On Wednesday, 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Life as we’d known it had changed forever. We are all still in this together with renewed hope and resilience. Many of us became creative. And for many of us who are already creative, we’ve found ways to explore further, and seek out joy, humor and grace. I spent 2020 completing a special graphic novel project as well as this whimsical tribute to the New York Egg Cream. You can get the book in print and on digital. Sometimes You Just Want an Egg Cream adds up to a neat showcase of artwork as well as a guidebook tour involving New York history, culture, and egg creams. It is a long time coming and it feels like the perfect time is now to share this with you.
Sometimes You Just Want an Egg Cream!
Briefly, an egg cream is an amazing soda drink, preferably chocolate. But within that simple mix of milk, seltzer and syrup, all kinds of dreams and memories are made. It was back in the ’80s, during that young lean time, that I made my first visit to New York City. I was coming from Houston, which is a hell of a big city but with a small town character if that makes any sense. I was looking forward to roughing it for a couple of weeks and staying in the no-frills yet intellectually lively 92nd Street Y. What I was not expecting was to have the airline lose my luggage! So, there I was nearly naked except for the clothes on my back for two weeks with the mean streets right along with the cultured streets ahead of me.
A book devoted to the egg cream!
Well, I was young and full of energy and imagination. I gorged on all kinds of sights and sounds. I had my list of things to see and do based upon all kinds of reading I’d done: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Met, Broadway, the Strand, Coney Island, St. Marks Place! And, moving along at a quick pace, I invited it all in: high and low; bright and dull; big and small; euphoric, melancholic, erudite and electronic. Brash youth that I was, I went for the people’s food, not fancy-schmancy. I was still many years away from taking any notice of Michelin ratings. I delighted in street vendor hot dogs and pizza by the slice. In fact, I still love that grub! And, in my young dewy-eyed state, my mind was first blown to the charms of the knish at Yonah Schimmel Knish right along with the awesome experience of pastrami at Katz’s Deli, and the delectable high of the egg cream at Gem Spa–as well as at Lexington Candy Shop! I was as much in love with the Upper East Side as I was with the Lower East Side! Ever since, whenever I visit NYC, I stop by somewhere and have an egg cream, which is what led me to create this book. Recently, I even connected with Gem Spa and they have some of my art on sale at their site. So, one thing leads to another!
Gem Spa, an East Village legend!
I also have related items, like cool prints and t-shirts, which you can buy right here. And I will keep playing around with this. I foresee more books and related events. If you get the book, you’ll see what I mean. I should also add here that I fully encourage you to buy one of my New York Egg Cream t-shirts and then post a photo of you wearing it, preferably while having an egg cream at one of my favorite spots in NYC. Who knows, it could happen! You might be reading this right now and thinking that would be a pretty rad thing to do! And so the egg cream revolution is on!
Lexington Candy Shop, an Upper West Side classic!
I will definitely post again items from the book and hopefully start a whole big wonderful New York Egg Cream conversation! What is your egg cream memory? I’d love to know. You can comment here or contact me directly. And join the egg cream club!
Lloyd Scott has written a brilliant novel, ELECTION YEAR, that is part satire, political thriller and action adventure. On top of that, it is a heartfelt and insightful look at where we are today in the United States. You may have heard about Meghan Markle set to produce a film adaptation of this novel. Well, now you can hear Lloyd Scott, in her own words, talk about her work in this exclusive interview. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to interview Lloyd Scott. We are both writers and we are both biracial. I draw great strength from having this dual perspective. As I’ve shared before, I am Mexican on my mother’s side and Anglo-Saxon (is that a fairly good label?) on my father’s side. Well, we discuss race and many other things in this interview which you can listen to in full by just clicking below. Lloyd Scott also reads from one of her short stories. For more information on ELECTION YEAR, go to the official site: https://www.electionyearlloydscott.com/
Lloyd Scott’s novel features a biracial young woman working for a high powered politician, also biracial, who is on her way to becoming the first woman US president. You can read my review here. When I discovered Scott’s novel, I couldn’t help but make connections to my own novel, Max in America, which follows a biracial man who has lived all of his life in Mexico and is suddenly trying to make a life for himself in the United States. Both novels present an offbeat and idiosyncratic narrative, that can be enjoyed on many levels. A driving force in each novel is a searching for understanding from a biracial perspective. That is definitely true, and I’m thrilled to be in the thick of it. Being so close to this, I can start to wonder if I’m making too much of it. But I’ve gotten a thumbs up from Lloyd Scott herself so that will settle it for me.
