Review: ‘A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020’ by Elise Engler

A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020. Elise Engler. Macmillan. New York. 304pp. 2022. $34.

Just as we’re settling into 2022, there remains some of that deja vu all over again. We won’t shake off 2020 that easily and for good reason. Artist Elise Engler captures this monster of a year with her daily paintings of the news in this unique collection. What began as a more modest project, a daily painting routine begun in late 2015, took on a life of its own after Trump was elected president. At that point, Engler was compelled to follow the topsy-turvy trail of events all the way into 2020 and beyond. This book covers the first hint of Covid-19 in the news on January 20, 2020 all the way to January 21, 2021, the day after Joe Biden was sworn in as president.

Indeed, truth can be stranger than fiction. You just can’t make up some of the headlines from 2020. On May 19, 2020: “Despite FDA caution, Trump says he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative, threatens to permanently end WHO funding.” And there you have the material for that day’s painting. Engler kept to a steady diet of WNYC radio, a credible news source with editorial positions that moderately favor the left. What’s interesting is the hybrid of sorts that Engler created with her work whether or not it includes an editorial slant. Part of it can function as an editorial cartoon or seem to. But, more to the point, you can see Engler mostly focused with just keeping up with the steady stream of news: a raging pandemic; racial tensions at a feverish level; and a most unusual presidential race.

At turns poetic, Engler’s dispatches can sometimes read as passages from a very compelling dystopian science fiction novel, albeit they’re all too real. Consider July 23, 2020, at random, but indicative of the whole: “House passes bill removing Confederate statues, other figures from Capitol; California surpasses New York in total COVID cases; Trump will send federal agents to Chicago.” All the elements in place, a perfect storm, a most frightening time to witness on any level. Page after page, Engler brings home the realities of our times in concise fashion.

Here’s the thing about the news, it’s hot one moment and then it can either heat up again or suddenly cool off. Bits and pieces, significant by themselves and part of a greater whole, are vulnerable to be trampled upon by the next freight train of even crazier and more explosive news. And heaven help those items of news with any hint of complexity from staying very long on the public’s radar, if at all. Consider November 28, 2020. Another day of news to be processed and lost: “Firing squad, poison gas could be allowed for federal executions under Justice Dept. rules; “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president,” judge writes in repudiation of Trump’s effort to halt PA election process; Iran top nuclear scientist assassinated.” Engler thoughtfully corrals these more elusive bits of data and pins them down in a compelling memorable manner.

Elise Engler proved to be at the right place at the right time having honed a means of production years in advance. To add to the urgency, Engler’s studio is in New York City, what became known as the epicenter of the pandemic, at least in the United States. From her drawing board, she was only a short walk away from a tent hospital set up in Central Park. As the violence and chaos unfolded throughout the year, the paintings became less formal, more open, more expressive. Some moments and images have become embedded in our collective memory. Smaller, more nuanced items, will recede into the background, but find a home in Engler’s book, a record from a seasoned artist who was there at her drawing board when it happened.

A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is available as of January 18, 2022 and his published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., Macmillan Publishing Group.

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Review: ‘Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?’

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2009. 208pp. $24.95 hardcover.

We are constantly documenting…from the most ephemeral to the everlasting. Much of art is one form of documentation or another. Most graphic novels are some form of a document, some more specific than others. That brings me to a work in comics that does a wonderful job of collecting a lifetime’s worth of observations into a cohesive whole. Brian Fies is an excellent cartoonist in every sense of the term: an auteur creator who dives in and makes sense of the world with crisp and concise combinations of words and pictures. Brian Fies is someone that I look up to as an example of the cartoonist-explorer or cartoonist-journalist. One of his landmark works is A Fire Story which chronicles the devastating California fires from both a personal perspective and a collection of profiles. You can find one of my reviews here as well as one of my interviews. For the book I’m talking about with you now, Fies explores the futuristic dreams promised Americans at the end of World War II and what has actually resulted. That book is Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Fies takes the reader to the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and shares a boy’s excitement and idealism on a visit with his father. Buddy is a boy with big dreams fueled by pop culture, government propaganda, along with the inevitable conclusion that humanity is indeed destined for the stars one way or another. Human progress could not be denied, despite a few setbacks, right? Alternating between inspiring entertainment (Chesley Bonestell’s space age paintings in Collier’s magazine) to bona fide advancements (universal electrical wiring, trans-atlantic telephone cables, high-speed motorways), Fies paints a picture of a future that seemed to only be getting brighter. However, there were still those bumps in the road as well as bumps to pave over in the name of progress.

