs, Sightings and Scissor Girls. We did two LPs with Load. LPs I’m still pretty proud of. We started out practicing in this basement at a place called the Creative Resistance Artist Collective and playing places like the A-Zone (Autonomous Zone), which was an anarchist space with a zine library, to playing clubs and more traditional venues. We toured a fair amount, east and West Coast, and right as we were breaking up we toured the UK. I’m so thankful for my time in that band. I got to see the world and meet people in contexts I never could have imagined. There were six of us, all really strong personalities. The members of Coughs are wilder, weirder and more brilliant than any fictional characters I could create. We were all really young when we joined the band, and some of us needed to leave Chicago and try other things. We’ve mostly all kept playing music.

I first heard of your work from CF and Carlos Gonzales back in 2007. How did you encounter those guys?

I met those guys on tour. Our first tour, I think, was the East Coast. Providence, New York, Boston. It’s very very foggy. I didn’t book the shows so I don’t know who the original contact was. All I know is that we showed up to Providence and I’d never heard of Fort Thunder and I had no idea that Olneyville was home to so many of the world’s most brilliant cartoonists. It was probably the single most formative experience of my life. I had brought a bunch of my own shitty zines on tour and they were so gracious. They were like “oh cool, you make comics. We make comics too.” They treated me like an equal, even though they were leaps and bounds ahead of me. It meant everything. If someone comes up to you with their shitty zine, treat them kindly, for fuck’s sake.

You are, despite your personal shyness, a natural performer. Do you miss the stage? What is the best show you ever saw?

I did miss it terribly but I’m in a new band With Conor Stechschulte and Chris Day, two amazing artists, and our pal Kenny Rasmussen on drums. I think we’re gonna be called Lilac. Fuck you, Kenny, we’re called Lilac now, OK? Deal with it. Just kidding. Kenny’s not gonna read this. He’s lucky–he’s not a cartoonist. It’s really really hard to find a group of people you connect with personally and musically. When you do it’s precious. It’s really hard to let go, and there’s a grieving process when you break up. Dude that “best show you ever saw” shit is impossible. I have favorite moments. I remember CF hanging from the rafters of the Che Cafe in San Diego. I remember Mindflayer playing at the Texas Ballroom, and XBXRX at the Fireside Bowl and Neptune at some club in Boston and the USA is a Monster in the basement at Mister City and Sisterfucker at the Mopery and the White Mice at some bizarre frat house in Philly and Tinsel Teeth at a warehouse space in Providence-not sure which one. Those are some stand-out moments.

band-for-life-181I somehow don’t think Guntit is actually based on your own bands (or maybe….), but the member do fit some rock archetypes. Are you a reader of rock bios? If so, which is your fave?

The name Guntit is taken from a real band. Lale Westvind, Thomas Toye and Laura Perez Harris were all living in New York (Lale’s since moved to Philly) and they started a band. When I heard they were called Guntit I was like, “that’s the best band name ever.” You know, the reason most of us start cartooning is we’re in grade school and we draw our teachers boning or something and our classmates think it’s hilarious so we keep at it. I wanted to make Lale, Tom and Laura chuckle, because they’re some of the coolest people on the planet, so I drew this proto-Band For Life strip and that’s how it started. But all the characters are fictional in the sense that they’re 95% me, a sprinkle of my friends and a sprinkle of observation out in the world. As far as band bios, yeah, I read Come as You Are, the Story of Nirvana when I was a kid and that was a big deal, and Confusion is Next, the Sonic Youth Story. Get in the Van, the Rollins one, is great. I read White Line Fever, by Lemmy, while I was on tour once. That’s a great one for reading in the car cause the type is huge. And Patti Smith’s memoirs. I don’t know if I have a favorite, although the Nirvana one turned me on to a lot of other music. I did very consciously set up a rivalry between Annimal, the drummer in my book, and Linda, the frontwoman. I’ve always hated the Rolling Stones, but I find the rivalry between Richards and Jagger really entertaining in a camp way. So I sprinkled some of that in. But it’s just a fact that bands have conflict. I don’t know if collaboration can exist without conflict.

I assume you like hippies and punks, but if you had to choose, which would you take, and body aside, which cultural parts?

r-1984967-1256753789-gifMy philosophy is perfectly illustrated by the cover of the LP by the band Uncurbed. It’s a picture of a bunch of half-clothed hippies in a commune, but the music on the record is just super nasty and crusty metallic hardcore. They have a song called Liberation Hippies and one called Party Punx. They got it right. Since the turn of the century there’s been an unbroken thread of counter-cultural activity and awareness. It takes different forms but the differences are mostly aesthetic. Progressives know that those boundaries are arbitrary, and divisive. Yeah-I get it-punks are supposed to hate hippies ‘cause hippies were all about doing drugs and burning out and they didn’t effect the social change they were supposed to, and it’s punk to hate your parents etc…The fact is, I hate all codified subcultures. I do and say and think what the fuck I want, and I dress however I want, and I recognize that everyone involved in any countercultural struggle is an ally. Janis Joplin was punk as fuck. Aesthetically I have to say my favorite decade is the 70’s.

Dogs. Tell me about dogs.

Dogs are disgusting and I wish I didn’t love them so much. Mine is getting old, which is really hard on a big dog. Her hind legs are getting weak. Pets are tragic.

Who do you think draws the best animals in comics?

I’ll tell you who draws the best animals but she’s not specifically a cartoonist. Kathleen Hale, author of the Orlando the Marmalade Cat series from the 1930-3-70’s. Her illustrations are stunning. Also, I’ve been reading about Jack Yeats, WB Yeats’ brother. He was an illustrator and cartoonist. He did a lot of drawings for this magazine called Paddock Life. His horses are amazing. So are Lautrec’s. There’s the whole school of “half animal, half people” cartooning. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat wins that contest. Brian Blomerth’s “Pups in Trouble” comics are lovely. Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Warthog is great. Leslie Weibeler draws really good animals too.

Kathleen Hale, A Bicycle Made for Five, circa 1938.

Kathleen Hale, A Bicycle Made for Five, circa 1938.

Do you have any experience with the prison system?

No, and I felt a little weird about representing it, even briefly, in my book. I was institutionalized as a teen after a suicide attempt. That was my only experience of being held against my will, and having no autonomy whatsoever. Being told what to wear, being physically restrained etc… But I know it’s far different-I would never compare that experience to what people deal with in prison. I think our prison system is racist and irreparably flawed, and that it needs to be dismantled. I had my characters meet in prison because I wanted to illustrate their inability to function in conventional society, but one is coming from a place of uncontrolled, self- destructive anger and the other is acting specifically in protest. And there’s a B movie “women in prison” trope that I wanted to explore, because the book is very much about loving trash culture. Specifically Reform School Girls with Wendy O Williams, who’s a hero of mine.


band-for-life-215Do you care about artistic communities? Do they matter?

Yeah. I’ve always been interested in the idea of intentional communities. I’ve never tried living in a communal setting but I can tell you my personality really wouldn’t jive with it. I love hearing about Ida, for instance, the intentional queer community in Tennessee. I have some friends in New Mexico who all bought land right next to each other and are building Earth ships. They’re heroes. I’m an only child and I grew up pretty solitary. I’m not great at sharing, and I like to work alone. But I live within walking distance of  friends, and I love being in close proximity to them. It’s a fact that I would have nothing without the artists I’ve met over the years. Artistic community has really been everything to me.

Do you think we need a more robust ecosystem for comics? You seem pretty self-sufficient — always have — but do you feel like there’s a place where your work goes and reaches an audience?

I don’t know Dan. I mean, it’s easy to romanticize the days when print was stronger and there were more paying venues for cartoonists and illustrators. I’m really wary of nostalgia, and I can’t say if that was a better time because I wasn’t there. But yeah, I wish there was more distribution for comics these days, and I wish there were more newspapers and magazines that paid artists. I don’t think there’s much of an audience for my work, and I don’t care. You know what there is an audience for? Books about weddings and food. Pictures of cats in funny costumes. Pictures of celebrities at the beach. That’s OK. This world is absolutely, unconscionably terrifying. If you’ve had a hard day and you want to look at a picture of a butt in a thong, I’ll be the last person to criticize. The people who appreciate my work seem to find it. That’s amazing, and I’m very thankful. I’m obsessed with the book No Hidden Meanings by Sheldon Kopp. It’s kind of an atheist’s bible. It’s a list of precepts. 12, 13 and 14 say it all. “It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.” “You don’t really control anything.” “You can’t make anyone love you.”

bandfinal178Is page 178 basically your daily dilemma? 

Yes 100%. Being an artist can seem frivolous in light of how much healing the world needs. And I’m constantly being reminded of how insignificant I am, and how small the audience is for my work, and agonizing over whether I should have become a therapist or a teacher or a ceramicist. But I do think art is a necessity. I think it’s a spiritual need for human beings. I mean, there was a lot going on thirty-thousand years ago. You wouldn’t think that Paleolithic people would have a pressing need to paint horses and rhinos in the Chauvet cave but there they are. They had religious significance, they were an attempt to understand and influence the natural world. Am I comparing the success of my work to that of the Chauvet cave? Fuck no. I’m just saying that some people are compelled to make art and I’m one of them and I wish I could stop but I can’t. There’s also a part in the book where Linda says “sometimes I feel like I’m not living up to my full potential and other times I’m just thankful I’m not lying in a ditch drinking paint thinner.” That’s me too. Sometimes I’m just amazed I didn’t have to be institutionalized for my entire life. My psyche is kinda fragile. I think I’m doing the best I can.

Your comics have always been amazingly hopeful right alongside the crotchety humor. What gives you such optimism?

I’m very privileged.  I’ve had so much love and support from family and friends. I truly know what it feels like to give and receive love. I know the power of love. Plus, check out Kopp’s precepts #23, 24 and 25: “Progress is an illusion” “Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.” “Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.” “

band-for-life-162It strikes me that you’re doing a kind of slice o’ life comics almost like American Splendor or something. Whatever comes to mind comes out of the character’s mouths. They are distinctly characters, but you channel your observations through them. They all can’t help but comment on everything from age to sex to urban life. Why funnel that through these monster/SF characters?

Ha! I’ve been asking myself the same thing. I thought for a while that it was more interesting to draw monsters than people, but I’m starting to change my tune. I wanted it to be a visual joke, really deadpan. I thought the incongruity would be funny-that you see these outrageous looking characters talking about really mundane shit. I was influenced by Melvin Monster, which you turned me onto, where there’s a monster world and a human world and the fabric between them is really thin and porous, and you can kind of step back and forth between them. And I was tremendously influenced by Brinkman and Chippendale, who do a lot of that. And I wanted to make a joke about the B movie “monsters and babes” trope, where the slimy monster carries off this gorgeous babe. I thought, “what if the monster and the babe lived happily ever after, in a really egalitarian relationship?” And then I got frustrated, ‘cause I was like “how can I address these really pressing, real-world issues like killer racist cops, if everyone’s green and orange etc…” That’s why I chose to try a different approach with Lovers in the Garden, my book that’s coming out from Retrofit in November.

band-for-life-89I was struck that by how casually you set up relationships between different species/same sexes, etc. And that they are all based on intense conversations and proclamations. It brings to mind, actually. Philip Roth, who you reference. Tell me about depicting love/sex/devotion. And Roth, too? 

I often wish that I was better at depicting sex explicitly. You know who’s incredible at that? Conor Stechschulte. His Generous Bosom  comics depict the weirdness and mechanics of sex so explicitly and brilliantly. Relationships and sex always surprise me. The way you can find yourself profoundly attracted to someone with whom you have nothing in common. The way you can be madly in love with someone you’re not attracted to. How you can end up in bed with someone unexpectedly. How you can be tormented for years with dreams about an ex, even in a happy relationship. It was important to me to try and depict devotion because capitalist culture always wants you to be looking at young flesh, new flesh. It’s kind of subversive to try and figure out how non-traditional couples can survive and thrive over the long term. I read some Philip Roth right after college. Portnoy’s Complaint, Exit Ghost, Goodbye Columbus. I tried to read Our Gang but couldn’t get into it. I liked Portnoy’s Complaint a lot but the Breast is my favorite. It’s such a stupid idea-this man physically becomes a breast. It’s in the tradition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Gogol’s The Nose, so there’s definitely a precedent, but it’s so outrageous and he plays it so straight and it ends up being profoundly affecting. He takes his outrageous premise seriously and pushes it as far as it can possibly go. That’s what great sci-fi writers do. And I applaud his agenda-I read that he was really into busting up the stereotype of the effete Jewish intellectual man. He wanted to give Jewish men their sexuality back. That’s hot. 

band-for-life-142Tell me about your SF love. It’s been present the last few years in force. It seems both literary and visual and musical. What regions does it space? Like, concept records, Star Trek, LeGuin, etc?

My Sci-Fi love is deep and wide and all-encompassing, and has been ever since I can remember. David Cronenberg is probably my favorite director. His movies have this incredibly astute psychological sensibility-Movies like The Brood and Dead Ringers really tackle the horror of living in a female body in a way that few directors can match. I love Rodney Matthews and Roger Dean as psychedelic sci-fi album cover artists, and Robert Beatty is carrying on that tradition. I love Space is the Place, the Sun Ra movie, and everything about George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and the artists they worked with like Pedro Bell, Overton Lloyd and Ronald “Stozo” Edwards. Star Trek is perfect-As a kid I watched the original series. Battlestar Galactica is a huge favorite. Farscape is the best. I like the Left Hand of Darkness a lot. I was really into Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and the Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk as a teenager. The Fifth Sacred Thing is interesting because it’s one of the few novels that imagines what a utopian futuristic community would look like. It’s a lot of guilt-free group sex and crystal healing which, come on, who doesn’t want that? I’m fascinated with Martine Rothblatt and other transhumanists, even though I think transhumanism is fatally flawed for reasons I won’t go into here. I’m not so much into hard sci-fi like Asimov and stuff. I can appreciate that stuff but I’m more into the psychological drama of space travel, and the ways we can use sci-fi to better understand our present. And I’m in love with Lane Milburn, who’s a sci-fi cartoonist. Sometimes he wakes up and tells me he’s dreamt about space colonies, or just flying through the vastness of space. I think he might have traveled here from another dimension.

This book is a collection of serialized strips — so nearly every strip has a punchline. Was that a challenge you made for yourself? To tell complete vignettes in each strip rather than focus exclusively on serialization?

No no that was all dictated to me by Nick Gazin, the comics editor at VICE, where the strip first appeared. He explicitly stated that every strip should end with a cliffhanger or a punchline. The whole form of the book-the fact that the story is told in strips, is because of the parameters around that gig. Even after the strip got axed from VICE I maintained that format because it was a really interesting challenge. I still don’t know if I’m funny, but I entertain myself. Sheldon Kopp, precept #30: “We have only ourselves, and one another. That might not be much, but that’s all there is.”

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Your palette reminds me in some ways of all things great and glorious about our lord and savior Karl Wirsum. You come to color (I guess) as a print maker. How’s the difference like between printing color and using markers?

Karl Wirsum is a divine being, and I think he was super influenced by advertising, sign painting and other mass-distributed print media. I definitely come to my palette through printmaking, specifically 4 color process printing, or CMYK printing. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, key. Key is usually black. And then you get great secondary colors when you overlap those primary colors. Markers don’t have the same flatness, and I cheated. I had, like, a few different blues, I had a red marker and a magenta marker. I didn’t limit my palette quite as much as I do when I’m printmaking, but it’s still pretty limited.

Also: Replacements or Husker Du or both? There’s no wrong answer. 

Husker Du. Zen Arcade is such a genius record. This might be controversial, but I just can’t get into the Replacements.

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Jonah Kinigstein’s Savage TRUMP http://www.tcj.com/jonah-kinigsteins-savage-trump/ http://www.tcj.com/jonah-kinigsteins-savage-trump/#comments Mon, 31 Oct 2016 12:00:42 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96681 Continue reading ]]> Jonah Kinigstein certainly embodies the single virtue that Donald Trump apparently values above all others: stamina. Not to mention indignation, which Kinigstein also has in spades. At age 94, Kinigstein isn’t slowing down. Given that the artist specializes in producing cartoons that excoriate public figures that he considers dangerous, stupid, and repugnant, it is not surprising that he was recently inspired by the current presidential election to unleash his full wrath upon the Republican candidate — Donald Trump.

Kinigstein works in the scorched earth tradition of such 18th and 19th century cartoonists as James Gillray, George Cruikshank, and Joseph Keppler, and embraces their somewhat rococo pen and ink technique as well as their penchant to exaggerate the grotesque (but not, in this instance by much). He does so with brio and passion equal to theirs, and if his images will not sway those still straddling the fence, those implausible undecided voters, they may give solace to the frustrated and deliver some much need humor to the agog.

A collection of Kinigstein’s cartoons savaging modern art and its enablers was published in 2014 (The Emperor’s New Clothes) and a new collection will appear from FU Press in 2018. A short interview about Kinigstein’s Trump cartoons follows.– Gary Groth

By way of prelude, by my estimation, you have been of voting age in at least 19 United States presidential elections. Have you ever experienced anything like this one? Does any public political event come close?

Of all of the Presidential elections, I have voted in, this guy, Donald Trump, is the personification of EVIL.  He’s a racist, Fascist, Nazi. redneck, liar, libertine, and a bully. It appears that he believes you can fool ALL of the People ALL of the time. This Joe Six Pack believes in the idea that if you say something LONG ENOUGH and LOUD ENOUGH it becomes true. He shoots from the hip thinking every male has the same predatory libido that he has. He wants to get rid of Mexican rapists and thieves when he himself is the worst rapist and thief of them all. When he is accused by his victims he shirks it off as though he is incapable of doing or saying these things.

His slogan of “Make America Great Again” is pure garbage. America is as GREAT as it will ever be right NOW!  Perhaps he wants to return to a time when African Americans sang, “I got plenty of nothin’ and nothin’ is plenty for me.”

This lowlife thinks he can stoop to the lowest form of transgressions and wants you to believe everyone really wants to be just like him. He is the most unethical animal that has ever run for President. I can’t recall any public political event that has come close to this, except perhaps when Hitler was running.

WE’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS ASSHOLE!!

Pundits have been writing endlessly about Trump for a year now. Tell me what you find so uniquely odious about him?

This guy has the impression that below the surface everyone has the same ugly desires as he has and that he is the only one who acts on them. He wants everyone to join him.

Can you describe your own politics? Have they evolved over the last 75 years? Did you vote for FDR?

I voted for FDR and since then no one has been able to replace him.  I was disappointed when Adlai Stevenson lost the election to Eisenhower; he could have been a great president.

As far as I know, you had no plan to release these cartoons publicly. Did you draw these cartoons for yourself? What motivated you to express all this in isolation, as it were? Was it just an inner compulsion? Were you trying to purge your anger? 

I made these cartoons for myself, family and a few friends. I sent some to Hillary’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn. I was very angry that this ass won the primaries. I asked myself what has happened to this country, especially after electing Obama twice. I was a very proud American then.

These drawings are looser and rougher —less refined— than your earlier cartoons about modernist artists (The Emperor’s New Clothes). It’s almost as if you were drawing faster than usual because you couldn’t wait to get to the next one. As someone who knows you, you don’t appear manic, but there’s something manic about these images. Am I mistaken? 

Yes, that is true. These drawings are less refined and more direct. The drawings were made with no previous draft, they were done once on paper. It’s true I couldn’t get to the next one fast enough. I didn’t want an elegance that finds itself when copied with a pencil drawing underneath.

What’s with the pitchfork-in-the-head motif?

The pitchfork in the hair refers to his bale-of-hay hair when Rosie O’Donnell aped him on TV a awhile ago.

kinig-trump-1 kinig-trump-17 kinig-trump-16 kinig-trump-15 kinig-trump-14 kinig-trump-13 kinig-trump-12 kinig-trump-11 kinig-trump-10 kinig-trump-9 kinig-trump-8 kinig-trump-7 kinig-trump-6 kinig-trump-5 kinig-trump-4 kinig-trump-3 kinig-trump-2

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Satire, Business, and the AAEC 2016 Convention http://www.tcj.com/satire-business-and-the-aaec-2016-convention/ http://www.tcj.com/satire-business-and-the-aaec-2016-convention/#respond Fri, 28 Oct 2016 12:00:39 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95860 Continue reading ]]> The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) has been meeting annually since it was formed in 1957. Their sixtieth meeting was held September 22nd-24th in Durham, North Carolina, in conjunction with Duke University’s Satire Festival. During the opening reception, show co-organizer J.P. Trostle said, “Wow, North Carolina is hell-bent on making this one of the most interesting and timely conventions we’ve ever had.” Trostle was referring not just to the passage of the odious anti-trans law HB2, but also to yet another victim of police violence, this time in nearby Charlotte. Indeed, there was some internal debate within the AAEC as to whether the festival should be held in Durham, given HB2, but it was decided that an organization whose purpose is to make pointed political commentary would be an ideal match for this controversy.

Opening reception at the Dwane Powell Retrospective in the Power Plant Gallery in Durham, NC. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

Opening reception at the Dwane Powell Retrospective in the Power Plant Gallery in Durham, NC. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

What interested me most about this festival was what factors went into it being considered a success. Editorial cartooning jobs have been shrinking steadily for years as newspapers fold and budgets decree that such posts are luxuries for the survivors. Of course, people have been shoveling dirt on the relevancy of political cartoons as early as the founding of the organization, and yet it continues to adapt and persevere. From the heydey of alt-weeklies in the ’80s to the movement to the web and multimedia platforms in the last few decades, editorial cartooning’s ability to provoke with a stark image is still powerful and threatening, a fact reinforced when one considers the fate of many such cartoonists around the globe.

Social media panel with AAEC President Adam Zyglis, The Nib's Matt Bors, Washington Post's Ann Telnaes and Joel Pett. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

Social media panel with AAEC President Adam Zyglis, The Nib’s Matt Bors, Washington Post’s Ann Telnaes and Joel Pett. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

The AAEC convention has been held all over the continent throughout its history, making stops in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Chicago and Toronto, among many others. The nature of each convention depends not only on its location, but also the level of interactivity between the cartoonists and local institutions. For the festival in Durham, success was going to be defined as a close working relationship between the 74 cartoonists in attendance and the school, especially since Duke was not only hosting nearly every event, but was also a major sponsor of the convention. As such, the AAEC programming was both topical and often directly aimed at the students.

The HB2 panel discussion. The 2016 Political Cartoon & Satire Festival took place in a dozen locations across Duke University and Durham. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

The HB2 panel discussion. The 2016 Political Cartoon & Satire Festival took place in a dozen locations across Duke University and Durham. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

The meat of the AAEC programming was a slate of panels held in a theater on Duke’s campus. The subjects ranged from craft-related topics to larger political issues, and true to the AAEC’s history, the ideas came from both sides of the political aisle. For example, there was a panel called “Finding The Elephant’s Funny Bone”, which was about humor from a Republication perspective. There were panels on cartooning in the age of social media (both in dealing with online fallout and integrating it into one’s platform), the craft of caricature (especially in an election year), and the issues surrounding satirizing two huge targets in that race. The “Bathroom Banter” panel included cartoonists and a reporter discussing the issue, and the fact that this was a local matter made the interaction with the audience particularly lively. The panel went into specific detail about why HB2 is a poor piece of legislation qua legislation, and how it’s simply a thinly-disguised way of garnering socially conservative voters in an election year.

The cartoons & cops panel was a powerful highlight, with Jim Coleman, Senator Mike Woodard, Keith Knight and Darrin Bell. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

The cartoons & cops panel was a powerful highlight, with Jim Coleman, Senator Mike Woodard, Keith Knight and Darrin Bell. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

The panel titled “Black and Blue: Cartooning #BlackLivesMatter and Policing” seethed with rage and tension, coming as it did just a few days after the slaying of Keith Scott by the police in Charlotte. On the panel were Darrin Bell (cartoonist for The Washington Post and the creator of the strip Candorville), Keith Knight (the artist behind long-running features (th)ink, K Chronicles, and The Knight Life), North Carolina senator Mike Woodard, and moderator Jim Coleman of Duke’s law school. Bell had actually stopped doing political cartoons quite some time ago, until the murder of Mike Brown spurred him to get back on the scene. Knight’s chronicles of police brutality have been voluminous enough to merit an entire collection, titled They Shoot Black People, Don’t They? He did a short version of the slideshow that he’s lately been performing live, one that is regrettably already out of date, thanks to recent events in places like Charlotte and Tulsa.

The most poignant segments of the panel were the stories that Knight and Bell told of the first time they understood they were being targeted by police because of their skin color. Knight was a young man with dreadlocks putting up flyers for a rap gig, and was detained by a police officer who was looking for a robber with the description “black male, no other identifier.” Bell was a child when he had a toy water gun taken out of his hands by a white police officer and never returned to him. Up to that time, he had wanted to be a cop himself. Knight didn’t mince words, and said that even if black people did everything right, they were still getting shot. It was noted that change would take more than simply altering methods at police academies (though that might help); it would take a federally-funded initiative to teach classes about race in public schools. Senator Woodard was very much on their side, bitterly noting that the sort of legislature he’d like to introduce in the state congress would be laughed out of the session by the Tea Party-dominated group. Overall, Knight and Bell were resigned to keep calling out the same problems over and over again, while trying to be as funny as possible while doing it. During the Q&A, Trostle said to Bell that “a year ago, when we first planned this panel, I didn’t think it would be so timely.” Bell replied, “I did.”

Trump was everywhere: Politico's Matt Wuerker version (left) and how GADO sees the GOP candidate. The International Ink panel included co-host Kal Kallaugher, Rayma Suprani (with translator) and GADO. Photos by J.P. Trostle.

Trump was everywhere: Politico’s Matt Wuerker version (left) and how GADO sees the GOP candidate. The International Ink panel included co-host Kal Kallaugher, Rayma Suprani (with translator) and GADO. Photos by J.P. Trostle and Nik Kowsar, respectively.

If Knight and Bell showed how speaking truth to power can be a dicey proposition, the “International Ink” panel made that even clearer. Rayma Suprani of Venezuela, GADO of Kenya, and Rod Emmerson of New Zealand each spoke extensively about the unique challenges facing their nations and the blowback and threats they’ve received while addressing them. Suprani was fired in 2014, after nineteen years from her paper El Universal, for publishing a clever cartoon critical of deceased former president Hugo Chavez. She eventually left the country after fielding some not-so-veiled threats. Her work is colorful, clever, and uses a thick line weight to bring home her points. GADO, originally from Tanzania and one of the most important and popular cartoonists in east and central Africa, was also fired by his paper after criticizing the government. GADO’s skill with pen and ink is staggering, and his work is very much in the tradition of US cartoonists like Tom Toles and Pat Oliphant. The main difference is that he’s even blunter and meaner than those two legends, and that attitude extends to his use of puppets and animation to reach a larger audience. Rod Emmerson of New Zealand by way of Australia spoke of the way that some of his cartoons offended foreign nations but that he felt lucky that his paper always had his back. There’s no question that all three cartoonists would be major heavyweights in the US, and listening to each of them discuss the state of freedom of the press in their countries was sobering.

