I’ve been following the work of Ray Hecht for years now and it has been fascinating to see him develop as a writer, artist, and now as the leading force behind this collection of short works in comics. Hecht is a devoted and creative explorer trying to make sense of the world. The goal for this book is to make some sense of Taiwan, a country many of us know very little about other than it being forever threatened by China. The main service this book provides is to offer up some slice-of-life vignettes from a variety of artists at various stages in their careers.
Panel excerpt from “Walks & Talks,” by Patty Hogan and Todd Allen Williams
Every comics anthology is a delicate ecosystem that is cared for and nurtured into existence by its editor. I’m happy to say that Ray Hecht has delivered a charming and enlightening book. This is a mellow and easygoing journey, seven stories in all, written and drawn by eight contributors. Instead of dramatic epiphanies, you’ll find more of a contemplative vibe: observations on the struggles to fit in and to simply survive. There is plenty of common ground to be found here among life and work issues. In many ways, it’s the very act of dislocation that seems most compelling and the overriding theme. And sometimes that’s really all we need: some signs of life and shared humanity.
Panel excerpt from Ray Hecht’s “How Not to Get Your Scooter License in Taiwan.”
In the case of Ray Hecht’s contribution, the theme is dealing with the tensions of isolation during lockdown. Hecht’s solution was to finally get his scooter license so that he could drive around within the allowed perimeters where he lives in Taiwan. It’s a very honest and funny story and another fine example of Hecht’s sharing of his expat experiences.
Art by Fabienne Good
Among other contributions, Fabienne Good offers up some lively illustrations for her piece, “An Island of Inspiration,” which is just the sort of clean and idiosyncratic style that buoys the whole discussion. Well done work by all involved! Seek this book out. It can be your new travel companion and guide whether or not you might be thinking about your own visit to Taiwan.
TidalWave Comics has an amazing track record of delivering concise and compelling comic book profiles and you have probably come across some of them. This latest 22-page comic book on the legendary punk band, The Misfits, is part of its popular “Orbit” comic book series focusing on personalities who impact the world. And, if you know anything about this series, then you know that it can masterfully get down to granular details while always mindful of the big picture. As I read through, I was blown away by the fly-on-the-wall perspective and steady pace.
Straight outta Jersey!
The story opens on a living room scene, circa 1977, in Lodi, New Jersey, as told by the second bass player, Jerry Caifa. The LP pressings have just arrived and Jerry is none too pleased to see that the order has printed his last name when he expressly stated to only use his first name. And the narrative just keeps moving. The guys painfully realize, as they catch a Ramones show, how much they need a dedicated frontman on guitar. They find one. More players follow. More adjustments follow. They discover how well they’re doing leaning into horror.
Intrigue in the studio.
And then, one day while browsing a thrift store, they stumble upon the idea for the band’s mascot, that world-famous skull. Bigger shows right around the corner, just before a few more detours and going down rabbit holes. But this kind of rise to the top is always one step away from burning down in flames. Writer Joe Paradise smoothly covers all the drama, particularly how songwriter Danzig managed to pretty much hijack the whole Misfits brand along with the credit and profits, at least for a while. A court case finally decides in favor of the rest of the band to continue as The Misfits. But it hardly ends there as our story proceeds. Artist Martin Gimenez perfectly evokes all the ups and downs with an urgent vibe running through his artwork. This is a great comics tribute for hardcore fans and newbies alike.
We are nearing the end of another year and it’s time once again for some sort of list of the best work out there in comics and graphic novels. I truly find these lists useful. I know that various things often don’t fit neatly into annual recaps and such. Works are generally years in the making, often coming out in different editions, spilling over into more than one year of promotion. That said, lists are a way to pin things down and are fun to go back to and compare what you thought then with what you think now. I gather some choice titles. Sometimes a Top Ten will suffice. January is a good month to take stock and jump back into last year’s pile (so many titles are latecomers). It works this way: November through February bleeds through a mad rush of marketing into a slower season for contemplation and planning for the new year, a good time for reviewers to pull out a few more titles that were hot during the last year. Here is a Top Twenty-Five list of comics that made it onto my radar during 2022.
