These are the misadventures of a group of friends who form a band: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Mona Gertrude, Gil Christopher, and Henrietta Susan. The names have an uncanny ring to them and are perfect for the mix of zany and bittersweet stories that follow. Welcome to the imagination of Desmond Reed and the world of the most unlikely pop band, The Cola Pop Creemees. I think I’ve stumbled upon one of the coolest and most fun comics currently available. Check it out before this limited edition is sold out. You can find your copy (there are only 100 in this first run) over at Radiator Comics starting on November 1, 2021. This comic was made possible by a MICE Mini-Grant. Let me go on now and share my observations on this work. And be sure to tune in for my interview with Desmond Reed. I’ve set it to premiere on my YouTube channel for this Wednesday, October 27th at 9am PST – 12noon EST. Your Likes, Comments and Subscribing are always welcome.
Say hello to The Cola Pop Creemees
Now, keep in mind that Desmond Reed is a very diligent artist, always moving forward. There are now two full length graphic novels under his belt–and he keeps drawing and challenging himself. The Apples comic collects mostly one-page moments. These are moments that became posts on his Instagram and helped to create his devoted fan base. Some of these moments spill over to a few more pages but the idea here is to focus in on something worth a pause, funny or poignant.
How to Treat Depression. Tattoos usually help!
One such moment features Henrietta Susan. We start off with an imposing title and then one lone figure just standing, looking at her tablet. Some conventional options emerge in response to dealing with depression. A short pause followed by the final verdict/punchline: maybe it’s time for a tattoo. The drawing is very simple and there are only two dots for a face, everything adding to the deadpan humor.
The Social Media Silent Treatment. Who Knew?
Another piece has the whole gang in some undetermined public space. Everyone is self-involved and nothing seems unusual save for the last panel. Finally, Gil Christopher can’t wait any longer and bursts out feelings of insecurity.
It’s more than okay to be weird!
One last example here maybe sums it up best. Mona Gertrude is walking along a street when a car of hooligans passes by and yells out, “Weirdo!” For a moment, Mona is shocked by the intense animosity but she quickly regains her cool and yells back, “I already knew that!” Think for a moment how beautiful that is and the fact it’s posted on Instagram and people are engaging with it, celebrating it. Hell yes! It’s more than okay to be weird! That’s what this comic is all about, at its heart and soul. Desmond Reed is creating just the kind of work we hunger for and need today more than ever: funny and silly; uplifting and bright; and reaching out with some soulful purpose.
The Necrophilic Landscape. by Tracy Auch (Morgan Vogel). 2dCloud. Minneapolis, MN, 2015, 32 pages, $12.
When I learned about The Necrophilic Landscape, it struck me as something that I needed to become familiar with. As an indie cartoonist, I was saddened to learn about the death of Morgan Vogel, someone who was at the forefront of creating avant-garde comics. That’s not an easy thing to do well. Yes, anyone might try but few truly succeed. I had posted how Morgan Vogel reveled in using pen names. Vogel credits The Necrophilic Landscape with the pen name, Tracy Auch. And then she goes one better and pretends to be the editor of her own work. Consider this brilliant literary prank which you can find quoted on the 2dCloud Instagram:
Why did you release The Necrophilic Landscape as you did, with the color removed and the title changed? Morgan Vogel: “The Necrophilic Landscape” was composed in 2010 and then shelved after being rejected for a grant. At that time the author was influenced by gothic and genre literature such as Melmoth the Wanderer and The Devil’s Elixirs, or Edogawa Ranpo’s Detective Stories. In my personal work I try to avoid nostalgia in the use of these generic references to male authors. I was asked to edit “The Necrophilic Landscape” and turn it into something suitable for release. I chose to foregoround a theme that was only partially worked out in the original, that is– that the narrative takes place in an almost entirely male world. The most obstructive editorial decision I made was to remove a central passage which contained the original’s only depiction of sex or a female character. The printed version of the book is more disjointed as a result of this decision, but it seemed to me that the only explanation for the narrative’s total mystification of sexual reproduction could be that it takes place in a fantasy world that contains only men and male children. The change in title reflects my critical distance as an editor and was meant to refer to a concept employed by a feminist theorist I like of a male drive towards necrophilia (versus female ‘biophilia’). I believe the color was removed because scans of the original artwork were not available.”
