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.
Berlin is a monumental work in comics. Few cartoonists will come close to such an achievement–and it couldn’t have been created by a nicer guy. What came across, over and over, during this talk is the fact that Lutes is very accessible and down to earth. That open approach plays into part of what makes his landmark work so special. It all began when teenager Jason Lutes wanted to make sense of a documentary about the holocaust he was suddenly exposed to in a high school history class. The teacher for that class was an alcoholic who made no effort to hide his struggles. He literally set up the movie for his class and left to get a drink. That abrupt and careless action ultimately triggered an in depth exploration of Weimar Germany through a creation of an expansive work in comics that would take 22 years to complete.
#ProtectMueller march in Seattle on 8 Nov. 2018
It was not lost on anyone during Lutes’s talk related to the dismantling of the German government of the 1920s that concerned citizens, just outside on the streets of Seattle, were protesting Trump’s own inroads into dismantling the U.S. government. Timing is everything. That Thursday night book talk directly coincided with protests across the country in support of protecting the Robert Mueller investigation after Trump installed a loyalist as acting Attorney General of the United States. Details are everything. If you follow the characters and the rich narrative of Berlin, you can’t help but get an eerie sense of having a mirror held up to the past and to the present.
Cartoonists holding each other’s works: Jason Lutes with David Lasky
Authenticity is everything. What is so appealing about comics by Jason Lutes is the solid storytelling. That involves a dynamic use of the comics medium: a crisp consistency in step with strategically placed visual elements that are pleasing to the eye and move the story forward. A quick example: I was standing in line to get my copy of Berlin signed and I made a point of poring over each page as I flipped my way through. Right around the midpoint, there is a page made up of wordless panels showing a mysterious figure in a row boat. He reaches the shore to find what looks like a vicious snake. He picks it up by its jaws and overpowers it. That same character reappears in the book as does the snake, both providing just the right doses of symbolism as well as pure entertainment. It’s important to note that, while Lutes referred to vast amounts of research and reading, he also fondly recalled the influence of key works in pop culture. Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel about Weimar Germany, by Alfred Döblin, holds as much importance to Lutes as his viewing of the original Star Wars movie as a kid. Altogether, what you have in Berlin is an honest look from an individual processing and distilling at a meticulous level.
Cartoonists Revisit: Jason Lutes with Jennifer Daydreamer
For many in the audience that night, it was an opportunity to revisit a respected work and commiserate with a friend and colleague. Seattle is a lightning rod for countless creative people and that includes a high number of independent cartoonists. There’s a certain sensibility to the alt-comics artist with Jason Lutes being a prime example. As he discussed in his lecture, it was Seattle that he gravitated to in the 1990s. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Lutes moved to Seattle and worked for the comics publisher, Fantagraphics. He subsequently worked for the alt-weekly, The Stranger, just as it began publication in 1991. During this era, Lutes became part of a group of cartoonists that went on to form an integral part of the Seattle comix scene. That group included some members that were in attendance that night: Megan Kelso, David Lasky and Jennifer Daydreamer. It was a treat to have part of the gang together again on such a special occasion.
Editor’s Note: There is a crowdfunding campaign going on for this book thru Dec 14, 2018. For more details, go right here.
Cartoonists are instructed and encouraged by their mentors to construct comics that not only fill the page but interact with one page to the next. Few artists heed that sage advice so well as Zé Burnay. You can clearly see that he is playing off what’s going on one page onto another page. The forms, the compositions, the very structure, is interconnected from one panel to the next, from one page to the next. Every bit building into a beautiful fever dream byway of the dazzling tattoo parlor with a detour through an enchanted forest and a side trip into a magical castle. Zé Burnay knows comics and how to turn them into psychedelic entertainment. So, I’m telling you right now, the book to get is Andromeda by this groovy dude, Zé Burnay, an up and coming and most excellent illustrator and cartoonist from Sintra, Portugal.
Visual delights throughout.