In my interview, Lloyd Scott shares about her work as a sign language interpreter in the DC area. That makes total sense to me as she was able to draw from countless observations that contributed to helping her create some of the novel’s backdrop featuring political high-rollers. Asked about how she came to write her novel, Scott shared that it all began when she just happened to listen to a radio program describing what it might be like if Russian operatives actually infiltrated the White House. The highlight of our chat might be when Scott recited from one of her short stories, “Salsa,” a very funny tale of searching for meaning and avoiding misunderstanding. Talking about issues of race took on an interesting life of its own and, I sincerely believe, we had a very productive exchange. As Scott closed out our chat, she quoted the wise words of Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Wise words we can all try to live by.
EDITOR’S NOTE: WATCH FOR A SPECIAL COMICS GRINDER 20% OFF LULU.COM COUPON NEXT WEEK
Lulu.com is the top one-stop-shop destination for print-on-demand and now even more so. Over this weekend, Lulu.com is relaunching its site with a broad range of new options. This is great news for any type of book project, including comic books! There’s so much to choose from to meet the needs of authors, artists, educators, and even nonprofits.
Here is a quick look at what Lulu.com has to offer:
Fiction and non-fiction writers alike can create, print, and sell their books through all major retail channels.
Max in America: Into the Land of Trump by Henry Chamberlain
A lot of my readers are familiar with my various creative pursuits. And I think a fair amount have followed a particular project I’ve been developing. It all began with a hot air balloon ride. Our hero, Maximo Viaje, a well-intentioned artist living in Mexico, suddenly finds himself an “illegal immigrant” at an especially heated time, the Trump era. We’ll revisit the progress of this book as it begins to make its way onto various platforms. As of this writing, you can find print copies at the Comics Grinder store right here.
We can always use a laugh and some food for thought.
Whatever your politics, it’s safe to say that we live in quite surreal times. I’m confident that readers will enjoy a narrative that incorporates light humor, food for thought, and a rollicking joy ride of road trip misadventures. No one ever said achieving the American Dream was going to be easy and it’s an even bigger challenge for Maximo, who had been happy to simply daydream! He can’t afford to daydream any longer.
Rico is ready for his Instagram close-up.
Once Maximo is in the United States, he meets Leslie, another lost soul who feels trapped and is ready for change. A series of eerie coincidences form an inseparable bond between Maximo and Leslie. If they can rely upon each other and rise to the occasion, they might be able to overcome adversity. One coincidence could prove fatal. Leslie is convinced that she is married to Maximo’s twin brother. And if that did not seem enough, Maximo strongly suspects he has some special connection to the Kennedy dynasty. Ultimately, Maximo and Leslie are on the run while also juggling a promising comedy touring act.
Will JFK save the day?
This book is fully illustrated which will definitely add a nice touch to the reading experience. The content here is mostly focused on satire and is suitable for any age. As both a writer and a cartoonist, I can clearly see this book having a lot of crossover appeal. It could easily be sold within the context of work in comics and illustration as well as prose. The humor and the hero’s journey will appeal to a wide range of readers.
No time to lose.
Max in America: Into the Land of Trump is currently available only at the Comics Grinder store.
Here are two wonderful writers for young adults from Macmillan’s imprint, Feiwel & Friends, and the Fierce Reads celebration of YA reading. Alexandra Christo, author of To Kill a Kingdom, and Tricia Levenseller, author of Daughter of the Pirate Kingand Warrior of the Wild,have hit the road together on the Monsters & Sirens Tour. It’s an even bigger deal for Alexandra Christo since she’s come ALL THE WAY from the UK to team up with Tricia Levenseller for this 6-stop tour. I was able to catch with both of these authors during their Seattle stop for Emerald City Comic Con. View the interview by just clicking the link below:
Both authors provide exciting novels which each feature main characters on a quest. And not just any ole quest, each of these adventures could mean life or death. Below I provide a synopsis for both books:
WARRIOR OF THE WILD by Tricia Levenseller
As her father’s chosen heir, eighteen-year-old Rasmira has trained her whole life to become a warrior and lead her village. But when her coming-of-age trial is sabotaged and she fails the test, her father banishes her to the monster-filled wilderness with an impossible quest: To win back her honor, she must kill the oppressive god who claims tribute from the villages each year or die trying.
