Review: AMONGST THE LIBERAL ELITE by Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly

Off and running…

Have you ever wanted to just go all Jack Kerouac and do an extended road trip? You’d yell out, “Nothing behind me! Everything ahead of me!” Well, what if you’re also caught up in trying to grapple with America under Trump? Then consider this new graphic novel, Amongst the Liberal Elite, written by Elly Lonon and illustrated by Joan Reilly, published by powerHouse Books. It is based upon Ms. Lonon’s hilarious McSweeney’s column. More on that later. If you also happen to enjoy a regular intake of NPR, MSNBC, and lean left in your politics, you’ll especially appreciate the ongoing quips exchanged by the story’s two main characters, Alex and Michael, a couple of upwardly mobile middle-aged lefties.

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The humor is of the razor-sharp rapid-fire Jon Stewart variety. It can sometimes feel like too much of a good thing so everything depends upon the timing and delivery. The characters let loose a bon mot, hold back a bit to engage in self-deprecation, and then repeat. That’s basically the pace of this narrative. If you like the characters, then all is golden–and these two characters are very likeable even if you never really get past their walls of witty retorts. And, hey, maybe you know people like that. What you get here is a very lean, crisp, extra-dry and droll, gluten-free set of misadventures. This sort of political humor tends to be built this way and for good reason. There is only enough character development to serve the jokes and plot. There’s no deep connection nor would you need or care for that. Think Seinfeld. These are fictional constructs here to tickle your funny bone and offer up some finely-tuned political satire. Bravo! It works exceedingly well.

Amongst the Liberal Elite by Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly

To be able to take a popular column made up of clever repartee and turn it into a graphic novel is quite remarkable. I can’t stress enough what an ambitious task that is. Joan Reilly’s artwork successfully sustains this very special blend of political humor. Ms. Reilly is a masterful political cartoonist in her own right so she proves to be the perfect creative teammate to Ms. Lonon. Together, Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly bring to life two super quirky characters with much to say and reveal about our current political state.

The full title is Amongst the Liberal Elite: The Road Trip Exploring Societal Inequities Solidified by Trump (RESIST) and it is a 156-page hardcover published by powerHouse Books.

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Filed under Comics, Donald Trump, Humor, McSweeney's, politics, pop culture, Satire

Review: ART COMIC by Matthew Thurber

ART COMIC by Matthew Thurber

Meet Boris and Cupcake. They’re your typical art students which means they’re far from typical just about anywhere else. These guys are definitely living inside a bubble that is inside a number of other bubbles. This is a fact that doesn’t get them very far in the real world–or the art world, for that matter. What it all adds up to is the hilarious new graphic novel, Art Comic, by Matthew Thurber, published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Panel excerpt

Satire runs amok in this send-up of contemporary art with Mr. Thurber’s surreal sense of humor taking things to a high level. It’s an important distinction to make. Thurber is not simply foisting upon his readers a series of rants. He’s actually worked out his narrative to such a precise degree that it reaches a peak of whimsical perfection.

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You don’t need to know a thing about art to enjoy this book and, in some ways, you may be better off not knowing a thing. In fact, let this graphic novel teach you all you’ll ever need to know about the art world. Humor, at its best, is capable of being quite educational. Just go along for the ride and you can’t help but pick up a little on the theory of art, the business of art, and even the art of art. You’ll also learn a few things on how to best tell a story simply by not taking anything too seriously. This is a wacky yet savvy book. Thurber does an admirable job of giving it all, the drawing style, the narrative, the jokes, all the way down to the coloring, just the right light touch. I reach out to my friends and loyal readers to assure you that, even if you don’t usually read comics or follow art, you will enjoy this if you have a healthy sense of humor.

Page excerpt

Art Comic is a 200-page full color hardcover published by Drawn & Quarterly.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Comics, Drawn & Quarterly, Drawn and Quarterly, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Humor, Matthew Thurber, Satire

Book Review: ADAM by Ariel Schrag

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:

“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”

So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.

The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.

Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.

You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.

Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.

Adam is a 320-page novel, originally published in 2014 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Filed under Ariel Schrag, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, LGBTQ, Novels, writers, writing

Charles Forsman’s ‘I Am Not Okay With This’ Picked Up by Netflix

‘I Am Not Okay With This’ by Charles Forsman

Charles Forsman is a wonderful independent cartoonist. I have had the privilege to review his work. Mr. Forsman creates work that is usually intended for a relatively small audience. That is the nature of comics, especially niche comics. But things can get turned on their heads. Just imagine, a highly obscure copy of an underground comic is sitting in a trash bin when it’s picked up by a movie director and he’s so thrilled by it that he’s compelled to move heaven and earth to turn it into a hit television series. That’s what happened with Forsman’s The End of the F***king World, now available on Netflix. And it’s happened again. This time without any trash bin. The news it out that Forsman’s I Am Not Okay With This is coming to Netflix.