Cartoonists and Duke University Improv (DUI) play off each other in an epic comedy showdown. Kal Kallaugher, David Horsey, Rob Rogers and Cullum Rogers (no relation) fire off a stack of sketches on stage. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle

Cartoonists and Duke University Improv (DUI) play off each other in an epic comedy showdown. Kal Kallaugher, David Horsey, Rob Rogers and Cullum Rogers (no relation) fire off a stack of sketches on stage. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle

The student-oriented programming included two lunchtime cartooning sessions on a heavily-trafficked student plaza, a cookout with students from Duke’s public policy school, and a two-hour student workshop on visual storytelling. The most amusing interaction between students and cartoonists came during a Thursday night show that featured Duke’s sketch and improv groups. Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, one of the organizers, warmed up the crowd with a political caricature chalk talk that was piled high with one-liners. Later on, the cartoonists drew things for the improv team to react to, and then competed against students in a drawing contest. The shtick of that bit was the cartoonists handicapping themselves by various methods: drawing with their non-dominant hands, drawing with an lobster oven mitt on, drawing blind, and drawing with both hands behind their backs. The facility of artists like Rob Rogers, Pulitzer-winning David Horsey, and local cartoonist V. Cullum Rogers despite these impositions was remarkable. While this show held in a large auditorium was far from full, most of the audience was comprised of students, which was certainly a major goal.

"Night of The Simpsons" was one of the festival's best-attended events. From left to right: Bill Adair, Caroline Omine, Jeff Westbrook and Stewart Burns. Photo credit: Scott Burns.

“Night of The Simpsons” was one of the festival’s best-attended events. From left to right: Bill Adair, Caroline Omine, Jeff Westbrook and Stewart Burns. Photo credit: Scott Burns.

The big ticket events, as it were, came from Duke’s end of the Satire Festival. “Night Of The Simpsons” was the big draw on the second night of the festival, featuring Simpsons writers Caroline Omine, Jeff Westbrook, and Stewart Burns, and moderated by Duke professor Bill Adair. This was very much a craft- and process-related affair that nonetheless drew a large crowd, many of them undergrads who were undoubtedly interested in just how a writer’s room works. Writers on the show have a near-total lock on what actually is said and appears on the screen, with the artists given a little wiggle room to add background details. I asked a question regarding the legacy of the show and what kind of pressure the writers might feel, since people have been saying that The Simpsons stopped being good since the beginning of season two, and that everyone had a different cut-off point. Omine replied that her nephews were old enough to watch the show now, and they loved the speed and pace of the most recent seasons. When she showed them early-season episodes, they thought it looked and sounded weird, and there were fewer jokes landed per minutes. She acknowledged that The Simpsons changed the entire game with regard to American comedy, and what was subversive twenty-five years ago is simply default comedy today. Their duty now is simply to write the best gags possible.

The final event of the festival, "Facts and Comedy", also drew a solid crowd. From left to right: Naureen Kahn, Ishan Thakore, Adam Chodikoff, Bill Adair. Photo credit: Scott Burns.

The final event of the festival, “Facts and Comedy”, also drew a solid crowd. From left to right: Naureen Kahn, Ishan Thakore, Adam Chodikoff, Bill Adair. Photo credit: Scott Burns.

Speaking of “inside baseball” craft discussions, the big event on Saturday, “Facts And Comedy”, featured fascinating details surrounding fact-checking and late-night comedy shows Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and The Daily Show. Once again moderated by Adair and featuring a trio of Duke graduates (Ishan Thakore, Naureen Kahn, and Adam Chodikoff) who are researchers and fact-checkers for those shows, the presentation was chock full of details about how a feature story gets made for the show. They screened a scene where Thakore was on-site with Bee during a non-ironic welcoming of Trump voters, trying to fact-check so many absurd things from those voters that he wound up hyperventilating into a paper bag. Thakore said that he had Kahn with him and would yell to get on the computer and check a fact for him as quickly as possible. Thakore and Kahn also talked about the research done for a hilarious, biting piece on how the Religious Right in America sprang up in the early 1970s. It wasn’t about abortion–it was about segregation at Bob Jones University. All three fact-checkers noted that they’ve had to pour cold water on many a story from an excited writer and even the host, because they didn’t want to use the same tactics as explicitly partisan shows in using half-truths or distortions. Chodikoff even had practical advice for the undergraduates hungry for jobs like his: read Variety and The Hollywood Reporter‘s want ads, and then be in the right place at the right time. Virtually all of the programming is available to watch online at the Duke POLIS YouTube channel.

In addition to the festival’s events, there were various exhibits in conjunction with the festival that highlighted local artists and solicited a wide range of opinions regarding key topics. They made a powerful argument for editorial cartooning as an art and not just a political tool. I’m not only speaking of craft, though one look at the exhibits made it clear that a number of the cartoonists whose work was on display were every bit as good as any other cartoonists in the world. Even working within certain restraints and expectations, I found it remarkable just how much self-expression still went into these drawings, and how the different strategies employed revealed different things about each artist. Regardless of whether or not the cartoonist was creating explicitly autobiographical work, their drawings revealed a great deal about themselves as well as the times they live in.

V. Cullum Rogers points out a few favorites in his show at Bull City Arts Collaborative. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

V. Cullum Rogers points out a few favorites in his show at Bull City Arts Collaborative. Photo credits: Scott Burns and Nick Kowsar, respectively.

V. Cullum Rogers had a career retrospective with a focus on his developing skill as an artist over the years. Longtime Raleigh News & Observer editorial cartoonist Dwane Powell also had a career retrospective covering the last forty years, a time when the state of North Carolina made tremendous, progressive strides while also dealing with reactionary forces in the form of Senator Jesse Helms, current Governor Pat McCrory, and the sitting legislature. The state’s underlying racial tension and history of activism, the stark differences between its urban and rural areas, and shifting sets of priorities have made it a microcosm of larger issues affecting the entire country.

Shots from the HB2 exhibit "Bathroom Humor": Signe Wikinson (left), and co-host J.P. Trostle's homage to Marcel Duchamp, with a caricature of NC governor Pat McCrory. Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

Shots from the HB2 exhibit “Bathroom Humor”: Signe Wikinson (left), and co-host J.P. Trostle’s homage to Marcel Duchamp, with a caricature of NC governor Pat McCrory. Photo credit: Scott Burns.

That was made clear by the “Bathroom Humor” exhibit, which was a selection of editorial cartoons regarding HB2. It’s always exciting to see a wide variety of drawing styles, techniques, and philosophies. There were old-school editorial “labelers,” pen-and-ink stalwarts, artists who did it all digitally, artists who relied on color, etc. This is a uniquely meaty editorial topic because on the one hand, the rationale given by the governor is indefensible by any legal standard and incredibly poorly-thought out. It’s also embarrassing to the state at large, not only in terms of reputation but also in terms of economics, thanks to lost revenue due to business pulling out. At the same time, it’s incredibly timely and emotionally powerful issue to consider as LGBT rights are still in their relative infancy in this country, and this is a direct attack. The fact that the legislature sneaked in anti-employee rights laws on a rider makes the bill all the more cynical, as one gets that sense that they don’t even really have the courage of their convictions. The cartoons in the exhibit called McCrory and the legislature out on just that fact, with some truly biting imagery. V.C Rogers curated this exhibit, while Trostle co-curated the Powell exhibit, among the many things they did behind the scenes for the show.

The cartoonists take in "This Campaign is YUUUGE" (left); Duke students take in the live cartooning on the plaza (right). Photo credit: J.P. Trostle.

The cartoonists take in “This Campaign is YUUUGE” (left); Duke students take in the live cartooning on the plaza (right). Photo credits: Scott Burns and J.P. Trostle, respectively.

Even without all the local intrigue, this was an AAEC convention held during a presidential election year, which meant there were some fireworks. The fact that it was held during possibly the weirdest election of all time in the US only gave the cartoonists more material to work with on both sides of the aisle, and that could be seen in the exhibit “This Campaign Is Yuuuge!: Cartoonists Tackle The 2016 Presidential Race”, curated by Rob Rogers. The irony of the exhibit, and perhaps the entire event as a whole, is that no matter how absurd the cartoonists got in their satire, the actual reality of the campaign has managed to consistently top that level of absurdity. While satire is needed more than ever in a time when Hillary Clinton’s hand in making the primaries go her way, and when Donald Trump abandoned the slightest pretense of tact, dignity, or being grounded in reality, it’s getting more and more difficult for the satirists to keep up. Still, the mere fact that Trump has chillingly hinted at shutting down his many editorial critics if he’s elected president is a stark reminder of what’s at stake, especially as so many cartoonists are putting their lives on the line in places like Africa, the Middle East, and Malaysia. The art of editorial cartooning is very much still alive, even if the business of editorial cartooning continues to look for solid ground on shifting sands.

The author would like to thank J.P. Trostle for providing access to the show, logistical support, advice, photos, editing suggestions and all-around helpfulness. 

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kuš! Aesthetics http://www.tcj.com/kus-aesthetics/ http://www.tcj.com/kus-aesthetics/#respond Thu, 27 Oct 2016 12:00:47 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95447 Continue reading ]]> sh-cover-25Since 2007, the Latvian publisher Kuš! has been releasing a steady stream of short form (and mini-sized) alternative works from all over the world. Basically the only comics publisher in a country without a comics tradition, they’ve worked from the outset as an aggregater of writing and drawing practices ranging all along the art comic spectrum. So it is perhaps a logical continuation that the latest issue of their š anthology explores the process of being influenced by and appropriating a foreign tradition, namely manga. Kuš!’s David Schilter, along with co-editor Berliac (who drew the issue’s cover and is featured inside) talk about what it means to be a “Gaijin Mangaka”.

JOSSELIN MONEYRON: What gave you the idea for this issue’s theme?

DAVID SCHILTER: I honestly can’t remember. It seems like we were talking about it for quite a while. We enjoy doing things a bit different once in a while. Instead of asking artists to submit works on a certain theme, this time we invited people who are influenced by manga, and gave them free hand on what the stories can be about.

BERLIAC: Since it’s manga, it’s probable I brought up the idea. I liked the cohesiveness of “Female Secrets” and “Desassosego” (Portuguese) specials of Kuš! Would you say you also saw this “cohesiveness” among our chosen artists, before this issue? Or did it come as a surprise as we began making the selection?

David: I did see it among certain artists from previous issues, like Hetamoé, Mickey Zacchilli and Dilraj Mann. But it was a very exciting process to find more artists with similar influences. A lot of time spent on tumblr…

Art by Mickey Zacchilli

Art by Mickey Zacchilli

Josselin: How did Berliac end up co-editing?

David: As the idea was initiated by Berliac, it was clear from the beginning, he’d be part of it. Early on he suggested many names to include, and I often consulted him about my own proposals. At a certain point Berliac said he’ll want to get some credit, and then I suggested he’ll be the co-editor. From that on we worked closely on the whole issue.

Berliac: By credit I meant money, cash, dinero, but David completely misunderstood, or pretended to misunderstand. But anyways, I did remember David’s confession, during my “artist” residency in Riga in 2014, that he didn’t have much knowledge of manga beyond Tezuka and a few more. Therefore, he couldn’t have done this alone. Or maybe I should say that since I came with the idea and I’m a control freak, I’d never allow him to publish just any cartoonist. As a matter of fact, we don’t even like the same kind of comics, which was part of the challenging, fun part.

David: This is all true, though I honestly don’t think I knew any manga by Tezuka. Maybe the only mangakas I could name and have read were Yuichi Yokoyama and Kiriko Nananan. By now I tried to catch up a bit, particularly with publications by Breakdown Press and PictureBox.

Art by Andrés Magán

Art by Andrés Magán

Josselin: How were the authors selected? What were the aesthetic or narrative criteria that led to this line-up? A couple of stories seem very far from what we think of as “manga style”, especially once you’ve added color. What links them to the others?

Berliac: Personally speaking, I don’t believe there’s such thing as a “manga style”, therefore my criteria was actually to publish works which support my argument. Manga’s vocabulary is extremely broad, and all artists breath in and employ different elements. Color is still one of them: far from conflicting, GG’s use of red, for dramatic effect, is totally reminiscent of Seiichi Hayashi, and Andrés Magán’s color palette is clearly trying to emulate the 4-color process in which early children’s manga by Suiho Tagawa and Shigeru Sugiura were printed. Dilraj Mann, on his side, abandoned dynamic page layouts and angle variation commonly associated with modern manga, and instead went for an 1950’s Gekiga grid, and for the content he draws directly from the Kaiju (giant monster) tradition, from Godzilla to Kengo Hanazawa’s ongoing “I am a hero”. So yeah, what links them to the rest is the common denominator: they’re clearly influenced by manga.

Art by Dilraj Mann.

Art by Dilraj Mann.

David: I am not too interested in “classical” manga, I prefer those with a more experimental approach. I tried to select people who could also be included in a regular kuš! Issue. So, in a way, we got a broad range of very different styles, but still, each contribution has a clear manga influence and together they make a consistent book, I feel, that very much fits the kuš! aesthetics.

Josselin: The title “Gaijin Mangaka”, which has a very vague literal meaning, makes clever use of how these Japanese words have acquired a more specific meaning once extracted from their original cultural setting. Is it a term sometimes used by some of these artists to try and define their sensibility?

David: It took us a while to come up with a summarizing title, and it was a challenge to not choose something plain silly. First we even thought, we could give the artists a theme, but then we just wanted to leave the contents completely to them. At one time I came up with the idea of “Foreign Manga”. Google helped me to translate it to “Gaijin”. Berliac uses “Gaijin Gekiga” as his header on his website, so with slight adjustments we got our title. Though Berliac said “Gaijin” is often used as derogative term, so we did have some slight reservations.

Berliac: My Japanese friends explained to me that the term Gaijin was “extracted from its original cultural setting”, in which it had racist connotations, by foreigners living in Japan to refer to themselves. So, I don’t know about the other artists, but when it comes to defining my own work, I don’t have any reservations, quite the opposite, I gladly see myself as an outsider, and make it an identity factor in my own work. One of the nicest “fan mail” I’ve ever received was from Japan, from a man saying he could certainly trace Yoshiharu Tsuge’s influence in my work, but at the same time he enjoyed learning about my own cultural background and experiences. Isn’t this a bit like immigrating? I learn your visual grammar as fluently as possible, to tell you about myself, to connect, and I learn about your own culture in the process.

Art by GG.

Art by GG.

Josselin: Do some of these authors feel like they belong to a community of thought?

Berliac: Maybe, as long as you don’t mean a clear, conscious, willful, long-term association. I’ve talked to some of them about this, and mostly they seemed quite disconnected from each other, beyond having seen each other’s work online, and maybe traded publications once in a while. This is neither good, nor bad, and as a matter of fact, I don’t think it’s our duty, as authors, to consciously gather, or even to be clear about what is it that we share. That’s the duty of, well, people like David, who work full time to provide spaces (publications, galleries, festivals, articles) which would evidence this partially-visible threads in a more intelligible way for the public.

David: In a way, kuš! provides a platform for artists to meet, so maybe this issue does lead to a connectedness of sorts for these artists in future.

Josselin: There’s an almost ostentatious will not to feature purely mimetic artists, of the so-called otaku sort. Is it just because of your own taste, or was it thematically important to feature only artists whose interest in manga doesn’t supersede their other sources of inspiration? (in other words: why did you feel it was more interesting to feature artists whose style is a hybrid?)

David: We didn’t think about artists which we did not want to include, but rather, whom we wanted to feature. I personally prefer works which have some sort of personality, an artist doing their “own thing”. In the end it probably comes down to a matter of taste, I just can’t get excited about otaku manga – admittedly I had to look up this term first.

Berliac: That’s right. Despite we were indeed concerned with attaining a certain balance (a balance which is present in all of Kuš! issues, for example when it comes to nationalities and gender), the end of the line was what we would like to see grouped between front and back cover, period. Also don’t forget this is an anthology: you can’t like it all. Man, I flip through my copies of Garo, and 60% of it looks pretty bad! Also, calling some of the artists in this issue “Hybrids” is, in my opinion, a bit euphemistic. To me they seem more like artistically torn, schizoid, “Co-Dependent Cunts”, as Daylen Seu entitled her piece, two or more artistic personalities at war with each other. “I wanna do this, but without quitting this”. And that’s great, that’s what makes their work so interesting and unique, in these particular cases. They make these stylistic struggles an artistic asset.

Art by Berliac.

Art by Berliac.

Josselin: Some of the artists are mostly interested in alternative manga, while others profess their love for widely successful works and authors. Do you feel these – sometimes conflicting – traditions share more than just a national origin?

David: For me it seems to be like that with comics in general. Speaking for myself, I am not really interested in mainstream comics. Reading Fantagraphics books is about as mainstream as it gets for me. I can enjoy most of their books, but usually I read works from smaller publishers. I hardly pick up mainstream comics. Sometimes I like them, sometimes not. But of course, it is the same with alternative comics, I don’t love all of them either. In the end, the crude labels “alternative” or “mainstream” don’t say anything about quality.

Berliac: I don’t think there’s such division between those who like Alt-Manga and those who like more popular ones, among our contributors, to begin with. From their work it’s clear they all like different kinds of stuff at once, that’s part of their charm. Gloria Rivera shows in her piece the same love for Ebine Yamaji as for Rumiko Takahashi. Luis Yang is even more evident, his comic reads almost as a visual essay on this dilemma of influences: on the top half of each page he seems to pay tribute to the rough lines of Oji Suzuki and Shin’ichi Abe, and on the bottom he goes for a Moto Hagio-on-cough-syrup kind of aesthetic, with hyper-cliché dialogues straight out of disposable Shoujo magazine.

Art by Gloria Rivera

Art by Gloria Rivera

Josselin: Alt-manga’s deliberate pacing and aimlessness are often cited by the artists in the line-up as an inspiration. But a big feature of (at least mainstream) manga is its long episodic narratives. Is this type of storytelling also an inspiration and how does one hint at this in a handful of pages?

Berliac: I think the artists themselves should be asked this question. As co-editor, though, I can say, that when making the selection, we also tried to balance the authors working in both narrative and anti-narrative ways.

Josselin: Mainstream traditions around the world are very codified and tend to jar foreigners, while alternative productions tend to be more “universal”. How do you feel that affects the “global manga” production?

Berliac: Is there such thing as “global manga” production”? Or maybe better ask, David, do you feel there’s an increasing manga influence in the submissions for Kuš!, since you started in 2007 to this day?

David: I couldn’t say so. We’ve been inviting a bunch of alternative manga artists from Japan since our very first issues. Recently I discovered the brilliant Quang Comics from Korea and we had submissions from some of their members. I actually tried to involve Korean artists much before that, but the problem was the language barrier. So, well, in recent issues we do regularly have some manga contributions, which before was maybe less often. We’re not consciously, looking for manga, but we just enjoy having a range of contributors from all around the world. Probably we should publish significantly more manga, this issue already turned out to be way more popular than our regular issues.

Art by Ben Marcus

Art by Ben Marcus

Berliac: I reject the notion of Universal Alt-Comics vs Jarring Mainstream altogether. I don’t think “Kramers Ergot”, “Mould Map”, “Kuš!”, or any other Alt-Comics publication, ever rubbed Japanese readers in the right spot the way “Dragon Ball”, or “Akira” did to the western audience. I made a 60-page essay in (Alt)comics form about Alt-Comics, called “Playground”, and I still find myself jarred by them, whereas not by “Sailor Moon”, how did that happen?. If Alt-Comics were so universal, how come they sell so little, home and abroad, whereas jarring manga moves fully-grown adults to cross-dress like their favorite character? When people, like David, only read small-press publications, it occurs due to a frame of interest, a preference, a personal taste, even for political reasons, and not due to an intrinsic jarring characteristic of manga. Now, if we take your question in a less literal way, one is tempted to agree with Paul Gravett, who in the foreword suggests that the availability of Alt-Manga in Western languages influenced new generations of authors, consequently shaping their own work, etc. This is in some way true, but, call me a cynical maybe, it’s hard to believe that any of us discovered “Red Color Elegy” in 2009 and suddenly reached Satori: “Oh, this is what I will make from now on!”. If we reached such illumination, it surely happened with “Bakuman”. A clear example of how such critical phallacy (I think artists know as much as I, the critic, does), is the case of contributor Xuh, from Poland, who made arguably the most Garo-ish piece in the whole issue, and she didn’t even know what Garo was until Gravett sent his questionnaire.

Josselin: Some works in the collection don’t reference manga’s narrative style or aesthetic so much as they do the sort of supermainstream image factory that Japanese pop culture was for a few decades. What do you think that imagery (giant robots, schoolgirls, etc.) represents to non-Japanese artists?

Berliac: Same as for Japanese. I think in 2016 we should drop the idea that for-export pop culture belongs to its creators. You can’t expect people to grow on a certain literature for decades and not make it part of themselves. In Spain there’s a common phrase, for embarrassing situations: “I was left with a drop on the side”. When I asked if they knew where it comes from, they don’t have a clue.

David: I don’t know what that means.

Berliac: Oh, it’s part of manga/anime vocabulary. The drop on the side means “I’m embarrassed”. Also, I can’t stress this enough: artists are people above all, and as such, consumers of culture. We’re subject to another culture’s influence as much as anybody else. It’s not that we’re saying “oh, I love this Cherokee head-dress, I’ll wear it in Coachella”. Our generation grew up with manga and anime for years, it was a for-export cultural product spoon-fed to us, we literally learnt new vocabulary of our own native languages by watching the dubbed versions of “Sailor Moon” and “Ghost in the Shell”. You can’t expect that not to leave a mark.

David: I would confirm, contributors have generally a huge interest and respect for Japanese culture. Some even speak Japanese or try to learn it. Of course this shows in their comics.

Berliac: That’s right, Vincenzo Filosa is a Japanese translator and is currently curating the Gekiga collection for Coconino press in Italy.

Art by Vincenzo Filosa.

Art by Vincenzo Filosa.

Josselin: Finally, you’ve expressed an interest in how the collection would be received in Japan. Have you had messages from Japanese readers? Do you have a better idea now how it looks to that audience?

David: It’s difficult to say, as of course people don’t write us their feedback regularly. We sent books to TACO ché, a book shop in Tokyo, and they said the issue is very approachable for their audience. Similar feedback we got from our Chinese bookseller, who already ordered more copies.

Berliac: My Japanese friends loved it so much that they decided to make their own manga. Recently I exchanged a few emails with Asakawa-San, ex member of the editorial team of “AX” magazine (the direct continuation of “Garo”), and he said he found it quite interesting. My hope is that this showcase is seen either as a curiosity, a “look at these crazy westerners, putting soy sauce on their pizza” kind of product, or, ideally, from the quality-based point of view: good/bad drawings, fun/boring stories, no more. That’s what we’re all our efforts go to, after all, to make good comics.

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Lyn Chevli, Co-Founder of Tits & Clits, Dies at 84 http://www.tcj.com/lyn-chevli-co-founder-of-tits-clits-dies-at-84/ http://www.tcj.com/lyn-chevli-co-founder-of-tits-clits-dies-at-84/#comments Wed, 26 Oct 2016 12:00:24 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96560 Continue reading ]]> Lyn Chevli, 84, who co-founded the first comic book written, drawn, and published solely by women, died October 8 at Laguna Beach, California, of age-related causes.

She was born Marilyn Keith, December 24, 1931, in Milford, Connecticut, but after her first marriage, all her friends and acquaintances knew her as Lyn Chevli. She lived with her first husband briefly in Mumbai, India, but their two daughters were born in the U.S.

She is survived by her younger daughter, Shanta Chevli, and a brother. She was pre- deceased by her older daughter, Neela Chevli.

Joyce Farmer provided The Comics Journal with the following remembrance.

titsclits01When Lyn Chevli moved to California with her mother and two small children in 1961, she never looked back. She had a bachelor’s degree in art from Skidmore College, but she didn’t like to draw, preferring instead to make silver jewelry and exquisite bronze sculptures using her beloved welding torch. With her then-husband, Dennis Madison, she started the renowned bookstore/art gallery, Fahrenheit 451, in Dana Point, California, then moved the business to Laguna Beach in 1968. The store carried a mix of new-age literature, including early underground comix.

Lyn became disturbed by the clever but bizarre and androcentric stories in the early undergrounds, especially Zap Comix, and decided to produce a feminist comic book that would match the Zaps in anarchic content, but from a woman’s point of view.

After selling the bookstore in 1972, she enlisted the help of another local artist — me — and together we set out to “get even.” Abandoning our first impulse to slice and separate body parts from our male cartoon subjects, we created antic stories and illustrations based on our own experiences of menstruation, birth control, chin hair, motherhood, lack of privacy, and society’s skewed attitudes toward all women of that era. Both of us had been involved in birth control and pregnancy counseling for the Laguna Beach Free Clinic for several years, and that experience informed our work, bringing forth a sense of empowerment and a sex-positive atmosphere for women, though we didn’t quite understand what we were doing at the time.

abortion-eve-coverThe first Tits & Clits went on sale in July 1972, generating appreciation — and sometimes disgust — among its readers. It was the first comic to be written, drawn, and published by women, preceding Wimmen’s Comix by a few weeks. The first print run of 20,000 sold out, and we went back to press for a second printing a year later.

Roberta Gregory, creator of Bitchy Bitch, has said that we “gave women’s liberation’s second wave a very badly needed dose of sass. The spirit of their comics was uniquely unlike any other aspect of the literature, and even other women’s comics of the era. They were my mentors, encouraging me to publish my own comics.”

In 1973, Lyn and I recognized the need for information about obtaining a legal abortion and undertook another book, Abortion Eve, an educational comic explaining the emotional stress an unwanted pregnancy causes in women, the medical aspects of an abortion, and the steps one must follow to end a pregnancy safely. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, came just before the publication of Abortion Eve and we were able to detail its relevance for women and women’s rights. Abortion Eve was welcomed for its precise, pro-choice information.

From Abortion Eve.

From Abortion Eve.