Indeed, it’s good to have some background going in. Now, buckle up, this is going to be a deliciously bumpy ride. Okay. Comics can be many things. When someone casually picks up a comic and dismisses it for being, for example, “disjointed,” they are really missing out. To say a work is disjointed sounds impressive and authoritative. It’s the most used dis in academic circles and usually means the reader did not even bother to carefully read the work. Anyway, I just mention that because so much gets batted around by neurotic experts, insecure gatekeepers and pathetic tastemakers, jetsetters, and knee-jerkers. It’s an ugly world with a lot of ugly people. But a lot of good people too, no doubt, so let’s take a look at a little book that comes out smelling like a rose. I turn your delicate attention to The Necrophilic Landscape.
Page excerpt from The Necrophilic Landscape
Morgan Vogel’s life was cut short at the age of 34. By all counts, Morgan Vogel was the real deal: a bright light of creativity with a genuine sense of humor. A lot of works in comics, whether mainstream or alternative, barely register as worthwhile. The trouble, as I say, centers around a disrespect for the comics medium by various guilty parties. But dig around, and you find this. The key thing here is a sharp and subversive mind at play. The drawing looks crude but, in fact, it has a power to it. Gary Panter comes to mind. The writing seems dense at first but it has a way of disarming you. What you’ve got is a surreal poetic nightmare.
What you have is a work that employs the same kind of energy you can find in, say, the best contemporary painting or experimental theater. The actual narrative is about an all-male world in which sexual reproduction doesn’t exist and the primary class division in society is between men and children. So, heavy stuff but also an intriguing framework to explode upon the page, to explore the body and soul. And, amid the dark, there is some wonderfully light humor as in a scene showing how the children manage to outwit the men by disguising themselves as adults. The solution is as easy as something out of an early comic strip. One kid stands on the shoulders of another kid and they cover each other up with a big overcoat. Voilà, instant adult.
If this were a movie, it might be unwatchable but, thankfully, it’s a comic. There simply are things you can do in comics that you can’t do anywhere else. Lots of depictions of body horror can be uniquely finessed within comics and so it goes here. Top it off with the sort of melancholy you’ll find in a good Russian novel, and you’re all set and ready to go right into a morbidly happy oblivion. This book gets all the stars I can give it. I guess that’s five, right? Strange. Loopy. Totally radically authentic. Talked about in smart circles but hard to find unless you know where to look. Simply put, this is the Maltese Falcon of indie comics. Seek it out.
Page excerpt from The Necrophilic Landscape
I’ll leave you with a parting thought. What makes me a good guide into the world of Morgan Vogel? Well, you can take your pick amongst a number of good souls. As for me, I happen to be someone who paid the price of admission into the indie comics community. I’ve experienced it in all its many facets and, I can tell you, it all can amount to a good kick in the teeth or a most rewarding loopy detour depending upon how you look at it. Believe me, I have nothing to prove. I choose to look at it as a natural extension of what I do creatively and I understand it within a broader context of all sorts of artistic endeavors. I just think that Morgan and I would have gotten along.
For more details on The Necrophilic Landscape and an impressive assortment of cutting-edge comics, visit 2dCloud right here.
Unversed Comics is absolutely a beautiful showcase of comics talent on the rise. It was an honor to get to chat with the leading force behind this anthology, cartoonist Jonathan Hill. Be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign in support of the third and final edition of Unversed Comics, which ends on June 7, 2019, right here.
Postscript is the third and final book in the Unversed series, following the success of the original book Unversed and its sequel, No Refunds. It is a two-color, softcover comics anthology featuring 12 new artists from the Pacific Northwest College of Art, as well as 27 new and returning contributors from within the Unversed community.
Visit Kickstarter before this campaign reaches its own postscript and ends on June 7th!
Unversed Comics Anthology from Pacific Northwest College
It all began with a dream to put together an anthology as part of a comics course led by instructor Jonathan Hill of the Illustration Department at Pacific Northwest College. It would ultimately result in the Unversed Comics Anthology that you can find right here. And the timing could not be better as there is currently a Kickstarter campaign, until June 7th, in support of what looks to be the final collection ever. You can support Postscript right here. Ah, yes, my comics instinct never fails me! So, let’s take a look at the previous editions as we look forward to the next.