A cold war was to trigger a space race and propel the space age into high gear. Fies dutifully recounts the back and forth rivalry between the Soviets and the Americans. And then it all seems to come to a head in one transcendent moment. During the two-man U.S. Gemini mission in 1965, two astronauts engage in some playful bickering. Jim McDivitt must coax his fellow astronaut, Ed White, to cut short his spacewalk and return to the ship. This less than by-the-book behavior revealed humanity. And it laid to rest Wernher Von Braun’s concern over whether humans could tolerate the free-falling sensation of being in a weightless environment.

The reality that Buddy, our main character, must face is that the idealism of the space age is not just about idealism but also tied to politics and the military industrial complex. Over the decades, our perpetually boyish Buddy and his remarkably youthful father, get to see the full arc of the space age, from its inception to its dwindling popularity. Fies has a lot of fun extending the life of his comics characters in order for them to get the full picture. The era of the big swagger gave way to a new era of smaller, faster and leaner. But this was hardly a step backward and, truth be told, we were inevitably heading in that direction. That’s what Buddy figures out. Tomorrow maybe be late but tomorrow will inevitably come. And what about those jetpacks we were promised? Well, at the time of this book’s release in 2009, that was still a promise. Today, we’re on our way to keeping it. A jetpack currently goes for around $400,000 but they’ll become common someday, within the reach of anyone, and that’s worth the wait.

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Hurricane Nancy: LION and SNAKE DANCE

Art by Hurricane Nancy. Color by Henry Chamberlain

Hurricane Nancy offers us a portrait of a Lion and a clown. Does the Lion have something to do with the Year of the Tiger? Or is the Lion just waiting for the rest of the trio, the Unicorn and the Bear? On another track, think of this: We have three twos in this year! But it gets better come February the 22nd. On that date, you’ll have the 22nd day of the 2nd month of the year 2022, and on a Tuesday, for a true Twosday! Maybe the clown atop the lion is a nod to the magic and wonderment in the air.

Art by Hurricane Nancy. Color by Henry Chamberlain

And then we also have a Snake Dance. When it comes to snakes, we all have our own feelings towards these slithery reptiles. Snakes can strike fear or excite the sensual. Indeed, a snake runs the gamut and symbolizes death, rebirth, change, and sexuality. The whole spectrum of life! And, once again, I took the liberty of adding a splash of color. Hope you like it.

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Interview: Artist Scott Finch, Comics and ‘The Domesticated Afterlife’

Scott Finch

Scott Finch is an artist exploring an existential terrain in his paintings and comics. You can read my review of his new book here. This is an exciting time with the new book available in print as well as being serialized over at our friends at Solrad. In this interview, we discuss his latest book, a graphic novel, that is a mashup of end time fables and a satire on consumer culture. What immediately follows are some additional notes on this new book, The Domesticated Afterlife, proceeded by a transcript to our conversation. You can also view a video podcast of the interview.