Because of its title, Tits & Clits could not get reviewed in any but the most radical magazines and newspapers, so later in 1973, we published what would have been the second issue of Tits & Clits as Pandoras Box Comics. The change coincided with the arrest of a number of retailers across the nation who were selling underground comix.

pandorasboxIn fact, Lyn and I also faced the prospect of being arrested for publishing and distributing pornography. We dodged that disaster with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, who fought for the free speech rights of the new owners of Fahrenheit 451, Gordon and Evie Wilson. They had been arrested for selling underground comix, but the last copy of Tits & Clits had been purchased by the authorities as research prior to their arrest and thus wasn’t available to include as evidence at the time of their arrest. The case against them was eventually dropped, and Lyn and I were never arrested, but we had experienced a strong lesson in First Amendment rights and also learned that freedom of speech could cost you your peace of mind.

Nonetheless, in 1976, we returned to the original name and published Tits & Clits #2. Tits & Clits appeared sporadically over the next several years, concluding its run in 1987 after a total of seven issues. Lyn stopped drawing stories after the third issue, but with that issue we began welcoming other new and established women artists to our pages. Lyn remained as co-editor through the sixth issue.

From Tits & Clits #4.

From Tits & Clits #4.

In 1981, Lyn began her writing career, starting with Alida, an erotic book for women. She wrote for The Blade (a local magazine for the gay community) and other publications. She also wrote two unpublished memoirs, one about her comix-era escapades, the other a moving narrative of her marriage and life in India in the 1950s. Lyn Chevli lived a long life and had a host of creative, intelligent friends. We will miss her imaginative and always exuberant adventures.

 Left to right: Joyce Farmer, Last Gasp Publisher Ron Turner, and Lyn Chevli at Berkley Con 1973. Photo by Clay Geerdes.


Left to right: Joyce Farmer, Last Gasp Publisher Ron Turner, and Lyn Chevli at Berkley Con 1973. Photo by Clay Geerdes.

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Jack T. Chick, 1924-2016 http://www.tcj.com/jack-t-chick-1924-2016/ http://www.tcj.com/jack-t-chick-1924-2016/#comments Tue, 25 Oct 2016 12:00:44 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96518 Continue reading ]]> From "This Was Your Life!", circa 1964.

From “This Was Your Life!”, circa 1964.

Jack Thomas Chick, the prolific writer, artist, and publisher of religious literature, most notably an extensive line of small cartoon tracts, died in his sleep on Sunday, October 23, 2016. He was 92. No cause of death has been determined at the time of this writing.

Chick was born in Los Angeles on April 13, 1924. Though characterized frequently as private and interview-shy, assorted biographical statements collated by Robert B. Fowler in The World of Chick (Last Gasp, 2001) indicate that Chick studied stagework and direction in school, notably receiving an acting scholarship with the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts before service in World War II brought him to New Guinea and Okinawa. Per Chick’s official biography, he was of no particularly religious disposition as a young man, and his “salvation” came via an episode of radio broadcaster Charles E. Fuller’s The Old Fashioned Revival Hour; the notion of disseminating religious messages through popular media would prove central to his career, though Chick initially operated in a secular vein, illustrating a little-known gag panel feature, Times Have Changed?, for writer P.S. Clayton from 1953 to 1955, and working in technical illustration at an El Monte aerospace company.

The chronology of Chick’s entrance into illustrated proselytization varies among sources, but consistent across accounts are his reading of Power from on High, a compendium of articles by the 19th century Presbyterian revivalist Charles G. Finney, and an encounter with missionary and radio broadcaster Bob Hammond, who told Chick of Chinese communists distributing unusually engaging propaganda in the form of cartoon booklets. Format duly presented, Chick was moved to draw a comedic excoriation of his fellow Christians’ timidity and hypocrisy titled Why No Revival? – it was self-published with borrowed money in 1961 to little success, though its fortuitous gifting to the company owner at Chick’s secular day job purportedly inspired the funding of a second tract, A Demon’s Nightmare, published in 1962.

However, it was not until 1964 that Chick enjoyed major success. In years prior he had prepared an illustrated flip chart on the theme of salvation for the purposes of witnessing to prison inmates; the work was reconfigured into a cartoon tract titled This Was Your Life!, its agile mix of humorous drawing, scriptural citation and the all-enveloping certainty of eternal damnation — save for the fallen soul’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as their lord and personal savior — setting the tone for many of his characteristic works to follow. In a conversation with filmmaker Dwayne Walker, recounted in the 1998 second issue of Daniel Raeburn’s zine The Imp, Chick reportedly claimed to have been invited on television shows and welcomed at prominent bookseller conventions off the strength of this new popularity, though he disliked the celebrity surrounding Christian media stars. Chick Publications was incorporated in California in 1969; it asserts that over 150 million copies of This Was Your Life! have been sold in 100 languages to date.

From "Gun Slinger", 1997.

From “Gun Slinger”, 1997.

Chick’s company gradually expanded, most tangibly via the 1972 hiring of a second artist, Fred Carter, an Illinois native with schooling at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. In contrast to Chick’s caricatural yet often laboriously hatched visual approach, Carter dove into muscular stylization, his faces lurid and vivid, the heaviest of his dramatic scenes soaked with a sense of grotesquerie and excess that would not be ill-suited to contemporaneous horror magazines. At first Carter drew only a share of the b&w tracts, but in 1974 the pair began to collaborate on The Crusaders, a series of color works published as full-sized comic books, detailing the often violent and conspiratorial adventures of devoutly Christian men-of-action; Carter, however, was not initially credited for much of his work, a situation Chick attributed to his collaborator’s personal shyness in a 1980 letter to The Comics Journal (#54, Mar. ’80).

As a result, even today, the comics published by Chick tend to be identified with him alone, though their ubiquity is such that many readers no doubt fail to identify any creator at all beyond God above. Purchased by individuals or organizations at a low cost for the purposes of free distribution, Chick tracts became an aspect of Americana; marketed explicitly on their ease of use, many of the devout saw fit to simply leave the wallet-sized items on benches or tables, seeds rightly sown for the winning of souls. They were not often friendly messages. Frequently, Chick would lean on counterintuitive and emotionally upsetting scenarios, depicting the activities of palpably ‘good’ but unsaved people and condemning them to a deserved eternity of torture while rogues and criminals accept Christ and are welcomed gladly into paradise. “Going to heaven is not a matter of GOOD or BAD,” roars Gun Slinger, a 1997 tract. “It’s a matter of SAVED or LOST.” Adherent only to the literal word of the Bible — eventually, only to the 1611 King James version — Chick’s works veered into explicit denunciation of all manner of affronts: homosexuality; Halloween; Mormons; Muslims; evolution; rock music; and all the misguided souls who call themselves Christian but so plainly aren’t.

In particular, Chick became known for his vitriolic depictions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a congregation named at the center of diabolical intrigues since the 17th century. Beginning in 1979 and continuing for six issues across nine years, The Crusaders was devoted wholly to the narrative of Alberto Rivera, a self-described ex-Jesuit with ties to anti-Protestant subversive activities who claimed knowledge of the Church’s central role in the creation of Communism, Nazism and Islam, as well as the Jonestown massacre, various assassinations, and other atrocities owing to its apocalyptic nature as the Mother of Harlots in Revelation. Chick and Carter also produced The Big Betrayal, a 1981 standalone color comic book derived from Charles Chiniquy’s 1884 memoir 50 Years in the Church of Rome, along with numerous other pieces on the anti-Catholic theme. Criticism began to mount from specialist and mainstream sources, including a January 26, 1981 article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. That same year, per a May 2003 Los Angeles Magazine profile by writer Robert Ito, Chick quit the Christian Booksellers Organization, purportedly citing Catholic infiltration.

Size comparison between a typical tract ("Kitty in the Window", 2016) and a full-sized comic book ("The Crusaders Vol. 22: Unthinkable", cover art by Fred Carter, 2016).

Size comparison between a typical tract (“Kitty in the Window”, 2016) and a full-sized comic book (“The Crusaders Vol. 22: Unthinkable”, cover art by Fred Carter, 2016).

By that time, Chick Publications had itself become a publisher of prose works and other books in addition to cartoon items; an early compendium of comics, The Next Step (1973), is still advertised in the back of most Chick tracts. By the 1990s, Chick had also elected to move into filmmaking; The Light of the World was released in 2003, a Bible history slideshow encompassing hundreds of Fred Carter oil paintings under a narration written by Chick, made available in over two dozen languages.

Yet as the 21st century dawned, interest in Chick’s work often took on a bemused or sardonic character. Parodies of Chick’s work dated back at least as far as the 1970s in National Lampoon, but the ubiquitous availability of images and information online readily facilitated itself to the sharing and alteration of short-form tracts, a tendency encouraged by the free posting of many b&w tracts to the Chick Publications website. Chick himself was not unconscious of his reputation. In the 2008 book Hot Topics, a compilation of controversial tracts with new commentaries by Chick and a co-author, David W. Daniels, the artist reflected on one of his most derided works, 1984’s Dark Dungeons, a Carter-drawn expose of tabletop role-playing games as demonology for beginners: “They stormed our website and pelted us with emails. They were offended – but they still got the gospel and will be without excuse on Judgment Day.” Perhaps mockery accomplishes the same goal of penetrating the reader’s defenses with God’s message; a live-action short film adaptation of Dark Dungeons was released in 2014, with Chick’s approval. Or criticism – 2008 saw the release of God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick, a feature-length documentary by Kurt Kuersteiner, pairing interviews with skeptics, experts and arched-eyebrow fans with true believer testimony from the likes of Daniels and Fred Carter. Chick himself was not filmed.

It is unknown exactly how widely-read Chick’s works have truly been. In an introductory letter to the 2016 Chick Publications catalog, he states that 800 million tracts have been shipped worldwide, with 200 different titles available. Some of these are wholly re-drawn versions of older tracts aimed at new audiences; there are versions of This Was Your Life! for women, black audiences (with distinct male and female variants), and Muslims. But many are new. Earlier this year, Chick & Carter released the 22nd color comic book issue of The Crusaders. On September 1, Chick released What a Shame!, the last of his tracts to publish during his lifetime. He had suffered a slight stroke in 1996, and a heart attack in the mid-’00s. “I’m almost finished with the 2nd tract for 2017,” he observed in the catalog. “At 91, I’m still working 8 to 10 hours a day, six days a week, trying to be ready for that trumpet to take us all home.”

News of his death was released on Monday, October 24, via the Chick Publications Facebook page. Regarding the future, Daniels, who in recent years had become something of a public face for the company, stated that “[n]othing” would change in terms of method, vision and purpose.

From "Congratulations!", 2006.

From “Congratulations!”, 2006.

Chick was preceded in death by his first wife and a daughter. He remarried, and is survived by his second wife.

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An Interview with Sophie Campbell http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-sophie-campbell/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-sophie-campbell/#respond Fri, 21 Oct 2016 12:00:43 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96142 Continue reading ]]> A lot of her fans know Sophie Campbell for her recent work, from the relaunch of Glory at Image Comics with writer Joe Keatinge to the recent Jem and the Holograms series with writer Kelly Thompson. Jem in particular struck a nerve with a lot of fans and led to a profile of the book and its creators in The New Yorker. She’s also drawn a lot of comics for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in their current incarnation at IDW.

She got her start at Oni Press where she drew Too Much Hopeless Savages and Spooked before launching the graphic novel series Wet Moon in 2005, of which there are now six volumes. She also wrote and drew two volumes of Shadoweyes, a dark science fiction superhero saga, which was reissued by Iron Circus in a new edition. That’s not to say that her career has been entirely smooth. She was involved in both Tokyopop–which published one volume of her proposed three volume series The Abandoned–and DC’s Minx, which published her graphic novel Water Baby.

Throughout her career, Campbell has been interested in questions of intersectional feminism, though as she admits in the interview, she only learned about what that meant in recent years. From the beginning of her career she was interested in and concerned with depicting a broad range of people. Wet Moon was always an unusual book, but from the start it had a tone and an approach all its own, and though her work has changed over the years, all of Campbell’s work remains recognizably hers no matter whether she’s writing her own projects or working on licensed properties.

Has Wet Moon changed a lot from the initial pitch you made to Oni?

The actual pitch was pretty similar except that it dealt more with the main character Cleo’s abortion and her relationship with Vincent, but Oni thought the subject matter was too heavy for a first book. In the final book her dealing with that and that whole backstory was pushed into the background. It’s only stated explicitly in the fourth book. I think it works the way it is, it was spiritually the same and a lot of the story is pretty much the same in the final book.

myrtle2016The first books seemed very surefooted as far as what you wanted aesthetically and tonally.

It was mostly me goofing off and drawing a bunch of stuff I like. I wanted it to be this slice of life story where nothing much happens. Obviously it’s deliberate and sure footed in the sense that you don’t accidentally draw a comic, but I don’t think I had a lot of awareness of what I was doing until I continued doing it. Things became more clear as I got older and I was able to decide more consciously what I wanted to do. Early on it was me going, here’s a bunch of characters that I like and here’s a bunch of things that I think are fun or silly, and I threw it all together and refined it as I went along.

Now you plot things out more?

I don’t really plot it out that much in advance. I know my characters and I know how I want them to look and how I want them to act, I have a better handle on the tone, so it’s easy for me to write as I go. You say it seemed really sure-footed, but to me it just seems like this nebulous blob where I don’t really know what I’m doing, but most creators look at their stuff extra-critically. I wish I could be like Bryan O’Malley or someone who comes out with his first book and it’s fully formed–to me. To him I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure he feels the same way that I do.

I’m sure you do feel that way, but rereading the books you manage to find this tone that combined drama and comedy, the pace was slow but deliberate, it was slice of life and you manage to combine those elements really well.

I do feel like I had the pacing down pretty quick. I don’t remember how detailed my script was in the old days, I think I tried to make it a little more understandable because I had to show it to editors back then. I can see how it flows in my head but when I write it, it doesn’t always come together until I get to the visuals. Once I started drawing the first book, I knew how the pacing needed to be. Maybe that’s the one thing I just knew in the beginning. I like to think I’ve gotten better, but I think the tone and the pacing have remained pretty constant since the first book.

Now when you write the books you don’t script them out in detail?

I like to know how many pages a book is going to be. Sometimes I’ll change it but I like to know a ballpark estimate, that’s the biggest thing. The panel descriptions are mostly just dialogue so I know how much is going to fit or how much has to fit in each panel, so overall it’s really simple because I don’t have to write it for somebody else, it doesn’t have to be detailed. I also don’t draw the pages in order, I jump around, I think about the book as a fluid state so it seems pointless to me to be very detailed in the beginning. Through each step it’s always changing, I’ll get rid of things, I’ll move panels around, I’ll add a page or cut a scene. It only solidifies at the very end when I send it off to the publisher.

Do you have an ending in mind for Wet Moon?

It keeps changing! I was going to do one certain ending, but then I wanted these two particular characters to stay together instead of breaking up and so I’m overhauling Volume 7 and scrapping all this stuff that I drew before. Because of all that, now the original ending I had doesn’t work anymore. Maybe eight or nine will be the last book? I thought I might periodically come back and do a short Wet Moon story here and there, that would be really fun. Just short little fun stories about whatever characters I felt like working on at that particular time. One thing I’ve been joking about for years is Wet Moon 2099. I could end the current series at Book 8 or 9 and come back a few years from now and do Wet Moon 2099. [laughs]

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So the town has turned into a bayou or it’s completely underwater?

Exactly! Before the official pitch to Oni, Wet Moon was much more sci-fi, it took place at an art college on the moon and some of the characters were mutants and half-human or aliens or whatever. [laughs] Sometimes I wonder if I should have stuck with that. But that could be Wet Moon 2099.

I had been following Wet Moon and then I remember that you were of that generation that signed up with Tokyopop.

[laughs] Yes, I was!

You did one book of The Abandoned, and I think your response and others to Tokyopop has been pretty well documented over the years, but as far as making the book, was it very different from working at Oni?

Not really. Both Oni and Tokyopop pretty much left me alone. My editor at Tokyopop who was pretty new at the time, he didn’t really do any editing, we hardly ever talked to each other. In the beginning he suggested I change the story so the zombies came from a necromancer instead of an apocalypse-type event. I told him that was really stupid and he just left me alone after that. [laughs] I think he got fired over what happened with my book. The red spot color that was their idea ended up costing more money or something and I think it was a production nightmare behind the scenes. But besides that, they left me alone. [laughs] Things didn’t get horrible until after I finished the book.

Tokyopop had this vision of “Original English Language Manga” and they were excited and were suddenly publishing dozens of titles and then everything went South very quickly.

They pulled the plug on all of them. Their contracts were shitty, but at the time I knew what I was signing. I’m sure there are some kids that they bamboozled, but I was like, they’re going to own half of it which basically means they own the whole thing because I can’t do anything with fifty percent of something, but I really needed the money and I needed to move out of my parents’ house. [laughs] But when I signed it, how could I have known that they were going to pull the plug down the road and not do what they said they’d do? I guess that’s the part where I got “tricked,” but I don’t think even Tokyopop saw that coming.

You imagined something like Alan Moore’s relationship with DC where they sell the movie rights or make merchandise you hate, but they cut you a check.

Yeah, I guess that’s what I thought. When I signed it I imagined doing three books and they’d make some stupid TV show or something but meanwhile I’d have my own apartment. [laughs] I didn’t have all my eggs in the Tokyopop basket so it wasn’t a huge obstacle for me career-wise. I was upset about it but I just kept going and worked on other things.

You did another Wet Moon book, and then you wrote and drew a book for Minx. Another example of grand ambition which did not match reality.

[laughs] That was also a complete failure. It was similar to Tokyopop in some ways where they clearly just did not understand the readers. They were like, “okay, girls really like these manga books and they’re a certain size and they’re black and white. What do girls like? They like romance! They like real life relationships!” That seemed to be the extent of their thought process. Originally my book was more horror and they wanted it to be more slice of life so I toned it down, which is fine, but the thing that they missed is that a lot of the manga that people really got into was fantasy and action and adventure and sci-fi. The female readers that they were trying to get were not going to like these books which basically all had the same plot–this vaguely outsider girl is in a new place and meets somebody she gets a crush on. There wasn’t a lot to grab onto. You can’t just go in and claim a whole shelf at Barnes and Noble or expect to nab the same readership overnight, so they were stuck selling to the direct market which was obviously going to be a disaster.

I remember seeking your book out because it was yours and for the most part, it felt like you.

Even though there was a lot of editorial direction, doing that book was pretty smooth sailing. I didn’t fight with Shelly [Bond] or anything and I had a fine time doing it. The actual production wasn’t a disaster. The book itself was maybe a disaster, but that’s a whole other thing.

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At what point did you start drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I did some covers and frontispieces for Mirage back in 2007 and I was going to do a Tales of the TMNT issue, but the Viacom sale happened. Dark Horse was going to get the license but lost it to IDW, which I got in trouble for mentioning online, they reamed me out for doing that. I really thought after it fell through that I could talk about it publicly, I didn’t think it would be a problem [laughs]. I know better now. Anyway, I was going to draw the new Turtles book for them but it fell through. Then IDW got the license and Dan Duncan got the job, I was pissed and went on Twitter and was like, “that was my book!” [laughs] I guess me being a grouch on Twitter caught their attention or maybe I was on their radar before that, but they approached me to do the Leonardo micro issue. That summer after I drew that issue, they offered me the main job on the ongoing series and I turned it down, I felt like I was too much of a fan to do it. I had a lot of trouble on Leonardo and decided that I couldn’t go through that every month, I was too emotionally invested to deal with it. But they ended up getting me back when I found out they were going to do Northampton, I couldn’t resist that, and I’ve been there ever since.

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Then you drew Glory at Image in 2011-12. How did you get that job because I don’t think most of us expected you to draw a monthly superhero book.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a monthly series but I was in dire financial straits so I had no choice. [laughs] They needed an artist for Glory and Brandon Graham sent them my way, I thought it was a joke at first, that Brandon was just messing with me. [laughs] Brandon knows everybody, he’s basically built my whole career for me. I got the Minx job and some of the Vertigo stuff I was working on because of him, he introduced me to Shelly Bond, and he’s friends with Eric Stephenson so when the new Extreme stuff was being put together, Brandon was there at ground zero and got me involved. It was far outside my wheelhouse but I think it worked out well. I had a lot of fun doing Glory, it was a fun challenge.

glorytpbcover01

So because of TMNT you had a relationship with IDW, how did you end up drawing Jem, which I don’t think is a comic anyone expected to see.

[laughs] I had done some Jem fan art several years before and it never really occurred to me that there would ever be a Jem comic at any point. When I found out it was happening I contacted my Turtles editor and demanded he put me in touch with who was editing Jem.

Did you have to fight hard to get the job?

No, not really. Kelly Thompson and I were up against a few other people, I don’t know who, but I just knew we would get it. I had a feeling. Kelly was bent out of shape about it, though, I mean that was her first big thing, but I wasn’t worried about it. I just knew in my gut it would work out! [laughs]

Most people don’t make a comic and then have someone write a gender studies analysis of the book in The New Yorker. When you read that did you go, yes, someone gets what we’re doing or were you like, well that’s interesting?

I was a little surprised that it happened. To some degree, I believe in death of the author, but it was really cool seeing them interpret all this stuff and analyze it and treat it like a serious thing. We were asked about gender studies texts and whether we were playing into so-and-so author’s ideas about gender. I was like, I’ve never read that, I don’t even know who that is. [laughs] I think the analysis–while I agreed with all of it and it was super awesome–went deeper than the level I was thinking about a lot of the stuff I was doing. [laughs] I can’t speak for Kelly but I definitely wasn’t thinking about it that deeply when I was doing it. I just wanted to draw big hair and cool outfits. I’ve since read a couple books like Julia Serrano’s book Whipping Girl which is one book the author of the article talked about. I loved the article but I’m not as knowledgeable as it maybe made me out to be.

You say that, but as a longtime reader I would argue that your work has been about issues of intersectional feminism from the beginning.

I’ve definitely become more aware of it as I get older. I’ve talked about this in other interviews where people ask me if there’s a social agenda with what I’m doing, and it’s yes and no. Yes because I’m thinking about that stuff so it can’t not have that aspect to it. Some decisions–just to have a fat character for example–are inherently political and you can’t avoid it and I think there’s some responsibility to be aware of it. But I didn’t really start thinking about that kind of thing until partway through my career. Looking back, now I can see how my work fits together with intersectionality and feminism, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was like, “this is what I want to see, this is what I want the characters to be like,” and that was the extent of it. I tried to do what I wanted to see in comics, and what I saw in the world around me. But since having learned so much in the past however many years, I can look back at my work and see it more clearly.

One of the things about Wet Moon that appealed to so many readers was that you were telling stories about characters who didn’t look or dress like characters in other comics.

I knew it was different, but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why it was different or why that was important at that time. Now I get it, but at the time, I was like, my friends are different and have different bodies and different backgrounds and different races, so that’s what my work is going to be like. I wanted it to be real on some level and real life has these things in it so that’s going to be in the comic as best as I could do it. Obviously I have blind spots, but real life has different kinds of people in it and I wanted Wet Moon to reflect real life to some degree.

And you were probably not expecting to be recognized for Jem, either.

It didn’t occur to me. I ran into some trouble on Turtles because they didn’t like that I drew April too curvy and I knew that was a possibility of that happening with Hasbro. I didn’t know how they’d react to me making this character skinny and this character fat, because in the cartoon the characters all looked the same, so I thought maybe the powers-that-be would want me to stick closer to that. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I also didn’t really care what their reaction was going to be, I always shoot first and ask questions later so to speak, so I didn’t ask them if I could make Stormer fat, I just did it. And then I was pleasantly surprised when they didn’t say anything about it. They hired me to do what I do and I did it, and it worked out great. I knew there were going to be fans who would complain the characters were too different from the show, but I was just doing what I always do and I had to be true to myself.

Did you have a say with Jem in how the book would be colored?

I’m rarely happy with colorists on my stuff so I wanted to hand pick who it was going to be. I wanted to be involved and talk to them. We looked at a bunch of people and I was pretty involved early on with Victoria, she brought her own sensibility and played off the early preliminary art I had done for the basic look and she took that and did her own thing. It came together really easy. She’s awesome.
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In the concert scenes in Jem, you really play with the layouts in these one or two page spreads. How does Kelly write them and how much is just you going crazy?

There are certain beats that need to be hit in those scenes and I take those and then do whatever I wanted with the panel layouts. Sometimes I’d take the panels Kelly wrote and I’d combine them or get rid of panels entirely and fit them together another way. The concert scenes were what I felt like at that particular moment, I would do thumbnails but I wouldn’t really plan it out until I was sitting down drawing it. Kelly knew what I would do after a while and toward the end she’d be much looser with it because she knew I would disregard things she wrote. [laughs] Kelly would write: “Page whatever–Concert. Go nuts.” [laughs] Kelly wrote all the song lyrics, but I hand wrote the lyrics onto the page. Sometimes I would ask her to edit the lyrics down if there wasn’t enough room, since my hand lettering was on the large side. It was mostly me just going crazy and trying to make everything fit together.jem-16-p12-13-v2-music

Issue #16 was your last issue. Why did you decide to leave the series?

It was time to move on. I felt like after twelve issues I had to go back to Wet Moon, I was burned out drawing Jem, I wanted to draw other characters, and I was just dying to write my own stuff again, to draw my own stories. I had debated coming back for the Misfits series, though, but ultimately I decided it was time to go. I might come back and do a special issue or something next year, and I’m also co-writing one of the Misfits issues and doing a cover for it. But yeah, it was time for something else, drawing the same characters over and over again for over a year, however much I love them, gets rough. Some days I miss it already but I think I made the right choice.

jem-16-p14-15-music

What are you working on now? What comes next for you now that Jem is over?

I’m back working on Wet Moon 7 right now, very slowly. And even slower that I would be otherwise because I scrapped all the stuff that I’d drawn in the past couple years, so I’m trying to regroup and catch up to where I was. It’s so great getting to work on my babies again! I have more Turtles coming up, too, I’m doing issue #66 of the ongoing which will be out in January, as well another story next year but I can’t talk about that yet, it’s top secret. I also may be doing an Image book next year but I can’t talk about that, either [laughs]. I’d be writing and drawing that. We’ll see how that goes. And then hopefully I’ll be able to get back to Shadoweyes! All that will take me through 2017 and into 2018. I try to plan out a year in advance.

shadoweyes1-cover-v1

You did two Shadoweyes books. Did you have plans for more?

Maybe four? I have the next book written so that’s a good start, I’ve been writing draft after draft for it, I’m on draft like number eight, I think. I did the Shadoweyes reprint with Iron Circus and it was really nice getting a reset button because it had been such a long time since the last one came out in 2011. After I did Shadoweyes In Love, I basically almost ran out of money and had to put Shadoweyes on the back burner. I really miss working on it.