I swear to God, my next major tattoo is going to be a three-headed snake by Zé Burnay! This is an artist who spends the required amount of time immersed in the stuff that dreams are made of. That’s good for him–and good for us. Andromeda collects three works that all share the same main character, a Christ-like figure who is wandering and searching. In the process, he comes across numerous symbolic creatures and numerous classic tropes. He battles an eagle, a lion, a bull, and so on. I begin to lose count but that’s okay. He enters an old Victorian mansion and becomes acquainted with its strange inhabitants. Every scene quickly becomes ethereal and hallucinatory. It’s a virtual Cornucopia of visual delights. Burnay keeps the fireworks going from one page to the next.
The energy from one page resonates onto the next.
A comic from a true visionary is something very special and Zé Burnay delivers a marvelous book with Andromeda. It is a wondrous visual feast inextricably linked to a haunting narrative. Burnay was born in 1991 in Portugal and grew up fascinated by the woods and castles of Sintra and its unique and mysterious aura. Clearly, that inspiration can be found on every page of his work. Burnay states on his website that his love of drawing was kindled from “inheriting my father’s extensive collection of Franco/ Belgian comics and by spending time on my Grandfather’s antique shop.” All of this has added up quite nicely. He goes on to say, “In between working on my own comics, I draw comics for other people, design logos, posters and cover art for numerous bands.” Burnay is definitely on the right course!
A very cohesive and richly structured work.
Be sure to visit Zé Burnay at his website right here.
And visit the Indiegogo campaign for this book right here.
Here is a discussion of what makes for the best comics within the United States with Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor of the prestigious annual collection, TheBest American Comics, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What does it take to be considered the best? Well, mind you, everyone has their own set of ideas but, essentially, it boils down to compelling work. One way or another, things add up. The work commands your attention and it checks off a number of boxes like being original, structurally sound, and maybe even groundbreaking.
One thing that makes this particular interview special is very good timing. I happen to have been in New York for a combination of business and pleasure. The latest collection of Best American Comics had just come out. In fact, I’d recently reviewed it here. So, one thing led to another. I asked Bill what he thought about getting together in person for an interview and so we did. For me, meeting Bill at Parsons The New School for Design was a nice treat. He teaches there on the subject of comics. Currently in his class, he’s covering Art Spiegelman’s landmark work, Maus. Bill was Associate Editor and Production Assistant on MetaMaus, Spiegelman’s 2011 book and multimedia DVD set examining the production of Maus.
Parsons The New School for Design
My goal in this interview was simply to have a pleasant, perhaps even lively, conversation. I am a fan of Best American Comics but I was setting that aside, so to speak, in order to go through a relatively objective set of questions. I wanted to dig around and see what we might uncover and Bill was certainly up for it. What I come away with is the fact that this annual best-of collection has gone through a rigorous process. First, we have Mr. Kartalopoulos dutifully gathering up around 120 or so works that he deems worthy. Then, he hands them off to the guest editor. This year, that honor goes to cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner. Finally, a shaking and mixing and final rinse. The editor, after paring down the final cut of titles, may end up adding some of her own, and will ultimately preside over a presentation all her own. Okay, lots going on. So, here we discuss all that and more.
“Yazar and Arkadaş” by Lale Westvind
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Bill, I thought we could take as our jumping off point the last work in this year’s Best American Comics. This is by Lale Westvind. It is quite a surreal sci-fi tale entitled, “Yazar and Arkadaş.” I think it would be good fun to linger over this loopy and wonderful work, an ideal example of what comics are all about. It kicks off with an urgent search for a book and, along the way, the main characters are compelled to continue their journey naked. What can you tell us?
BILL KARTALOPOULOS: Lale Westvind did the cover for this year’s Best American Comics. This piece was one that she published during the twelve month cycle that we cover for each volume. Our excerpt doesn’t contain the story in full but it gives the reader a good sense of it. The original work was published on a risograph. We attempted to evoke that same look and feel, including the pink paper used in the original.
CHAMBERLAIN: That unique look that you get from a risograph is part of what defines independent comics.
KARTALOPOULOS: I think a lot of Lale’s work speaks to science fiction. Although a lot of her work is very different, it does bring to mind Jack Kirby and how he played with mythology with his New Gods. Something else that I think is really nice and speaks to the selection process is what happened when it came time for Phoebe to pick what to excerpt from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. She chose a conversation that refers to Medusa. That moment would end up resonating at the end of the book, with the last work by Lale Westvind and her disembodied head of Medusa with the tendrils of hair acting as arms grabbing at things.