‘I Am Not Okay With This’ by Charles Forsman

There’s something about the fresh and quirky goodness of independent alt-comics that can catapult them from obscurity to crazy full-on stardom. It won’t happen to most of the self-published comix out there but it happens. So, don’t try this at home unless this is a labor of love first and foremost. Otherwise, it won’t work. Painfully honest stories have a greater than average chance of getting attention. That’s part of it. The rest is just the right mix of hard work and a bit of good luck. While you wait to enjoy I Am Not Okay With This, check out The End of the F***king World now on Netflix:

I Am Not Okay With This follows the misadventures of Sydney, an unassuming 15-year-old freshman with telekinetic powers. Be sure to visit Charles Forsman right here. I Am Not Okay With This is a 160-page graphic novel published by Fantagraphics Books.

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Filed under Charles Forsman, Comics, Fantagraphics Books, graphic novels, Netflix, Television, Young Adult

Review: ‘Part of It: Comics and Confessions’ by Ariel Schrag

PART OF IT by Ariel Schrag

The comics medium can be as clear and as ambiguous as the work requires. One of the great things about comics is its unlimited and distinct potential to alternate between clarity and mystery. When you feature yourself in your own work, you seek the right balance. Someone quite capable of playing with those modulations is writer/artist Ariel Schrag. Her recent collection of comics is entitled, Part of It: Comics and Confessions, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ms. Schrag is known for a number of brilliant memoir comics that feature her growing up, struggling through high school, and finding her way. While her work can neatly fit within the categories of YA and LGBTQ, it certainly transcends any label or genre. And don’t let anyone tell you different: a good coming-of-age story will always be welcome and never go out of style. We’re human and we all have our own unique tales to tell. This new collection of comics provides compelling proof of that.

Page from Part of It

Part of It is a collection that culls through some of Schrag’s best work over the years. Probably the best piece is one from a 2004 anthology with an eyeglasses theme. In this one, we find Schrag having been sucked into a vortex of vacillation over just what constitutes the perfect pair of eyewear. Is it promoting the best experience possible? Does it look right? Does it fit right? Is it dated? Is it…sass? Just one meaningless derisive utterance from her little sister triggers heartbreaking regret. Schrag tentatively enters a room with her latest choice in glasses. All it takes is one negative comment, “Sass,” from her sibling, and it’s all over.

Just wanting to be “part of it.”

Ms. Schrag has proven to be quite a funny and adroit writer. As an openly gay woman, she has shared excellent insights and observations. That said, whatever a writer’s background, it’s the work that speaks for itself in the end. Sexuality is not the key element, for instance, in the eyeglasses piece just mentioned above. In fact, sexuality is often part of a bigger picture in a typical auto-bio comic. You simply share things about yourself in the process of telling a story, in the service of the narrative. If all goes well, your tale combines the universal and the specific in a satisfying way. While all these pieces come from different places and times, Schrag finds common ground and eloquently returns again and again to a theme of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be “part of it.” This is a great collection of comics. Wonderfully wicked good fun!

Part of It: Comics and Confessions is a 176-page trade paperback, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Filed under Ariel Schrag, Books, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, LGBTQ, Young Adult

Kickstarter: KITCHEN TABLE MAGAZINE: Stories/Art/Ideas about Food + Place

KITCHEN TABLE MAGAZINE

Top Shelf Productions, founded in 1997, was there early on to contribute to the rise of graphic novels in the United States with such trailblazing titles as Blankets by Craig Thompson and From Hell by Eddie Campbell. When you think of Top Shelf, you think of quality, style, and reliability. Top Shelf was started by Brett Warnock and Chris Staros. When Top Shelf joined IDW as an imprint, Staros stayed on and Warnock retired. Well, Mr. Warnock is back with Kitchen Table Magazine, a food and wellness magazine, that taps into his extensive background as a publisher and art director. To learn more, check out the Kickstarter campaign, active until December 26, 2018, in support of a subscription drive right here.