What is evident from these books is that its editor, Jonathan Hill, got everyone to bring their A-game. It’s not all just a bunch of talk with these kids. These young cartoonists are all determined and follow through. One fine example of this spirit is the piece, “Of All the Mundane Things,” by Tandy Kunkle, from the first Unversed collection. We begin with a young couple, half dressed, about to start a new day, when the young woman learns that her father has died. Within ten pages, Tandy Kunkle vividly shares with the reader a young person’s loss. The artwork is very inviting, direct, and authentic. It’s one of those minimal styles that really wins you over with its specificity. Kunkle’s prose is equally spare and crisp. She keeps to her theme with confidence. Steadily, you see how the little things in life add up and resonate all the way to the last panel.
“Of All The Mundane Things,” by Tandy Kunkle
By the time of the second anthology, Jonathan Hill has learned quite a lot about putting together an anthology. Again, a stellar collection. Another example from this talented group: “Pins & Needles,” by Justice Geers which focuses on the theme of permanent change byway of a story on tattoos. We begin with Quin, a confident young woman willing to confront life’s challenges. As our story unfolds, Quin develops a passion for tattoos and soon enough has a tattoo sleeve down one arm and then the other. Before too long, she discovers a career path as a tattoo artist. Justice Geers gives the whole narrative an authentic vibe.
“Pins & Needles,” by Justice Geers
“Believe,” by Seaerra Miller has a bold and polished style that’s fun to follow. This is another powerful father/daughter story and comes to such a rewarding end. If a daughter believes in her dad, then that’s all that matters. Well, I do believe this is one of my favorite short works in comics I’ve read lately.
“Believe,” by Seaerra Miller
“Changeling,” by Sarah Hickey, has a nice organic vibe running throughout. All is not well in the community of Elm Bend. It’s common knowledge that magic can wreak havoc on a town. I love the matter-of-fact dialogue as Tania and Robin catch up. Tania has been away training with fairies. Robin, formerly Posey, has been processing the experience of transitioning. Both are at a crossroads. What a perfect moment for Tania to conjure up a constellation of chrysanthemums.
“Changeling,” by Sarah Hickey
“Ambition,” by Clive Hawken, is a whole lot of weird expressive goodness. Clearly, Hawken enjoys letting loose with his drawing and that carries over to his lettering. For this sci-fi piece, we have some pretty grim pilgrims biding their time on their doomed planet. And the a choice is made and nothing will be the same again.
“Ambition,” by Clive Hawken
I hope this review stirs your interest! The Unversed Comics Anthology series has proven to be a great showcase for exciting new comics talent. That says a lot. There can be a lot of pitfalls along the way in creating a comics anthology and this series has avoided them. You instantly can see the dedication and quality to this work.
The third and final Unversed Comics Anthology, going out bigger and bolder than ever before with 576 pages made up of 40 talented contributors, coming together to say goodbye for the last time.
Click the link below to pledge to the Kickstarter and get your hands on a copy of Postscript!
May 15th marks the return of Magdelene Visaggio & Jen Vaughn’s punk rock, magical grrrl comiXology Originals series, TeenageWasteland – the action-packed comic where after school activities include transforming into galactic heroes and fighting monsters. The all-new issue #2 is available to read now digitally for members of Prime Reading, Kindle Unlimited, and comiXology Unlimited, and for sale on comiXology and Kindle.
“Teenage Wasteland is working with a lot of elements that fantasy and superhero fans love: the boredom of high school mixed with the high adventure of monster slaying, the idea of becoming a hero when your teachers think you’re nothing, and much more,” — SYFY Wire.
Ellie Tweed is our main character and she’s quite the troublemaker. She’s the new girl and it looks like she’s already fallen in with the wrong crowd. And they’ve got quite a secret: they aren’t just teenage girls with attitude, they are the Earth’s secret defenders–and Ellie is their newest recruit! Turns out Ellie didn’t really fall in with the wrong crowd as much as find kindred spirits looking for a purpose in life. So, that can’t be bad, especially if you get to ride a Pegasus! Based upon these two stellar issues, we are off to a great start. This is a wonderful example of raising the action to an engaging level and having the characters at an accessible human scale.