This is a comic that is most unusual and noteworthy. It provides food for thought on the theme of overcoming obstacles. Cartoonist Desmond Reed was thrown a curve ball earlier this year when an accident kept him from using his drawing hand. Reed found a positive outcome to this by resorting to using his left hand for his next comics project. Lefty is an experiment that ended up opening up the creative process in very interesting ways.
Draw with your left hand and see what happens.
Mini-comics are already creative experimental labs to begin with. So, yeah, using your left hand to draw with when you’re right-handed sounds like a classic way to get out of your comfort zone. As you can see, Reed made the most of it.
Exploring family connections.
Untethered by the familiar can provide the freedom to be more organic and open to new ideas. For Reed, it set him on course to explore family issues as well as focus on himself and his own issues.
Problem-solving during the creative process.
Ultimately, this exercise with the unfamiliar led Reed down a serious soul-searching path. Fortunately for Reed, his drawing hand was only temporarily impaired so now he’s back to his regular drawing routine, although that much wiser. So, now you can take advantage of his journey, without suffering any accident, and learn from his progress.
Not only that, you can check out an assortment of other work, as well as the upcoming full-length graphic novel, The Cola Pop Creemees (April, 2023), at Bird Cage Bottom Books.
Alright then, a comic that begins with a chimera popping into existence. And all the character can think is to conjure up another one? Nice and weird. I love it! Welcome to another installment of Endswell. The last time we picked this series up I did a recap of the first three issues. Number 4 is an all-out cavalcade of wonderful nonsense. Let’s take a closer look.
Endswell is a comic that I find goes well if you don’t worry about how it ends. You just enjoy it in the moment as anything can and will happen and, before long, it’s done and all ends well! It’s a whimsical journey we’re on and I’m okay with that. I think one can learn a lot from its decidedly irreverent approach, whether or not you’re an aspiring cartoonist yourself.
Now, there is indeed a story going on here about a family estate involving a farm with assorted intrigue attached to it. And each issue follows a series of vignettes from various moments of family history from a different member of the family. In this issue, we’re looking back at a version of the author as a lad.
I am going out on a limb perhaps but I think what Morey is doing is a kind of pure comics where a reader can step in at any point, on any page, and have a bit of fun, without concern over the plot. I don’t think all comics are capable of that, not even all comic strips. Comics should lend itself to this, for sure, and it does. I’m just impressed whenever I see a fine example of crisp and clean work like this playfully working with the medium. As for the actual narrative, of course, follow along closely and you’re rewarded with a surreal family drama.
Hang on and dig deeper, and you realize that Morey has indeed created what I’m calling a “pure comics environment” where it seems anything can and will happen. I mean, to complete my point, where else but in such a loopy and fertile space can you give rise to philosophical pondering over the quality of life? Bravo, Mr. Morey on some compelling comics!
Queen of Snails: A Graphic Memoir. Maureen Burdock. Graphic Mundi. 2022. pp 228. $25.95
Maureen Burdock has a delightful way of casting a spell upon the reader. It’s a slow and gradual process, much like coming from a snail’s point of view inasmuch as it is a refreshing way to see. What better way, really, to examine a life, especially when trying to connect all the dots and many of the dots seem out of reach or are missing. Our guide knows this much: mother/daughter relationships are complicated as it is and, in Burdock’s case, she can trace a hard case of melancholia going back generations: mother and daughter at odds; or separated; or in pain. All of this, mind you, is being drawn, slowly or quickly (we tend to draw faster than we think) and the results bring the reader in. Each page simply left me wanting to know more and more.
Caught in a maternal web.