CHAMBERLAIN: It happens every year. I recall us talking about interconnections between the selected works during our phone interview a few years back.
KARTALOPOULOS: It’s not a heavy-handed thing.
CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, of course not.
KARTALOPOULOS: It’s something you can’t force. It’s natural and organic.
CHAMBERLAIN: I think of how iconic My Favorite Things is Monsters is for readers. To present it in this collection, the challenge was to find an interesting way to revisit. Maybe you could give us another look behind the scenes. What is the significance of having Gabrielle Bell’s piece as the opener?
KARTALOPOULOS: That’s an interesting question particularly with how it relates to the creation of this collection. Each new guest editor handles the job a bit differently. For example, Scott McCloud created categories and wrote short introductions for each. Jonatahn Lethem, the next year, aware of what McCloud had done, followed suit in his own idiosyncratic way.This year, with Phoebe Gloeckner, she decided to see what it might look like with alphabetizing the titles–which is exactly what she ended up doing for the book!
CHAMBERLAIN: You can’t be any more fair than having the book alphabetized! That’s a good tip for aspiring cartoonists. Get a pseudonym that places you towards the front. I’m looking at Tara Booth’s work now. It’s a very raw and powerful style. And then you’ve got, after that, the very lean and clean work of J. D. Bryant. Some of the elements in Tara’s work are very challenging for the viewer. While, with Bryant, it’s very cool and detached. Maybe we can do a bit of comparing and contrasting with these two.
D. J. Bryant
KARTALOPOULOS: Sure, these are two very different ways of working. I certainly hope that it demonstrates the wide variety of work on display in these pages. Tara Booth shares with the reader the more private aspects of life, things you wouldn’t typically share, like popping a zit. She works mostly, if not exclusively, in gouache for this piece. Bryant works in the tradition of alt-comics from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a naturalistic style with pop appeal, very dense, with a surreal narrative that loops back on itself. The types of brushes and pens and inks he uses go back further to the ’30s and ’40s. Booth has a very different approach, wordless little moments. Both are extremely effective styles.
CHAMBERLAIN: It does take a lot for a major comic book publisher to appear in Best American Comics, doesn’t it? It happens from time to time. This year we have a piece by Geof Darrow that appeared in Dark Horse Comics. I understand why that is. A lot of the work is market-driven and would seem out of context in Best American Comics. That said, I see a lot of interesting work coming out of Image Comics, for example. Is it a case of stepping back from the major comic book publishers in order to secure room for the independent cartoonists?
KARTALOPOULOS: We don’t really think about the scale of the publisher necessarily. We’re just looking for good work, something that is unique that expresses a personal vision, not necessarily an autobiographical vision. Dark Horse does publish a good amount of creator-owned work. This piece by Geof Darrow is very much an auteurial work: it is his vision; he is doing the work just the way he sees it. This is a personal vision regardless of the means of production. It is a personal vision as much as the work just before it, a self-published piece by Max Clotfelter.
CHAMBERLAIN: I agree. This brings us back to our theme of different approaches. One piece is technically crisp and another is stripped down. I want to ask you to share with us something about your intimate connection with comics. I know you spend quite a lot time on comics in various ways. Would you give us a window into your day or whatever you might like to share.
KARTALOPOULOS: I teach at Parsons about comics so at least once a week I’m teaching. Then I’m either preparing for a class or grading papers. I just finished reading for Best American Comics 2019. Each book has a time lag. For example, the current volume covers work created from September 2016 to August 2017. It goes from Autumn to Autumn. Then it takes a full year to create a volume. I’m at a place right now where I’m about to hand off work to our next guest editor. At the same time, I’m working on a book on North American comics for Princeton University Press. It’s pretty far along but I still have a number of chapters to complete.
CHAMBERLAIN: How do you gauge the reception that the book gets. With each year, do you sense that you’ve got a locked-in audience?