TO KILL A KINGDOM by Alexandra Christo
Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.
Sunday, March 17: Emerald City Comic Con (Seattle, WA) Monday, March 18: Interabang (Dallas, TX) Tuesday, March 19: Main Street Books (St. Charles, MO) Wednesday, March 20: Red Balloon Bookshop (St. Paul, MN) Thursday, March 21: Boswell Books (Milwaukee, WI) Friday, March 22: C2E2 (Chicago, IL)
Warrior of the Wild is a 336-page hardcover (ages 13-18), published by Macmillan. For more details and how to purchase go right here.
To Kill a Kingdom is a 352-page hardcover (ages 13-18), published by Macmillan. For more details and how to purchase go right here.
Early in the morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. Brian Fies’s book, A Fire Story (Abrams ComicArts), is his honest, unflinching depiction of his personal experiences, including losing his house and every possession he and his wife Karen could not fit into the back of their car. In the days that followed, as the fires continued to burn through the area, he posted an initial version of A Fire Story online and it immediately went viral. The video segment KQED produced about his comic went on to win a Northern California Area Emmy Award. He has expanded his original webcomic into a full length graphic novel that goes deeper into environmental insights and the fire stories of his neighbors and others in his community. A Fire Story is an honest account of the wildfires that left homes destroyed, families broken, and a community determined to rebuild.
A Fire Story Book Tour
I was able to catch up with Brian Fies at his reading at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, part of his book tour. This interview is the result of a subsequent email exchange.
Brian, thanks for doing this interview. You have built a very interesting portfolio of comics and graphic novels. You’re searching for answers and you’re compelled to express yourself through comics in order to explain big themes whether it’s history and technology (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow) or personal challenges (Mom’s Cancer). When you were creating that webcomic about your first impressions of the Northern California fires, did you already intuit the making of your next graphic novel?
Thanks for your gracious thoughts on my work, I appreciate it! I can’t claim any grand strategy—as my wife Karen and I fled our house that night, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah ha, I’ve found my next book!”—but I knew I was an eyewitness to an extraordinary event and felt like I had to tell people about it. To bear witness. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter, and I felt that journalism gene kick into gear. Even as I walked back into my neighborhood the next morning to see what had happened to my house, before I even knew it was gone, I was taking photos and making mental notes that I knew I’d need later. The next day, I bought shoes and art supplies, and started writing and drawing.
As I worked on the webcomic, I was certainly aware it might become my next graphic novel. I’d been down a similar path with Mom’s Cancer: live through something terrible, find something interesting to say about it, put it online because that was fast and cheap, and see if anybody cared enough to read it. If nobody had read either webcomic, that would have been the end of both of them, and I would have been satisfied with that. I got my story out into the world; what the world did with it was out of my hands. In the case of A Fire Story, within a few days it went viral. Around 700,000 people read the webcomic on my blog. News and other media picked it up. San Francisco PBS station KQED made it into an animated short-film that was seen by 3 million people and won an Emmy Award. None of that was guaranteed or planned, but when it happens, the odds are good it’ll be a book if you want it to be. I thought about it and decided I was up for it.
Keep in mind, the whole time this was not the most important thing going on in my life! My family lost our home. Our neighborhood of about 200 houses looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. People died. Thousands in our community were suddenly homeless and jobless, and we had no idea what to do. We had to figure out a lot, fast. My little comic strip, and the hullabaloo that soon came with it, wasn’t top priority. We were busy.
Page from A Fire Story
Share with us what sort of person becomes a cartoonist. I think everyone can potentially draw and write but there’s a certain personality that remains persistent and follows through with work year after year. I think it’s a combination of passions: a desire to report, to draw, and even perform. What do you think of that, and how it ties in with your new book, A FIRE STORY? Heck, I’ll also throw in: Did you always want to be a cartoonist and was it just a matter of time?
There may be as many motives for cartooning as there are cartoonists. I loved making comics from childhood. As a teen and early adult I tried very hard to make a living at it—which at the time meant becoming a syndicated newspaper cartoonist or drawing comic books. I got some nibbles but, like most people in most creative arts, I failed. I went on to have a family and a couple of different careers I enjoyed, but always kept cartooning. I sold some freelance work. I illustrated a light bulb catalog once; they come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes. But my real career in comics didn’t begin until my mother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and I decided the comics medium was the best way to tell our family’s story. In that sense, maybe it was just a matter of time. When the opportunity came, I had sufficient skills to do it.