“I grew up watching Power Rangers and other toku imports, and when you’re a kid, that stuff is a power fantasy,” says Magdelene Visaggio, the comic book’s writer. “You get all these cool abilities and weapons and robots and fight evil. Who wouldn’t want that? But the older I got, the more I started to see it differently: it’s the weaponization of teenagers. And then you start seeing it everywhere, right up to classics like X-Men. So that seemed like a unique jumping-off point. How can you ever trust Zordon? What does it mean to make children fight your war for you? So that’s the heart of it for me: questioning the premise of stuff like MMPR and looking at the way conflict defines people — and shatters them.”
“Mags’ writing digs under your skin, she taps into the loneliness and hormone-fueled anxiety teens feel,” says Jen Vaughn, the comic book’s artist. “Most teens want to be noticed, to belong, to be special, to be a chosen one. What’s worse than being normal? Being an expendable in a long line of chosen ones.”
Teenage Wasteland #1 and #2 are available to read now at no additional cost for members of Amazon Prime, Kindle Unlimited, and comiXology Unlimited and purchasable on comiXology and Kindle for $2.99. Print collected edition will be available via Print-on-Demand exclusively on Amazon.com. Prime Reading offers Amazon Prime members a rotating selection of over a thousand top Kindle books, magazines, short works, comic books, children’s books, and more – all at no additional cost. Kindle Unlimited offers over 1 million titles, thousands of audiobooks, and select current issues of popular magazines for just $9.99 a month with a 30-day free trial at amazon.com/kindleunlimited. ComiXology Unlimited offers over 15,000 comics, graphic novels and manga for just $5.99 a month with a 30-day free trial at comixology.com/unlimited.
Magdalene Visaggio is the Eisner and GLAAD Media Award-nominated writer behind Kim & Kim, Eternity Girl, Dazzler: X Song, Transformers vs Visionaries, and Quantum Teens Are Go. In addition to her comics work, she’s blogged a bunch (now rightfully deleted) and is an occasional contributor at Paste Magazine, focusing on comics and culture.
Jen Vaughn is the cartoonist behind the writing of Goosebumps: Download and Die drawing Betty and Veronica’s Vixens, as well as drawing covers for the comic series My Little Pony, Pathfinder, The Wilds,
Hack/Slash vs Vampirella and more. She also plays a tiefling ranger, Riot Bonezerker, in the popular D&D podcast, d20 Dames.
I am a great supporter of alternative comics and the pursuit of excellence in the comics medium. That means sometimes taking a ruler and wrapping the knuckles of a cartoonist during a bit of constructive criticism. And it means celebrating a work when everything goes right as it does in Hobo Mom, by Charles Forsman and Max de Radiguès, published by Fantagraphics. Hobo Mom gets it right by pursuing a line of specificity to its logical conclusion. Just like a finely-executed novel or painting, all the elements fit into place at a resounding level of precision.
This is the story of a woman who can’t settle down. The open road is in her blood and she is willing to pay the price for her unconventional freedom. Charles Forsman presents his most disciplined artwork to date in seamless collaboration with the script by Max de Radiguès. The pacing is impeccable as you follow one extended scene after another. It’s magical how Forsman and de Radiguès balance so much in a relatively short work. At 62 pages, you need to be prepared to pare down to the essentials in order to give the narrative a natural flow. This is undoubtedly achieved as the reader gets a rich experience within a tight framework. Everything needs to count, down to every panel, ever facial expression, every pause. You need to know what to linger on and when to move on.
Page excerpt from HOBO MOM
Take the first four pages. The first page begins with a big panel that depicts an inviting breakfast being prepared on a skillet taking up half the available space. The next four panels convey a happy relationship between father and daughter, a stable domestic scene. With that established, the next three pages have the luxury of lingering over this happy home: dad goes off to work; daughter tidies up; daughter begins her day; daughter finds comfort in the company of a family pet. Now, we’re ready to move on to what is going on with the absent mother. A rhythm has been set up allowing for the alternating of scenes and characters. Will the hobo mom reconnect with her family or is it just not possible? Here is a book that asks the right questions and lets the reader step in. This book is a prime example of what it possible in the comics medium.