KARTALOPOULOS: The print run is somewhere around 20,000 copies so that’s a lot of copies out in the world. One thing that I think is very helpful is that the series tends to fairly automatically enter libraries. I think this series has a pretty useful life as an entry point into comics for many readers. We put as much information as we can about the sources of each title. We have bios and websites. So, for example, if there’s a self-contained work among the selections, maybe readers will seek out that creator and read more. In this way, we can make a quite impact well beyond the initial release of a volume.
CHAMBERLAIN: You’re talking about a quiet impact. You’re not exactly thinking in terms of setting a standard–or maybe you are, to some degree?
KARTALOPOULOS: I think we’re seeking out good comics. I’m putting together a larger pool of material, over a hundred pieces, for the guest editor. I select work worth considering…really give the guest editor a lot of options. Really select pieces that are meaningful to them. I try to give them a broad palette. The guest editor is applying their own sense of critical judgement of what they consider a good comic. If you look at the series from multiple volumes, you’ll see a consistency, a pretty high level of quality.
A mark of success for the series is how each guest editor leaves their personal mark. This year’s volume, edited by Phoebe Gloeckner, feels different to me to the volume edited by Ben Katchor, which feels different to me to the volume edited by Roz Chast, and so on. There’s consistency, a high level of quality, and each guest editor brings in their own point of view.
CHAMBERLAIN: That’s a wonderful place to end. Thanks for your time, Bill.
KARTALOPOULOS: Thank you.
We had a really good, insightful, and fun conversation. You can listen to the interview by just clicking the video link below:
The unique character of Emily emerged in the mist of the night. Who is she? Well, if I could talk with Emily, I would tell her that she’s intriguing and deserves everything wonderful in life. It looks like I’ve found my main character. It is a very natural discovery.
When you’re building up a story, you do a lot of things on the fly and juggle as best you can until it’s time to settle down. What I started with was a whole bunch of background stuff.
Not so happy.
And then, as I wandered along, a character fell into place that could carry along and support the background. We see her smiling. Next panel, we already see her not smiling. Okay, what’s up?
By the third panel, everything has gone quiet.
The plot thickens.
And on the last panel, we’ve got some conflict. The plot thickens. So, suffice it to say, I am intrigued with Emily and I wish her well on her journey.
Ignatz image by 2017 Promising New Talent winner Bianca Xunise
The Small Press Expo (SPX), the preeminent showcase for the exhibition of independent comics, graphic novels and alternative political cartoons, is pleased to announce the 2018 nominees for the annual presentation of the Ignatz Awards, a celebration of outstanding achievement in comics and cartooning.
The Ignatz, named after George Herriman’s brick-wielding mouse from his long running comic strip Krazy Kat, recognizes exceptional work that challenges popular notions of what comics can achieve, both as an art form and as a means of personal expression. The Ignatz Awards are a festival prize, the first of such in the United States comic book industry.
Congratulations to all our nominees!, with the votes cast for the awards by the attendees during SPX. The Ignatz Awards will be presented at the gala Ignatz Awards ceremony held on Saturday, September 15, 2018 at 9:30 P.M.
