Trve Kvlt. IDW publishing. (W) Scott Bryan Wilson (A) Liana Kangas. Release date of first issue: August 17, 2022. $3.99
Let’s face it, it’s really tough being an individual. For Marty Tarantella, a working class hero in this comic book series we’re about to explore, life had become one big rut. Oh, sure, he was quite an individual, very quirky and unpredictable. But he’d paid a hefty price for being eccentric with no professional skills, unless flipping burgers counts for much, which it doesn’t. Marty had been working at Burger Lord at the same entry level job for the last fifteen years. Something had to give. To make matters worse, the way out of his rut was completely left in Marty’s hands. This guy can’t get a break! However, Marty was determined not to be just another loser chewed up by the gears of capitalism.
Long live losers!
Marty Tarantella, a young-at-heart aging hipster, was in real danger of entering a slow death when he stumbled upon the most hair-brained scheme that would blow up in his face while also catapulting into a whole new level of consciousness. Marty’s no senator’s son, just an Average Joe, the kind of guy that Kevin Smith has honored in much, if not all, of his work. Heck, Mr. Smith created a whole genre all his own, populated with the most eccentric of dead end kids. This is certainly not lost on the creative team behind this comic as they pull out all the stops to have Marty fly his loser freak flag. Fail! Fail! Gloriously Fail!
Yeah, my friends call me, Tarantula.
The fast food world is a very strange world, just as bumbling and insular as the mall world, a place where staff and customers alike fully embrace being losers. This was a choice someone made to find themselves in a highly artificial disconnected environment. That’s okay. Let ‘er rip, hang on tight, and go for the chili fries! Wash it down with a Pepsi. And don’t forget that bacon cheeseburger. Marty’s big mistake was thinking he could outwit the system he’s let himself fall prey to with as little effort as he put into submitting to it.
Marty and his supervisor, Bernice, have been toiling away at Burger Lord since forever. Why rock the boat now? Ah, if only Marty knew what he didn’t know then! This is the sort of story that you love to linger over the details as the main character gets deeper into trouble. Writer Scott Bryan Wilson delivers on all the authentic details of the fast food milieu. Artist Liana Kangas has a delightfully light style that adds some relish to the most subtle and mysterious of moments. There’s the scene where Alison, a prospective new employee, comes in long after some major plot points but with a sophisticated and intriguing tale of her own. This is where the collaborative spirit shines for writer and artist. Alison turns out to be a real wild card in this story, steering things in uncanny ways. Maybe Marty does have a friend in this cruel world after all! But it’s just too soon to say what kind of friend.
If you’re looking for that something different, this is it. Yes, I can honestly say that the comic that is currently ringing my bell is this one! Go get yourself one and, yeah, you’ll want fries with that too. Let’s roll out the A+ for this comic. If I’m a ratings guy, I give it a solid score. 10/10.
Visit IDW and see what they have in store for you.
Dark Spaces: Wildfire. IDW publishing. (W) Scott Snyder (A) Hayden Sherman. Release date of first issue: July 20, 2022. $3.99
Imagine you are a big-time comic book publisher executive, DC Comics to be exact, and you are directed to read the work of a hot new lead, an emerging talent who could easily, and very artfully, pump fresh new blood into the tired old veins of top-tier landmark characters. So, you take a seat, pour a Scotch and Soda, and read about this strange silver blimp floating above the American heartland, keeping a young man from his sweetheart. The story is so fresh and new, it knocks your socks off–and you hire this wunderkind, one freshly minted Columbia creative writing dept. grad, Scott Snyder. And he doesn’t let you down. No, he adds color to the faces of many of ’em: Batman, Swamp Thing, the whole frickin’ Justice League. The rest is history, or amazingly good comics. Fast forward to today, Scott Snyder is working some of his storytelling magic at IDW comics. This time it’s a story about fire.
Fire! Don’t yell it in a crowded movie theater, that’s what they used to say. Fire, as a comic book plot, falls somewhere within the disaster genre. Things are more stripped down to their essentials, like a black box theater production. Very specific. This reminds me of Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s Underground, the comic that mainly takes place inside a cave. Or, more broadly, another comic that comes to mind is the enviro-thriller, The Massive by Brian Wood. More specifically, I think of A Fire Story, by Brian Fies, the graphic memoir documenting the trauma of one of the more recent devastating California fires. All this brings us to the work of writer Scott Snyder and artist Hayden Sherman, a story of fire and destiny.