Hobo Mom is a 64-page duotone hardcover, published by Fantagraphics.
I juggle a lot of things. I read a lot of comics, I work on my own comics, and sometimes I’ll get into a zone as I read a comic and not even think of the intended readership. I kid you not, I will read comics that are probably most likely meant for a younger reader and think nothing of it as it fully resonates with me as an adult. That is the case with the current book on my radar, I Was Their American Dream, a graphic memoir by Malaka Gharib, published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This is a delightful read that falls neatly into an all ages category. I sincerely believe that an adult would enjoy this book just as much as a middle school student. With a sincere approach, this graphic memoir will bring to mind Persepolis but it is absolutely on its own quirky wavelength.
This is an immigrant’s story. And I don’t think we will ever have enough of these kind of stories as each is different and unique in its own way. In an ideal world, I think we would all tell our stories of growing up in some sort of graphic memoir. That said, a book like this does not write itself either. Ms. Gharib presents a wonderfully easygoing narrative that makes it all look easy: very conversational prose with an inviting simple and direct drawing style.
Page excerpt from I Was Their American Dream
We are invited to join Gharib in a tale that takes us to the Philippines (mom’s side of family), to Egypt (dad’s side of family), and then makes it way to California. But our journey has only begun. Malaka Gharib comes of age as a mixed race child in a strange land–but things don’t have to be so strange with a little bit of heart, courage, and a wonderful sense of humor. This absolutely speaks to me as a mixed race person. In my case: Anglo on my dad’s side; Mexican on my mom’s side. Gharib has so much to say that anyone can relate to. For example, Gharib brings up the classic question people like to ask someone of mixed race: “What Are You?” It is a question that depends so much on context and tone. It can come from legitimate heart-felt curiosity. It can also be perceived as adding up to an insult or slight. “What Are You?” Indeed. Now, there’s quite a loaded question.
Given the overall tone to this book, how Ms. Gharib is writing with an intended younger readership, I think it’s still valid to say this is fun for any age. As, I’m sure Gharib would agree, there’s something about the quirky content that fits in so well with alternative comics. It’s no surprise to me to find here in her book that Gharib shares numerous happy memories of being involved in the alt-comics/zine scene. That activity has led to Gharib becoming an artist and journalist at NPR. She is the founder of The Runcible Spoon food zine and the cofounder of the D.C. Art Book Fair. That DIY/indie community gets in your blood and can guide, encourage, and inform an artist’s work for a lifetime. It can result in compelling work like this book!
Page excerpt from I Was Their American Dream
I Was Their American Dream is a 160-page trade paperback, fully illustrated, published by Clarkson Potter and available as of April 30, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Penguin Random House here.
With all due respect to any comics scholars who might in the least have any problem with the term, “alternative comics,” let me direct you to a close reading of a new book that covers this very subject and then some, The Book of Weirdo, edited by Jon B. Cooke, and published by Last Gasp Books. Now, if I’d been a precocious and enterprising enough youngster, I might have very well have hopped on the Weirdo bandwagon early on and had my own comics appear within their pages but it was a little bit before my time. That said, what sprung, or solidified, from that time of production (1981 – 1993) is what has been, and continues to be and always will be, known as alternative comics. Alternative to what? Well, obviously, an alternative to the typical mainstream superhero genre just as underground comix was an alternative in the sixties and Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine was an alternative in the early fifties. Today, to simply say, “alternative comics,” remains incredibly useful in navigating the vast comics landscape. Think of it as the distinction between a fine artist (indie cartoonist) and an illustrator (business-oriented/corporate). An artist can travel to both worlds but, don’t forget, that means there are two distinct worlds. Alright then, now let’s take a deep dive into the pages of The Book of Weirdo.