To have your own mother seemingly working against you. The ultimate betrayal? Well, it doesn’t cut much deeper than that. Burdock tosses and turns trying to figure out her mom because it sure didn’t feel like she was exactly looking out for her. It’s clear that she was distant and that she focused so much of her energy on her fervent devotion to worshiping Jesus. Ah, can you worship Jesus to excess? Was it worship or was it a mania that told Burdock’s mother that nothing else mattered since Jesus would provide? Of course, Burdock seeks answers in a gentle and steady way much like the metaphor of a snail she employs throughout the book. Burdock’s exploration reveals that her mother’s life was far from easy as she experienced her own series of trauma and displacement connected with growing up during World War II and its aftermath.
When one’s life is made so unstable by your parents (Burdock’s father wasn’t much help either) then you go into survivor mode and cultivate a sense of independence pretty young in life. Much of this book is about Burdock finding her way, on her own. During the course of the book, Burdock documents her childhood in Germany and subsequent move with her mother to the United States, to a small town in Wisconsin, only later to return to Germany. It was hardly a match made in heaven. Burdock struggles to fit in and never quite does fit in. Her mother remains as depressed and fervently religious as ever. Burdock provides a very honest and uninhibited portrayal of her coming of age, sexual awakening, and being molested by someone close to her family, which brings to mind the autobiographical work of cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner.
There’s a moment in the book that seems to sum things up, says so much about inter-generational pain and sheds light on Burdock’s search to know her mother. Burdock cites a UNESCO report that estimated 8 million children were homeless after WWII, many alone and wandering the streets. These “lost children” stood in the cultural imagination for “the obliteration of European civilization, lawlessness and confusion, and unrestricted sexuality.” Burdock quotes writer Alice Bailey: “Those peculiar and wild children of Europe and China to whom the name ‘wolf children’ has been given . . . have known no parental authority; they run in packs like wolves.” In this same two-page sequence, Burdock concludes that her mother has perhaps confused Jesus with Somnus, the Roman god of sleep, and the protection that comes from just closing your eyes. Thankfully, it is Burdock who has chosen to not only keep her eyes open and remain alert but to also report back her findings in this landmark work.
The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) may bring to mind Ernest Hemingway and his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a war that pitted a new leftist government elected in 1936 against Fascist and extreme-right forces. Freedom was on the line, a harbinger of what lay ahead in Europe. Outside of Hemingway, this graphic novel provides a stirring recount of events sure to stay with the reader. It features the true story of Abe Osheroff, a lifelong activist, along with two of his friends, who joined the fight.
The look and feel of the book evokes wholesome family movies from the 1930s, spiked with a decidedly leftist view; or vintage comic books imbued with an earnest propaganda. I think that is a great way to go to get readers into the mindset of that era and especially the players in this drama. The first few pages steadily set the tone. Page One depicts Woody Guthrie singing an activist ballad. This is followed by a few pages with Abe and a couple of his friends helping a neighbor lady who hasn’t paid her rent. They move her belongings back into her apartment after her landlord threw them out. This leads to a scuffle with a brutal local police officer. Followed by Abe falling in love with Caroline, a local activist. In no time, these lads will be fighting Franco in Spain.
The immersive quality of this graphic novel is, as I suggest, due to a compelling narrative (the fictionalized true story) putting to use many of the tricks of the trade employed by the war comics and romance comics of yesteryear. All in all, this method proves to be an excellent educational device. The reader isn’t expected to look for too much in the way of subtext to distract from the prime account. There are some artful flourishes to be found in dialogue, the flow of the narrative, and the overall clever use of the vintage comics format. And there are certainly moments within the comic that feel as lively and relevant as anything today. Lastly, I must point out that the art is dazzling. Timmons isn’t just reworking old comics but she’s channeling them and making them her own. Any student of history will find much to be engaged with. This graphic novel proves to be an excellent portal into a bygone era and makes the case that history is always sitting on a shelf awaiting to be rediscovered.