A story with such a specific theme, as fire, can feel claustrophobic. Snyder masterfully opens things up, giving the reader rich character profiles, each character providing a window into another world. This is a story about a firefighting team, one made up of convicts. Even the team leader, Ma, was a convict at one time. This special program is intended to help disadvantaged women prisoners find a way back into society, or something like that. It’s a great plot device. Can these flawed, hardened and resentful, characters, be relied upon to do the right thing? Well, no. They aren’t built that way. They could change but, there’s plenty to indicate they are all just a match strike’s away from doing the wrong thing. And, thus, we have quite an interesting story! Fire, all alone, is just too abstract. Now, you’ve got conflict, plenty of it, along with plenty of fire!
As I suggest, fire alone is boring–but add a little sideways weird perspective, some kind of spice, and suddenly things can get very interesting. Such is the case with Hayden Sherman’s handling of the art. The above image is just one example of Sherman’s inventive use of comic storytelling structure. Do something different with panels, or text boxes, etc. and you’re good to go. Not only does Sherman relish adding eye-catching details, he has nailed it in bringing to life this troubled crew of tough people who, whether they realized it or not, are all just waiting to blow everything up. Maybe they know it’s a doomed fantasy they’re engaging with but, for some, it’s just too hard not to play with fire. This is a story that makes total sense to have Scott Snyder tell. I can’t wait to read the whole thing once it’s available.
And, for those keeping score at home, I give this four stars. Rating: 10/10.
A few words on IDW Originals
Comics and graphic novel publisher IDW has created a lot of buzz with its launch of nine new original titles, each one with the potential of being developed into a movie or series. I’ve been looking over the offerings and there’s some very exciting stuff, each deserving of a closer look. Here is a list of the nine new IDW original titles. This is from IDW promo and I’ve added a few confirmed start dates. . . .
Dark Spaces: Wildfire (July 20, 2022), a thriller series written by Scott Snyder with art by Hayden Sherman, follows a group of female inmate firefighters deep into the smoldering California hills, where their desperate heist of a burning mansion will lead them to the score of a lifetime…or a deadly trap!
Trve Kvlt (August 10, 2022), a five-issue miniseries written by Scott Bryan Wilson with art by Liana Kangas, introduces Marty Tarantella, a down-on-his-luck loser whose last-ditch scheme to escape a lifetime of fast-food service sets him on a collision course with a cult of violent, Devil-worshiping lunatics!
Crashing (September 21, 2022), a five-issue miniseries written by Matthew Klein with art by Morgan Beem, throws open the doors of an emergency room filled with casualties of a superhuman war, where Rose Osler, a doctor on her own path of addiction and recovery, faces the most dangerous day of her medical career.
Earthdivers, an ongoing series written by Stephen Graham Jones with art by Davide Gianfelice, unites four Indigenous survivors in an apocalyptic near future as they embark on a bloody, one-way mission to save the world by traveling back in time to kill Christopher Columbus and prevent the creation of America.
Dead Seas, a six-issue miniseries written by Cavan Scott with art by Nick Brokenshire, transforms a cynical convict into a reluctant hero when he’s trapped on a sinking prison ship swarming with ghosts. Can he unite desperate criminals, pirates, and brutal guards as they try to escape a watery grave?
Golgotha Motor Mountain, a five-issue miniseries written by Matthew Erman and Lonnie Nadler with art by Ryan Lee, is a high-octane, redneck motor massacre about two meth-cooking brothers and their attempt to make it home in one piece as all manner of cosmic alien horrors are hot on their trail.
Arca, an original graphic novel written by Van Jensen with art by Jesse Lonergan, leaves a dying Earth behind as billionaires establish a luxurious new society out among the stars, tended to by teenage indentured servants. But one girl discovers that the good life promised for their years of servitude was a lie…
The Sin Bin, a six-issue miniseries written by Robbie Thompson with art by Molly Murakami, hits the road with washed-up hockey player Dale “Dukes” Duquesne, who moonlights as a monster hunter during away games with his daughter, Cat, in tow, hoping to find her mother’s killer.
The Hunger and the Dusk, a twelve-issue storyline written by G. Willow Wilson with art by Chris Wildgoose, upends an age-old conflict between humans and orcs by introducing a new, deadlier species. Fragile alliances form—and unexpected romances blossom—as former enemies wade into battle together to save their two races.
I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.
Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.
Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.
The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”
It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.
Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.
One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.
Is Brian Michael Bendis the hardest working guy in comics? Or is it that Greg Rucka fella? When I see yet another girl trouble comic with a very well established name attached to it, that gives me pause. That’s not to say this isn’t worth checking out. When in doubt, don’t pout! First, there are plenty of fans who are looking for a certain itch to scratch. This is the story of Pearl, a tattoo artist who was born into the yakuza underworld. Pearl is a critically acclaimed Jinxworld title partnering with Dark Horse. And the talent behind it, Bendis and artist Michaeli Gaydos, are also behind the celebrated Jessica Jones title. So, all in all, an exceptional crew at work on satisfying a certain itch.