Yvan Alagbé – Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures
Ivy Atoms – Pinky & Pepper Forever
Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It
Richie Pope – The Box We Sit On
Sophie Standing – Anxiety is Really Strange
Beirut Won’t Cry – Mazen Kerbaj
Blackbird Days – Manuele Fior
Language Barrier – Hannah K. Lee
Sex Fantasy – Sophia Foster-Dimino
Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition – Julia Kaye
La Raza Anthology: Unidos y Fuertes – ed. by Kat Fajardo & Pablo Castro
Comics for Choice – ed. by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor and Ø.K. Fox
Ink Brick #8 – ed. by Alexander Rothmans, Paul K. Tunis, and Alexey Sokolin
Bottoms Up, Tales of Hitting Rock Bottom – ed. by J.T. Yost
Lovers Only – ed. by Mickey Zacchilli
Outstanding Graphic Novel
Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom – Marcelo D’Salete
Uncomfortably Happily – Yeon-sik Hong
The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish
Anti-Gone – Connor Willumsen
Ley Lines – Czap Books
Nori – Rumi Hara
Bug Boys – Laura Knetzger
Gumballs – Erin Nations
Frontier – Youth in Decline
Dog Nurse – Margot Ferrick
Greenhouse – Debbie Fong
Common Blessings & Common Curses – Maritsa Patrinos
Mothball 88 – Kevin Reilly
Say It With Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food – Shing Yin Khor
Recollection – Alyssa Berg
Hot to Be Alive – Tara Booth
Hot Summer Nights – Freddy Carrasco
Whatsa Paintoonist – Jerry Moriarty
Baopu – Yao Xiao
Outstanding Online Comic
Woman World – Aminder Dhaliwal
The Wolves Outside – Jesse England
A Fire Story – Brian Files
Lara Croft Was My Family – Carta Monir
A Part of Me is Still Unknown – Meg O’Shea
Promising New Talent
Yasmin Omar Ata – Mis(h)adra
Tara Booth – How to Be Alive
Xia Gordon – The Fashion of 2004, Harvest
Rumi Hara – Nori and The Rabbits of the Moon
Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It
Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures – Yvan Alabge
Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
Rhode Island Me – Michael DeForge
How the Best Hunter in the Village Met Her Death – Molly Ostertag
The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish
Time for Small Press Expo, September 15-16! SPX, created in 1994, is the cornerstone to the comics community. It is at the forefront in promoting and providing support. Each year, more than 4,000 cartoonists and comics enthusiasts gather in Bethesda Maryland for North America’s premiere independent cartooning and comic arts festival. Let the latest news speak for itself. This is from a press release that just came out:
“Small Press Expo announced that it will immediately make available $20,000 and also launch a legal aid fundraising vehicle to support members of the SPX community who are currently facing a defamation lawsuit. The fundraising vehicle, administered by SPX, and created in consultation with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, will be established for the purposes of defraying the cost of legal representation for the eleven members of the independent comics community named as defendants in the ongoing lawsuit.”
So, yeah, it’s September and that can only mean one thing for die-hard indie comics fans: Small Press Expo! Yes, indeed, each year Bethesda Maryland suddenly becomes, for one weekend, the lightning rod for some of the most cutting-edge comics. If you’re in the area the weekend of September 15-16, then come out to this event and check out some awesome alt-comics.
Now, I must admit that, although I’ve gone and I’ve participated in numerous comics festivals and events as a journalist and as a comics creator, I have never gone to Small Press Expo. Some folks there will have heard of me and some know me from years back. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m new to SPX. So, I hope to do my best to provide some stellar coverage to this most venerable and respected gathering. Small Press Expo is where much of the indie comics scene gained traction and it remains the jewel in the crown.
So, say hello if you see me and we make eye contact or somehow slip into conversation. We’ll figure it out. Or say hello here at Comics Grinder. If you’re a creator, let me know what you’re up to and maybe we can set up an interview or I can plan to review your work. I don’t exactly expect an avalanche of responses– but I always end up making a decent number of connections at these events. I understand that things will get hectic and maybe you’re shy to begin with. I understand– and I can only focus on so much myself. The main thing is to have fun and to always strive for authenticity. The rest works itself out.
The full press release on the Legal Aid Fund for Cartoonists follows:
James Burns is a very interesting cartoonist. It was a pleasure last year to review his work. A Life Half-Forgotten is an impressive piece of memoir comics, or “autobio,” as this work is commonly referred to within comics circles. Burns taps into his childhood with a confidence and curiosity that sets the bar high. It challenges and inspires each of us to reach back and take a closer look into the past.
Analyzing one’s childhood can be a daunting task. Where to begin? As an exercise in recovering memory alone, you have quite a job ahead of you. When did life truly begin for you? For Burns, life seems to have begun in preschool as he dutifully accepted a box of crayons at the start of the day. He goes on to write and draw his way to insightful observations. All the forgotten traumas come home to roost. Burns made it his goal to sift through the big and small details and see what mattered most. This is a childhood in a Central Ohio suburbia during the 60s and 70s. With great care, and a good dose of humor, Burns explores the high and low points: freedom and privilege as well as murder and divorce.
A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns
Burns plays with that special ambiguity inherent in comics as he casts himself in this first-person narrative. We have Burns at the beginning playing host followed by him appearing to walk back into his childhood past. He is now a child but he appears to remain an adult. His face retains the same mature features in many panels but also seems to shift to a softer and younger version in other panels. The results, for my tastes, give the scenes an added edge. These are all memories, after all, with a dream-like tone. The black & white with gray tones also helps to heighten the sense of searching into the past.