Will you ever return to Mountain Girl?

I really want to! I pitched a new version of Mountain Girl to a publisher a few years back and they didn’t want to do it, so I had to shelve it and work on something else. I’ve been talking about doing a digital version of it with one publisher, but now this Image book might happen so I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do it. I have too much stuff. I wish I could just do a book that ends and it’s over and not have to worry about a volume two. [laughs]

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You like alternating between doing your own books and working with other people on different things?

I like to alternate with my own stuff too, Wet Moon and Shadoweyes and whatever. That keeps me from getting it a rut and it keeps me from getting bored. I get burned out from drawing the same characters every day for a super long time, like I was saying before. I think it’s good to change it up. Doing the licensed stuff is nice because it’s much more structured, I can do my own thing for a while and then I do Jem or Turtles and it’s like I don’t have to think about it quite as much because I have a boss who sets a schedule and I’m working with people who keep me on task as opposed to working by myself where I often veer off in another direction or get distracted That’s another reason I like to alternate, it’s always nice to go back to my own work after working with a writer and a boss, I can do whatever I want and it’s like coming home after a long trip, in a way.

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Getting Material: A Short Interview with Ben Katchor http://www.tcj.com/getting-material-a-short-interview-with-ben-katchor/ http://www.tcj.com/getting-material-a-short-interview-with-ben-katchor/#comments Wed, 19 Oct 2016 12:00:43 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95792 Continue reading ]]> cheapnovelties-casewrapI was too young to learn about Ben Katchor from RAW. I learned about Katchor through Destroy All Comics, run by Jeff Levine with help from Dylan Williams, Frank Santoro, and others. This zine (published by Slave Labor Graphics (!)) was influential the way some blogs or twitters are influential now—flaring up as a node in a network for a year or two, then fading and dispersing.

I think I first read Santoro’s Katchor interview while in study hall in high school. Do kids still sneak magazines into school to read during study hall?Like Chris Ware,the other big discovery for me idac03-650x424n high school due to Dylan Williams’ interview in Destroy All Comics Vol. 2, No. 1, there was a historical consciousness to Katchor’s work that felt new in comics. This kind of “reality based” historical or anthropological viewpoint felt like a new landscape for comics in the 1990s: an alternative to superhero continuity checklists, fandom’s specialist crate-digging, and to the sex and goofs of the underground. (The ’90s also saw a sort of first blip of “cyber” and “electro” comics that started playing with computers as subject and metaphor and tool. It seemed “prog” at the time, but looking back there was some interesting stuff happening. Someone should put together a book of that kind of material? It was reacting to the graphics of computer games at the time, which were already threatening to change the face of comics forever…) 

Destroy All Comics represented a weird new mix of punk DIY and cartooning classicism, and Ben Katchor fit this atmosphere of history. There was a kind of newsreel grain and grayness to all his work, an atmosphere not only of history, but a feeling that the comic strip itself could be coming from another time. If you have had one or two glimpses of an actual newspaper page, with comics, from pre-1925, you may have noticed its density and layout doesn’t quite feel like what we think of as newspaper comics. Old comic strips can seem impossibly large and strangely gray-looking. Katchor’s strips for the most part have a similar perverse grayness and rawness of the era of cheap mass printing presses. 

*The exception to my characterization is the body of work comprised mostly of the strips Katchor drew for Metropolis magazine (beginning in 1998, and whose subscribers were primarily graphic design offices and architecture firms) and which are collected in Hand-Drying In America, (one of my favorite comic books of any kind published in the 21st Century), which are in muted, strange limited palettes of watercolor, I think? Lately he has been drawing everything digitally, which is another fascinating turn in his work (see here and other interviews for some discussion of this). These strips still appear every so often on the internet, as they have for years (Katchor as web cartoonist) and are available via the cartoonist’s web site.

This short interview (here’s another, longer one at Paste Magazine from the same promotional swing) is on the occasion of Drawn & Quarterly reissuing his first  book, Cheap Novelties; like all of Katchor’s books it is a masterpiece of bodegas, delis, and dialectics.

cheapnoveltiesinterior_82What are you working on?

I’m finishing up a long project on restaurant history; editing an anthology; directing the Illustration program at Parsons School of Design; writing a new story for the Hotel & Farm collection, among other things.

I’ve heard you are running a good comics department over there at Parsons. How is that going?

We teach comics and animation within the Illustration program at Parsons. A student can minor in Comics and Graphic Narrative. We have many people on our faculty who work with text and image: Matthew Thurber, Bob Sikoryak, Lauren Redniss, Nora Krug, Steven Guarnaccia, Mark Newgarden, Josh Bayer, Henrik Drescher, Lale Westvind, Neill Swaab, James Romberger and some interesting animators: Ted Wiggins, Ana Mouyis, Motomichi Nakamura, Gary Leib and others. We’d like students to think of themselves as artist/authors working on self-initiated projects.

Parsons is unionized, right? 

Only the part-time faculty are unionized at Parsons (SEIU); the full-time faculty are considered part of the administration and are not unionized. The part-time faculty union contract forbids them from striking. 

Interesting. The school I’m teaching at, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) is currently going through some unionization voting and organizing. 

The recent lock-out of all faculty at Long Island University and the ruling that graduate students can unionize are making it clear that without enormous endowments, it will become difficult for non-profit schools to cover their operating expenses — a good argument for funding “free” state, city and even national higher educational institutions, like in Europe.

I agree!

You give amazing lectures. Did teaching lead you to lecturing, or vice versa?

cheapnoveltiesinterior_76I always enjoyed the public lecture form and so invented some of my own lectures on various subjects long before I was teaching. In my own classes I try to keep lectures under 15 minutes.

I have to work on that. Studio art classes are definitely different than public lecturing. There’s a weird mix of working and talking. It can be an adjustment to go from the desk to the classroom.

Anything you want to say about the reissue of Cheap Novelties? It looks great. Drawn & Quarterly did a nice job with it.

I’m happy that it’s back in print. The design and image quality are a great improvement over the original small Penguin paperback. It is an absolute pleasure working with Drawn & Quarterly.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cartooning this past year or so, and book design, and typography, and how the great cartoonists have been published over the years, what works and endures and what fades away. Do you get inspiration from collecting?

Most of my inspiration doesn’t come from the work of cartoonists, also I’m not very systematic in my approach to appreciation through collecting or studying of anything. 

cheapnoveltiesinterior_36Anyone in particular lately?

I’m always delighted to stumble upon a illustration by Robert Weaver that I haven’t seen. 

As someone with a long view of the built environment, what do you think about the Interneti-zation of our lives in the past 15 years or so? 

The access the internet affords us to archival material, independent journalism, social organizing, etc. should be a wonderful thing. Only because we’re physical beings this dematerializing of objects and minimizing of physical interactions has left people out of work and lonely. We’re ready for a guaranteed basic income scheme, so that people working in this immaterial realm can afford food, shelter and the theater.  

What do you think about software design, our “cyber” environment, especially now that you’re working digital more often? 

I was working with digital typesetting for years before this technology became adopted by the general public through “desktop publishing,” etc. and so the adjustment was just an opening up of access to more people.

You’re drawings are also digitally produced now. How does that square with the dangers of dematerialization?

You could argue that hand-controlled input devices for drawing allow for more delicacy of touch and response — like the difference between a stethoscope and an electro-cardiogram.

Do you collect old newspapers and magazines, or do you visit libraries for your material, or is it mostly online research now? Do you have a large collection of old magazines and papers, or is New York full of enough archive material?

cheapnoveltiesinterior_20
I haven’t collected anything for many years. Most of my research is done online, but I still like to wander the stacks of the NYU library or stumble upon the book of great importance sitting on the $1.00 rack outside the Strand bookstore.

Your work is primarily dealing with the pre-internet world, though you occasionally throw in an Internet reference. What do you think the challenges will be for cartoonists interested in depicting the graphical environment of post-smartphone life?

I did a short-lived strip for a very early internet magazine called, I think, Internet Life — it was a print magazine. The strip was called something like “A Walk on Nohital Street,” and was about the life of someone tied to their desk poking around the internet. 

As long as we have physical bodies, the depiction of the physical world will interest me. The smartphone lives in the physical world, in the lint filled-pocket of an unemployed office worker who needs to find a restroom.cheapnoveltiesinterior_15

]]> http://www.tcj.com/getting-material-a-short-interview-with-ben-katchor/feed/ 2 Joost Swarte: Scratching The Surface http://www.tcj.com/joost-swarte-scratching-the-surface/ http://www.tcj.com/joost-swarte-scratching-the-surface/#comments Mon, 17 Oct 2016 12:00:34 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96263 Continue reading ]]> scratchescover

The 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair will be hosting Flanders and The Netherlands as its Guests Of Honour. For the occasion, Dutch comics legend Joost Swarte has put together his first magazine in over 40 years. With an eye towards giving the best talent from these regions more exposure worldwide, Scratches will be published in English and also feature a host of heavyweight international friends along with a new Jopo de Pojo story from Swarte himself. From Holland there’s the dreamlike geometry of Wasco’s wondrous worlds, Aart Taminiau’s lovely pen and inked juxtaposition of late afternoon teenage boredom with a maestro’s success at an evening theater performance, and Milan Hulsing’s spacey tale of fictional early electronic music pioneer, Earl Blanchard. Representing the Flemish are dazzling dances from Brecht Evens with all the color and panache we’ve come to expect from him, a scene of strange sweetness from Charlotte DuMortier that keeps on revealing more and more to the eye, leaving one unsettled and looping back to the beginning, and Kristina Tzekova’s hypnotic stills of a deer in the waves, a strip beloved by Swarte. There is much more talent from these countries and other European nations within Scratches’ pages, as well as contributions from Robert and Aline Crumb, a back cover by Chris Ware, first and final stories by Art Spiegelman, and another tale from David B’s esoteric library. To round things off, Swarte has modern artists write about the little known but important work of such luminaries as Mark Smeets, Manolo Prieto, and Franz Masereel. After hearing of the project at this year’s Stripdagen Festival in Haarlem, Aug Stone spoke with Joost Swarte about all that went in to the making of the new magazine.


AUG STONE: Where did the idea for Scratches come from?

JOOST SWARTE: Well… (laughs) I must dig in my memories. I always have liked the idea of doing a magazine again. I started Modern Papier when I was 22. It was my first magazine, a small underground publication. We did a print run of about 1000-1500. Artist friends joined in, Peter Pontiac and people from the Dutch underground who were involved with the magazine Tante Leny Presenteert. And then in 1973 there was a publisher who wanted to reach a younger audience so I proposed to make Cocktail Comics, a magazine presenting the new generation of Dutch comics artists. It wasn’t too much of a commercial success although all the artists were paid a professional rate and that was already far better than with the smaller underground publications. And we had the same freedom as with the underground publications, so that was quite good. But then I got a lot of attention from friends and publishers to publish my work so I left the whole magazine idea aside. Until two years ago, when the new publishing house Scratch was founded in Amsterdam and they asked me to be an advisor.

At about the same time I heard of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the biggest in the world. The guests of honour at their 2016 Fair are the Low Countries, Holland and the Belgians, with whom we share our language. And I thought it’s a good idea to not only present the literature of our countries at the Book Fair but also the comics. So I started to talk with people from the literary funds in Holland and in Flanders. And they got interested and supported this idea. That was the start of the magazine. It’s intended to give an international podium to Dutch and Flemish comics artists. We’re doing it in English with the hope that they will also have future publishers abroad.

STONE: How did you find the process of putting it all together this time?

SWARTE: That was great. Of course I’ve always been interested in what’s new in the field of comics. Wherever I go – whether it be in Angoulême, or MOCA in New York, or in Luzern at the Fumetto Festival, wherever – I’m always looking for what’s new. I want to be intrigued, my curiosity needs to be filled in. I have a lot of new publications here in my house. I decided Scratches would be one-third Flemish, one-third Dutch, and one-third international, with known friends but also new artists. I like this mix of arrivées and new talent. I saw a lot of new material and I remembered especially this yellow, pictogram style comic by Veiko Tammjärv. I had seen it once in a yearbook of Finnish comics but never broadly presented anywhere else. And I was so impressed by it I thought ‘I need to have this one in Scratches’.

I have an assistant, Seb Ikso, here in my studio. He is a young comics artist recently graduated from the arts school in Rotterdam. Seb knows everything of what’s going on, what’s new. And he looks at it from another perspective. It’s very good to have somebody else with whom I can discuss these things.

Of course I tried to have the best from Holland and Belgium. In this first issue, part of my criteria was ‘who has potential for having their work published in other countries?’ On the other hand, I know for instance that Typex is busy on a huge project, a comic of the life of Andy Warhol, 560 pages, so I wouldn’t bother him until he is almost finished with that. Then there is Erik Kriek who recently came out with beautiful material. But I thought things that have gotten a lot of attention recently can go on their own strength, and they are already published in other countries. So it would be interesting to get artists in who are partly new for my audience, so that I can surprise people.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-47-20-pmSTONE: Tell me a little about the new artists that you feature.

SWARTE: I was very much impressed by a girl who lives in Liège, Belgium – Kristina Tzekova. She drew stills from a movie of a deer on the seaside jumping in the waves, and it’s an incredible piece. With her other comics too, she has a very feminine approach to the stories that she’s telling. She does them without words, it’s more about gestures etc. When I saw her material she told me about this recent thing that wasn’t published yet anywhere. At first I didn’t know exactly what to think of it because it seems that all the pictures over the six pages look alike. But if you go through it they start to work like a movie. This is a procedure that she does often. I know the movie that this is taken from and the drawn version is much better than the movie because she positions the deer always in the center of the drawing so if you concentrate it really comes alive and has a sort of Zen kind of appeal. That I like very much.

Another thing I very much like to present in the magazine is people in the comics field writing about others who are either in the comics field or just outside in the margins, but people who are very very important in my opinion. There are so many of these sort of artists. Frans Masereel couldn’t be missed here in the first issue. He is very important and I was very happy to be able to present some of his strongest works and to have an introduction by Toon Horsten. Toon Horsten is the man behind the magazine Stripgids, a Belgian magazine/fanzine that gives information about comics. He’s very knowledgeable and wrote a beautiful introduction. And then I have two more articles written by comic artists because I like the idea of artists discussing works by fellow artists rather than from an art historian point of view. So I asked Max to do something on Manolo Prieto. Prieto was a graphic artist in the 40s in Spain who did a lot of book covers for cheap novels. His artwork is due to the limitations of the printing process at the time. Graphically it’s so very strong that I couldn’t miss him. I think for young artists that are fond of what’s happening now and who love the Nobrow style of work, Manolo Prieto will be a great discovery for them. And then we have Mark Smeets, the Dutch artist who died in 1999. Mark Smeets was always one of the best artists in the Tante Leny Presenteert group. He was the best of us all, but he never made an entire comics story. Kramer’s Ergot and published some of his drawings with an introduction by Chris Ware, who is a great fan of Mark Smeets. Smeets was impressed by the imagination that comes loose with comic art and he made sketchbooks full of it. There is now a group of people in Amsterdam that are making files of all these old sketchbooks and through them we have all this beautiful Mark Smeets stuff. So I thought now with all the material available it would be nice to have him too in it. I asked the founder of the underground magazine Tante Leny Presenteert, Evert Geradts, to write his memories of friend and fellow artist Mark Smeets.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-47-55-pmSTONE: What did Crumb and David B. and Spiegelman have to say when you approached them to be in Scratches?

SWARTE: They loved the idea that I started a magazine! When we meet we always talk about our profession and what’s new etc. I recently wrote an article for Robert and Aline’s exhibition at the Cartoonmuseum in Basel. I wrote about the period that they started to draw, and what surroundings, what the world was like when they started their comics. When I visited them this summer, Robert showed me pages that were made for a non-comic magazine in France. Probably not many people would know of these and he was willing to put them in Scratches so I’m very happy about that. What I think is interesting in the work of Robert and Aline is the atmosphere in their comics, that the comics grow old with the artists. It’s not too often that happens. They grow older and the subjects they treat in their comics grow older as well.

David B. and I spent some time together when we were both invited for the comic festival in Buenos Aires three years ago. Since then we have kept in contact and I love his work. He was happy to participate. As was Chris Ware who made a fantastic page that was partly shown in an American newspaper. But I’m very happy that now for the comic field we will preserve it on the back of our magazine.

STONE: Tell me about your own strip in Scratches.

SWARTE: My wife said to me ‘I always loved Jopo, please bring him alive again’ and I thought that’s a good idea. The title of the strip is ‘Where Destiny Leads Me’, which is sort of Jopo’s motto. So I studied a scenario about the negative connotations of adopting this attitude in your life. It’s not parallel to my own life but I can imagine how destiny can lead you to situations that you don’t want.

It was fun to draw Jopo again. This springtime I was invited to be artist-in-residence at the comic festival in Luzern. They asked me to be at this hotel for about two weeks. So I decided to show on camera how I make my comic pages from the early pencil sketches up to the colored final. I sat in a drawing booth that I designed myself, with a camera above the table. Which means I did one page in 20 hours and it’s all recorded. During the festival the making of this comic was seen in time-lapse in an exhibition. It was fun to do. When I started it, I thought it would probably be like being a monkey in the zoo. The people come around and see what you’re doing but in fact people showed very much respect and they let me do my job. And in 20 hours it was finished. We haven’t shown it yet but that’ probably a future project.

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STONE: What else are you working on at the moment?

SWARTE: The most important thing is probably a collection of all the artwork that I did for The New Yorker. That’s about 50 colored illustrations and maybe more than 100 black and whites. And I want to include in the book many of the sketches that didn’t make it. If I’m asked to illustrate an article, I read it and make small synopses in drawing form from different points of views. I communicate these early sketches with The New Yorker and they choose one. But the other ones that were not used often have an interesting approach to the subject and I think it would be nice to show them in the book as well. It will be about 120 pages, I would guess. The idea is to have it published come springtime.

I was also commissioned to make a children’s book. Next year is the 100th anniversary of The Style Movement (‘De Stijl’) which was a very important artistic movement not only in Holland but also internationally. It was a mix of avant-garde artists who wanted to have a sort of non-personal art. My idea for this book is to do an adventure with a cat as the main character passing from studio to studio, from atelier to atelier, visiting all these artists who were part of this movement. But I need to explain and talk about this complicated art movement in a way that everybody, children included, can understand. So it’s a crazy project and will probably be finished next spring too.

STONE: Are there plans for the next issue of Scratches?

SWARTE: The idea is to publish Scratches each year. The advantage of once a year is that you don’t double too much and you can surprise people with high quality stuff. So that’s the idea, to come every year. And for how long a time, you never know…(laughs)

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A Conversation with Dame Darcy http://www.tcj.com/a-conversation-with-dame-darcy/ http://www.tcj.com/a-conversation-with-dame-darcy/#comments Wed, 12 Oct 2016 12:00:03 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95794 Continue reading ]]>
meat-cake-bible-cover-1000pixI was really happy to see the The Portland Mercury‘s recent headline regarding Dame Darcy‘s new collection, the Meat Cake BibleUnder the title“Comics, Here is Your Queen”, Suzette Smith remarks that “If You Ignore Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake Bible, I Will Riot”. I couldn’t agree more. Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake was one of the most culturally visible alternative comic book titles of the 1990’s. The 17 issues of the series, published by Fantagraphics from 1993-2008 were well circulated and known in underground art and music scenes of the time. Dame Darcy was a known character herself, instantly recognizable in her impeccable Victorian outfits. During the decade when things that would later be labeled as grunge, or rave, or riot grrl were being created, and before the Graphic Novel elevated the visibility of alternative comics, copies of Meat Cake were lying around everywhere, mixed into piles of music mags & zines. The Meat Cake Bible collects almost 500 pages of her best works. It’s an impressive chunk of cartooning by an important and uniquely individual feminine voice in comics. Nobody else is quite like Dame Darcy, and nothing else is quite like Meat Cake.

Rege: Let’s talk about the Meat Cake Bible! I want to congratulate you on this thing.

Darcy: Thank you, oh my god.

Rege: I have all the comics, but this is a really different thing, seeing it in this format.

Darcy: I know isn’t it? It’s like a treasure chest.

Rege: It is like a treasure chest. I like the way it’s being presented as a definitive collection, like a monograph.

Darcy: It looks like it will go down in history.

Rege: It’s a book for the library. It’s not called “The Complete Meat Cake”.  It’s not a nostalgic collection.  It doesn’t present itself as a collection of comic books put into a book. I never thought about that kind of stuff with these kinds of collections until I saw this. I don’t know if that was your idea, but it’s exciting to see it this way. 

Darcy: Well thank you, yeah. I was talking with Eric at Fantagraphics, who replaced Kim as my main person I work with. Eric said ‘describe this so we can think of a way to market it, what we’re gonna call it, you know’ I said: ‘Well it’s gonna be all of them together and I have bonus new stuff at the end that I just made this year, because I just wanna keep going with this series.’  I might just keep self-publishing a little bit until I compile enough for another one, you know… I think it shows past, present, future and all this stuff together. It’s a bible for my cult following. That’s why we decided to call it the Bible, because it just shows everything. You know what I mean?

Rege: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you next. It is edited. It’s not just every issue in order is it?

Darcy: No, it’s all over the place.

Rege: OK. That’s what I thought.

Darcy: I like it that way.

Rege: I like it that way too. This is a huge book, and it’s still not the entire series. That’s so much comics.

Darcy: [laughter] It’s almost 500 pages.

Rege: If it’s not everything, how much was left out? How did you decide what stories not to put in? 

Darcy: It’s not every little thing, no. I just think some of the extras and some of the fillers, like the front pages and end pages and inserts, just little dumb comics that weren’t like… were just amusing or whatever, didn’t make it in because we couldn’t have it be 800 pages, you know what I mean.

Rege: Mhmm

Darcy: But I think that’s good. Because then, if you’re really a die-hard archivist, you have to go find it. You know, then that way it’s like some hidden treasure still.

Rege: So it’s mostly just little things that are left out. It’s all of the most important works.

Darcy: Yeah, it’s like the main stuff. I feel like it’s really complete.

Rege: Yeah, me too. One thing that was amazing to me, from memory, when I think of Meat Cake, I mostly think of the Richard Dirt/Wax Wolf stories. The stories with the cast of characters are the ones that stuck in my mind. But looking at this book, there’s just so many stand alone short stories. I always knew they were scattered through the series, but looking at them all together, I’m kind of amazed.  There’s just so many.meat-cake-bible-199-1000pix

Darcy: Oh thanks, yeah… I just have so many ideas in my brain, I just gotta keep going you know what I mean? [laughter]. It’s all the little short stuff. I really love the Grand Guignol. I really loved fairytales and I love short fiction, it’s my favorite thing ever. I’m also ADD. When I get a new idea, I switch over to it. I’m Gemini so it goes all over the place.

I’m working on my next epic tome. Voyage of The Temptress is my new one. I’m doing it kind of as a webcomic –  I just like being done with something. I’m like ‘okay I drew six pages, that story’s done.’

Rege: This is not a graphic novel by any means. You’re a cartoonist from the pre-graphic novel era, which isn’t that long ago.

Darcy: Yeah, and all the kids do this manga thing now. Everyone does anime and this anime style. It’s fine, especially in my genre, Gothic Lolita. It’s all this anime goth. I’m Gothic Lolita too, but I have nothing to do with anime. All the millennials are super into anime and they need to expand on that, you know. 

Rege: I think eventually they’ll absorb it and do it in their own style or something like that.

Darcy: I hope so because I’m kind of getting sick of it. You know, you’re drawing really great, but you’re drawing just like anime. Come up with your own thing guys! I’m going to do a skill share video series teaching how to self-publish and do your own comics, and coming up with your own style is the main part of it! [laughter]. You’re not learning anything if you do that. You gotta go into your soul and come up with your own look!

I taught sequential art at the School of Visual Arts, and I’ve done lectures with PNCA and SCAD and Columbia and stuff like that, and one off things at public schools. I’ll volunteer. I did a little comics course for kids in the inner city schools in LA. I did it here for summer camp in Savannah. I’m all about it. One of the first things I say is, ‘Okay what’s you’re spirit animal? What’s your favourite stuff? What’s your favourite colour? What’s your favourite food? Combine it all in to a character, that’s where you’re going to get your style!’

Rege: That’s cool.

Darcy: Yeah, they come up with the cutest, hilarious stuff. I just love teaching people how to tap into their pathos. That’s what it’s really about. Just inspiring people with your work to be themselves, and to tap into their pathos. Like, be yourself so brazenly!

I love how when Obama became president he was like ‘yeah, I know there’s never been a black president before, but my reality and my confidence is so strong that I changed reality. I made it so there was a black president even though there’d never been one. In my world there could be one, and so now there is.’ I love that! That’s the key to manifestation and magic. Just alter reality so that it becomes your reality!

Rege: Oh my god.

Darcy: Seriously. I wanna be as big as Snoopy or as mainstream as Hello Kitty or some shit. Really I do.

Rege: I just came across your one page manifestation story in here.

Darcy: That’s so funny.

Rege: It’s like twenty years old, right.

Darcy: That’s so hilarious.

Rege: If I had seen this in the 90’s, nothing about it would have made sense to me. I might have flipped by it, but now I’m like ‘Oh look at this comic about manifestation that she did’. I want to ask you about auto bio in your comics. A lot of your fictional characters are also you.

Darcy: Yeah, that’s weird that you bring that up.

Rege: I think it’s a really important part of your cartooning. I think it’s been really influential. There are a lot of younger people that go between fantasy and reality in their comics in a way that they understand, maybe in part because of you. You have all these different characters, and so many of them look like you. They are all reflections of you.

Darcy: They’re wearing different costumes with wigs and stuff.

Rege: You never can tell when you’re reading it. It seems like half the characters are you. Some stories are complete fantasy, but others, with the cast of regular characters, seem like things that may have happened to you and your friends, that got turned into a comic. It sometimes even says so. There’s even a small amount of straight autobio. Your work goes in between all of this in a really fluid way.

Darcy: Oh thanks, yeah. When I’m teaching, I tell them how the key to writing is to never get writer’s block. Here’s how to never get writer’s block: just know that you have every right to your voice, to your vision, to your perspective, to the way that you talk, all of that is yours. You’re an artist. You have every right to just be who you are. Everybody’s got stories to tell. Everybody’s got a story about their life. Just write it down the way you would tell it to a friend. Don’t think about how you’re writing it, don’t think about anything else. Write it down. When you’re done writing it, you can look at it and tweak it and change it into what you want.