A girl with a gun. Blam! Blam! Blam!
For those catching up, Pearl found out about her parents and her connection to mobsters in previous volumes of this on-going series. In this misadventure, the big mystery to solve is summed up in the question, “Who is the ghost dragon of San Francisco?” Who, indeed! If we can find that out, then it unlocks other questions, and so on down the line. All in all, this is supposed to be a fun roller coaster of a ride, all wonderfully rendered by Gaydos. What matters most here is whether a casual reader of this genre, such as myself or maybe yourself, can claim a good reading experience from this. In other words, is this as compelling as viewing Ozark or maybe perhaps some notches below that? That show comes to mind since we have a young person in over her head because of her criminal parents. Anyway, as far as satisfying an itch to scratch, it does a nice job. I’m not going to say this is at the level of Ozark but few things are. If you’re already a fan, this is definitely for you.
We need to talk.
So, what exactly happens in this comic? In a nutshell, you get a lot of cool dialogue and a bunch of crunchy and gritty action. All for the price of a latte. Not bad. Not bad at all. This comic is so completely in the Dark Horse wheelhouse and that’s a very good thing. This is a fine example of the girl trouble comic. Even the most casual of readers will get a kick out of it. This is the first issue in this new mini-series so a terrific place to jump right in.
PEARL III #1 comes out May 25, 2022, 32 pages, priced at $3.99, from Dark Horse Comics.
Which came first, the Elephant or the Projector? It was the Elephant!
The Projector and Elephant. by Martin Vaughn-James. edited and designed by Seth. introduction by Jeet Heer. New York Review Comics. 2022. 212 pp. $49.95
Martin Vaughn-James (1943 – 2009) secured his place in the history of comics whether he realized it or not. Thanks to this recently released edition by New York Review Comics, that distinction is now more firmly in place. The work that Vaughn-James created, beginning in the early ’70s, amounted to an early form of the genre we now commonly understand as the graphic novel. But this type of art did not have an established community or market back when it was first released circa 1970-71. Underground comix existed but it was far from a sure thing as to where it was going. Add to that the fact that Vaughn-James was European which, in general, inclined him more towards art for art’s sake. New York Review Comics does a great service with this edition that collects two works, Elephant (1970) and The Projector (1971).
Martin Vaughn-James. The artist in his element, such a very good place to be.
If you’re going to seek out retro comics, perhaps the best way is through a deluxe edition such as this. For sure, there is something very special about reading a vintage comic in its original state with it pages aged to perfection, with its own aura of being a thing from a certain place and time. But, with a finely curated work, you pick up an optimal viewing/reading experience plus whatever bells and whistles come along for the ride. In this case, we have the erudition of Jeet Heer (The Nation) and the design sense of master cartoonist Seth. According to Heer, he states that the work known as Elephant (published in 1970) was a dry run attempt towards the creation of the work, The Projector (1971). But was it? After having read both, I have to wonder if such a conclusion is imposing our current standards upon the efforts of Vaughn-James. The methodology that is now commonly understood among indie cartoonists goes like this: first, you create a small scale version of your book in the format of a “chapbook” or “mini-comic” and then, if you’re up to it, you proceed with a full-on large scale version, an actual graphic novel. This path has become the golden path, the yellow brick road, to the closest thing cartoonists have to dreams of fame and fortune. That kind of game plan, that kind of strategizing, did not yet exist as a commonly understood model in the hippy dippy era that Martin Vaughn-James circulated in. I also say this because Elephant and The Projector appear to be two separate animals. In other words, there isn’t a coherent progression of ideas from one book to another. Both books are about the same page length. Both are ambitious. Anyway, I would certainly enjoy discussing this with Jeet Heer. And maybe we’ll do that at some point. We’re dealing with ghosts now. Martin Vaughn-James, throughout his life, created comics of one kind or another, most notably, Cages. It was a very cool life. He basically led the kind of life a man of his passions and interests would seek to live: he got to express himself in as many mediums as suited him. He painted. He drew. He wrote. And, along the way, he made something that involved working with sequential art which was decades away from being branded as the “graphic novel” genre.
Another day at the office.
From what I can tell, or intuit, is that Martin Vaughn-James (isn’t that a groovy name?) was a dude who enjoyed being left alone to pursue his art. He probably wasn’t someone who would have gone around in later years, wearing a beret, and touting his landmark work in comics over and over again, from one dinner party after another, gradually and steadily making inroads into academic circles, museums and galleries, until it became an undisputed well-known and widely celebrated fact that he was responsible for one of the earliest versions of the “graphic novel.” It takes a lot of energy and a certain careerist bent to do that, especially if the actual work might not fare so well on its own, and some people do it very well. And others don’t do it all or just not quite enough of it to where you’ve secured that everyone in the room is fully aware of who you are. For these artists, sometimes a bit of luck will come around to help secure a legacy. An academic will publish a paper. A publisher will publish a book. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if the work is the real deal and can indeed speak for itself once it gets an audience.