As Burns puts it, we are all dealing with fragments when it comes to our personal memory. One person paints a picture based on childhood while a sibling paints another. We are summoning up phantoms. We are asking our phantoms to dance again. Burns points out that his recollections seek a greater truth. He acknowledges that he wasn’t concentrating on capturing anyone’s likeness. Instead, he wanted to try to understand things better like the tragic death of a classmate.
Now, I’ll get back to this wonderful tension between the adult Burns seeking out his childhood self, with Burns depicting himself as a child but with an adult’s face. It makes for some very compelling passages. I think I like best where he looks back at how much he enjoyed wearing a Superman costume for Halloween when he was seven years-old. He loved it so much that he ended up wearing the costume on a regular basis underneath his street clothes, just like Clark Kent! It’s such a sweet and innocent recollection–and there’s a depiction of Burns, as a child in a Superman costume but with an adult’s face. It’s an scene filled with haunting melancholy and one of the more striking images I’ve seen in comics this year.
Actually, there are more scenes I could get into. I’ll also mention here the birthday party for Burns when he turned six. That’s another passage that I find very moving. The conflict between nostalgia and truth can take a rest here. For one moment of pure joy, Burns is having a grand time with friends in his backyard. He’s having cake and ice cream. And he gets to play with the most amazing toy fire engine, his featured birthday gift. You attach a garden hose to its side and it gushes out water through its tiny fire hose! I would have loved one of those toys!
A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns
The murky world of memory is evoked quite well and Burns manages to snare some of his childhood ghosts. He manages to sit down with them, talk to them, play with them, and reach some sort of closure. This book invites the reader to do the same.
Visit James Burns right here. You can find A Life Half-Forgotten at Amazon right here.
“Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” by Hillary Chute, published by HarperCollins, is a highly informative, accessible, and delightful look at the evolution of comics, with the primary focus on American comics. As the title suggests, what used to be strictly an underground thing has now emerged virtually everywhere. Chute’s goal is to unpack that phenomenon. She goes about it with great enthusiasm and clearly makes a significant contribution to the ongoing writing about comics. This is a must-read for anyone interested in pop culture, comics, and art in general.
Zap Comix #1, 1968
Okay, so comics are everywhere. Who, for instance, are the characters gracing the cover to this book? Chute, a natural teacher, is so glad you asked. She will come right out and tell you who and then explain the interconnections. First of all, this is Maggie and Hopey, lead characters in what is understood by many to be the greatest ongoing comic of them all, “Love and Rockets,” by the Hernandez Brothers. Where did this comic come from? How does it fit in with other comics? Why is this comic significant? Ah, for that matter, you may shout out, “Why Comics?!” Chute is happy to answer all your questions and much more. Well, this comic is part of a second wave of underground comics in the ’80s. And this comic is a response to a lot of things, including a lack of diversity in mainstream comics. But, before that, there was the original wave of underground comics in the Sixties led by R. Crumb and his Zap Comix. And, as many a conversation on the comics convention floor on zines and mini-comics will attest, even today’s superhero comics genre all began as indie comics by two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Page excerpt from Art Spiegelman’s MAUS
Chute’s search for patterns in the making of comics leads her to some of the most celebrated trailblazers, notably Art Spiegelman. Chute was the associate editor of “MetaMaus,” the definitive companion to Spiegelman’s “Maus,” and she has a great deal of insight to share. Chute guides the reader from Spiegelman, in his youth in San Francisco to his subsequent work in earnest. It was in 1972 that Justin Green, author of the first autobio comic, “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” invited Spiegelman to contribute to a comics anthology. The only stipulation was that the work had to feature anthropomorphic animal characters. And so began Spiegelman’s first steps toward the work in comics most people are aware of, “Maus.” Chute then follows Spiegelman’s progress as he reaches great heights of creativity. Here below, Chute describes how Spiegelman plays with the fluidity of time:
“Spiegelman creates a physical connection between panels set in the past and panels set in the present, linking them, as in panels in which Art’s cigarette smoke is figured as the smoke coming out of an Auschwitz crematorium chimney directly below it on the page. But in others, he exploits the language of comics–the convention that each panel represents a distinct moment of time–to make two different time periods literally intertwine. We see this in the striking page in which Vladek, Art, and Françoise–herself a character in ‘Maus’–converse in the Catskills during a summer visit to Vladek’s bungalow. On their way to the supermarket in the car, Art changes the topic from his stepmother, Mala, to Auschwitz, asking his father about a prisoner revolt. The last panel of the page, in which Vladek describes its fallout, is its largest: as the family car weaves through dense rural roads, the legs of four Jewish girls hanged in Auschwitz after the revolt–witnessed firsthand by Vladek–suddenly appear dangling from the trees. The 1940s and the ’70s collapse, as Spiegelman shows, wordlessly, how the traumatic past lives on in the present.”