Public Domain (#5) writer/artist Chip Zdarsky Image Comics (19 Oct 2022 issue) $3.99
Chip Zdarsky is an exemplary, stupendous, and extraordinary comics creator, someone I’ve admired since his groundbreaking work with Matt Fraction on Sex Criminals. But, before I embarrass myself any further, let the following video create the right mood. Maybe you are already a fan but, if you’re new, let Chip Zdarsky speak for himself:
Okay, so, Sex Criminals was written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky. For Public Domain, Zdarsky is both the writer and artist. And that fact alone is worth the price of admission. We get full-on Chip Zdarsky, filled with whipsmart humor. People still use “whipsmart,” don’t they? Anyway, this is a love letter to the comic book from somebody who really gets it, and has seen it all from working on many of the biggest comic book franchises. Zdarsky knows where the bodies are buried or, in other words, how corporate comics are made. And, well, that’s not always to the satisfaction of comics purists or to anyone who appreciates a well-thought-out story. That’s the theme here: the little guy (Jack Kirby or Bill Finger, etc.) going against the suits who take the lion’s share of the profits and exploit the work created by the likes of a Kirby or a Finger. The little guys vs. the suits. And that’s not to say that little guys can’t be physically big and/or wear actual suits.
From #4: Let’s make some comics!
Issue Five is a great jumping on point as the stage is set for the old true blue creator of the iconic (and movie franchise) comic book character, The Domain, to get his chance to create his own new stories and own the rights to them. Syd Dallas never really cared about the business side to comics and allowed his employer, Singular media, to rob him blind. That all changed when a perfect storm of circumstances led to a legal fight. Now, suddenly, Syd Dallas is leading his own comic book company featuring the new adventures of The Domain. This is a far-fetched adventure even for Syd but his sons, both at loose ends, force him to find the will and the grit to give it a go. Add to the mix a young aspiring writer, Tanya, who used to work for Syd’s less than scrupulous creative partner, Jerry Jaspers.
From #4: Enter Tanya!
In this latest issue, it’s up to Syd to get on with creating comics. Along with his two wayward sons, Miles (the ex-reporter with a bad temper and gambling addiction) and David (the tattoo artist with the shit-eating grin). Some of the best moments involve Miles and David and are seemingly nothing moments of apprehension and ennui. One favorite line from the new issue: “S’all good, man. Just a bunch of unemployed people pretending to not be unemployed.”
From #4: We love comics!
All in all, the banter and social commentary adds up to a delicious dark satire on the less than innocent comics industry. But who among us is innocent, right? Ah, well, now that’s the frame of mind to be in for this snarky, yet heart-felt, tale. Getting back to the issue of creating quality work, it all comes back to it being well-thought-out work and that’s where Zdarsky has got you covered. He actually writes! Maybe that’s his big secret: to actually write with integrity and, heck, you just might create something worth reading. Who knew?
Public Domain is published by Image Comics. Issue Five comes out 19 October 2022. If I did any rating, I’d give this one 10/10.
As a Cartoonist. Noah Van Sciver. Fantagraphics. 2022. 104 pp. $19.99
One thing you need to get straight is that a bona fide cartoonist, in the truest sense of the word, is someone with a certain way of moving about in the world. I’m a cartoonist, so I should know. Just about every word I write is somehow connected to the fact that I’m one of those people. Word choice is everything. Well, maybe it’s more like every line of thought but it can get right down to the granular level. It’s absolutely a way of life, and that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is–and those among us who are part of this tribe, made up of so many groups and subgroups, understand that this unique ability to write and draw comes at a price. No one is born with this ability, although some people are definitely more predisposed to creating comics than others. Sorry, but it’s a skill that demands a number of factors to fall into place if you intend to reach a certain level of excellence. You don’t see a short person agonizing over the fact that they will never be an all-star basketball player. And, yes, I know about Spud Webb, but he’s the exception to the rule. Anyway, most people don’t give a hoot about whether or not they will ever create comics of any form, let alone win awards and accolades for their effort. This is the story about someone who really cares about all those things having to do with becoming a masterful cartoonist. We’re talking about Noah Van Sciver. And he’d be the first to tell you that being a cartoonist is no walk in the park–and yet, there isn’t anything he’d rather be more.