Martin Vaughn-James was in his late twenties, in full bloom as an artist, in the early ’70s. The work in this book reflects the efforts of someone who was exploding upon the artistic scene, with a subversive and irreverent sensibility. I think the two works included here defy any easy explanation or categorization. It looks to me that, once Vaughn-James began to play with the various options offered him by the comics medium, he was like a kid in a candy store who could not resist trying a little bit of everything. Both works are highly experimental, very influenced by Surrealism, and out to blow your mind! But can you blame a kid for wanting to do that? In this case, that was just the right thing to do! Now, so many years later, so many cycles through the culture later, we’re left with this strange work from a whole other time and place. And, wouldn’t you know it, Vaughn-James got it right. It still blows your mind. A quote I found from Vaughn-James fits perfectly with our own time: “We experience collectively approved emotions on a national scale. Any deviation is considered neurotic, insane or subversive.”
Horse and rider in freefall.
In both of these books, the plot takes a backseat to an artist expressing himself and his place in the world. But there are some devices at play. We do have a figure who functions as a protagonist or host or alter ego. The backgrounds, in fact, seem to have as much, if not more, to say than our hero, a perpetually grinning bald man in glasses who, from time to time, falls into one situation after another. Most compelling of all is the whole experimental nature of the two works and the striking images that result. The most stunning of them all is a horse, with its rider wrapped up in canvas, each falling from a skyscraper. Yeah, that alone, is definitely worth the price of admission. There are other significant moments and experiments to enjoy and ponder over too. As I say, I think Vaughn-James set things up to explore as much as possible. Along the way, he made a few dry stabs at satire and a few comments on society and art.
Into the land of milk and honey.
As for the differences between the two works, especially regarding an evolution from the first book to the second, if that’s the case, perhaps Vaughn-James may have shifted his gaze a little to a more formal approach. Who knows? The Projector has the black line art on brown paper, which gives everything a muted look, not to mention it making for a less crisp reading experience. At first, I wasn’t liking it but it grew on me. The centerpiece to The Projector is a two-page spread of a freeway during rush hour, jam packed with cars. To each side is an endless stream of advertising, consumer culture run amok. Accentuating that scene are colossal nude women overseeing the tableaux. The women, while having voluptuous bodies, each have grotesque faces. That appears to be a subversive act by Vaughn-James calling out the ugliness of using sex to sell products. In the end, a painter’s vision, in the service of comics. But I don’t think Vaughn-James was likely thinking that way. Again, he was a dude being an artist, letting those future chips fall where they may.
To say that J. Webster Sharp is a visionary comics artist is a very good place to start. I was immediately intrigued by what I saw of her work on her Instagram and I knew I’d need to take a closer look. Having read the last five of her works in comics, I can confidently say that this is someone who tapped into something special early on and continues to blossom. Jemma’s latest book which I’ve received is Fondant #2, and it is easily her most powerful work. This is in-your-face stuff, delving into deep psychological and sexual issues, and bringing to mind such artists as Phoebe Glockner and Renee French. I applaud what she is doing and would like to share a bit of what I’ve observed.
If I’m really being honest, I am fascinated by Jemma’s daring and inventive play with the theme of feet. I’ve always been interested in feet on various levels, not the least of which is as a subject for art. So, it’s nice to see a fellow artist on the same page. Jemma certainly confronts the foot theme from a wide variety of vantage points, spanning from cadavers to tortured cathartic acts. Like much of what she does, feet are rendered in such a way as if encrypted within a larger psychological landscape–especially with her distinctive pointillist style. If you scan the pages too quickly, you might miss a lot. And, if you linger, it can be a combination of unsettling and satisfying. Yes, it pays to be honest. I do so love feet, particularly depicted in unusual and provocative ways. I’m sure there’s a number of stories behind each of these depictions. I like what I see from this very honest and daring artist.
What is so impressive to me about Jemma’s latest book is how she reached a point where she was ready to just completely let loose. This book is totally wordless and confidently so. There’s no need to explain anything. You simply don’t need any form of text to accompany an image of breasts with teeth instead of nipples. That pretty much speaks for itself. The rest of the book plays with more body horror as well as various other surreal imagery involving exotic animals, bondage and strange lab experiments. It’s all quite unusual, fascinating and thrilling. If you enjoy work of a more adult nature, then this is for you. Obviously, this is highly charged work that is unafraid to be, at times, more dark and challenging. But it’s not simply shock value that Jemma is after. Like Phoebe Glockner and Renee French, the work of J. Webster Sharp is invested in cultivating mystery and wonder through finely-crafted work. As I suggest, you will be rewarded for taking the time to linger upon a page. You may even find that you like what you see more than you realized.
Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation. Liana Finck. Random House (April 12, 2022). New York. 352pp. $28.99
Cartoonist Liana Finck (born 1986) is the Millennial generation’s answer to James Thurber (1894 – 1961). It’s not an exact match but close enough for the purposes of this review. The two main points of comparison are first, that Finck is, like Thurber was in his day, a superstar cartoonist at The New Yorker; and second, the fact that she draws in a very spare manner. Thurber’s own artwork is similar in sensibility. He was primarily a writer and it seems he was content with a relatively basic cartooning style. So, these are two very different people but both are equally beloved all-time favorites at The New Yorker, and that says plenty about each cartoonist’s respective zeitgeist. For Thurber, his writing, and cartoons, featuring the battle between the sexes, were reliable sources of amusement, beginning in the 1930s. During a time that saw the ascendance of the American male, Thurber was well equipped as a writer to question that position; and, as a cartoonist, to poke fun at less than infallible man. Finck does something similar with her cartoons as they confront current societal conflicts. Both Thurber and Finck represent The New Yorker at the highest level. Recently, the magazine devoted numerous pages to promote Finck’s latest book. This is all to say that Finck’s book, on the subject of The Bible no less, is one of those books, a big deal kind of book, set up for heavy scrutiny. As for me, I can see what Finck is doing as following her own quirky creative path. Maybe she’d prefer not be the voice of her generation but, at the same time, I see where she can genuinely embrace that. In the end, it makes sense for her to tackle Adam and Eve and Old Testament dogma and put a whimsical stamp on it, one that gently comments on gender roles.
God making a world.
The biggest comment on gender in Finck’s biblical retelling is having a female God. Of course, that doesn’t have any of the shock value that it might have had in Thurber’s day. In fact, it’s possible that Thurber would have been just the cartoonist who could have gotten away with having a female God. Think of all the god-like women in his cartoons! Today, maybe the shock value might be found, for those looking, in Finck maintaining distinctive male and female roles as opposed to today’s focus on gender fluidity. If Finck had wanted to break new ground, or be a provocative voice of her generation, she could have gone down that route. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, I think she holds true to a more fundamental view of her generation and that is of attempting to be more humble and modest. What you get in this book is a bunch of very gentle low-key humor.
Asking the big questions.
It seems that Finck is taking her cue from a quote she provides at the beginning of her book by Jamaica Kincaid that she found the King James version of the first book of the Bible to be a book for children. That quote sets the tone for what follows. Keep in mind that it has often been pointed out that children can be far more perceptive than adults. In an excellent cartoon or comic, however light, irreverant and spare, you can find some of the deepest meaning. For instance, upon realizing she’s naked and should feel shame, Eve is worried about whether she looks fat. That’s funny and quite poignant. It certainly keeps with Finck’s sense of humor.
Once you’re settled in, this book has the ability to charm you if you let it. Finck’s God is definitely a hoot. We all know about that famous temper but Finck’s God also happens to be rather neurotic, prone to worry. In short, she can be a softie too. When she sees that Adam is having a hard time, she reaches out to him. Indulging the fact that Adam mistakenly sees God as a stern old male authority figure, she tells him he was right to name her, Jehovah. Again, very funny stuff and pure Finck.
Like a grand painting that has been cleaned from numerous layers of restorations, Finck lays bare the main players in this drama. Finck lays out a simple narrative with vulnerable characters, pared down to their most basic forms as cartoons, observed simply and directly. When Lilith offers Eve an apple and Eve resists, Lilith leans in for some sympathy and says, “Listen. God never liked me.” But then she goes one better and reveals to Eve that God doesn’t like her either and confides, “But if you have knowledge, then you don’t need to be liked. Here. Take it.” Funny and with a bit of a subversive touch.