What first comes to mind about this book is the familiar format of a yearbook or an in depth documentary. The idea here is to collect and document and interview as much as possible. Cooke has extended interviews with all the major players including founder and editor Robert Crumb and his successor, Peter Bagge. Cooke also has profiles and interviews with just about everyone who ever contributed to the magazine with such notable figures as Dennis Eichhorn, Frank Stack, Pat Moriarity, and Michael Dougan. In fact, I am quite familiar with Mr. Cooke’s methods as I did get to contribute some comics to another of his projects, a tribute to Will Eisner for Comic Book Artist back in 2005. So, what you end up getting in one of these Jon B. Cooke tributes is a treasure trove of observations and a storehouse of information. That all proves essential as we track the journey of Weirdo from San Francisco to Seattle. Once Peter Bagge took over as editor, he took operations up to Seattle, which resulted in some extraordinary comics cross-polination that continues to reverberate to this very day. It has contributed to a hotbed of alt-comics activity in Seattle that connects everything from Fantagraphics to the Dune cartoonist gatherings to the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival.
Alternative Comics – The Seattle Connection
Ironically, given all the time and effort that Mr. Cooke has put into this tribute, he doesn’t always get the most fully cooperative interview subjects, with his main subject, Robert Crumb often proving to be the most contrarian person to interview. But that’s what everyone loves about Crumb, right? He’s not an easy person to pigeonhole. He’s not smooth as silk with slick answers. The beauty of what Cooke does is to keep asking questions and remain open to the answers. That brings me back to the notion of more fully understanding what alternative comics are about. I bring this subject up a lot and I find that, ultimately, alternative comics are alive and well and they emerged from what underground comix set in motion. This is clearly something that fascinates Cooke too and he goes about unpacking the subject as much as he can in this book. For example, he poses the question to Crumb. He asks, “Do you see Weirdo as having helped to launch the alternative comics that came after it?” To which Crumb, at first put off, ends up giving an interesting answer: “I don’t know. Again, it’s a rhetorical question. It’s hard to say whether that would have happened anyway. To me, it was going to happen one way or the other, whether I was there or not, alternative comics was an inevitable thing, y’know? It’s such a part of American culture and comics, and then, all these people who grew up with comics, they were bound to start producing some kind of…And also, as comics lost their importance as a kid’s medium, being replaced by electronic media like TV and video games and all that stuff, it became more of an art medium of self-expression. It was inevitable.”
So, to be clear, I am telling you that alternative comics are a very real thing. Anyone who is tentative about it is somehow missing the big picture. And, again, I say this with all due respect. Certain folks go into comics and graphic novels these days as more of a stripped-down strategy to succeed in a corporate career. Other folks go into comics and graphic novels solely to explore the possibility of the art form. Those are two very, very, very distinct worlds. And, yes, there is overlap. Some alternative cartoonists manage to crossover to mainstream work. But that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that they come from the alt-comics world. It’s a whole way of looking at comics as art. Now, Weirdo was definitely part of that in its own particular way. At the very same time that Weirdo was active, there was also RAW magazine run by Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. Here’s where it gets very interesting and sort of funny. Crumb was like Groucho Marx or Woody Allen when it came to preferring straightforward plain speaking. For Crumb, RAW took itself way too seriously. Both Weirdo and RAW were covering similar ground and, in fact, shared some of the same cartoonists. While RAW positioned itself as an art journal, Weirdo was more unabashed and irreverent. A little behind-the-scenes feud was brewing after Spiegelman made some disparaging remark about Weirdo. Crumb had hoped to bring it out into the open and even pursue a mock feud but Speigelman would have nothing to do with it. Whatever their differences, both RAW and Weirdo contributed to the alternative comics scene that continues onward in numerous anthologies, more than at any other time, including Kramers Ergot. While Crumb, himself, might shrug it off, Weirdo can be included as one of the landmarks along the way to today’s alt-comics.
Ron Turner and Last Gasp
The Book of Weirdo is a stunningly beautiful book, an essential guide to understanding the various veins connecting underground comix and today’s burgeoning alternative comics.
The Book of Weirdo: A Retrospective of R. Crumb’s Legendary Humor Comics Anthology, is a beautiful 288-page hardcover, fully illustrated, available as of May 1, 2019, published by Last Gasp Books.
Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University
I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.
Butler Library at Columbia University
The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages. The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.
Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery
The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content. These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.” Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.
Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.
We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.
The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.
Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia.
KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.
Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?
I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.
Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?
What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.