Page from A Fire Story
Most cartoonists I know are shy. More introverted than not, though I know some on the other end of the spectrum who are hyper-outgoing. I think one of the attractions of cartooning, certainly for me, is that one person can do it all themselves. It’s not collaborative, like animation or filmmaking usually are. I’m the god of the little world I create on the page. Even my handwriting communicates a mood or feeling. For better or worse, and sometimes it goes really wrong, you’re getting one person’s singular creative vision. It also has incredibly low barriers to entry. For the price of paper and a pen, you too can be a professional cartoonist!
It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that cartooning doesn’t strictly require being a good artist. I mean, it helps, but making pretty drawings is one of the least important parts of it. Comics are about storytelling. Not making one breathtaking picture, but making a dozen, a hundred, a thousand pictures that move through time and space, and guide a reader through ideas, characters, plot, and emotions. A comic drawn in stick figures could make you weep or cheer if its storytelling were compelling enough. That said, the better an artist you are, the more tools you’ll have in your storytelling tool box.
The other thing I’ve come to believe is super important is authenticity. Readers can tell when you’re faking it or jerking them around. If you tell a story from the heart—one that really means something to you, one that only you can tell because your entire life went into making it—somebody will respond. A comic about a routine planet-devouring laser-mounted space dragon, or a group of wizards and goblins who bumble through Lord of the Rings-like adventures, will probably bore me. Anybody could do that. But if your true passion in life is collecting bottle caps, and you can draw a comic about bottle caps that makes me care about them as much as you do, I’ll be your fan for life.
Page from A Fire Story
There’s a wonderful nugget you brought up during your reading about kids from families that survived the fires in Nothern California. You point out that in your webcomic you have children requesting bedtime “fire stories.” What a great way to come around to the title of your book. I’m assuming that’s where the title comes from. Any story behind it—or was that title a natural fit and you ran with it?
Yeah, that nugget came from some people I know who lost their home, and whose grandchildren insisted on reading A Fire Story every night for weeks because that’s how they understood and processed what had happened to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. And Grandma would even read the naughty words because, while kids shouldn’t say those words, sometimes they’re the right words to say.
I gave the title much less thought than you’d expect. Again, Mom’s Cancer was instructive for me. It’s simple, direct, memorable, tells you what the story’s going to be about. Same with A Fire Story: it does what it says on the label.
A Fire Story by Brian Fies
You have said that this graphic novel has changed you. You’ve got a different perspective. For now, of course, it’s a time of healing and rebuilding. My heart goes out to you. As you did in your reading, I think the best place to end here is with that one page that sums things up so well where it’s you and Karen simply wanting to go home. It’s also a time to get the word out on A FIRE STORY. That said, this is a long way around to simply asking what do you hope folks will get out of your book?
Thanks so much. As I describe in the book’s end notes, I’ve gotten two kinds of feedback to the webcomic and graphic novel that mean the most to me. People who went through it with us tell me I got it right. And people who didn’t go through it tell me it helped them understand what it was like.
I hope A Fire Story stands as a work of respectable, responsible journalism that gives a full picture of what living through a disaster is like for an individual, a family, a community. It doesn’t have to be a fire. I think a hurricane survivor and I would have a lot to talk about. In an even larger sense, I think A Fire Story has something to say about any family or community in any type of crisis. These experiences and our reactions to them are nearly universal. We all have more in common than we think. So A Fire Story is my story, but I hope folks might see that it’s their story, too.
Page from A Fire Story
A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art
What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.
Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass
Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.
Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey
Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.
Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond
I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.
The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt
Jerome Charyn is one of those rare breed of writers able to write some of the most earthy stories involving some of the most larger-than-life figures, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Teddy Roosevelt. For TR, Mr. Charyn pulls out the stops offering up the man in his own voice, a magnificent mashup of macho and aristocrat. Bully! TR, as he looks out from Mount Rushmore, remains one of our greatest personifications of America. And with his new novel, Jerome Charyn completes his run at Rushmore. He managed to tackle Washington and Jefferson in 2008’s Johnny One-Eye. He dug deep into the psyche of Lincoln with 2014’s I Am Abraham. And now we have The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt, published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.