The bigger question is whether or not Finck has a bigger vision to pursue beyond a gentle rapping over the knuckles of King James and his lot of biblical scribes. First off, Finck is compelled to make the Bible relatable to younger readers and does a wonderful job of inserting insights connecting it to the Torah. To be sure, Finck has plenty to say about the patriarchy, beginning with Adam, then Cain, and steadily progressing through a laundry list of male culprits. By midway through the book, Finck makes some big creative leaps, like superimposing biblical scenes onto contemporary settings. The results can be quite moving as when she follows Abraham’s pursuit of an art career in New York City only to discover that his success leaves God utterly unimpressed. Ultimately, Finck is at her best in the quieter moments as when God falls in love with Noah and it leaves Noah pretty stressed out. It’s in these strange little moments that Finck is fully in her groove. And then she’ll take things one step further as in a beautiful passage where she depicts how God created the world only to gradually make herself recede into the background, although not completely. Perhaps a gentle poking fun of less than infallible man is the spark to going further. It is not only in keeping with a long tradition of mellow and subtle New Yorker humor but actually hits just the right notes for a wearily self-conscious and sensitive younger generation. So, let there be light, and it doesn’t have to be overwrought or blinding. In the process, you can end up saying just what you need to say. In the end, Finck knows, and demonstrates in this book, how to reach those high points and make the work transcendent.
Think on the Page. Sarah Firth. 2021. purchase here.
Sarah Firth is a very busy and quite popular artist and all-around visual storyteller. Based out of Melbourne, Australia, Firth is a Eisner Award-winning cartoonist, comic artist and writer, speaker and internationally renowned graphic recorder. This book is a collection of various observations which all add up to a heady stream of consciousness, an expansive working out of this or that issue or problem, plainly said or with a touch of mystery. Just one human, being human, being real. She’s made an art out of removing any filter and letting all the bits and pieces of life tumble out in messy, funny, and profound ways.
The theme of this book is about embracing the process of problem-solving, not overthinking it, going with your first impulses, and drilling down to something authentic. It’s part improvisation, part meditation. It’s what happens when you think on the page! This is about comics, art, illustration, and especially that curious beast, live illustration or graphic recording, where the creative is engaged with the subject in the moment and proceeds to not only document but to synthesize, digest, and filter down to the essential. The results can be pretty awesome.
Here’s an insight I’m happy to share again and again: there is an art to sketchnoting. What Firth does with her graphic recording is an art. The industry mantra is to say that any form of quick concise drawing is not art because the thinking is that this message appeals to a general audience. So, sure, the tools and techniques involved here are generally in the service of commercial and educational interests. But what it all amounts to depends upon who is using these tools. If you need remarkable results, something that truly resonates, then you hire a professional like Sarah Firth.
More wisdom I can pass down to you: sketchnoting and comics do indeed mix. Now, the general misconception is that the world of graphic recording and comics have nothing to do with each other. Again, this is an industry mantra thinking that, to even suggest otherwise, is going to confuse people. Ah, and again I state that it all depends upon who is making use of the virtually limitless possibilities available to any artist/commercial artisan. Yes, anyone can doodle (and gain so much from it) and some folks cultivate a special skill set that includes doodles and beyond! Okay, as you can tell, I’m passionate about comics and the wider world it is connected to. That is what is so wonderful about Sarah Firth’s work. This is someone who said, hell yes, here’s a massive playground of creative fun and I’m diving in and making the most of it! As you can see from these examples, Firth is a master at taking choice bits of images and text that result in compelling content that invites discussion and contemplation.
Let’s focus in on one of Firth’s longer comics in her book, this story is entitled, “On Loving a Difficult Creature.” It’s an 11-page story told with a sharp and vivid energy. The little guy who stars in it is named, Ferretie. This is a very specific tale from Firth’s youth when she inherited a ferret from a previous relationship. It all sort of just happened. Firth never intended to find herself with such a challenging pet. Ferrets might seem cute but they pack a wallop of a bite and can take down a rabbit within seconds. It became an ongoing thing for Firth to explain to newcomers to the house that, when Ferretie began to gnaw on your finger, he was only playing, actually holding back quite considerably. What is so impressive to me is how clean, crisp and clear the whole narrative is. That’s not to say it can’t be messy, unclear and ambiguous because that approach can definitely work as you are figuring something out. Firth is capable of whatever vision she wants to share. My point is that there is much to celebrate for well-executed clarity of purpose. What drives this story is providing a portrait of Ferretie and Firth. The ferret proves to be an intelligent, loving and noble little soul. Firth, despite feeling misgivings, does very well by her furry friend and learns many valuable life lessons on responsibility, empathy and compassion. Ferretie lives on in Firth’s own noble and genuine work. Firth is the real deal with her memorable and engaging comics.
Dying For Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Susan MacLeod. Conundrum Press. Quebec. 2021. 184pp. $20
Attention all hipsters, know-it-alls, and the like: We are all growing old and will die. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Now, a book like this may inspire utter dismissal by some self-appointed taste-makers and aspiring trend-setters, but the book I present to you is, without a doubt, a book anyone will benefit from and, yes, it is a worthy book to anyone who cherishes what the comics medium is capable of. Yep, that’s one of the driving forces for what I’m all about, sharing with you comics that are really worth a hoot. One way or another, we are all going to die. It’s the ultimate equalizer. If we care about social justice, then we must care about issues related to aging.