Page excerpt from Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS
Much in the same way that the 1951 landmark coming-of-age novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, became the template for aspiring young novelists, so too did “Maus” serve as a guide for cartoonists on the rise. Observe how Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” first published in 2000, follows a similar format and technique as Spiegelman’s landmark work. Certainly, Satrapi’s work is wonderfully original. That said, it does follow certain style and content choices first established by leading artists such as Spiegelman. Chute is not making this particular argument but she does lay out the characteristics of what has become accepted in a work by an independent cartoonist: the work is honest, personal, and usually autobiographical; the work is all done by hand, including the borders and lettering, with a less polished finish than mainstream comics; and the work is usually done by one person. In that sense, Satrapi is following in a tradition begun by such artists as Crumb and Spiegelman.
Panel excerpt from Chris Ware’s BUILDING STORIES
Another cartoonist who looms larger in Chute’s book is Chris Ware–and for good reason. The history of American comics is essentially Winsor McCay leading the start and Chris Ware leading the current state of affairs. And it is both of these cartoonists, and so many others in between, who seem to share Ware’s tragicomic point of view of being “well-appointed and feeling lonely.” Cartoonists are something of exotic birds to begin with–whether or not the public notices. But to really make one’s mark in comics, to resonate with critics and fans alike, is quite an achievement. One achieved by such cartoonists as Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Gary Panter–all of whom would get their big breaks by appearing in Raw magazine, a comics anthology led by Art Spiegelman.
Gary Panter cover for Raw #2.1, 1989
Chute organzies her narrative within categories such as “Why Disaster?” and “Why Sex?” Each chapter category acts as an umbrella that covers a certain facet of comics. In the chapter, “Why Punk?” Chute describes the rise of two friends deeply involved with the punk movement: Matt Groening and Gary Panter, along with other relevant artists like Raymond Pettibon. As for Groening and Panter, they held to their punk ideals while also driven to succeed–“The Simpsons” for Groening; “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” for Panter. Chute makes sure to point out that Bart Simpson–the cartoon character everyone thinks they know–is, in fact, a sly reference (right down to the jaggedy crewcut) to Panter’s underground hero, Jimbo, the antithesis of the mainstream. And, as Chute’s title declares, comics have gone from the underground to everywhere in more ways than one.
Matt Groening holds up Bart Simpson and Gary Panter’s Jimbo
“Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere” is a 464-page hardcover published by HarperCollins. For more details, visit HarperCollins right here.
Comics can be discussed in any number of ways. You can try to include everything from comic strips to superhero comics to the latest graphic novels. What the annual anthology Best American Comics does is focus on comics that rise to the level of art that are already coming from some sort of artistic background: boutique publishers, arthouse anthologies, cultural websites, self-published work, and any other art outlets including galleries. The Best American series began with a short stories yearly anthology in 1915. The addition of an annual focusing on comics began in 2006. This was perfect timing as consensus in varied circles had reached a fever pitch that American comics had reached the level of art. And so, here we are with another long look at the comics medium with The Best American Comics 2017.