That’s what I like about Mark Twain. Mark Twain changed the way writing is. He changed English language. He just made up words, and put them in there. He told his story from the perspective of a Victorian, southern, little boy. It had it’s own thing. It’s almost like sitting in a lake. It has it’s own language, it’s own atmosphere, it’s own world. If you’re gonna be in it, you got to be in that world on those terms.

That’s the way my work is too. It’s very feminine-centric. You know I’m unapologetic about it. I refuse to be anything other than female-centric. My big issue with putting guns in women’s hands, as if now they’re carrying guns and so they’re feeling empowered? Women don’t care about that. We care about female-centric stuff. Women’s psychology is completely different. What little girls want to be, or fantasize about, or want to grow up to be, what women want is so different than what the patriarchy dictates to us through the media and through a constant barrage of commercials. What they really want and what they really respond to is biological. Nothing commercial and no amount of money in the patriarchy can change it. I finally think there’s a chance now, that what I do can go mainstream.

Rege: How is that part of being a cartoonist? In the twenty or so years that you’ve been publishing, there are many more women in alternative comics. There’s been a shift towards the feminine. I can see a lot of influence that you’ve had. You just did it the way that you wanted to. It’s in the way that you draw. It’s different.

Darcy: It’s never going to go out of style. I did that on purpose. I did that because I didn’t know when my movie would get made, or when my big break was gonna happen. I needed to make it not look dated, you know what I mean. It will never go out of style.

Rege: When I look at Meat Cake, I feel like there’s twenty five subcultures that owe you royalties from this style. It’s kind of hard to explain. I feel like there’s fashions & stuff that I saw first in Meat Cake, before I saw them in the real world. Like… girls in Meat Cake wore striped stockings long before it was a real life 90s fashion trend. It’s crazy to think of now.

Darcy: Well, Hot Topic is definitely gonna carry my stuff. I’m going to magnetize on that. I’m just tired of the shenanigans, it’s just annoying me now. You know, I came really close, multiple times to all of this stuff and now it’s just gonna happen because I can’t take it anymore. I just can’t take waiting anymore. I’m too old now and I just need it to happen [laughter]. It’s gonna happen, I’m okay with it. I’m ready.meat-cake-bible-51-1000pix

Rege: Alright. I want to ask you, how did you become a cartoonist? From knowing you personally, I understand why you play banjo easier than why are you a cartoonist. What comics did you read? I didn’t know that you started Meat Cake when you were twenty one. Growing up, did you always want to draw comics, what made you want to make them? It’s a really specific thing to do and it’s a bit harder than anything else.

Darcy: There’s one thing that’s harder, and that’s cell animation, which is what I started with. So because of that, comics were an easier thing for me [laughs].

Rege: So you were doing that first. 

Darcy: Okay well, Meat Cake is my number one thing. I did my analytics and found out that’s what I’m most known for. I’ve got these other books and I play the banjo and I’m from Idaho, but I’ve lived in New York City and all this stuff.

Rege: Well now there’s this book that shows it. You’ve got all this other stuff, and also work in all these other mediums, but this book is almost five hundred pages of comics!

Darcy: Well, I went to school for film, and I majored in animation. I was trained by my father, who is a sign painter. He taught me how to do fonts, and to draw and paint in Idaho, and to play the banjo.

Rege: Aha! I think that’s a lot of the answer!

Darcy: Yeah. All that’s in Highjacks and Hijinks, which is my next book. My ultimate goal is to make Meat Cake into a movie premiering at Comic-Con, and then the next year have Highjacks and Hijinks come out. It’s the making of what made Meat Cake, it’s about my life. So when people ask me, I can just say ‘watch the movie” [laughs], rather than explaining all of the multi-duplicitous things that are what my life is – it really takes a long time. I know a lot of weird people with really interesting, crazy life stories that have traveled all over the world, and lots of different things. That’s my thing. I’m not like most people, I can’t say where I’m from when people ask. I’m from Idaho, San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, and now Savannah. Those don’t have anything to fucking do with each other! [laughs] – I don’t know, I’d have to look this up but I think I’m the only fashion model who’s also a cartoonist. I feel like cartoonists aren’t fashion models.

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Rege: Well, fashion models make zines now I think. [laughs]

Darcy: They make what?

Rege: They make zines, because everyone makes zines.

Darcy: Oh yeah, well, zines are great. I mean, I teach a zine course too, but you know what I mean, the comics.

Rege: You’re very out in the world as yourself and as a person. Comics are kind of quiet and isolating. They involve a lot of solitary work and…

Darcy: Well, I spent a lot of time in isolation in Idaho. I really hated school. I knew that if I tried to take any of the tests I would fail. I would just cut to the chase and draw comics on the back of the tests [laughs]. If I knew I’d get a question wrong, I’d just draw some cute comic on the back that was like ‘hey teacher I knew I was going to fail so I drew this comic as a makeup art thing’ They thought it was funny and they just let me get by. They’d be like ‘okay well that was enough, that’s like a D+’ [laughs].

Rege: The thing about your work in general, from the earliest stuff I’ve seen, it’s all done in your particular style, right from the very start. You have the filigree around the borders of every single panel right from the beginning. You use exactly the same, perfect Dame Darcy lettering style from day one. The sign painting thing helps explain that, I guess.

Darcy: Well, I lived in Idaho on a horse ranch half the year, and then I lived in a Victorian house in a small town in Idaho. I also helped my dad. I was my dad’s sign-painting apprentice. I lived like I was in the 1800s a lot even though it was the 70s and 80s. My house was from 1902. The ranch that we lived on had been that way for 100 years. We had no running water and shit, but it was a really nice cabin, up in the mountains in Idaho. We had to light a fire under the bathtub that we’d fill with a pump. We put the hose in the creek and pumped it out of the creek into the bathtub and lit a fire under it. Now we have indoor plumbing and things, but we used to drive to the little bone stores in the middle of nowhere. It would be the only thing around for miles. For 10 cents I could call my mom once a week ‘cause she was in town, and I was in the mountains. I’d also get a blue Nehi pop. Is that named after a Mormon saint? I think it is?

Rege: Nehi? yeah, it’s spelled weird.

Darcy: I think it’s a Mormon thing. I think that pop is from Idaho. But anyways, I thought Little House on the Prairie was contemporary. I thought we had a truck, but they just didn’t have one yet. I just thought we had a one up on them.

Rege: That’s funny. Little House On The Prairie does make me think of the ’80s, even though it’s not set in the ’80s.

Darcy: Oh yeah, and in the 70s my mom was making me Little House style dresses with matching bonnets that looked like that.

Holly Hobbie fashion.

Holly Hobby fashion.

Rege: Mhmm like Holly Hobby fashion.

Darcy: Yeah yeah I had those, I loved them, they were my favorite, which is why I’m so super into Lolita now. I hung out in full Victorian dress on a ranch, and now I’m in Savannah with all the Victorian houses around, all the furnishings are antique. It’s just the way people live… it’s a timeless thing.

Rege: So did you go from Idaho to San Francisco to go to school?

Darcy: Yeah. I had bad grades in school, but I took newspaper and was developing a portfolio because everyone was saying ‘you’re going to be famous’, you’re going to get a scholarship. We’re gonna make it happen, kid. We’re going to get you out of here’ My mother is from LA originally, and her mother works for the government, she works for the CIA. We weren’t allowed to know what grandma did for a living. I still don’t know. My mother’s dad was a psychiatrist. She was an only child, but she was also raised by a bunch of Catholics. Her mom did stuff in the 50’s that mothers didn’t usually do. She worked for the government, and only had one child, and was super careerist in the 50s. There weren’t afterschool programs and child care for working moms back then, so she took my mom to the catholic church and dumped her in with a catholic family, a litter of nine kids. So now my mom has nine god-siblings. My mother is a catholic, raised by an atheist who worked with the CIA. My mother is a really sweet, hardcore feminist catholic lady.

Rege: Ah, I understand that. They tend to like art. I was taught by nuns in High School.

Darcy: I lived in a place where I would sit on the bus next to a Mormon girl named Fawn or Misty, there would be three sisters named that. The three sisters would go on to have like 10 kids each. I would be sitting on the bus and would be like ‘So what do you want to do when you grow up?’ and like Fawn would be like ‘ oh I’ll have as many kids as the good lord gives me’ and I’d be like ‘are you kidding me? That’s just insane’ My mom was from LA and she knew a bigger world than that. She was like ‘We’re going to get you a scholarship and we’re going to help you’ I knew I was going to art school because my GPA wasn’t going to allow me to go to regular college.

Rege: Yeah I had a similar experience… when I discovered art school existed, I was like… that’s the only place I could possibly go.

Darcy: Yeah, I mean there wasn’t even an option for me. I wasn’t ever going to go to normal school. I was all about art class and building my portfolio and getting awards. I was in newspaper club. I was the cartoonist for the newspaper. I drew a comic called Tumor Humor. It started a lot of controversy because it was about the nuclear power plant in Idaho Falls blowing up, and everybody becoming radioactive zombies. A lot of the jokes were really sexy and scary and creepy and crazy like.

Rege: [BIG GASP] Right, too much. Too cool for school.

Darcy: They were in the school paper. They were like Meat Cake, but they were about the apocalypse and they were in the school paper.

Rege: Yeah, yeah, yeah in high school, yeah

Darcy: The teacher was really encouraging me. The kids were already like hating me, or loving me, or scared of me as it was. That shit just made it way worse. I did it for three years. I was 15, 16, and 17. Each year I kept winning at the regionals. There was a regional newspaper thing where everybody would get together from all over Idaho and Montana and Utah and wherever in the northwest. We’d stay in this huge, crazy hotel in Sun Valley that’s usually reserved for movie stars who want to go skiing. It was all the nerdy kids from newspaper classes from all over the place, and I kept winning. I won three years in a row. That really helped with my scholarship. I remember my grandpa saying he was really proud of me and I was like, ‘I don’t think you’ve read the comics though’ [laughs] He says he read them.

Rege: Alright, so here’s a question…

Darcy: There was one… wait let me just tell you what one of them was, because it’s funny! Just so you know what was in the school paper: There was a guy, and he’s glowing in the dark and his car is blown up and it’s just the axle, and all the town’s lights are off. There’s this girl sitting in this bombed out house that’s just made out of a shell of bricks and she’s glowing in the dark. They look like zombies, but they’re wearing like 60s teenybopper clothes because they were going to go out on a date. She’s a skeleton with a ponytail. He goes to pick her up and he pretends to open the door, but it’s invisible. She sits on the axle and they drive to makeout point, but there’s no light. When they make out, her tooth comes out in his mouth and he spits it out. Then, his boil pops and sprays all over her and she’s like: “That’s too much!! Take me home!”

Rege: [laughs] That’s… that is complicated for a high school comic. What have you been up to lately?

Darcy: I need regular income, so I’ve been working as a ghost host for three years. I also teach painting and art. It’s at this haunted house called ‘Escape Savannah’. It’s also my art studio. I got all my interns jobs working as ghost hosts too, so that they can get paid to work as ghost hosts, and also work for me. It’s all in the same unit.

Rege: Mhmm. That sounds like a Meat Cake comic, what you’re describing to me.

Darcy: It looks like a Meat Cake comic. All the girls look like the characters of Meat Cake.

Rege: Good work.

Darcy: It’s a good job because I can just sit there with a lightbox in the dark and draw my comics, while getting paid an hourly wage, when I need to do my deadlines.

Rege: That’s awesome.

Darcy: So I don’t just use the advance up. I get paid, and then I can put the advance in savings. I’ve come very close to getting a licensing deal. That’s what I really want now. I’m manifesting that now, because a licensing deal would be really fun, to put my designs all over a bunch of stuff. Like, virtual paper dolls. A reality world where everything is all over virtual stuff, and it doesn’t create landfill. I’m always very environmentally conscious.

Rege: Ahhhh! [laughs] 

Darcy: I got a scholarship at San Francisco Art Institute for two years. I didn’t get a full ride, but I went for two years. I majored in film with a minor in animation, because all of my comics – I’ve always wanted to make them into feature films. I’ve written three or four feature films now, and I keep making them into comics and graphic novels, because it’s the cheap way to just do it all by your own self, without having to spend all the money to create the world, as a movie.

Rege: Right.

Darcy: So, I was all goth, you know. Nobody was yet, as you know. My boyfriend lived in LA, and I would go to LA to see him all the time. We were born on the same day. We met through a goth music magazine. I was like 15, 16, 17. I kept going back to LA. My friends were pretty cool too. We’d order stuff through the mail because there wasn’t the internet yet. I’d go to LA and get the fashion, the music, go to coffee shops and art things and hang out with my boyfriend. I saw that there was a zine culture, and an underground music scene. I saw that you could make zines. I started writing extra ideas from my comics for the newspaper, and started making them into zines.

Rege: You did? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pre-Meat Cake, Dame Darcy zine. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

Darcy: Oh really? It was crazy. It’s really awesome when I do book signings and people come up to me with them.

Rege: I’d really like to see those.

Darcy: I was using the photocopier at my dad’s at my work, with my dad. He was a sign painter, so he had one. The school also had one they let me use, even though I was horrible and horrifying. I just terrorized everybody all the time at school. [laughs]

Rege: Mhmm did you….

Darcy: That’s why my autobio is called Hijacks and Hijinks, because all I wanted to do… all I thought about everyday was how to play pranks on everybody except my friends. You know, just fuck with everyone’s mind all the time.  But the principal loved me, and let me use the photocopier. They let me lay around in the nurses’ office when I wanted to.

Rege: Uh-huh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Darcy: [laughs] I hated it all. He thought it was funny or something, so he just let me do whatever I wanted. When I started school in San Francisco, I was in Caroliner Rainbow.

Rege: Your bio in the book list so many of the different things that you’ve done, but I noticed that being in Caroliner Rainbow didn’t make the list. The other things are more important & well known, but to me, Caroliner was something I was into back then.

Darcy: Yeah, well I hear about it a lot. He started to hate me once I started to get famous on my own, without his band. I was only 18, and I was already starting my own zines and stuff.

Rege: I feel like I may have gotten your 7-inches before I saw Meat Cake.

Darcy: That’s back when people knew me mostly as a musician.

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Rege: I love that will of the wisp octopus 7-inch. It’s super beautiful. The art, and the sound on it is so mysterious. I remember getting it, and trying to make the connection between the music and the art. You know, in the 90s… you could get art, as well as music, from the same person, in two different places, and not know that they were related, or even made by the same person…there was no way to look it up.

Darcy: I know… they didn’t have analytics in the 90s.

Rege: When did you become aware of underground comic books? Did you discover sixties underground stuff in San Francisco?

Darcy: Well, my dad had Zap Comix  and my uncle went to the San Francisco Art Institute. My dad and my uncle were formally trained in fine art.

Rege: Meat Cake is done much more in the format of a SF underground comic, as opposed to other 90’s alternative comics. It came out around the time that people started doing comics as 32 page episodes of a 200 page book.

Darcy: My dad had Playboy, and Heavy Metal, and Zap Comics. I saw that you could make comics that had sexy ladies in them, that weren’t just cute, weren’t just snoopy or whatever. I thought that could be a career.

Rege: There you go.

Darcy: I saw that you can make other kinds of things into comics. The sexist portrayal of women in comics hurt my feelings, even as a kid. It hurt my feelings, the way that they were being portrayed, it upset me. I wanted to make comics that were fairytales, where it’s all about girls.

Rege: During the 90s, if you went over to somebody’s house that you thought was cool, you would definitely want to look at all their stuff. It was the only way to find out about anything. Meat Cake was always around those places. You could pick it up and read a few short, self contained stories, and understand the universe of Dame Darcy. A lot of other comics at the time were chapters of longer stories.

Darcy: The zine scene was blowing up. I was touring with Lisa Carver, and doing illustrations for Rollerderby, her zine. When you are a freak and you put on a freak show, and it’s a crazy weird rock show with hot girls, then you sell your books afterwards. It was the best way of doing it yourself, to get started at that time. I will never regret the early part of my life in these big, scary cities, risking my life to live there.rollerderby

Now I’m old and I’ve been established forever. Even in the hardest, darkest days in my life, there has always been fans that are encouraging me to continue, because of what I established as a kid. That’s just got me through the whole time.

Rege: Your drawings were dispersed all over the place, in little bits, along the way. Now there is this one big, giant book, with them all together.

Darcy: I know, I’m so excited.

Rege: It’s on nice paper, you can read it.

Darcy: Yeah, well now I’m pitching it as a movie, of course, because that’s been my big goal all along. I can just throw it down on the table like, “Bitch, make it happen, here’s a bible.” If this doesn’t prove that it’s mainstream marketable, like Snoopy or some shit.

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Rege: It’s a real definitive thing.

Darcy: Thank you. I really feel like Kim is my guardian angel. I’m going to start crying and I can’t start crying. I feel like Kim Thompson is my guardian angel. He gave me my first break when I was in the 20, 21-years old. I was one of the youngest published female cartoonists at the time. I couldn’t go home to Idaho, I couldn’t live there again after all the work I’d done to get out, you know what I mean? Oh Kim Thompson! He’s totally my guardian angel, he gave me my first break. We were planning the Meat Cake Bible! It was so horribly shocking. I was so sad, I couldn’t believe it. So that’s why I dedicated Meat Cake Bible to Kim. I still feel like he’s watching over this project. You know, as a witch, I’ve done the rituals for Kim, just thanking him. These spells are like a telephone to the other world, where, you know, you can’t call people on the phone anymore but you can still tell them things. I feel like his spirit lives on in my work, and in the work that he helped produce with all these other amazing artists through the years. A little part of him is in all of our work.

Rege: That makes sense. Do you think that you’ll always draw comics?

Darcy: Oh yes.

Rege: Okay, so you’re a born cartoonist.

Darcy: Yeah. The question everybody had, all my teachers, all my friends, and everybody I ever knew in my life, was “how are you going to survive in the world doing this?”

Rege: [Laughs] Exactly, that’s the mysterious part. A lot of artists try comics, and then quit right away. Or they quit after a little while, and go on to do something else. Here’s a super nerd question. What kind of pens do you use? What kind of paper do you use? Do you care? Has it changed over the years? It looks like you’re comfortable with everything. Did you ever go through a period of only using, like really old quill pens or anything? Do you have a certain kind of ink that you love?

Darcy: I really love those old-fashioned dip pens with archival ink. But, they’re too precious. The ink spills. I tour a lot, and I move all the time. I’m always traveling everywhere, my life is very weird. So I wasn’t always in the position to have my table, and my ink, and my shit to paint with and draw with. My life couldn’t be preciously wrapped around this table with my stuff. I mostly use rapidographs, but I’ve had to change the ink in the bathroom of the train, you know, or I’ll have another one on the plane, in case the one I’m using explodes, or explodes when I get there. My go-to is rapidographs. It’s mostly because they use archival ink.

RegeYou don’t draw with a brush or anything like that.

Darcy: I can do it. It just looks a bit different. That’s like painting to me. If I’m going to paint, I’ll use paint and paint a painting. Going through the Bible, there are so many pictures of myself. It’s like a diary for me. With every page, I can remember where I was when I drew it, I can remember who I was dating at the time, or what was going on in my life at the time, or where I was sitting when I was drawing this page.

Rege: All of the photos of you in the book are fairly recent.

Darcy: Yeah, they’re all of me now.

Rege: You could’ve chosen to put in pictures that spanned over the last 20 years.

Darcy: There’s one of me when I was nine.

Rege: You could’ve put in a collection of pictures that showed what you’ve looked like along the way, as the comics were drawn, through the years.
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Darcy: I fucking didn’t even think to do that. I’m super into feminism through femininity, that’s why I really like the Lolita thing. You don’t care who thinks you’re not sexy cause you’ve got a bonnet on. You’re like, “I’m going to wear this bonnet, and if you don’t like it, or think it’s weird, or don’t think I’m sexy, that’s your problem”. It’s just me, and I’m going to wear a bonnet because I think it looks cute. That’s what I love about Lolita, and that’s my brand of feminism. I’ll just do what I want bitches. I’m going to get a captain’s license, and I wear my mermaid costume as clothes every day, all the time. I’m just walking around in a mermaid costume because that’s what I feel like wearing. I don’t need to explain myself. I’ll introduce myself. If you want to look my ass up, you can. I’m just being me.

Rege: There’s a lot of sex in Meat Cake too.

Darcy: Yeah well you know, I’m feminist. [Laughter.]

Rege: Again, seeing it all collected like this, there’s a lot more sex than I remember.

Darcy: There’s lots of sex. The mermaid is always topless, and everybody’s always like, “whoops, my panties!” Girls are getting excited, and their vaginas are talking like, “yay!” People get excited and just pee, and girls make out with each other and shit and they don’t care. It’s because that’s what happens in real life right? So I just put it in there.

Rege: I remember reading your comics long ago and wondering, “where are these people who hang out and act like this? I’ve got to find these girls.”

Darcy: [Laughter.] They were out there, in every art school and in rock bands or whatever. They were my friends.

Rege: I’ve always liked the triangle boobs that you draw. It’s a great shorthand. You just draw this little dart. It’s the opposite of the perfect globes we see in most comics, right? Breasts have usually been drawn like beach balls.

Darcy: Oh thanks, I just thought those were funny. Not everybody has, or even wants fake, crazy boobs like that. It is really sad and anti-feminist and I don’t like it. I think everybody should embrace whatever beauty they’ve got, and everybody’s got different kinds of beauty. Don’t try to just go cookie-cutter or hate yourself for what you look like, just accept what you’ve got. I mean I’ve got pointy ears for crying out loud. I really got teased for that. Now, I’m really glad I have them. I’m from Atlantis, I’m a fairy, I’m a mermaid, and that’s the proof, my DNA. The pointy ears. I’m not a human.

Rege: Can you explain your idea of being a pirate, what that means to you?

Darcy: It means ultimate freedom. You get a lot of booty. I’m very anti-establishment. I don’t really care about rules. I’m going to get my captain’s license & learn to sail. When you’ve got the ocean, that’s where all the lines of countries are blurred. The rules are blurred, and if you don’t like it somewhere you can just sail away and go to another place. If you still don’t like it there, you can sail away and go to yet another place. There’s that freedom of having disconnect. I was mermaid queen, one of the coronated queens at Coney Island. I have the naughty nautical night cabaret, and all that. It’s not a costume. When you’re on a boat in a storm learning how to navigate the inter-coastal waterways of South Carolina, and nobody can see you or even cares who you are or what you did before. When the waters are rising, that’s the next logical step right?meat-cake-bible-119-1000pix

Rege: I like the way that you’re a pirate, you’re a mermaid, and you’re a witch. I like the idea that you can say all that in 2016, and a lot of people know what you actually mean. That wasn’t true as much 20 years ago, when you started.

Darcy: Yeah it’s cool. Every book that I’ve done, and every year that goes by, everything that I make, I always come “this close” to getting my big break.

Rege: It’s easier now than ever to explain what a witch and a cartoonist are. [Laughs.]

Darcy: I know. I’m a total realist. I know how to really live on a dime. I know how to live and strive through anything. I’m taking sea safety. I’m going to learn how to do CPR and all this other stuff even better. I’m super into knowing how to drive a car and swim and all this stuff because in any emergency situation, I want to know what to do. In a lot of ways I’m a total realist. It’s always been the background to every minute of my life.

Rege: Well you’ve got consistency with these drawings, that’s for sure.

Darcy: This is like the fiftieth book I’ve published. I’ve done so many books.

Rege: Do you feel like it’s a different book than the other ones?

Darcy: Yeah, I finally feel like in the end, Meat Cake is my heart, my soul, my brain. Like if you don’t know me at all, and you read Meat Cake, you know me more than anybody who thinks they know me, and hasn’t read it. I wish everybody had a book to just hand me to show me their heart, and their soul, and their brain – what it really, truly is. It would be very handy. Like, if I’m dating somebody, and I don’t really know him that well, or if I just met somebody, and they don’t know who I am, I’m like, “here’s who I am, look at my book.” If they’re all freaked out by it, or don’t like it, or get jealous, or wanna destroy me, or wanna fuck me, or whatever their agenda is after they see my book, It instantly determines things.

Rege: I have to say, most of the people I’ve met over the years that like Meat Cake a lot — They weren’t really into comics otherwise. They liked Meat Cake because they recognize it. They recognized themselves, and their friends in it. I’ve seen that reaction in people for 20 years. It’s appeal goes way outside of the realm of who is usually buying alternative comics. It’s been hugely influential.

Darcy: I know. It’s been fine being the unicorn in the room or whatever, but it’s been a little bit of the problem.

Rege: Yeah, you are a little bit of a unicorn in that way.

Darcy: What’s funny now is that I’m the grandma of all the Lolita anime girls. They might not always know who I am. Some of them do and some of them don’t. When they do, they’re like “Grandma! Here’s a crown made out of ice cream, we love you!” and when they don’t know who I am they’re like, “Oh she’s carrying a doll, and she has a bonnet on too, she’s another Lolita like us” or whatever. I want to live in a world where they all know me, because I told them. I’m putting Lolitas in my TV show, because Lolita world is really fun. The fashion is really great, everybody’s cool. We all have the same ideas about things, we live in the same adorable little wacky kind of sick planet. We are not represented very much on TV, or in movies. There’s a lot of fashion stuff, but there isn’t a mainstream movie or TV series about Lolitas.

What did we talk about when you interviewed me in Boston?

Rege: Did I interview you in Boston? Did I interview you on the radio?

Darcy: I know isn’t it weird? You interviewed me in Boston for a radio station.

Rege: I think we freaked out. We started screaming and yelling and shit. I think we got a little wild. [Laughs]

Darcy: We got weird.

Rege: We didn’t think about it. I think we just acted crazy.

Darcy: Yeah, well I’m not surprised. How old were we then?

Rege: I think you played a song. Oh, in our 20s.

Darcy: I think we were like 25, 24. I don’t know are you my age?

Rege: I’m 46.

Darcy: Oh yeah I’m 45, I just turned 45 this year. So yeah we’re the same age.

Rege: I totally forgot that happened.

Darcy: All artists truly care about is legacy, what happens after you die. The fact that I was alive, what I did to change society, what I did for feminism, what I did for the world while I was here, and what I left behind. Because, those books in the attic that I read, that were 100 years old, those people that are long dead? – they’ve influenced me. My ultimate goal in life is for the little girl from 2172 seeing my book. She will, because it’s been published. Maybe she’ll do something really weird and different for her time. Where she’s interpreting it in the context of her generation.