Sorry, Charlie, but nobody gets out of here alive. If you truly appreciated that, what a world this could be!
Aging is somebody else’s problem until it’s not. Parents in need of care can become an abstraction; a project that needs to eventually be confronted. All the while, we seem to forget that we’re all going to die. That reality should humble us. Susan MacLeod has created a book that answers a lot of questions through words and pictures on nursing home care by way of her involvement in the industry and her own personal experience with her mother and the long-term care system. MacLeod’s hand-drawn cartoons bring life and levity to this serious subject and even offer hope.
MacLeod’s approach is part whimsical James Thurber, mystical John Porcellino, and part concise reportage via sketchnoting: brief drawings and text that get to the point fast. It is a hybrid of graphic memoir and the emerging genre known as Graphic Medicine, comics focusing on medical issues. I offer up the term, personal Graphic Medicine. In the hands of MacLeod, it all adds up to an immersive and informative experience. The narrative kicks into gear with brutal honesty as MacLeod paints a picture of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. As a child, she felt so marginalized by her parents that her way of coping was to repeatedly beat up her little brother. While the image of a big sister slugging her smaller sibling is a classic comics trope, the reality of such an exchange is dark to put it mildly. MacLeod acknowledges this and doubles down by showing how this messed up dynamic has haunted her to the present day. To her credit, she follows this line of inquiry to illustrate the potential challenges that can face a family navigating the labyrinthine world of assisted-living with its myriad of limitations. It requires real determination and a united family front certainly helps.
The title of the book, Dying for Attention, speaks not only to the ongoing struggle of elders to be heard amid bureaucracy but to MacLeod’s own journey to find a voice. Going back to when MacLeod was a child, she had a passion for drawing that was repeatedly discouraged by her mother. Drawing was her outlet, within a dysfunctional family, and she never let it go. Back then, she managed to gain attention through bad behavior which resulted in the wrong kind of attention, like her father slapping her across the face. Fast forward to the present, MacLeod is modest about her comics, as she shares in the book’s acknowledgements page. But the fact is that many authorities in comics support this book, including The Center for Cartoon Studies and various notable creatives, like comic artist Colleen MacIsaac. MacLeod’s work has a deceptively simple vibe to it, akin to the energy in a doodle. However, it’s one thing to doodle and quite another, as MacLeod does, to sustain an offbeat style. Add to that a compelling need to create. It was only after her mother’s death at 99, after a nine-year journey with her mom and nursing home care, that MacLeod reached back to her fine arts background (yes, she did end up going to art school) and set out to share her story with words and pictures. She wanted a format that would allow her to share such a heavy subject with a certain amount of levity.
Doodles are complex: enlisted as anti-art tools (look up Sunni Brown); or part of an artist’s palette. MacLeod spikes her doodle-like style, loads it and mixes it. The results are in her pacing and flourishes: the way she hurls a character through space; or the way she evokes transition. So, it is within this relatively simple, or accessible, style, that MacLeod masterfully boils down facts and insights gathered from books, her own interviews, and her own experience in the trenches. Her career was in public relations for the Canadian Health Department where she learned the hard way that spin is everything. She endured the wrath of the government when she dared to include in a public statement that there’s a waiting period of at least six months for elders seeking public nursing home care. In the meantime, they are kept in hospital, where they are less than welcome, known as “bed blockers.” MacLeod comes back to this term in her narrative, fully aware of its visceral effect, putting her skills in using concise language to good use. That is MacLeod’s appeal for me. It’s not bravura drawing skills. And, let’s be honest, skills are only part of it. Moomin, for example, is not an incredible work of art, per se, and yet there’s something endearing, worth staying with. I think MacLeod not only has her heart in the right place but she demonstrates to me a genuine need to share what she knows and make it compelling and accessible. While some cartoonists inspire suspicion in me, I don’t get that from MacLeod.
It’s actually not an easy thing to draw in an easy style. People often think they can completely lean into an easy style and just sleepwalk their way through. It doesn’t work that way. Pitfalls range from generic mush to a style that is too slick and formulaic. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but I think MacLeod’s determination and sincerity serve her well with a style that has integrity. It’s a simple comic strip vibe punctuated with a heightened sense of whimsy here or a smart hint of perspective there. On one page, for example, one panel sums up denial quite aptly: MacLeod is racing up a flight of stairs pulling her frail and disoriented mother along behind her, who is flying like a rag doll. It’s not a “great” drawing and yet it is real and it is memorable.