“Generous Bosom Part 2,” by Conor Stechschulte
When you focus solely on alt-comics (alternative as opposed to mainstream) as representing all the best American comics, that creates an interesting challenge. But, all in all, it ends up being very helpful in sorting out where comics are headed as an art form. It is essential to avoid pitfalls: giving a pass to work that is weak from being self-indulgent, ill-conceived, poorly crafted, or heavy-handed. But we’re looking for the best, right? Comics cannot be held by the hand and protected. It is made of stronger stuff. To try to shield its creators from the harsh realities of life only hurts the very thing you may think, it your position of authority, you are helping. You wouldn’t provide a painter with free room and board and simply expect masterpieces in return, right? That’s not how life works. Anyway, the best work will win out in the end and the best work has got to have some kind of “wow factor.” This collection has plenty of that.
From “Frieze, No. 181,” by Gary Panter
First, be sure to read the introductions by series editor Bill Kartalopoulos and guest editor Ben Katchor, a master cartoonist. To be fair, this is a very dry nutshell of what they have to say but, basically: Kartalopoulos advocates for artist-cartoonists to not hold back at all since their odds of fame and fortune are nil; Katchor, in a series of hilarious satirical pieces, reveals a sensitivity to the marginalized role of cartoonists. To be egalitarian and invite everyone to try their hand at creating comics does, as I suggest, create interesting challenges. Another example: you would not assemble an annual collection of the best American illustration and really spend too much time considering nonprofessionals–nor would you concern yourself over the status of a person in the illustration profession. So, what makes the artist-cartoonist (plus those who aspire to be) so special? You could say that is what makes this book so special since it devotes itself, as well as logic and space can accommodate, to the current state of independent American comics.
From “Communications Workers of America,” by Dan Zettwoch
We begin with a piece by Gary Panter. Here is someone who, by all rights, openly defies any professional standards to the comics profession. Panter’s work is messy: from the clumsy depiction of figures and composition down to the often hard to read hand-drawn lettering. A lot of people do not like a “clumsy” work. However, a lot of people who attempt such a style, don’t nearly come close to the spark and originality in Panter’s work. In “Frieze, No. 181,” Panter has his characters prattle about the current state of art. It’s funny, unique, and totally Panter. In comparison, the next work in this collection is by Dan Zettwoch. Now, here you have a cartoonist who has mastered all those aspects of traditional cartooning: crisp and dynamic depiction of figures and composition right down to intricate highly-polished/professional-grade use of hand-drawn lettering. In his case, if he tried to be too casual and expressive, his creations might become too hard to follow. So, there you have two examples of contemporary indie comics, among a myriad of possibilities.
From “John Wilcock, New York Years, 1954-1971,” by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall
If I were to point to only one item in this collection, I would be satisfied with the excerpt from “John Wilcock, New York Years, 1954-1971,” by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall. I believe this satisfies the desire of Kartalopoulos to highlight work that pushes boundaries; and it also satisfies a similar inclination in Katchor, to seek out offbeat and unusual work. I find this excerpt especially timely as it focuses on the origins of The Village Voice, which recently had to give up its print edition. In this piece, we follow the misadventures of writer John Wilcock, who actually succeeds by not only skill and talent but by a formidable force of will. He finds himself at the right time and place as one of the founders of the Voice, first published in October of 1955. Wilcock manages to hold his own with tough guy co-founder Norman Mailer. And, among the dazzling people he gets to interview is none other than Marilyn Monroe. This is a very lively work of comics. You can follow it as a webcomic right here.
From “Test of Loyalty,” by Sam Alden
There is definitely something to be said for being completely inclusive about the act of creating comics. We have already reached the point where you can just as easily consider taking a cooking class, or a yoga workshop, or a comics-making workshop. Hey, you can also include improv comedy in that self-improvement list. Do comedians feel that their profession is somehow diminished by having so many amateurs getting into (or attempting to get into) the same game? Nope. Same goes for a whole bunch of other people: writers, actors, and various other artists. Fortunately, you can’t learn some of the basics of becoming a doctor on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The point is that the standards for comics are there and some people will do comics for a certain time while others will be compelled to delve deeper. What a book like Best American Comics does is provide both the practitioner and the reader with a wonderful roadmap and source of inspiration–and, by the way, entertainment and enrichment.
“The Best American Comics 2017,” editor Ben Katchor; series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos, is a 400-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.