This book is about all the peculiar things about being a cartoonist. That’s really what it all boils down to. Being a cartoonist is peculiar. That, in and of itself, is a burden and yet it is also alluring. Essentially, it’s something special that envelopes the person seeking to master it. Just like any other creative endeavor, like starting up a band. Noah Van Sciver’s story is one of struggle, persistence, and ultimate accomplishment. This book, a collection of short works in comics, adds up to a portrait of the artist, perhaps his best set of portrait pieces to date. This is, you could say, an anthology all by one creator. In the world of indie comics, cartoonists are always scrambling to jump on board and join the latest collective effort, a way to promote each other and get one’s work out into the world. It’s all about getting people to read your work. A lot of Van Sciver’s auto-bio comics are about this ongoing pursuit of readers: courting them, wanting them, wondering where they are. For all the anti-social behavior that a cartoonist may engage in, at the end of the day, it’s all about the readers. Maybe the cartoonist isn’t exactly looking to spend too much time with any particular reader, but it’s nice to know that they’re still around.
Van Sciver wins over his readers without playing up to them. Far from it. In fact, he’s more than happy to speak the unvarnished truth byway of his social satire. He has a way of evoking authenticity. A real cartoonist, especially someone like Van Sciver who uses his own life for material, is always striving to be real and avoid any false notes. So, Van Sciver’s best work comes across as totally unfiltered. Of course, it’s a balance of artifice and reality. But a reader still ends up getting caught up in the moment as when Van Sciver is juggling an interview with a prominent reporter and his uncouth brother who has just crashed upon the scene. In this specific moment, a big event at an art museum featuring Van Sciver’s work, the hierarchy is easily hijacked. No sooner has Van Sciver begun to talk to the reporter than he’s put off by her obvious remarks. He even sympathizes with his train wreck of a sibling, if only for a moment.
In another more complex scene, Van Sciver is a visiting artist on campus and must find a way to tolerate those less fortunate but still quite annoying. A relatively young man, actually thirty and not so young, who loves to wear a top hat and read teen girl manga, is prime fodder for Van Sciver’s wrath. The guy in the top hat, it turns out, is easily triggered by what he sees as Van Sciver’s micro-agressions. Nevermind that Top Hat has a lot of arrested development to deal with. Now, Top Hat’s focus is to get Van Sciver into trouble by reporting him to a school administrator. There’s no winning for Van Sciver when he’s called in to explain himself. Later, he tries to turn the other cheek and be positive. But, ultimately, Van Sciver is right back to being underwhelmed by life on campus.
A wonderful companion piece to this collection is the 2018 graphic memoir, One Dirty Tree, looking back on a childhood with eight other siblings in a less than ideal situation. This is a closer look at a ramshackle upbringing: living in squalor, an abusive and irresponsible father who is a Mormon zealot, and a young man with a very uncertain future–a young life miraculously held together by dreams of some day becoming a famous cartoonist! By force of will and determination, Noah Van Sciver turned his dreams into a reality beginning with his series of collected comics, Blammo. That would lead to his early masterpiece, his first graphic novel, 2012’s The Hypo. And, most recently, 2022’s Joseph Smith and the Mormons. This new book, As a Cartoonist, comes full circle with a collection of short works that feature comics from Blammo, among other sources.
In 1980, Woody Allen made Stardust Memories. He had already made two of his masterworks, Annie Hall and Manhattan, and he seemed to be at a crossroads: keep making funny movies or make more serious films. Perhaps there was a bit of a struggle. Just see Interiors. Anyway, a certain Woody Allen universe had been created and he was pretty much set and would go on to create a wonderful body of work. Van Sciver pays homage to that creative turning point in a moment in the book where he recreates Allen asking space aliens for advice. It’s a perfect opportunity for Van Sciver to insert himself and provide another take on the absurdity of it all.
Van Sciver is now at a point where he can look back and see significant milestones, including Fante Bukowski, which alone would thrill any cartoonist to call their own, and which Van Sciver can say confidently he brought into this world. Having recently become a father, Van Sciver honors his son, Remy, with a dedication and the final comic in the book. I think it’s safe to say that Noah Van Sciver is on the right path.