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“And It Lasted Forever”: An Interview with Tom Spurgeon http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-tom-spurgeon/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-tom-spurgeon/#comments Tue, 11 Oct 2016 12:00:17 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96004 We Told You So, the Fantagraphics oral history he helped to compile. Continue reading ]]> Tom Spurgeon needs little introduction to readers of this site. He’s the editor and writer of The Comics Reporter, one of the most popular and well-respected websites covering the comics industry; he was the editor of the print version of The Comics Journal from 1994 through 1999, a pivotal time for comics; and he is the co-author (with Jordan Raphael) of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book. His writing is always intelligent, grounded in history, and infused with his personal experience. Everyone who has read Tom’s writing feels like they know him.

Spurgeon has recently taken on a new role, as the festival director for Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), a city-wide celebration of comics art that in its first year has already established itself as a major event. It will be held again this weekend, and has attracted an impressive and wide-ranging guest list, including everyone from Garry Trudeau and Charles Burns to Carol Tyler and Stan Sakai.

Spurgeon is also the co-author (with Michael Dean) of a new book, We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited and controversial oral history of Fantagraphics (publisher of this site) which will finally be coming to stores this December.

I sent Spurgeon questions via email about the book, the festival, working for Fantagraphics in the 1990s, his health, and his relationship with Gary Groth. He returned them in record time.

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TIM HODLER: How exactly did CXC initially come together, and how did you become involved?

TOM SPURGEON: It comes out of the Cartoon Arts Festival that used to be held every third year for decades by the OSU library that is now the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. That was a sort-of secret festival held here in Columbus, very strip-oriented as you might guess given their primary holdings, and it was supported very strongly by the syndicates. It was basically just a series of presentations by cartoonists and comics-makers to an elite audience, and a lot of hangout time. I think at the earliest one they all went to founding curator Lucy Caswell’s house for a meal.

Lucy moved into retirement from a full-time position at the Billy at roughly the same time the library and museum transitioned into the magnificent new facility AND the newspaper industry went right into the toilet. So a new model was necessary. A conversation by Lucy with her former student Jeff Smith and his wife, the force behind Cartoon Books as a business entity Vijaya Iyer, quickly expanded to rope in current Billy personalities Jenny Robb (the primary curator) and Caitlin McGurk, whose job includes outreach.

I get along well with Caitlin and Jeff and I think both of them take or avoid credit for bringing me on board depending on how well I’m doing.

What are your responsibilities?

I direct the festival, which means I’m primarily responsible for the logistics of it, the making it happen of it. That’s both in just making sure stuff gets set up but also that we’re executing according to our goals and ideals as stated. If I’m not on a committee, I’m being directed by a committee to do something or I’m in the room ex-officio offering advice and perspective based on the two-plus decade of ruining my life by paying attention to comics in its entirety.

How did you feel CXC went last year?

I thought we did really well for a first-year show, a two-day version of what we hope to become. Attendance was ahead of what I thought it would be (the figure we use based on our counts is 1200; I expected about half of that), and there were enough moving-stuff-around problems that it was really invaluable to have that under our belts going into a four-day model from now on. Just the basics. Like you forget if you go to a bunch of shows how much for most people stuff has to be explicit and easy to parse in terms of where things are and when and where to park, and so on.

Also, if you don’t schedule time for dinner with nothing going on, some people won’t eat! There’s comics to do! I’ll eat Tuesday!

What took you by surprise?

I was genuinely surprised in a good way how relatively sophisticated and smart we could get and audiences here even if they were unfamiliar with someone’s work would roll with it. We sometimes think of comics as this obtuse, weird thing — and it can be — but a lot of what comics-makers do is a lot of what a lot of artists do. Of all types. And I think people that have interest in art beyond its consumption can accommodate some pretty advanced talk about what that means.

Also, people have a really refined aesthetic for food trucks. Who knew?

Last year, CXC was described as a “soft launch” or a “sneak preview” of what the show would eventually become, and at least one press report said the first “real” CXC show wouldn’t take place until 2017. You’ve got some major guests coming this year—Garry Trudeau, Charles Burns, Raina Telgemeier. What should convention attendees and exhibitors expect? And are you out of the soft launch stage, or do you hope to expand dramatically next year?

I can’t speak for everyone involved, but I felt we had to get pretty big pretty quickly for a couple of reasons. The first is that the convention/festival schedule is crowded as hell, and I thought we needed to make a case for our place on the schedule pretty quickly as opposed to last decade’s model, where you could kind of grow the show for five or six years as the audience got used to attending.

The second is that one of the original conceptions is that this be a city-wide show. One of our explicit goals is to show off Columbus, even. So we run CXC out of about six venues in two different general locations: up on campus Thursday and Friday for the academic conference, peer to peer panels and auditorium presentations like Trudeau, then downtown Saturday and Sunday for the Expo part in our public library main branch with satellite events at the Columbus Museum of Art and Columbus College of Art and Design. We even move our late-night parties around.

The result is that there’s intense interest from about 15 civic groups to be involved, and we want to catch as much of that energy as early on as we can. You can’t tell excited people “hey, wait a few years; we’ll find something for you.” That just leads to people hating you if you’re successful and bailing on the idea if you’re not. But the resources they bring are an amazing thing, and more than worth any challenge in having that many moving parts.

So what can you expect? I hope a pretty full-service show. You can come Wednesday to Friday and see kind of the nerdier aspects, the gallery shows and the academic conference and the night-time presentations, all up on campus. You can come Saturday and Sunday to our downtown and attend a regular expo-type small press show, 100 tables, with four panel tracks. We even have hosted parties Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We have everyone from Image Comics to Youth In Decline in the Expo room; please, oh please God buy something. Or many things.

Shows seem, at least anecdotally, to have become increasingly important to cartoonists and publishers (at least those who aren’t firmly established in the general bookstore market). They certainly have become more frequent, and there are “important” shows taking place all over the country throughout the year. They are also expensive, especially if you go to a lot of them. Do you think this is a sustainable business model for small-press comics? What would be an alternative?

That’s like a whole essay of answers, but in brief.

I think you’re right in that we’ve crossed a line into there being some observable effects of so many festivals and shows. People no longer go to all of them, that’s basically impossible, most people are cutting back, and even some small-press attendees are waving off shows that don’t make them a special guest, or that aren’t really close, or that aren’t a guaranteed potential money-maker.

Do I think it’s a sustainable business model? No. Was it ever? Even compared to all the other shitty business models? Maybe, with a bunch of qualifications. If it ever was, it was just barely, and it was like — like most things in comics — to the benefit of a select few. There are people that can clear after expenses a few grand, which is probably more than they’re getting from any other single source. Of course there are social advantages and even spiritual advantages to connecting with people that actually read your work, or that know what you’re going through, that people will frequently do them despite knowing they might not be one of those that makes money.

The assumption I’m going on for the future is that people will do their locals, will do the shows that invite them in, and then will fill out the rest of the festivals they can do, perhaps up to four or five, with one or two shows with which they have a track record of good experiences. You’ll also see things like publishers explicitly supporting talent but not coming to shows themselves, and more people attending shows but only if a bunch of their friends do. I think you’ll also see more and more honoraria, and things like that. We are looking at ways in our development to one day perhaps have free tables for everyone accepted. That’s a long way off, and maybe not possible, though.

How do you see CXC compared to the other, more established conventions?

Catching up, mostly. There are a lot of great shows out there. That’s not me being nice, that’s me being jealous. A lot of the great shows benefit from being established, and have great, recurring, buying audiences as a result. At a certain point, you just need reps.

Conceptually, I hope that we’re just different enough that we become a unique thing for our guests and our audience, but still with enough broad appeal that sets of those at the show professional and at the show as a reader and fan will both include a lot of people.

The Billy and CCAD and other institutions are a big distinction. If most conventions are like tent revivals that pull up and leave when the weekend is over, we’re a series of churches — in the Billy’s case a cathedral — and we’re still here that next Monday. I think that provides a different feel even above and beyond what those institutions offer during the four-day weekend. We have great venues: we’re putting Seth and Ben Katchor in the Columbus Museum of Art this year, followed by Ronald Wimberly, who has an exhibit up over there as the Thurber House Graphic Novelist residency winner this year. The Thurber House is another one of those great institutions here.

We have a broader mandate than most shows. We’ll always have an animator. This year, we have two: Mark Osborne is showing a 3D version of his The Little Prince and the great John Canemaker is speaking on Winsor McCay at the same time there’s a McCay exhibit across the quad at the Billy. We do have a strong strip and a strong editorial cartooning presence. A diversity-driven Expo, SOL-CON, will have events up on campus on our Friday and its artists will exhibit with us Saturday and Sunday.

We have a strong professional development track, although I think most shows are expanding into this area. This year we have about 16 hours of programming aimed in that direction, and a few surprises. We will give out another significant cash prize to an Emerging Talent on the show floor.

We also really want to show off Columbus as a place we hope cartoonists will feel at home. We want people to come live here: it’s cheap, it’s a great city in which to be an artist, we’re close to everything east of the Mississippi and we have things like the Billy and the new comics major at CCAD. If you don’t actually live here we want you to feel like you have a second home here.

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What is the best non-CXC show you’ve ever been to?

My first San Diego was pretty awesome. I got to talk to Jeff Smith and Sergio on the porch of the Hyatt until late in the morning, there was a ridiculous Fantagraphics party, and I got to moderate the panel where everyone yelled at Larry Marder for Image going to Diamond. I’m one of the few people that still enjoys a good San Diego. I also still have a fondness for the Chicago shows I went to when I was a kid. We’d one-day it and just spend as much money as we had on all the stuff we couldn’t find in Indiana, like American Splendor.

My favorite individual iteration of a show was the 2012 SPX, which was I thought was a tremendously sweet show, with a lof of people I care about in attendance.

I still feel the gold standard for a festival-style show is TCAF, though, in terms of the guest list and expo and reach and quality of the show.

How are you feeling, health-wise? Are things better after your scare a few years back?

I’m super-fat right now, but I feel great, thanks for asking. I got sick again in March. The wound that almost killed me in 2011 was conspiring to fill my lungs with clotting, and it got to the point that I went the first two months of this year severely oxygen-deprived. I was hallucinating and having severe confusion. The nerdiest part about that was that my hallucinations were like the Thurber drawing in that one Thurber-based movie: like cartoons dancing around on blank walls.

It wasn’t until my physical capacity diminished to the point I couldn’t walk across the room without being exhausted that I went to the hospital, though. I thought I was mentally fine except the hallucinations, which I just figured was a long-overdue psychotic break.

They zapped me with drugs and I’ve felt better than I have in years. I’m really lucky. We’ve lost a lot of great people in comics over the last few years. My friend and one-time Seattle roommate Jess Johnson died this year, for example. I still think about Kim and Dylan Williams. I was very fond of Darwyn Cooke and I think the whole field is like 3 percent less joyful and fun and hilarious for that guy not being in the room. It doesn’t get any better from here, either. I’m grateful and lucky.

The long-gestating book, We Told You So, is finally coming to print more than a decade after you began it. Obviously the Harlan Ellison lawsuit had something to do with that. Are you able to talk about that situation at all? And were there any other factors behind the book’s delay?

I wasn’t part of the lawsuit, so I suppose I can say whatever I want.

Me sucking would be the primary cause of the book not coming out. I was originally contracted for 30,000 words, which in the writing of it — well, the first chapter was about 30,000 words. The Ellison lawsuit killed any momentum and like the Fleisher lawsuit put a strain — much less of one — on my relationship with Fantagraphics. I think that’s just natural. That’s a tough journey to take. Like I said, I wasn’t even included in the lawsuit despite writing one book in question and editing the other. It was pretty goddamn weird.

Fantagraphics really wanted the book to come out. We had some strong disagreement as to how that would happen. Eventually, looking at my choices, I remembered talking to Kim Thompson’s parents back in 2006. They passed away soon after Kim did in 2013; they are no longer with us. I remember his Mom told me something straight-up about how happy she was that they got to talk about Kim. And if I had worked against the book finally being published, my best-case scenario — my best outcome! — was that she wouldn’t get to talk about her son on the record. So I reached out to Eric and Gary to change some things about the original contract which reflected our new situation and let go of my giant stupid ego.

You weren’t able to finish the book by yourself. How is the final product different from what you might have put together alone? Did you ever consider putting together the book in a different form, i.e., not an oral history?

It’s not exactly the book I would have written, not totally, but I’m proud of my work in there and I think Mike Dean did some heroic work in matching some of the later chapters he worked on to what we did with the earlier ones. I recommend it. Please buy it. I had a 37-email argument with Eric Reynolds about Jeremy Eaton’s ponytail for a picture caption and I don’t want to have wasted that time.

How would it have been different? I think I would have concentrated on some different issues. Like I’m fascinated by the falling out that a lot of Gary and Kim’s same-age peers had with the Journal in the early ’90s, and I think I would have covered that more. I’m more interested than the book ended up being interested on the way that Fantagraphics has shaped the publishers that come after. I think there a couple of people I would have focused on more, like Dirk Deppey. I think you can probably detect some shifts in tone if you read the work yourself. I think I would have hit on Gary becoming a father and Kim becoming a husband as key personal moments more thoroughly. Maybe. It’s hard to say!

I always wanted it to be an oral history. I like oral histories, I think the wider range of personalities involved with Fantagraphics is the story, and I think it pays homage to maybe the first great distinguishing element of the company: Gary’s interviews in the Journal.

I’ll tell you how long ago 2005 was, Tim. At the time I did the pitch, I sort of had to explain what an oral history looked like, and there weren’t a lot of book-length ones. I used the Terry Pluto book, Loose Balls, on the ABA and actually brought it into the Fantagraphics office. Now there are specific episodes of Blossom that have received the oral-history treatment. I can tell from reading Mike’s chapters that this had an effect on how those chapters came together — like people know that oral histories have overlapping narratives time-wise, you might introduce someone not when they first show up, but when they become important. That was a hard sell in 2005-2006, lot of arguments there.

How many people did you interview for the book? Was there anyone you wanted to talk to but couldn’t? Who gave you the best stories?

I don’t know, I’d have to count. Because my chapters literally involved fewer people, I bet Mike ended up talking to more people than me. But there were plenty. I wish Mark Waid had spoken to me back in 2006 when he declined to, because his was a colorful personality so he’s in the book but his perspective on himself and those times isn’t in the book. I wish Gil Kane had lived long enough to talk about his perspective on he and Gary’s friendship.

The best stories? That’s probably not for me to say because I knew almost all of the stories going in. It was more about tone and insight for me. Reading it, I thought early ’90s employee Helena Harvilicz came across really well; that was an interview she did later, not with me, I don’t think. I really liked the diary entries that Rebecca Bowen — she worked there in the mid-1990s — allowed us to use.

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You used to work at Fantagraphics, and obviously your tenure editing TCJ was an important and popular one. What was Fantagraphics like when you were there, and how has it changed since you left?

That’s nice of you to say, but I’m not sure my tenure was remarkable unless you’re a typo-fetishist. I got lucky in that I had a lot of really good interview subjects fall into our range when I was there: Mignola, Mazzucchelli, Seth, Schulz, Ware. Also I was lucky enough to find Bart, whose “Euro-Comics for Beginners” column was one of the most important columns. I trust my sensibility about comics, although I’m pretty doubtful of my skills as an editor, magazine or otherwise.

I was probably one of the last employees who went to work for Fantagraphics in part because I wanted to be with people who got my jokes. I was pre-Internet, a solitary comics reader, and the thought of working on a magazine I enjoyed about a subject I loved was way more appealing than watching people sniff underwear at a Home Shopping Network warehouse. I was Gary’s fifth choice.

It was really young, Tim. I showed up for work about two months after Kurt Cobain killed himself — not related — so the whole city still felt young, but not excitingly so, maybe. But the office, Jesus. Gary and Kim were the oldest and they were like 37 and 39. Conrad Groth was a baby. The vast majority of us were 26 or younger. It was a lot rattier, with loud music and a lot of smoking on both porches. We did not have full computer coverage — Roberta Gregory used to come in to cut Rubylith and what is now the marketing room was half Kim’s office and half the stat camera room.

The general sociability of the employees is way, way, way up now as is their age. Eric now would have been the oldest employee then by almost a decade. And we were all dirt poor — that maybe is the same — my initial salary was huge for there, $15K. A lot of young people needed jobs, though, and it was a cool place to work. The staff photos from my era look like the line outside a methadone clinic.

How did—and how do—you get along with Gary?

Gary and I yelled at each other a lot, especially early on. I was scared to death, I am not high-functioning then or now, and I lied to get out of things. I was a sharp contrast to Scott Nybakken, who is almost a muppet — one of the nice ones, like Scooter. I still have this strong visual of Eric sitting in his chair in Gary’s office, legs held to his chest, watching Gary and I trade insults. There’s some of that in the book. If anyone out there ever sees me and wants to know what it was like to work at Fantagraphics in the 1990s, ask me to tell you the trash can story, which I will never write down. I spent my 26th birthday hiding in the library, crying, thinking I was going to be fired.

I love and admire Gary. I did so back then, too. We look at things very differently, and we both could probably tick off three to five things about which we disagree very, very strongly. But he’s also been a very good friend when I’ve needed one, above and beyond. He was a tough boss but he was good in a lot of ways, too, like letting me do stuff I wanted to do and backing me up publicly when things misfired, like the time TCJ eschewed a hit list for a “shit list.” I owe him the general shape of my life if not more than that, really.

The unlikely nature of the accomplishment that is Fantagraphics always floors me when I spend any time thinking about it. Gary and Mike and Kim were kids that spent a lot of time in their bedrooms. I think of teenaged Gary counting letters so that he could typeset his zine with a typewriter. I think of him talking to Harlan, the interview, and kind of wanting out loud there to be literary graphic novels without even being able to come up with what that would look like. I think of him hammering his best friend Gil Kane about the nature of making art and being brave in those choices. My life is richer for his specific achievements above and beyond my personal involvement. And Gary and Kim sticking to their guns through thick and thin just kills me. Hell, Gary and Mike started the company when comics was at perhaps its most unremarkable and most unlovable, and all of those involved, Preston White and Kim and so on, they all lived hand to mouth in order to do this. And it lasted forever. Tim, in the ’90s we had office meetings where they asked if anyone could skip a paycheck. They white-knuckled it for so many years, my head would have exploded in about 1992.

One of the main figures of the book, Kim Thompson, is unfortunately no longer with us. What was it like putting together the chapter on his death? What would he have thought of the book?

Kim was really supportive of the book in its earliest forms, and was enthusiastic about what it might become. I hope he would have liked the final result. He hated me assuming his opinion in life, so I’m going to respect that in death. Kim would be the worst ghost to have haunt you because he would do it 7 days a week, 16 hours a day. And he would speak in different ghost languages.

The Kim’s death chapter was the only one of the later chapters I did. What struck me about Kim’s death beyonds its suddenness was how quickly he shut things down. He really limited who he saw, what media he consumed, what conversations he had. So I wanted the chapter to reflect that, with a lot fewer voices, even if that wasn’t made explicit.

I also wanted to round off the book’s portrayal of Kim, and what a unique personality he was, and to underline how proud he was of his company and its legacy. He was always Fantagraphics’ truest believer.


What are your favorite periods and/or anecdotes from the book?

I liked all the early stuff because I could compare my perception of the company with the reality of it a bit, and that’s always amusing. Fantagraphics was not really a clubhouse by the time I was there, so the thought of all those guys living in the same space in Connecticut and working like mad in between sleeping and maybe leaving the house for a little social activity fascinates me, too.

Fantagraphics seems inevitable now, but it super-wasn’t. And in an era in comics where we have a lot of 40-year-old rookies, it’s amazing to think of a time when a couple of guys in their late twenties could carve out a major industry role for themselves. So anything that’s a reminder of that, I love.

My favorite story is probably about them driving to California and totally not being up to this task and one specific line from Kim during that whole ordeal. I’m forgetting a bunch of stuff, though.

What do you think is the book’s final value?

I hope people are entertained by it. I hope they get the value of commitment out of it, how they stayed the course. That’s never been a common thing but is super-rare now. I’m afraid in this era where we win argument some of the warts-and-all stuff may just be seen as “they’re proud of being dumbass jerks” instead of the humanizing quality I want it to be. I don’t want this to be a branding exercise. I don’t see it as a final or summary statement on those people, that company, its value.

I guess I hope people better appreciate the unlikely and immense achievement that company is, at a time when most of the principals are still alive to be appreciated.

How do you feel about the Comics Reporter these days? Do you plan to release any more issues of The Comics Report?

I think CR has been terrible for about two years and I’m way behind on Comics Report. I vow to catch up, and in the case of the site do a better job, but that vow doesn’t mean a goddamn thing until I do it. I’m terribly sorry, and embarrassed, and I should be. But again: that’s all just talk unless I can get back on track. And if I don’t soon, I’ll take a different approach.

The core reason I took on CXC is that I think we have a chance of making things better through that show for comics professionals and comics readers. That sounds dumb, but I really believe that. I wouldn’t have taken it on if I thought it would screw up my other work, but all I can do now is work out of it until I’m either back on track or surrender.

The Comics Report was intended to be a monthly publication offered as an incentive to backers of your Patreon fundraiser. [In the interests of disclosure, I should say that I am a backer of your Patreon myself.] Have any Patreon sponsors asked for their money back?

Sure. And they should have. And I’ll do my best to make it up to them, too. Most people have been positive and supportive, and I can’t say how much I appreciate that. I don’t take any of this lightly. I accept full responsibility. I demand better of myself and we should all demand better of non-creatives in comics. This is what failure looks like.

How has the evolution of the comics industry differed from how you envisioned it back when you first started covering the field? What would you change if you could?

Holy shit, what a question.

Here’s what popped into my head.

I’m an old man who likes to walk to the bank to deposit checks and pay my bills in person. This comes from my Dad, who was a Great Son of his city and a civic enthusiast.

What I see as the biggest difference in comics between 1994 and now is that we’ve dismantled a lot of the industry parts of it. My main interaction time-wise with comics in 1994 was going to the store and reading them. My main interaction now is interacting with comics people on Twitter. That’s not always a bad thing to give up on aspects of industry, because industries can be unfair and exploitative, and comics’ version was both.

Still, without some sort of structure… well, right now it just feels like we’re making comics and then throwing them into the ocean. I don’t even know when people I like are going to have comics out, and this is my job. I can’t imagine how soul-killing it is to work on something for two years, have it out, get one review and maybe a convention out of it, and then never hear anyone talk about what you did ever again. I see it as a systemic failure: we’ve had all the things happen to most media businesses decentralizing and spreading out cost, and ours was never that strong to begin with.

My main goal in my professional life, and I would suggest all of our main goals might include this because the “comics for everyone” fight has concluded on some fronts and still advances on others, is to make things better for those involved: yes, the readers, but primarily the makers of this material. It sickens me with all of the money made overall that we’re still in a situation where so many creators have to harm their lives in order to make art in a medium we love. Even the traditional ways people can have happy and successful lives making comics could use some bolstering.

So I’m hoping for a full-bore assault on this stuff. Greater honesty dialogue about money and reward — as soon as we started asking the kids to go to school, this became compulsory. More savage criticism of ethical shortcomings in contracts and pay. Greater participation in a wider arts world of grants, monies, and support from institutions. Paying people for every possible thing that we can, deciding not to do some things that don’t or can’t pay even if we really want to, and making people justify not paying someone something rather than the other way around. And I want to spend as much time as I have left, whatever that is, focusing on actually changing these things rather than winning the argument of them.

This will make for some brutal questions, and self-reflective moments just as tough. And then the real work begins. What I hope, though, is that we can at least be oriented in a way where harm seems less likely.

Either that or D’Arc Tangent #2.

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The Only Sensible Response http://www.tcj.com/the-only-sensible-response/ http://www.tcj.com/the-only-sensible-response/#comments Fri, 07 Oct 2016 12:00:29 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95570 Robusto!!!, a collection of Serbian comics about war, black markets, and debauchery, plus an interview with the man behind it. Continue reading ]]> robusto-frontFor some the only sensible response… was the most vicious of gallows humor. —Matthew Collin.  This is Serbia Calling

When I was asked to review Robusto!!! (Lovecraft House, 2016) by its editor/translator/publisher Dragana Drobjnak, you could pretty much sum up all I knew about Serbia in two words: “Novak Djokovic.”

This turned out not to be strictly true. Thinking further, I came up with a war (against Bosnia), a massacre (Srebrenika), a NATO bombing, and a head of state tried for war crimes (Milosevic). Also Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. (My wife is a huge tennis fan.)

And I’d read Rebecca West’s pre-World War II classic, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Of which I remembered nothing.

So I did not appear the most qualified reviewer.

But I agreed to take a look.

I expected a single comic. I received a collection of twenty-four stories (over 200 pages) which had appeared between 2001 and 2005 in a fanzine, Krplj, that had been named for a Serbian parasitic tick which appears irregularly in nature, rather than in a biologically determined pattern. Robusto!!! was written by someone called “Wostok,” with three similarly single-named co-authors. Wikipedia was no help identifying him; but I did learn that Serbia’s Golden Age of Comics had ended with the Nazi invasion in 1941, had revived under Tito, and that, between 1971 and 1981, 717 million comics were published for a population of 22 million. (That’s 3.26 comics per person per year. Which looks about the same as in the United States.)

Then Lambiek.net informed me that “Wostok” was born Danilo Milosev Wostok in then-Yugoslavia in 1963. A computer operator and filmmaker, he is also known as “Ex-Wostok” and “MediaKritet.”

Robusto!!! credited twenty additional contributing artists who, according to its introductory material, were often people approached at art openings, rock concerts, bar brawls, “and other small events,” shown isolated pages, and asked to illustrate them. The result is a textually-complementary, off-the-wall, unsettling mix running from the childlike to Adults Only, minimalistic to expressionistic, cartoony to photo-incorporated collage. (Some photos are of figures anyone would recognize; others, I imagine, only Serbs would.) There are also many penises. If penises upset you, stay away.

Robusto!!! takes its name from a bankrupt toilet shop encountered within action of the story. This action occurs in the town of Bollywood (“Bolly” being Serbian for “idiot” or “imbecile”) in the fall of 1993. The text establishes – and supplemental reading, notably Tim Judah’s The Serbs (3d ed.)  and Matthew Collin’s This is Serbia Calling, confirm – that this was a time of economic catastrophe. By July 1993, inflation had reached 363 quadrillion percent. (By 1994, it was 313,567,558 percent per month.) At one point the government issued a 50,000,000,000 dinar note; two weeks later it was worthless. A year’s wages bought carrots; on the other hand, hours after a utility bill arrived, it was insignificant. People bartered, dumpster-dove, prostituted themselves to stay alive.