Kitchen Table illustration by Jim Mahfood

Here’s a few words from Kitchen Table to best describe this new print and digital magazine:

KITCHEN TABLE MAGAZINE is a new print and digital publication that connects adventurous souls, curious cooks, and enthusiastic eaters with talented writers, artists, cartoonists, and photographers who explore not only the how-to’s of cooking, but the whys of eating. We’re at the trailhead of adventure, and would love to have you along every step of the way.

Brett Warnock indulging his passion at a local food truck in Portland, Oregon

We all eat. We all have our particular tastes and interests. Follow Kitchen Table to get a crisp, quirky, and unique perspective. Kitchen  Table will share with you a lifelong passion, cultivated in the Pacific Northwest, to keep it fresh, sustainable, and just a little bit weird for good measure. Given Warnock’s special connection to comics, you’ll definitely find a good dose of illustrations here along with excellent writing, photography and design. Visit the Kickstarter campaign in support of a most welcome addition in helping you choose items related to food and overall wellness.

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Filed under Brett Warnock, Comics, Food, Lifestyle, Magazines, Media, Top Shelf Productions

Seattle Focus: Bob Woodward and FEAR

Bob Woodward in Seattle, 28 November 2018

Bob Woodward has a book out on Trump. You may have heard of it. It’s entitled, Fear, published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Woodward, a legend in journalism, was in Seattle for a Q&A at the Paramount Theatre this Wednesday night. Local pundit Knute “Mossback” Berger was the moderator. Mr. Berger asked a series of mellow questions. He asked, for instance, about the book’s title. The great thing about interviewing someone like Bob Woodward is that half the battle is just to show up. No matter the question, Mr. Woodward will proceed to paint a vivid picture. Regarding the book title, that took him back to Candidate Trump, long before his campaign was considered substantial. It was the job of Woodward to still pose serious questions, the same sort he’d posed to Candidate Obama and others. That day, the pivotal question was asked: What does power mean to you? The scene that played out was something close to Shakespearean. Trump seemed to turn his attention out toward a confidant in his mind’s eye. Power, and holding on to power, Trump said, is achieved through striking fear.

It is during an audience Q&A that things can get quite interesting. For Woodward, this was a time to riff, to explain, to clarify, in any way he pleased. Each response turned out to be a gem. It meant he took his time and didn’t get around to everyone who dutifully lined up with a question. Each answer took on a life of its own. One question might begin a discussion on a related subject. One answer would emerge prompted from a question asked earlier. It would result in such gifts as Woodward recollecting the day that he finally got former President Gerald Ford to reveal the details of the Nixon pardon. The common assumption had been that a deal had been struck. And, indeed, a deal had been offered by White House chief-of-staff Alexander Haig. Ford refused a quid pro quo. There was no reason for it since he was to replace Nixon anyway. It was only later, with the prospect of Nixon continuing to damage the country, that Ford chose to pardon him. It wasn’t an easy decision and it was clear that this decision would seal Ford’s fate. It was a decision that he would never be able to recover from as a candidate for president in his own right. In retrospect, it was to be acknowledged as a courageous decision. Ford went on to be the recipient of the Profile in Courage award in 2001. It was presented to him, at age 87, by Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter. A lesson in not be too quick to judge.

FEAR by Bob Woodward

The final answer, again originating from one question and yet seeming to answer them all, was a true showstopper. This last gem found Woodward looking back to some of his earliest memories. He was playing with two previous questions: the idea of what in his life caused him the greatest shock; and summing up the crisis we live with today with a dangerously incompetent commander-in-chief. Woodward had already painted a picture of an easily distracted Trump. And that got him to thinking of how some things should be fundamentally understood, like the difference between right and wrong. As a young Naval officer, Woodward served aboard the USS Wright, and was one of two officers assigned to move or handle nuclear launch codes. This was circa 1965. It was seared into Woodward’s psyche that the fundamental responsibility of an American president is to stay out of a nuclear war. But Trump was oblivious to the most basic facts. He openly questioned the existence of NATO. He did not understand the most basic facts of global interconnection. So, in order to best answer that question asked a while ago regarding what shocked him the most, Woodward just had to refer back to Trump, a president so brazenly ignorant that he compels his Secretary of Defense to have to answer, “Mr. President, we do these things in order to avoid World War III.” That’s enough to make anyone lose their lunch.

Fear is surely required reading. It is definitely a worthwhile book and measures up with Mr. Woodward’s best.