I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.
Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!
Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.
What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?
The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.
Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer. However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?
Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two. Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.
I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics.
While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.
But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.
That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.
You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.
Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.
Yes! I love gray!
What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?
That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.
Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.
Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.
We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels?
I think there’s still a lot of room to grow. There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.
We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.
You’re very welcome, Henry.
That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.
This is a very meta thing to be doing but here’s a review of a magazine that features reviews. Dating back to 1977, in its heyday, The Comics Journal was a monthly source of comics news and reviews, a trailblazer for the burgeoning field of comics journalism and criticism. It has always maintained a certain quirky attitude, consisting of a mix of features and topped off by a expansive soul-searching interview a la Playboy magazine. It mainly attracts those who consider themselves comics aficionados. In 2013, it ceased its print version, staying online, but now it makes its return to print with Issue 303. TCJ returns this month with new editors RJ Casey and Kristy Valenti.
Now, I go pretty far back. I have fond memories of picking up this magazine at Tower Records back in the day (circa 1995), usually with a recent release from Sub Pop Records. I also fondly recall a special dynamic, or synergy, at play between the magazine and its online counterpart that led many of us to the forums section that let you interact with subgroups within subgroups of people in the comics community. This was long before Facebook or social media as we know it today. I think the monthly magazine, as we knew it back then, is still sorely missed. Towards the end of its print run, it came out less often and each issue covered a big theme and came out in different sizes. The consistency of a monthly had been lost. I think, in a perfect world, this latest return to print would do well to go back to that monthly format. Alas, with this latest #303, we’re seeing the start of a twice-a-year format. You might argue that TCJ is simply working with today’s print reality and is offering up a taste to a new generation of what is possible.
The showcase item in this issue is, of course, TCJ founder Gary Groth’s interview with a legendary firebrand, the satirist and children’s book author, Tomi Ungerer. For those of you unaware of Mr. Ungerer’s impressive career, I highly recommend that you read this interview and, before or afterward, check out the 2013 documentary, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” directed by Brad Bernstein. The title is one of Ungerer’s sayings, along with “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected.” I interviewed the documentary’s director and its writer and the fact that Ungerer is a true force of nature was the overriding theme. So, it makes perfect sense for someone as outspoken as Groth to sit down and talk it out with someone as outspoken as Ungerer! It’s a match made in heaven.
From Ben Passmore’s story in Now: The New Comics Anthology #3, published by Fantagraphics
Among the various features to be found here, you’ll find them under such titles as “From the Trenches” and “Fair Warning.” For example, under the former is a think piece by cartoonist Ben Passmore, who shares his insights on the alt-comics scene from an African American perspective. And, under the latter, you will find an interview by RJ Casey with emerging comics talent, Fifi Martinez. The thing to always remember about TCJ is that its focus is a serious look at comics as an art form. That leaves little room, if any, for superhero comics, per se. What you’ll mostly find here is a focus on the independent artist-cartoonist. It does a heart good to see cartoonists like Passmore and Martinez provided with a platform.
Ultimately, TCJ remains what it’s always been, a valuable resource that is most appreciated by those who take the comics medium seriously. It’s a niche audience but a fiercely loyal one. In the new more fragmented world we live in, it’s all about niches. That is actually a very positive thing. And niches are supposed to attract outside readers too, right? You can only calculate so much as to how strong a presence you can make on today’s newsstands. For some special readership out there, it will be a great treat to see TCJ on a shelf. Newsstands aren’t going away anytime soon from such places as Barnes & Noble, specialty shops, comic book shops, and even airports. TCJ might just want to make a real push into these venues and see how it goes. I asked about TCJ at my local B&N as well as the Pike Place Market newsstand, one of the granddaddies of newsstands. Neither place had ever heard of TCJ or had any plans to carry it. I asked around a couple of nearby comics shops. They heard of it but were not carrying it. This is TCJ’s return to print, right? Let’s see it out there in the real world.
The reality is that creating any kind of magazine, digital or print, is a big challenge. Everyone in the comics community is rooting for TCJ to make as big of an impact as it can. Those of us already in the choir, can keep singing its praises and wish it well. You can find your copy of TCJ #303 by visiting the Fantagraphics store right here.