Serbia had gone to war in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1992. These wars, between people who had lived peacefully as neighbors for decades – if not centuries – were fought, fueled by tribal instincts and religious mania stoked to Old Testament intensity by governmental inflammations. Mass murder, mass rape, mass arrests, the forced deportation of millions, and the mass destruction of mosques, churches and homes resulted.

Within Serbia, black markets existed for everything from cigarettes to heavy artillery.  Cross-border smuggling raged. Banks were nothing but pyramid schemes and money laundries.  War profiteers, robber barons, and gangsters thrived. Judges were bought and advanced degrees purchased. The psychotic became normal, Judah wrote, and the normal insane. Life, Collin said, had been “stolen” from a generation; its “freedom… culture and… youth” extinguished. This generation’s response was an “almost nihilistic hedonism.” Survival was impossible; but one had to survive.

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Robusto!!!’s central characters are three glue-sniffing, home brew-drinking “outcasts.” (Becoming “blotto” was a basic survival mechanism. Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, alone, developed 30,000 heroin addicts.) Peki, who resembles Oliver Hardy is one. Red, who wears a rabbit-eared hat is another, and Grampa, who wears a conical hat, like a Catholic archbishop’s is the third. (Why Red and Grampa wear these hats, and who Grampa is grandfather to are not explained. I suspect readers of Wostok’s earlier works may know.)

Having been evicted for not paying rent for two years, Paki, Red and Grampa consider self- employment. The mercantile efforts of others, selling pre-worn underwear, plastic sex organs, and moldy walnuts, do not appeal. So having taken residence in a condemned “shithole,” living on stolen food and moonshine made from potatoes – and when they run out, diarrhea – they begin selling pirated CDs, before expanding into pornographic videos (“Gang Bangs with Bisons and Baboons”, “Aunts with Whips”). “We are small time crooks,” Peki concedes at one point, “but the criminals are the ones in power.”

This sets in motion a series of adventures (Issues 5-8), which involve a visit to the massage parlor of the author of “fuckable poems,” celebrating spanking and whipping, among other perversions, and a rock club, where a fellow in a tutu and another in a Nazi helmet perform ear-splitting “sadotripmazotechnoturbotrans” music to an audience of deaf “nuthouse” escapees. The three outliers also have time to pick up two pets, “Freak,” a monstrous creature which eats rocks, and “Sir Fartsalot,” a bisexually overactive hamster.

Then things get really strange. The president has led the nation into war. (“In this damned country… as soon as one evil ends another begins,” Peki says.) The trio lock themselves and their pets inside their residence in order to avoid forced conscription. (Within Belgrade, during these years, only 13% of those eligible actually served in the military. The rest hid or fled. Over 300,000 people, most of them young, left the country.) They are soon eating rats, snails and wormy beans and smoking dried mosquitoes. But, usually initiated by a knock (“KUC!  KUC!  KUC!”) on the door, the world continually intrudes.

These visitors include the organizer of an art show (“Art No Limits”), which features works composed of post-spoiled bean soup defecation, used toilet paper, and vomit; a Lilliputian-sized World’s Greatest Lover, who boasts of having had sex with canned sardines; an agriculturalist who produces industrial-strength marijuana; a pig-snouted, reptile-tongued, eight-testicled professor of “dirtiest perversions”; an investigator of “the darkest and remotest corners of the human soul,” who once copulated with an extra-terrestrial; a fighter against pop culture, rasta, heavy metal, pocket pool, and Satan, whom he believes has commanded the nation’s youth to “Eat dead cats,” “Don’t go to Bible school,” and “Fart in your grandma’s mouth”; and, finally, an outsider artist/fanzine publisher, whose grandparents made a living exorcising demons, and whose insanely patriotic father had a proclivity for book and comic destruction. Many of these visitors decide to move in, leading to the invocation of “an old Bollywood proverb: “A house was never too small as long as no one living there had rabies.”

“What kind of world are we living in?!?” a fellow in Robusto!!!’s final panel asks, clutching his stiff-as-a-pole cock in double-handed masturbatory fashion.

It seems, after all a reader has witnessed, a reasonable question.

Some transgressive cartoonists seem to work out of an accumulation of internalized personal wounds which they splay upon the page like a suddenly burst pimple, to which others are likely to respond, “Uh… What’s on the next channel?” But Wostok’s book carries the weight of a trailer truckload of bloody-limbed horrors which, having previously pummeled an entire population, makes its dismissal impossible. It may lack forward-moving narrative pull, but it commands attention through its I-can’t-believe-you-topped-what-went-before accumulations. It may not lead to cathartic release; but it effectively assumes catharsis is a myth. It may present no relationships with psychological complexity to explore; but it has persuasively squashed them through the blow-upon-blow-upon-blow it has rained upon you.

Robusto!!! is unhinged and offensive, sure. It also seems honest and just. It convinces by its content that anything less would leave unscratched the ground from which it sprang. It is a you-got-nothing-on-me, Catch-22.  Bite this, Dr. Strangelove, it says. Blackly humored, deadly serious, it speaks, for a different time and a different place, truths that have been hard-earned.13495498_1176438799145222_7125626218787742815_o

After I had finished a draft of my review, I e-mailed Wostok several questions.  Here they are, along with his answers, both slightly edited by me.

LEVIN: My research says you were born in 1963, work as a computer operator and film maker and are also known as “Ex-Wostok” and “MediaKritet.” Is this correct?

WOSTOK: You are right. There is just a little correction with “MediCkritet.” This means “mediocre” in Serbian language and it was not a joke, but rather an expression of my huge frustration with my lack of talent for drawing!

Are you still creating comix? If so, of what nature? If not, why did you stop?

I already told you how unsatisfied I was with my drawing skills, so I burned all my comics that I have created up to my 25th year of life in autumn of 1988. I planned to quit comics for good and also to, er, kill myself, too! Fortunately neither of two plans of mine were fulfilled and now you find me still alive and in good health and drawing comics!

Robusto!!! is set in 1993, but seems to have been published between 2001 and 2005. If this is correct, why did you wait until so long after the events that you depicted had occurred?

Robusto!!! started more like a joke, actually. I was teasing my friends Red and (Peki?) because they tried to sell a few pirate discs just to get out of some debt. Then I said, “Hey, guys, you are criminals now, hahaha! But don’t feel ashamed because you are only small time crooks and the real big criminals are employed in our government and on other important positions in our state! Then I started to remember everything that happened in previous years in our unhappy and fucked up society and than I decided to make a comic serial.

What percent of the art was contributed by the individuals you approached at art shows, rock concerts and bar brawls, and what percent under less spontaneous circumstances?

I started to collaborate with just one accomplished cartoonist, Lazar Bodroza, and Robusto!!! was supposed to be a crossover serial, which was supposed to make mainstream comic readers interested in underground comics. But then our cooperation failed and I had scripts for ten episodes written and I decided to post it for drawing in empty panels and offer it to anyone interested to draw. It was my way of trying to relax from too much ambition probably. And also I was bored with most of the comics I had a chance to read at that time and then I said to myself, “If professionals create so much predictable and boring stuff maybe we should give a chance in fresh forces embodied in absolute beginners, amateurs, and other outsiders which didn’t have skills but also weren’t brainwashed with training!”

I know that the Rambo fellow is a real person. [Author’s Note: Rambo Amadeus,  one of the visitors to the “shithole,” was a member of the pun band KPGS, a Serbian acronym for Dick, Pussy, Shit, Tits.] What about the others?

Most of them are real persons. The most interesting is “Nymphomaniac” from this comic and in reality Radomir Belacevic, who was the owner of legal automechanic repair shop and also illegal bordello! He produced a few movies when he was in his last years of life, even a feature film western in which he is scriptwriter, producer, director, and main actor!

Most of the people in the photo-collage panels I didn’t recognize. Would they be known to other Serbians?

The leader of “Rotten Rose” satanist sect from my comic is represented by photo of Mitar Miric, who was “the worst officially dressed man in show business in Serbia in year 1994.” and is still a very popular although really bad folk singer!

Why does Red wear rabbit ears?  Did he and Paki appeared in earlier comix of yours?

He wears rabbit ears because I took him and three other friends who don’t play musical instruments to play in really important rock venue in Belgrade in year 1999. When they realized that they really gonna have a gig they got totally drunk and then found some ballerina clothes—actually it was clothes for ballerina for the role of the rabbit in some ballet play and they shared three parts of her costume and Red got the ears! So him and Peki had this retarded gig in Belgrade dressed as cretins and the only good thing about it was that they were so drunk that they don’t remember almost nothing!

robusto-back

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Here Lies the Heart: In Memorium, Jacques Noël http://www.tcj.com/here-lies-the-heart-in-memorium-jacques-noel/ http://www.tcj.com/here-lies-the-heart-in-memorium-jacques-noel/#comments Wed, 05 Oct 2016 12:00:47 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95991 Continue reading ]]> Jacques Noël at right, Un Regard Moderne; photos: Steve Sampson.

Jacques Noël at right, Un Regard Moderne; photos: Steve Sampson.

Under cover of night, as September faded into October, bookseller Jacques Noël of Un Regard Moderne departed this life. It was not the sort of loss that cranks Le Monde into hyperbole. But outside of Noël’s Left Bank bookstore, the stream of passing mourners has yet to pause. A few leave notes or flowers but most stand in silence, remembering.

That’s because there is really no other bookstore – possibly no other place – like Un Regard Moderne. A literal temple to the book, it is most frequently compared to a den, a grotto or a cavern. Here the wary customer has to browse carefully, weaving in between the shaky stalactites, mountainous piles and heaving shelves of barely-balanced volumes. Noël’s tiny kingdom is layered, stacked and crammed with riches: bandes dessinees, fanzines, monographs on art, graphics and literature, Beat Generation rarities, Situationist tracts, self-published everything, graphzines, underground comics, leftist lit and erotica. It’s a place where Guy Debord meets Gary Panter, the Marquis de Sade sits atop Nazi Knife and William Burroughs knocks elbows with L’Association. For almost two decades, the shop has functioned thusly – both a living sculpture and a natural resource for artists, writers and thinkers.

Yet a relationship with Jacques Noël was always personal. That was simply how he saw his profession. Noël viewed himself partly as an advisor and partly as a magician – a “pharmacist” charged with prescribing to (and healing) his customers. In his world, a bookseller was there to surprise his clients, not merely serving but anticipating their needs. This rule held whether the client was Chris Ware, Charles Berberian or a local who wandered in from down the street. Most of those who sought him came in search of new encounters.

 Kim Thompson and Chris Ware visit "Un Regard Moderne", by Jean-Christophe Menu © Jean-Christophe Menu

Kim Thompson (left) and Chris Ware by Jean-Christophe Menu © Jean-Christophe Menu

The bédéiste Pierre LaPolice made a radio program on him. A “great many customers”, Noël confided to him, “come in hundreds of times without buying anything… Yet they are part of my family”.(1)

The shop was born out of just such a relationship. Noël had been selling books since the ’60s; he became the mainstay at rue Danton’s Les Yeux Fertiles. Then, at the end of the ’80s, Les Yeux was sold by its owner and he made Noël’s services part of the deal. The new owner, when he saw a swastika on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, ordered his vendeur to take it out of the window. Noël started grousing to various longtime clients.

One of these was a publisher named Jean-Pierre Faur. Faur, it transpired, had always dreamed of owning a bookstore. But he couldn’t really see himself selling the books. Still, he had a property round the corner in rue Gît-le-Coeur. A onetime driving academy, this had already known bookselling and publishing – albeit in the 1808. Faur offered it to Jacques Noël as a place of his own.

The name the new proprietor chose contained a history of its own, one that poetically encapsulated his aims. During the late ’70s, Un Regard Moderne was the fanzine of punk graphics collective Bazooka. Its members Olivia Clavel, Kiki and Loulou Picasso, Romain Slocombe and Lulu Larsen had studied together at the Paris Ecole des beaux-arts. They shared an aesthetic of equal parts subversion and drama, one whose imagery was always collaged, distorted and altered. During the spring of ’78, after Bazooka staged a “graphic occupation” of Libération, the newspaper started to publish Un Regard Moderne.

Despite its ephemeral nature, the publication was influential. Libé ‘s then editor Serge July calls its creators “the first generation to make a near-total break with the Gutenberg environment… a generation which made their eyes the basic organ around which language is organized”.(2) In London, Bazooka inspired a student called Al McDowell to form his own graphics collective. Then, in 1980, he co-founded i-D magazine.

Since it opened, Noël’s shop has emanated the same kind of ripples: spreading both ideas and imagery, forging unexpected ties. Those discoveries, epiphanies and relationships have crossed all all borders, including those of class, language and nationality.

When Noël took over at number 10, rue Git-le-Coeur, he also joined a very singular history. Un Regard Moderne sits halfway up a medieval street, one that looks a bit like an alley. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, its name changed numerous times. The current one, “Git-le-Coeur”, is the source of numerous stories. (On a tomb, the term “ci-gît” means “here lies”, thus the street’s title translates into something like “here lies the heart”). Older city guides say it probably marks the assassination, in 1358, of Etienne Marcel. A prevost, reformer and defender of local artisans, Marcel is often called the first mayor of Paris.

But it’s number 9, on the other side, that has become the magnet for the tourists. After 1933, over three decades, it was a boarding-house run by Monsieur and Madame Rachou. The place gained worldwide fame in Life magazine as “the Beat Hotel”, a flophouse for creatives such as Chester Himes, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. It remains a hotel today – a four-star, luxury, “destination” spot.

That contrast in character is a crucial thing about Un Regard Moderne. As writer Warren Lambert noted in one of many tributes, Jacques Noël was “a Mohican”, one of a vanishing – and almost vanished – breed.(3) His insistence on face-to-face connections made him atavistic. Chez Noël, says Lambert, “Books were always a method of you and he becoming acquainted. Each time he placed one in your hands, he was thinking that yours were the right hands. That they were the ones for which this book or that review or this particular fanzine was printed… in this, he was rarely wrong”. Noël believed in books as an encounter. If the act of reading was indisputably solitary, he felt, those acts of proselytizing and spreading the word must remain human.

Photograph by Steve Sampson.

Photograph by Steve Sampson.

Jacques Noël followed art and thought from around the world; visitors from everywhere could and did cross his threshold. But every one of them was entering the universe as he saw it. An initial foray into this world was often intimidating – and he knew it. “It’s not easy to enter a shop that often looks like it’s closed, one that wants to seem like it’s closed. But, then, all of us need a step to surmount”.

At 71, however, Noël had few illusions about the age in which he lived. He was frank about confessing financial difficulties. “The Internet is not the only way to make people discover things,” he told Carón Kiddo back in 2012.(4) “But if something can’t be found there, it doesn’t exist…and that can make the battle impossible… I can’t sell something which doesn’t exist”. In recent years, he noted, people had less to spend. Then, since the attacks, they came calling less frequently. Yet he never expected anything to be easy. As he also told Kiddo, “It’s worth hanging on ten hours a day, even if only one of those hours brings pure pleasure”.

His legacy is an immense one. In a post which now hangs on the closed door of his shop, artist Stéphane Blanquet sums it up with eloquence:

He was one of us, one of all of those who do, those who make images, make texts, make books, who make books out of words and out of pictures, those who make unique books, one-off books, books which burst at the seams, MAXIMAL books. Jacques Noël is a part of me, Un Regard Moderne is a part of me, a part of us, of our history, the history of those who create, of those who love those who create and of those who follow them.

Jacques Noël was himself a creation and a unique one, generous and, despite appearances, always organised; a singular creation made out of books and forged with all of us in his own particular place, his Un Regard Moderne.

Jacques Noël defended both the most obscure and the most obvious, the most advanced and those who were indefensible elsewhere.

He fought, he searched, he rooted things out, he set off on the most unknowable of detours, in order to find us treasures, to find the nuggets made out of three photocopies, the jewels still stinking of ink. Jacques Noël is part of us all and part of me.

This loss also proposes a pointed question. All of those who benefited from such largesse, such determination – what kind of world do we want? What kind of books and art? How much are we prepared to work to keep them truly human? Once or twice a week, I’ll still be crossing the rue Gît-le-Coeur. There, I often saw Jacques Noël out having a smoke. With that dark-clad figure missing, I hope I can keep asking those questions.

• The Centre National du Livre’s review L’INqualifiable is creating an homage to Jacques Noël. If he touched your life, or stocked your work and you wish to contribute, contact Philippe Liotard at redac@linqualifiable.com

  1. http://arteradio.com/son/12327/le_regard_moderne
  2. Le graphisme punk, Liberation, 12 August 1977

  3. https://www.facebook.com/UnRegardModerne/?fref=ts
  4. http://gonzai.com/le-regard-moderne-une-librairie-sans-fard/
Photograph by Steve Sampson.

Photograph by Steve Sampson.

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He Walked the Line: Thierry “Ted” Benoit (1947-2016) http://www.tcj.com/he-walked-the-line-thierry-ted-benoit-1947-2016/ http://www.tcj.com/he-walked-the-line-thierry-ted-benoit-1947-2016/#respond Mon, 03 Oct 2016 12:00:19 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95938 Continue reading ]]> Thierry "Ted" Benoit, official author portrait, © Rita Scaglia for Dargaud

Thierry “Ted” Benoit, official author portrait, © Rita Scaglia for Dargaud

La ligne claire has not made this much news in Europe for decades. On Wednesday, the Grand Palais opened an epic Hergé expo, which has received only raves from critics and the art world. Its curator, Jérome Neutres, calls it an ambition fulfilled. “Our whole aim is to show that Tintin’s creator was, quite simply, a truly great artist. We want to put him on the same footing as a Vélasquez, a Helmut Newton or a Fantin-Latour.”

Then two days after the opening, France discovered that Thierry “Ted” Benoit had died. Benoit, 69, may not have been the ligne claire‘s purest inheritor. But he was certainly one of its great innovators. As the obituaries and tributes to him proliferate, many have begun with similar sentiments. Benoit, they note, was more than just a wonderful draftsman. He was – quite simply – a truly great artist.

Just like Hergé, Benoit was also beloved. When he created his astonishing character, Ray Banana, the artist fused several French fetishes into one protagonist. The most obvious is an obsession with film noir and the ‘hard-boiled’ American vision found from Stephen Crane to Mickey Spillane. There’s also a very French view of le rock and roll, one whose iconography remains replete with leather, Brilliantine and brothel creepers. Visually, Benoit gave Banana a fixed, unchanging backdrop. It’s a particular French dream of the urban filched from Raymond Chandler, Edward Hopper and post-War Hollywood.

All in all, the view is rather sans sourire – unsmiling. Yet Ray was named for the jaunty sunglasses he never sheds.

One of Banana's first appearances, in "(A SUIVRE)" by Ted Benoit

One of Banana’s first appearances, in “(A SUIVRE)” by Ted Benoit

Initially Benoit hoped to work in film himself. He studied it at IHEC, the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques. Then, until 1971, he worked in television. But, being a fervent fan of Robert Crumb and his compatriots, Benoit soon got involved with French underground comics. By 1975, he had appeared in and worked for Géronimymo, Actuel, Métal hurlant and L’Echo des Savannes. In 1979, he published his debut album – the chilly and expressionistic Hôpital (Hospital). Portraying its central institution almost as a prison, it won Angoulême’s prize for the year’s best scenario.

Then Benoit discovered Joost Swarte’s L’Art Moderne, the ligne claire reasserted in flat pastels and pellucid lines. Already known for discreet, fastidious draughtsmanship, the Frenchman found his Dutch colleague’s recipe irresistible. In its clarity he sensed an existential elegance – but it was also the perfect vehicle for his stark and stylish world. Ted Benoit embraced the style and he never looked back.

It was in 1980, with La Berceuse électronique (Electric Lullaby), that Benoit unleashed the figure of Ray Banana. Part Clark Gable and part Phil Perfect, this dandy of a certain age stalks streets assembled from every ’40s and ’50s film Benoit had seen. If you should happen to order yourself a copy from Amazon, here – in the words of one French fan – is what you’ll get:

Ever dreamed of being able to live a stunning adventure? Just imagine: your face is hidden behind black shades as you start to drift away, in a melancholy reverie, uncertain what to do with all your mental anguish. Welcome inside the skin of Ray Banana. He’s a confusing character, one who marries the mug of Elvis with the viewpoint of a Brussels intellectual. But then you’ve just entered the subversive world of Ted Benoit. It’s one I’ve been unable to leave since my childhood.

By the mid-1980s, Benoit was helping lead an energetic French renaissance of the ligne claire. This was conducted by a varied group, composed of artists ranging from Luc Cornillon and his buddy Yves Chaland – tragically killed at 33 in a road accident – to Jean-Claude Floch and the wünderkind Serge Clerc. Swarte, who actually coined the term ligne claire, christened their emerging new aesthetic atoomstijl or “atomic style”. It reminded him of the spunky, Populuxe “style atome” that was pioneered by Jijé and Franquin in the ’50s.

Ray Banana by Ted Benoit © Ted Benoit

Ray Banana by Ted Benoit © Ted Benoit

The new artists’ neo-ligne claire had links to a ‘Rock & BD’ school of artists (including, in terms of its humour, Frank Margerin), most of whom were resident at Métal hurlant. But their style was soon as visible in illustration as it was in comics. By working for the UK’s Melody Maker and NME, Serge Clerc especially helped it spread into other arenas. But, with the quirky persona of Ray Banana, Benoit kept on pushing the limits of ligne claire in the bande dessinée. There, the world he created was something more than surreal. His Banana sagas do involve noir-ish crimes, but they also feature rock stars and extraterrestrials, religious cults, modern art and Platonic philosophy. In every story, however, the visuals are consistent. All are filled with the ’50s cars, cities and clothing the artist loved.

Madeleine de Mille, Benoit’s wife, was his colourist. But in 1986, to pay a special tribute, Casterman reissued Ray Banana’s Cité Lumière (City of Light). This time, the colour was handled by Studios Hergé. The homage marked a singular thing about Benoit: his talents won over both the hard-core fans of Hergé’s legacy and those who far preferred to follow independent auteurs.

There is another reason the comics world is mourning Benoit. This was his reprise of Edgar P. Jacobs’ series Blake and Mortimer. By the mid-90s, when he took up this challenge, it was the equivalent of a Mission Impossible. Jacobs had been Hergé’s close pal and sometime collaborator (his bursts of temper helped inspire Captain Haddock). Thus he was a massive and magnificent icon, and one with an enormous, ultra-theatrical talent.

Cover from "L'Affaire Francis Blake" by Ted Benoit

Cover from “L’Affaire Francis Blake” by Ted Benoit

Benoit helmed the series for just two albums: L’Affaire Francis Blake (The Francis Blake Affair) and L’Étrange rendez-vous (The Strange Encounter). Initially, both were heavily criticized. Now, they are seen as probably the finest revivals.

Benoit, who always worked slowly and meticulously, spent four years on each one of the books. He said he found the key to Jacobs’ world in its anti-contemporaneity. As Benoit told Le Figaro in 2001, “What I take from Jacobs’ own style is all theatrical because, with him, every frame is suffused by the maximal dose of drama. Blake and Mortimer isn’t a cinematic BD but a theatrical story. It’s the actual dated, bombastic, over-the-top quality – the outmoded grandiosity – which is the very thing that attracts new generations”.

At the end of the 1990s, Benoit took up scripting. For Pierre Nedjar, he concocted Le Homme de nulle part (The Man from Nowhere). This was narrated by Thelma Ritter, who is Ray Banana’s cheekily-named cleaning woman. In 2004, having declined any more of Jacobs’ British detectives, Benoit scripted Playback – a Hitchcock-style thriller – for François Ayroles.

"Los Angeles", 1982, by Ted Benoit, sold by Sothebys

“Los Angeles”, 1982, by Ted Benoit, sold by Sothebys

Benoit then began devoting himself to illustration. He produced advertising, posters and numerous silkscreen portfolios. Like his BD output, all of these now fetch a pretty penny at auction. Yet what colleagues and critics are remembering is a modest man. A trailblazer, certainly. But also, as all of them add, a deeply sympathetic and sensitive man.

Every year, for instance, Ted Benoit would attend Les Rencontres Chaland. Held in the village of Nérac – the town that was home to Yves Chaland – it’s a small BD festival which honors his long-lost friend. As it takes place this weekend, wrote the critic Jérome Dupuis, “undoubtedly the event will be plunged into sadness.” But Benoit himself, he stressed, will be elsewhere. “He’ll be up there alongside Chaland, in paradise”.

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New and Old: SPX 2016 http://www.tcj.com/new-and-old-spx-2016/ http://www.tcj.com/new-and-old-spx-2016/#comments Thu, 29 Sep 2016 12:00:22 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95709 Continue reading ]]> Since Warren Bernard took over as head of the steering committee of the Small Press Expo (SPX) for the 2011 show, he’s often shaped the overall direction of the show around a particular theme. The 2014 show was a celebration of alt-weekly cartoonists from the 1980s, for example, and another year feted younger artists. This year’s theme was the fortieth anniversary of Fantagraphics, which I thought was an interesting choice given that the crowd for SPX increasingly skews younger and younger. Bernard is an ideal person to lead the show at this particular time, in part because he has the connections to bring in all sorts of guests, and also because his tastes are catholic enough that he’s willing to put together a show that manages to satisfy both of the main groups of people who attend.

Warren Bernard (at right). Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

Warren Bernard (at right). Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

SPX has always had a divide in its attendees and exhibitors. The nature of that divide has shifted over the years, but the same sorts of fans have tended to fill in on either side. On one side, with a slight tilt toward them in most years, is the alt-comics crowd. Fantagraphics has been one of the anchor points for this group and has always brought a lot of guests and debuted a number of new books here. Cartoonists who started off with their own minicomics at their own tables have joined their ranks steadily over the past fifteen years, as the Seattle-based publisher has steadily expanded its roster. On the other side is a group that’s difficult to label precisely, but one might generalize as fans of genre-based comics. These aren’t usually out-and-out Marvel and DC fans, but rather those interested in fantasy manga, adventure and fantasy comics with their own unique slant (from all-ages to erotica), and generally more lighthearted fare. In the early years, this took the form of self-published superhero comics. In later years, it shifted to fantasy webcomics. Now, there’s a huge influence from offbeat Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe.