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Filed under Bob Woodward, Books, Donald Trump, politics, Richard Nixon, Washington DC, Watergate

Review WINDOWPANE by Joe Kessler

Windowpane by Joe Kessler

One of the first pages from Joe Kessler’s Windowpane, published by Breakdown Press, shows a wandering dog searching for food and finally finding a baked pie sitting out on a windowsill. There are splotches of color overlay on some of the blue line art. Welcome to a most experimental work in comics. Kessler covers various themes: childhood trauma, alienation, sexual dysfunction, and religion. Everything is a bit off kilter and on edge. What could be better for this kind of work, right? Well, this kind of work can often fall short and not measure up. But, in this case, there’s a lot to like even if it seems that things don’t always add up as the general reader might expect from the comics medium.

Like any artist, Kessler wants to challenge the reader. For instance, he enjoys the harsh use of basic colors. He also likes tossing his characters from one situation into another. He has them suddenly running away from things. He has them hurting each other. Then, in a fit of petulant bravado, he will take a gob of primary colors and fling them like a bolt of lightning. A blast of these harsh basic colors will blow up some characters to bits. Others will be saved for a proper decapitation. All in a day’s work.

There goes that iguana.

Quieter moments will serve for such scenes as an iguana forcing its way into a sleeping woman’s mouth.

It’s pretty wild stuff. Not for kids. Mature content abounds. All in all, this collection of sordid tales is quite fun, original, and worthwhile.

Windowpane is a 272-page full color soft cover. It collects new and previous work by artist Joe Kessler. You will find here reprints of Windowpane issues 3 and 4. This collection is published by Breakdown Press, based out of London.  Visit Breakdown Press right here. And be sure to visit Mr. Kessler right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Art, Breakdown Press, Comics, Europe, European Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Joe Kessler

Review: GYPSY OMNIBUS from Insight Comics

GYPSY OMNIBUS from Insight Comics

A lot of you out there are familiar with Batman: The Dark Prince Charming, the collaboration between DC Comics and the French comics publisher Dargaud. It was the first time that many Americans got to see the masterful artwork of Enrico Marini. And now comes along another amazing Marini work, with writer Thierry Smoldered. Gypsy Omnibus is published by Insight Comics, an imprint of Insight Editions. It is available as of December 4, 2018. Gypsy is an excellent example of the adrenaline-fueled mega-adventure European comic book. Gypsy was originally published in 1992 by Dargaud Comics and reprinted in English in the pages of Heavy Metal. Its futuristic Mad Max edge hasn’t aged a bit.

Set in the not-too-distant future, the world of Gypsy has it all: planetary highways, the coronation of a young Russian Tsar, the resurrection of a Mongol army on the trail of Gengis Khan, an all-powerful multinational corporation that controls all earthly transport—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! In the middle of all this, we have a Gypsy truck driver who, fortunately, knows how to look after himself.

Enrico Marini (Desert Star, Raptors, Scorpion, Negative Exposure) is an artist steeped in all the old school ways. All the artwork, including the coloring, is done by hand. Drawing, and painting, on paper sturdy enough to handle ink and watercolor, Marini provides a robust feast for the eyes. Colors get to play and expand beyond their the usual perimeters, spreading even into the word balloons. This hands-on approach compliments the gritty narrative. It’s not overdone. It’s purposeful.

Thierry Smolderen launched a career writing comic books in the mid-1980s. He has since won multiple awards for his graphic novels and is recognized as one of the leading specialists in the history of comics, having published several essays and articles in journals like Comic Art or the International Journal of Comic Art. His passion for comics is in full evidence in his script for Gypsy.

Gypsy Omnibus is a 368-page full color deluxe edition with slipcase. It is available as of December 4, 2018. For more details, go to Insight Comics right here.

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Filed under Batman, Comics, Dargaud, DC Comics, Enrico Marini, European Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Insight Comics, Insight Editions

Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Cover art by Ed Piskor

Stan Lee (1922-2018). News today that comics legend Stan Lee has passed away. There will only ever be one Stan Lee in the comics industry. You will hear that today and in the days and years to come. As a kid in the ’70s, I have fond memories of the iconic figure of Stan Lee. He was the guy leading the Marvel Comics Bullpen. He was the guy who was always yelling out, “Excelsior!” He was part salesman and part creative genius. This, in no way, takes away from the collaborative work he did with such greats as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. At the end of the day, Stan Lee was Stan Lee, a force of nature and an integral part of Marvel Comics and comics in general. May he rest in peace.

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Filed under Comics, Comics News, Marvel Comics, Stan Lee