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Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2021

Here is a list of some of the best comics that made it onto the Comics Grinder radar. Best-of-the-Year lists are useful in many ways for book publishers, comic book shops, academics, librarians, and even play a role in determining awards for the following year. One of the best sources for analysis on all these lists is from comics scholar Jamie Coville’s annual master list. I have yet to compile anything so comprehensive as a list that closely follows the various potential categories and subgroups involved but I have picked up a few things along the way as a comics journalist and comics creator. For example, here’s an insightful nugget: I really don’t think children’s books are quite a right fit but I don’t completely rule them out especially since there’s a push to include them in the conversation and sometimes it really makes sense. Basically, I don’t rule anything out as you just never know what you can learn from casting a wide enough net.

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Review: PASSPORT by Sophia Glock

PassPort by Sophia Glock

Passport. by Sophia Glock. Little Brown & Co. New York. 2021. 320pp. $24.99

There’s this moment in Sophia Glock’s new graphic memoir when the main character (the author’s teenage self) is peering out into the audience from the backstage of a high school play. Marc, one her classmates, points out to Sophia that, if she can see the audience, they can see her. It’s a helpful enough comment also meant to sting, just the sort of callow comment young people will nudge each other along with. It’s a moment indicative of what the reader will find in this mellow yet haunting tale of a displaced young person.

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Interview: Jeremy Dauber and ‘American Comics’

Jeremy Dauber offers the reader an expansive and fascinating read with his new book, American Comics: A History, published by W.W. Norton & Co. I recently reviewed it and now I present to you this interview with the book’s author. Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Jewish Comedy and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award. We navigate our way through quite a lot of material and have a great time chatting about a subject we all seem to have something to say about.

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Review: THE BLAME by Jon Aye

THE BLAME

The Blame. by Jon Aye. mini-comic. 2021. 22pp. $11.11

This British mini-comic is a low-key rather urbane bit of fun, an excellent showcase for the wry humor of Jon Aye. If you like local color, there is plenty of it in this collection of short works. There’s even one piece that features Matt Hancock, an inept politician on his way to a comeback byway of a role as a UN flunky attempting to scare up business opportunities in Africa, despite the UK’s dismal record in getting vaccines into developing countries. So, in Aye’s Hancock satire, he has the miserable sod sadly lurking about until he perks up by trying out tiresome American slogans on for size.

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Interview: Sarah Nesbitt and ‘Drawn on the Way’

I have always drawn and I’ve studied drawing in as many ways possible, all the way to university and lifelong learning. And what I’ve come away with is that drawing is a limitless source that just keeps on giving. Those of us who enjoy drawing understand each other. And one thing we all share in common is a dual nature of observer and participant. We’re the ones who like to linger while also able to  quickly size up a situation. We take a lot notes, all sorts of notes. We want to share our findings. Sarah Nisbett is one of us and she’s collected a bunch of her field notes on drawing on the spot into, Drawn on the Way: A Guide to Capturing the Moment Through Live Sketching, published by The Quarto Group. If you like to draw, or want to learn how to draw, then this book is for you.

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Book Review: ‘American Comics: A History’ by Jeremy Dauber

AMERICAN COMICS

American Comics: A History. Jeremy Dauber. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2021. 592pp. $35.

Jeremy Dauber’s narrative resembles a rocket ship as it blasts through page after page which is ideal for a book covering the entirety of American comics, from its early days to the present. Arbuably, this is the first survey of its kind and it proves to be compelling stuff. For myself, a Gen X cartoonist based in Seattle, I couldn’t help but begin with Chapter 8: Between Spandex and Seattle. Dauber dutifully recreates the scene leading up to the rise of indie comics in the early ’90s and, in the process, provides a window into the ever-evolving world of alienated youth. If Andy Hardy movies from the ’30s and ’40s helped to invent the American teenager, then comics, specifically indie, played a significant role in a more recent iteration of youth culture, one with a more nuanced argument for perpetual arrested development. Why not remain snarky, callow, self-deprecating, the whole immature shebang, all the way to the grave? The work of leading cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns made nihilism seem cool again, picking up where the sixties underground left off. If these cartoonists never meant for anyone to take them literally, it was besides the point. The impact of comics was never in doubt.

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