Noelle Stevenson. Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

Noelle Stevenson. Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

If Dan Clowes is the quintessential alt-comics guest at SPX, then Noelle Stevenson is the epitome of the quirky fantasy guest. If the Ignatz Awards are mostly aimed at alt-comics fans, then the after-awards event known as “SPX Prom” is mostly an activity for that younger-skewing crowd. At best, there has been befuddlement or apathy between the camps, and at worst, there has been outright tension. Every other indy comics show that’s followed SPX has had to navigate this split and their strategies have defined their shows. Festivals like CAKE in Chicago and Short Run in Seattle have fully embraced the alt-comics aesthetic. Shows like Autoptic in Minneapolis, Paper Jam in Brooklyn, and Linework NW in Portland have taken that aesthetic one step further, eliminating commerce as much as possible while adding more activities. On the other hand, a show like TCAF in Toronto fully embraces the increasingly wide spectrum of genre comics that are not Marvel or DC as part of its programming, with weirder alt-comics tending to be grouped together.

The tension that has marked some past shows was simply not in evidence this year. I attribute that to Bernard’s decision to take over the entire ballroom at the Marriott hotel that serves as the show’s headquarters. The show moved to its new location a decade ago, after outgrowing its old Holiday Inn location in Bethesda. That first show had about three hundred exhibitors; I attended, and was interested in about a quarter of them. The show this year had seven hundred exhibitors, and I was interested in about the same proportion, meaning that the actual number of interesting exhibitors has zoomed up to nearly two hundred people. Bernard solved the problem of turf by expanding it for everyone. This year more than ever, it was possible for fans of different interests to have completely different experiences, to never interact and still have a fully satisfying experience. Of course, some of the differences were less pronounced than one would think. For example, the crew behind Adventure Time is like a young alt-cartoonist all-star team, featuring the likes of Tom Herpich, Jesse Moynihan, Michael DeForge, Seo Kim, Sam Alden, Luke Pearson, Jillian Tamaki and more. An upcoming issue of Ryan Sands’s cutting-edge anthology Frontier will feature Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar.

The Fantagraphics set-up at SPX. Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

The Fantagraphics set-up at SPX. Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

One thing is for certain: the folks who came to the show were ready to buy. Every single alt-publisher I spoke to said that they had excellent sales. Fantagraphics reported sales surpassing four days at the massive San Diego Comicon, for example. Nothing touched the record-breaking SPX of 2012 (which was the best show many publishers ever had), but everyone seemed quite pleased. Fantagraphics brought a huge contingent, including cartoonists who rarely do shows like Clowes, Joe Sacco, Dame Darcy, and Jim Woodring. Koyama Press had a big spread as well, and brought a number of their artists. Annie Koyama continues to spot many of the the best new artists. An example this year was the debut of Daryl Seitchik’s debut Exits, which I will be reviewing for this site shortly.

Indeed, what I’ve noticed among most of the alt-comics publishers is that they have a tendency to work with young talent, nurturing and establishing a long relationship with them. That’s the Secret Acres model to a tee, as they debuted Gabby Schulz’s impressive Sick, years after publishing his Monster to some acclaim. There are more cartoonists banding together around mutual interests, including an increasing growth in publishing comics-as-poetry. Kevin Czap’s Czap Books and L. Nichols’s Grindstone have teamed up to publish the beautiful series Ley Lines, creating a sense of aesthetic continuity while giving each cartoonist total creative freedom.

Another prevailing model is the comics store/publisher. As Dan Stafford of Kilgore Books noted, he kept selling out of Noah Van Sciver’s minicomics, so he figured he’d be able to make a profit if he simply took on the task of printing them. That’s snowballed into some interesting new releases. Van Sciver is his anchor, much as Michael DeForge fulfills that role for Koyama Press. Box Brown moved his Retrofit Comics into a partnership with Jared Smith and Big Planet Comics, which was a great move for both parties. Even some ex-stores continue to have a presence by keeping their hand in publishing, like Locust Moon and Bergen Street. It’s another example of how niche and boutique interests like alt-comics can survive if one finds an audience, expands it slowly, and builds loyalty through excellent service. In an age where big publishers and big-box bookstores are taking huge losses, the interest in creating zines and other print art-objects only continues to rise. Floating World, another strong presence at the show, has actually been using the store/publisher model for quite some time.

The Fantagraphics SPX 2016 lineup. Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

The Fantagraphics SPX 2016 lineup. Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

Artists from the Fantagraphics roster were nominated eleven times over six different categories in this year’s Ignatz Awards, which are given out at the show. They were shut out until the final category, Outstanding Cartoonist (the biggest Ignatz award), in which Noah Van Sciver, Kevin Huizenga and Daniel Clowes were all eligible. Van Sciver had broken his string of Ignatz defeats earlier, with the hilarious comic My Hot Date, which he had published with Kilgore. No cartoonist has had a better eighteen months than Van Sciver. Another nominee in this category was Tillie Walden, an outstanding young cartoonist who had already picked up the brick for Promising New Cartoonist. Walden was the basis for the unseen female cartoonist at the heart of James Sturm’s very funny and misunderstood short story “The Sponsor”, the full version of which was published in the D&Q Anniversary Anthology. In the story, a cartoonist contacts his sponsor when he can’t deal with the fact that a younger cartoonist had just signed a deal with D&Q at a very young age, while he was still unpublished. The optics and immediate reaction surrounded Sturm’s decision to make the young cartoonist female, led to a social-media controversy in which Sturm was accused of sexism. In the context of the longer story that followed, it’s clear that this was more a long-simmering matter of professional jealousy than simple sexism, though the critique made some sense. In a matter of truth being stranger than fiction, nineteen-year-old Walden beat six-time Ignatz winner Clowes and five-time winner Huizenga for the brick–and she wasn’t even there!

Jacq Cohen (left). Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

Jacq Cohen (left). Photo credit: Meredith Rizzo/SPX.

As noted earlier, SPX is a show that is increasingly diverse and it continues to skew young as it grows its audience on a year-to-year basis. Considering the make-up of that audience, it’s not a surprise that the awards went the way they did, but I wondered what effect this had on their sales. In talking to their publicist Jacq Cohen toward the end of Sunday, she reiterated Fanta’s overall success, but I asked her how many readers were under twenty-five or thirty years old. To my surprise, she said the answer was nearly half, but what they bought was different from older fans. This made sense, even as Fantagraphics fielded a “classic” lineup for their major panel, and a smaller “next wave” group for another panel that included the likes of Ed Piskor, Ed Luce, and Simon Hanselmann. These cartoonists have put Fantagraphics on bestseller lists, as younger company members like Eric Reynolds and Cohen pursue new talent. Their willingness to publish archival comics and comics strips, to continue to provide a home for the older members of their roster, and to seek out new talent has made them unique among all comics publishers. Fantagraphics always has one eye on sales and isn’t as daring in its publishing choices as smaller operations like 2dcloud, but there’s no question that they provide the best balance of forward-looking alt-comics and classics of anyone, and the frantic activity surrounding their table and the prominence of their cartoonists in so much programming is proof.

SPX has been around for nearly twenty-five years and has been in this rough format for about twenty, when the first Ignatz awards were held. In many respects, its dynamic hasn’t changed, and that’s especially true on the alt-comics end of things. When the show debuted, the energy of the young but established Xeric-generation cartoonists (like Tom Hart and the artists published by Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books) was the show’s lifeblood and cutting edge, even as there was still a great deal of respect for underground cartoonists like Kim Deitch and Bill Griffith who were special guests. As the years have gone by, teens and cartoonists just starting out continue to make up a large portion of the attendees and cartoonists in their twenties continue to act as the vanguard. What has changed is how each subsequent generation of artists has increased in size and become more diverse. Despite limited opportunities to make a living from comics, there are now more cartoonists than ever. Part of that is due to educational opportunities finally opening up, part of that is due to the sustained and even increasing importance of zine culture, and part of it is that the increased reach of alt-comics through bookstores, libraries, and shows like this has begun to have a significant and long-reaching impact on culture. The organizers of SPX understand their role and responsibility in smartly propagating this culture, and the day-long workshops are a sign that they’re taking that role seriously. While there are more quality small-press publishers than ever before, the greatest joy I still take from the show is someone in the know handing me a minicomic from a young cartoonist who I’m not familiar with. The fact that those sorts of minis are better now at this show than they ever have been is why SPX is still important.

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“My Way of Witnessing”: Warren Craghead on Donald Trump http://www.tcj.com/my-way-of-witnessing-it-warren-craghead-on-donald-trump/ http://www.tcj.com/my-way-of-witnessing-it-warren-craghead-on-donald-trump/#comments Mon, 26 Sep 2016 12:00:02 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95763 Continue reading ]]> Always an artist on the respective fringes of fine art and alternative comics, Warren Craghead has carved his own niche exploring repetition, societal ills, and what can be learned from investigating both of them through sequential illustration. His topical current project has taken this practice to the harrowing next level.

The tagline at the top of Craghead’s new blog is “Donald drawn daily until this nightmare ends.” That has served as a warning and a threat, as Craghead has done just that—drawing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, seemingly more and more abominable, each and every day.

I wanted to know why Craghead embarked on this venture, what toll, if any, it has taken on him, and if outlandish caricatures and political cartoons can teach us anything in this era of current events.

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RJ CASEY: Is there an official title of this blog? What do you call it?

WARREN CRAGHEAD: Trump Trump. I took that Tumblr name because I wanted to use the Trump name and then realized when you repeated the name, it also works as a verb at the same time. I started doing it at the spur of the moment during the Republican National Convention, thinking, “I should do this.” Luckily, Tumblr makes it very easy to start a project like this and share it.

You started it during the convention? What was the spark there that prompted you to start this daily drawing project?

The first drawing went up the night Trump accepted the Republican nomination. I decided I will then draw him daily until, hopefully, early November, when he loses. I wanted to pair the drawings with actual quotes from him, along with a link back to that quote, so it’s not like I just made it up. During the first few weeks, some people argued with me that he didn’t say those things, but I could then point out exactly where it came from.

This project is kind of a companion piece to two other projects I do. One’s called ladyh8rs and the other is called USAh8rs. Ladyh8rs are grotesque portraits of misogynist public figures and with USAh8rs, I draw grotesque portraits of un-American public figures, but my idea of un-American is probably different than what people usually associate with that word. If you’re racist, you’re un-American. If you’re anti-feminist, you’re un-American. If you’re a homophobe, you’re un-American. Trump, of course, fits all these bills.

I wanted to draw him because I feel like we are really reaching a new low. He’s horrible in every way and every day brings a new revelation of corruption or his willful ignorance or his belligerence. It makes it very easy to want to fight him and what he stands for.

And are these drawings actively fighting him?

Yeah, I think so. I don’t have any grandiose ideas of changing tons of people’s minds, but I wanted to make this a daily thing because I’m worried. Not so much about the people who are hardcore Trump supporters — I know I’m not going to change any of their minds. I’m worried about the people who are going to hold their noses, but vote for him anyway. The people who will willfully squint their eyes and not take into account the stuff he’s saying and doing. So everyday when I put my drawing up on my Tumblr and all of my social media feeds, I go, “Here’s a picture of him and here’s something he’s said.” I want to bring to the forefront the idea that you can’t just pretend he’s a good guy. I will put up drawings of him again and again and hopefully some people will realize this again and again.

With other projects I’ve done—I’m doing a project where I’m drawing World War I a 100 years later and another project where I’m drawing the Armenian genocide—everyday I do a drawing and put them up. After a couple years of being into these projects I began to realize that a daily thing can have its own rhythm, slowly eroding away and dripping into people’s subconscious. I’m hoping by continually showing that this guy’s really horrible, some people may overcome their partisanship and not vote for him.

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You mention, “eroding away.” Does drawing Trump and genocide day after day have an effect on you? Does it erode you away?

That’s a good question. [Laughs] With Trump, it doesn’t. I find a little delight in drawing him because he’s such an animated and weird guy. I’ve never drawn one person this many times. Usually figures I draw are less of a specific person. I’m made comics my whole life, but I’ve never really thought of myself as a cartoonist, but now I’m learning some of the things that good cartoonists know how to do. You have to learn how to draw somebody. A real good political cartoonist will know how to draw President Obama—they’ll exaggerate the ears or the skinny neck or something. You pick up on traits. I’ve been making comics and drawing for twenty-five years, but am just now learning basic things about political cartooning by drawing the same guy over and over.

Do you consider yourself a political cartoonist?

I fought against the idea of being thought of as a cartoonist. I come from the fine arts world and just thought of this as making drawings. I admire a lot of people who are great cartoonists, but I never thought of myself that way. But yeah, I guess I am. Trump is a political figure and I’m drawing caricatures of him—that’s pretty cut and dry. But it’s not like the classic editorial-page cartoons with elephants and donkeys. I do realize that I’m backing my way into political cartooning in a weird way.

Some of the reasons I started this blog, or the reasons I draw Syrian refugees or victims of drone strikes, is to make myself look at it and really see it. A few years ago, I drew illustrations of a gas attack in Syria where the government officials killed hundreds of kids and civilians. I only heard about it, but finally I Googled images of it and it is horrifying to see. I made myself look at these images and made myself draw them. I made myself witness it. I know it’s nothing like being there or being a part of it, but still, it’s a lesson and a reminder.

With Trump, drawing him is reminding me everyday that this man’s a monster.

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All the portraits have a similar feel—they are usually staring straight ahead at the viewer. How much of that is planned? How much prep work goes into these drawings?

I usually draw them in batches. They are all on index cards in pencil. I find photographs of him smiling, winking, doing gestures with his hands, and draw from those. Then I just take a photo of them using the camera on my phone.

Some of the drawings have an ominous shadow coming in from different angles. Is that light pencil shading or from using your phone?

That’s just from taking a photo of the drawing. I like things dirty and distressed. I could go into Photoshop and clean it up and make it really nice, but I don’t mind the grit and grime in my stuff. If there’s a shadow or wrinkle in the paper, I make a choice to leave it there.

You’re known for your poetic, minimal comics, but these Trump drawings are a departure from your usual style. They are so in-your-face and outrageous. Was this a conscious shift in style and tone?

It’s been happening slowly over time. A couple years ago at SPX, I had a table and had my experimental poetry comics there. A person came up to me and said, “I’ve seen your stuff on Comics Workbook.” Those are the comics I do about my kids, so they are straight up fun and goofy. The person said, “I really liked those a lot,” then picked up my books and put them down and walked away.

Many people come to my work from many different ways. I think what you’re mentioning is similar to that. I didn’t change my style consciously. Starting with the ladyh8rs project, and even before that, when the Egyptians kicked out Mubarak, I was so overcome with how awesome that was and the ability to watch a live feed of it, that I just started drawing and made a book about it. Since then, things have happened—I’ve been drawing the Black Lives Matter movement, I drew hundreds of images from the Mike Brown crime scene in Ferguson. It’s my way of witnessing it and making sure I’m seeing it. I am never going to pretend to be a part of it or be important at all, but I can’t help but be affected by these things.

That leads into my Trump blog. And you’re right, this is far way from what I’ve done in the past, but I’ve been discovering more about myself from doing it.

What does the future hold for this blog?

Hopefully in November, I can stop drawing him.

So there’s an end game in sight?

Yeah, when the election happens. I’ve had several people ask me to print the drawings up in a collection and I’m going to try to figure out how to do that in a way that I can somehow raise money to oppose him.

If he wins, will you continue do this everyday?

I figure if he wins, he’ll continue to keep saying stupid, horrible things, so I guess I’ll keep doing it. There’s a part of me that really likes these projects where I sign myself up to do something on a daily or weekly basis. Sticking to it keeps you honest. I was talking to a friend a mine, a younger artist, and she asked, “Why do you do these things?” I said that with all the distractions of jobs, kids, family, everything else, I just have do it. I made a commitment to an audience, no matter how small, to do this and carry it through. Even if it’s just a little bit every day, it quickly adds up. These kinds of projects can be useful to some artists, and they are definitely useful to me. As for Trump . . . please don’t vote for him so I don’t have to draw him anymore. [Laughter]

How has this project changed your perception of caricaturists or editorial cartoonists?

I always had a healthy respect for artists who could take a brief thought and turn it around and make it something awesome very quickly. It’s just incredible what some illustrators can do. There are tons of artists, especially in the comics world, that can make great work with no money and no time at all. For the past year, I’ve worked at a non-profit contemporary art gallery, and I can say that there’s more great work in one row at SPX than there is in the contemporary fine arts world as whole. That might get me in trouble.

I’ve learned a lot about shorthand tricks and small variations, and how hard learning those can be. I have even more respect now for the people who can draw the same characters, page after page, and keep it all interesting.

Has this daily routine changed your perception of Donald Trump at all?

You’d think it might turn into Stockholm syndrome at some point. [Laughter] Maybe one day I’ll look at a drawing I just completed and go, “He’s not so bad.”

But you draw him as some kind of boorish, melting monster!

[Laughs] Yeah, he’s getting gross. His nose fell off very early, and now his ears have fallen off too.

I read through a lot of horrible things he’s said to find the quotes for the blog. It’s not made me sympathetic towards him, but it’s made me understand him a lot more. He is a weak person that bullies people into giving him approval. He’s so puffed up that I think he even knows that he’s hollow underneath it all. It’s scary now because he could be president, but I think he’s sad and probably lonely. He’s never had any friends because he’s a terrible man.

Is this understanding something you try to express through your illustrations of him?

I want to push how far out I can draw him while still keeping him human. It’s taken me a while, but I feel like I’ve gotten him nailed down. I want to make him look on the outside the way he seems on the inside.

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Wren McDonald: Not a Cartoonist’s Diary http://www.tcj.com/wren-mcdonald-not-a-cartoonists-diary/ http://www.tcj.com/wren-mcdonald-not-a-cartoonists-diary/#comments Wed, 14 Sep 2016 12:00:36 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95551 Continue reading ]]> Day One

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A Conversation with Tom Gauld http://www.tcj.com/a-conversation-with-tom-gauld/ http://www.tcj.com/a-conversation-with-tom-gauld/#respond Mon, 12 Sep 2016 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=95398 Continue reading ]]> MOONCOPcasewrapIn his latest book, Mooncop (Drawn & Quarterly), Tom Gauld takes us to a downsizing lunar colony to follow the routine of its lone police man.  The subject and setting are perfectly suited for the artist who has steadfastly developed an impressively dry, quietly absurd sense of humor. I’ve long been a fan of Tom’s comics, as well as what appears to be a never-ending work ethic. All of that on top of being one of the nicest people you could meet in comics.  It was my pleasure to have this opportunity to find out more about him, his life, and his work process.-Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver: I go back and forth about whether or not an artist should discuss their work. Whether or not it should be left up to the audience’s interpretation. Are you ever thinking “ah, please don’t ask me about that comic, I really don’t want to talk about it” at shows or in interviews? 

Tom Gauld: I go back and forth too. I can definitely see the appeal in being a Stanley Kubrick type who just makes the work and allows it to speak for itself and never does any interviews about it. But I think it’s just the way of the business that a bit of promo helps, so I don’t mind talking a a bit about the work, I hope I can give a bit of background and some related thoughts without explaining the whole thing away. 

I’ve heard some artists talk about their work so smoothly and expertly that it’s slightly put me off the work itself, as if there ought to be some mystery in the work, even for the artist.  What’s interesting in doing these interviews is that the questions quite often make me think about elements of the work which I hadn’t consciously considered while I was making the work, so I have to think “why did I do that?” or “is that what I meant?”. 

When I was in Europe earlier this year, it occurred to me that there was so much comics history there that an American comics reader would be ignorant about, but it seemed that Europeans were mostly caught up on the comics scene over here. Remember at Angouleme there was a show up about Lucky Luke? I had no idea who that character was but the show was packed full of people. It was pretty amazing to see. How were North American comics viewed from your perspective in as a student? 

The UK, especially when I was a child, was in a funny in-between state where we had our own comics alongside imported American comics and translated European (usually French) comics. I was aware of mainstream/superhero American comics much more through television and movies than through comics. 

My comic reading started when I was maybe eight years old and my parents would take me every week to the local library and I’d get out a new Tintin or Asterix book, which were the only comic books they stocked. Though I remember they did once have a Lucky Luke. Later, I started getting Battle (a weekly comic with war stories in it – I was slightly obsessed by soldiers and wars) and that led onto 2000ad which I read into my teens.

In my early teens I’d got to a shop in Aberdeen (our nearest city) called Plan 9, mainly to buy lead wargaming figures and roleplaying games, but sometimes I’d pick up a Batman or Punisher comic. I think I was more interested in the art than the stories and I never bought a long run of them. I kept going to Plan 9 and that’s where I discovered Deadline, DC vertigo comics, Eightball and all sorts of wonderful things. 

Most of the comics which inspired me when I was at college and beginning to draw comics were by North Americans: Clowes, Ware, Seth, Gorey, Katchor. 

Was Buenaventura your first publisher in the US? How did that come about?

It’s hard to remember how I met Alvin. I think it would have been through Sammy Harkham who published a few pages of my work in Kramers Ergot 5 years ago. He must have seen my comic strip Hunter and Painter somewhere (it was originally published as a daily strip in the Guardian and I think I put some pages online) and persuaded me to do a mini-comic of it. I liked Alvin a lot and we were going to do another mini comic of a very short story I wrote called The Gigantic Robot, but as we worked on it we decided it would be fun to print it as a big board book instead. 

Alvin could be eccentric and disorganized, but he was a great champion of comics and a talented designer and we made some lovely things together. He hand printed a beautiful letterpress edition of my drawing Character for an Epic Tale and we were talking about doing another print together when he died.

I’d actually agreed to do a book for D&Q before The Gigantic Robot (and perhaps even before Hunter and Painter) but I kept getting stuck on it and doing short comics instead. Tom Devlin at D&Q was very understanding about the glacial pace of making the book which became Goliath, but I imagine it was slightly infuriating for them.

What does a typical day go like for you? Are you drawing everyday?

I share a studio with six other illustrators and designers, in a building with lots of other creative types. I work best in the morning so I try to get to my desk for 8.30am, the studio is usually very quiet until 10 am so I try to get stuck into drawing straight away. People will filter into the studio throughout the morning and I chat a bit, but I try and focus on work in the mornings. We often go out for lunch at a local cafe. Sometimes I think I’d get more done if I was locked away in a room on my own, but I do enjoy the company. In the afternoons I’ll draw some more and aim to finish by 5pm so I can get home to the family. If I’ve got a lot to do I might draw a bit more at home in the evening or make a few notes about an idea.

I aim to draw every weekday, but sometimes I get caught up in admin or emails or orders and the day gets away from me. When that happens I’m always a bit annoyed with myself because I know I should have done an hour’s drawing at the beginning of the day when my mind was clear.

MOONCOP_18When you’re working on a story how much of it is open to improvisation? I mean do you tightly script everything out before drawing the final comic and stick to the script, or are you ever drawing the final comic and thinking “Oh yeah, and then that’d be funny if this happens…”

I do quite a lot of planning but I don’t write out a whole movie-style script at the beginning.  Mooncop started as a tiny 20-page mini comic which I drew in pencil in an afternoon. I liked it but thought I could make more of the story and setting. So then I started sketching my ideas about the characters and the setting and writing scenes, sometimes typing on the computer and sometimes as scribbly writing and thumbnails.  When I felt I had enough scenes I drew the whole thing in pencil and had a few people read it, then I edited it a bit and then inked it all. All through the process I was tweaking and changing and adding, but not really improvising. 

I’m not sure that this is the best technique for making a graphic novel, I feel like for my next book is like to have a bit of a looser process. Though I don’t know quite how.

MOONCOP_52I imagine while working on Mooncop you were constantly being interrupted by illustration work and the deadline for your Guardian strip (as well as family duties). Is it ever difficult for you to switch gears on projects?

Yes, Mooncop had to fit into the gaps between my illustration and regular cartooning jobs and that definitely slowed it down a bit. 

‘Switching gears’ is a good metaphor, I think. Sometimes I’d put Mooncop aside to work on something else for a day and then not be able to get started again. I’d look at the folder but just not have the energy to get going (like trying to set off on your bicycle in top gear). The short Guardian and New Scientist strips come much more easily to me, and the weekly deadlines force me to just get on with it.

I hope I’m not coning across as negative about making long stories. In the end I know it’s worth the extra effort to have a bigger space in which to tell more of a story or show more of a world.

I should add that I don’t feel, as some cartoonists I know do, that illustration jobs are a horrible imposition to be undertaken only for the money. I really enjoy illustration other people’s work and probably spend half my time doing illustrations. It’s a less painstaking task for me than making comics, and I enjoy the “here’s a problem for you to solve” aspect of it. I think I’d go a bit mad if I did nothing but comics, I don’t think I have enough to say to warrant doing it full time.

Do you need silence while you work?

Not really, a bit of hubbub in the background can actually be helpful I think. When I’m thinking of ideas or writing dialogue then I can sometimes get distracted by noise and I can only really listen to music with no words, but when I’m drawing (and especially inking) I can chat a bit and often listen to podcasts and audiobooks.

 If I’m stuck for ideas I like to leave the studio and go and work in a coffee shop and I think that mixture of walking to a new place, caffeine and a feeling of slight busyness around me can help my brain get going. I see from your diary comics that you draw in coffee shops too. I think there’s probably a platonic ideal of a perfect coffee shop for cartoonists. I think it’d have amazing coffee, lots of generously-sized not-wobbly tables for one and the staff would eject anybody with one of those piercing voices which you can’t ignore.

I feel like Mooncop and Goliath are both the perfect size for a graphic novel, which I think is around 90-150 pages. That’s just enough to tell a perfectly capsulated story with enough character development, and is comfortable to read. Was that a conscious decision or do you wish you could publish a 500 page book that hurts the reader while they read in bed?

That’s nice to hear. I worried while working on both those books that they were too short. I tried to make them longer, but I found I had nothing more to say, and that I was stretching it out for no good reason. In both cases I decided in the end that the story had found its own length and I just had to go with it. I would like to write something a little longer in future, but only if I can find the right story.

MOONCOP_26Mooncop feels very anti-technology. All of the robots and automated machines don’t work properly and even the outpost on the moon was rundown and being downsized and abandoned. Do you feel like most of the new tech stuff we get is basically unnecessary and maybe even harmful?

I’m not sure it’s quite anti-technology. The moon colony is not a futuristic utopia but it’s also not really a dystopia, it’s sort of in between, which seemed more interesting to me.

One of the things I was thinking about was how in the sixties and into the early seventies it seemed there was such a positive feeling about technology: It was going to make everyone’s life better! It was flying people to the moon! It was making space age modern architecture! Whereas now it feels like we’re all much more ambivalent, and (most of us) realise that technology won’t solve all our problems. 

 I have mixed feelings about technology in my own life and in our world. I really like sharing my cartoons on twitter and seeing people enjoy, react to and share them, but it does have that slightly druggy, addictive quality. 

I know that you draw by hand, have you felt any social pressure to start drawing digitally yet?

Not really. Do you feel a social pressure?

In weird ways, yes. I’ve started becoming frea