Indeed, TR was a manly man right down to having a mountain lion on a leash as his pet. It’s during the Rough Rider period of his life that we first meet this big cat, Josephine. She was the mascot for TR’s own cowboy regiment off to fight in the Spanish–American War in 1898. An invasion of Cuba did not officially call for men on horseback. However, TR had other ideas. As an act of sheer will, TR got his Rough Riders. This excerpt offers a taste of this most quintessential TR adventure. Here we are just as U.S. armed forces begin departure to Cuba joined by the now celebrated Rough Riders:
We were mobbed at every station along the route. Folks welcomed us to their own little war parades. Half-mad women scribbled letters to Rough Riders they had never met and would never meet again. Some proposed outright marriage. A few of our bravos fancied a particular lady and disappeared from our caravan of seven trains. Leonard cursed their hides. But these bravos managed to find us at the next station, or the next after that. A horse died of heatstroke, but we didn’t lose a bravo, not one. People would shout from the tracks, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy,” and I realized why the Army regulars hated us so. We had captured the imagination of blood and battle somehow–the Rough Riders represented the romance of war. We could have risen out of some biblical rapture. The Army couldn’t compete with cowboy cavaliers.
Let’s shift gears to another aspect of the storyteller’s bag of tricks. Here’s a taste of the pulp fiction action adventure vibe found here:
I had clocked twenty minutes, like pulse beats in my temples. Winters-White kept me from plummeting into that gnarled jungle floor. He tapped me on the shoulder and removed the blindfold. We were in a slight clearing, a bald patch without a single root or tree. And in this clearing was a canvas chair that might have come from a general’s tent. A man in a pince-nez and cowboy neckerchief sat in that chair. I’d have guessed he was my age–a few months shy of forty. He had a jeweler’s nimble hands. His mustache was almost as red as mine, and his eyes were probably just as weak. I couldn’t imagine him as a sniper, shooting at children and nurses from the Army Nurse Corps. Yet here he was, in the green uniform of a Vaquero.
“We’ve met before,” he said in a slight accent.
Wouldn’t it be something to see a Cowboy King movie? There is room for a sequel as this novel covers Roosevelt’s life right up to September 6, 1901, the assassination of President William McKinley, a day that would catapult TR as far into the arena as he had ever dared possible. That said, you really don’t need to look any further than this novel. Cowboy King is a novel at its best: engaging, immersive and compelling.
Teddy Roosevelt, an American original.
The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt is a 286-page hardcover, available as of January 8th, published by Liveright. And be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website where you can purchase a signed copy.
I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:
“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”
So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.
The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.
Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.
You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.
Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.
The comics medium can be as clear and as ambiguous as the work requires. One of the great things about comics is its unlimited and distinct potential to alternate between clarity and mystery. When you feature yourself in your own work, you seek the right balance. Someone quite capable of playing with those modulations is writer/artist Ariel Schrag. Her recent collection of comics is entitled, Part of It: Comics and Confessions, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ms. Schrag is known for a number of brilliant memoir comics that feature her growing up, struggling through high school, and finding her way. While her work can neatly fit within the categories of YA and LGBTQ, it certainly transcends any label or genre. And don’t let anyone tell you different: a good coming-of-age story will always be welcome and never go out of style. We’re human and we all have our own unique tales to tell. This new collection of comics provides compelling proof of that.
Page from Part of It
Part of It is a collection that culls through some of Schrag’s best work over the years. Probably the best piece is one from a 2004 anthology with an eyeglasses theme. In this one, we find Schrag having been sucked into a vortex of vacillation over just what constitutes the perfect pair of eyewear. Is it promoting the best experience possible? Does it look right? Does it fit right? Is it dated? Is it…sass? Just one meaningless derisive utterance from her little sister triggers heartbreaking regret. Schrag tentatively enters a room with her latest choice in glasses. All it takes is one negative comment, “Sass,” from her sibling, and it’s all over.
Just wanting to be “part of it.”
Ms. Schrag has proven to be quite a funny and adroit writer. As an openly gay woman, she has shared excellent insights and observations. That said, whatever a writer’s background, it’s the work that speaks for itself in the end. Sexuality is not the key element, for instance, in the eyeglasses piece just mentioned above. In fact, sexuality is often part of a bigger picture in a typical auto-bio comic. You simply share things about yourself in the process of telling a story, in the service of the narrative. If all goes well, your tale combines the universal and the specific in a satisfying way. While all these pieces come from different places and times, Schrag finds common ground and eloquently returns again and again to a theme of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be “part of it.” This is a great collection of comics. Wonderfully wicked good fun!
Part of It: Comics and Confessions is a 176-page trade paperback, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.