MacLeod’s most ambitious motif has to do with the notorious call bell, which demonstrates the ongoing struggle her mother was having in alerting the nursing home front office about her needs. First, her little buzzer, the call bell, kept being placed out of her reach. Later, it became obvious that the staff was avoiding her buzzing. For MacLeod, this became a game of trying to figure out the nursing home culture. All this avoidance of buzzers was taking its toll on the quality of life of both residents and staff. Spoiler alert: MacLeod does find a way out of this mess. She discovers a technique which has staff regularly ask residents about their needs. By the time MacLeod is wrapping up her book, she switches from depicting her mother as a cartoon character to a more realistic rendering. The very last drawing is of her dead mother with one hand as if frozen in time, as if holding a call bell.
Keeping a tally of all the slights and missteps she must endure, MacLeod provides an uncanny report from the nursing home front lines. No curt or rude remark goes unnoticed. Each is duly noted and followed by the recurring question, Who taught this person this is the way to respond? No wrongful act goes unnoticed. For instance, when MacLeod discovers her mother’s soiled underwear in her mother’s hospital closet. This leads to a page in the book devoted to a chart that follows the chain of events. Apparently, it all comes down to a recurring problem: a breakdown in communication. And, finally, no problem-solving conversation goes unnoticed. Whether based on various meetings with small groups or interviews with experts, MacLeod consistently mines for golden bits of wisdom. For example, a popular refrain from politicians is to gut public funding for administrators when, in fact, it is going to take funds to attract the best administrators to tackle systemic problems and make sound public policy.
We don’t die in vain when we value life!
In lieu of any all-encompassing solutions, the answers to how to deal with a parent in a nursing home come right back to the child. MacLeod learned the hard way that it takes every inch of self-awareness one can muster to see it through. MacLeod’s mother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more affectionate. MacLeod’s brother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more cooperative. And all the other factors in the world that one could blame, from the patriarchy to ageism, they weren’t going to change suddenly either. In the end, MacLeod had to rely upon herself first in order to move forward.
MacLeod’s book is going to help many readers in search of a better understanding of what’s involved when a parent needs nursing home care. It’s not an easy process and it never really ends. In broader terms, MacLeod’s book offers insights into the search for wellness in general through self-discovery and an appreciation of what it takes to live a worthwhile life.
The Art of Living: Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life. Grant Snider. Abrams. New York. 2022. 144pp. $18.99
Grant Snider creates comics that are often poetic and always engaging on some level. Going back to 2009, it has been Snider’s goal to create at least one full-page comic strip since he began posting to his site, Incidental Comics. Scroll around and you’ll see how his style has progressed. A perfect example of what he does now can be found by simply going to the latest post. The one below is the current post as of this writing and a new comic…
These quirky heart-felt comic strips have attracted a legion of devoted followers (over 100k followers to his Instagram) and have led to book collections. There is one book on creativity, The Shape of Ideas. And another book on literary matters, I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf. And now we have the new one, The Art of Living, due out on April 5, 2022, published by Abrams. Each of these books are pithy, witty and a joy to read.
I think it’s just beautiful to see how Snider has totally blossomed into the artist that he is today. Without a doubt, Snider has moved up to a level of excellence that can draw comparisons to any number of the all-time great cartoonists, including Charles Schulz. I take that statement seriously as I know that I risk stirring up all kinds of controversy and head-spinning wrath from a small but fierce faction of die-hard Schulz loyalists who won’t accept any comparisons to their god. It’s the same sort of sell-appointed expert thinking that is nutty and useless but I digress. Actually, this is relevant to mention given that, while a student, Snider won the Charles M. Schulz Award for college cartoonists. It came with a $10,000 prize and a trip to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. So there!
What I’m trying to say is that Grant’s work has been around, it is appreciated and loved, has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, as well as The Best American Comics anthology series. It’s bona fide good stuff! There will always be snobs and elitists that one can never convince but we’re way past that here. That’s what I’m saying. And I feel very confident is saying that because the universal appeal to what Snider is doing rings very true to me. A fine example is the above two pages: a meditation on light. With relatively simple forms, muted flat colors, and clean crisp lines, the reader is transported to a zen daydream.
Considering the evolution of Snider’s work, from silly gags to a specific vision, I see an artist at work, someone steadily chipping away to what matters most; I also see a cartoonist mining for the very best work and pushing the limits of what is possible within the framework of the comic strip. Snider takes the comics medium very seriously and it shows. The ambition travels well on its way to the reader who gets to enjoy a smooth and pleasing experience. In essence, what Snider is doing is meeting all the aspirations of the best in comics in being compelling good fun, artful, and popular. Yes, popular. One can argue that it’s not enough for a work of comics to be a delightful work of distinguished art and yet remain completely obscure. Well, it can be enjoyed by a certain rarified audience, that’s true. But these same guardians of taste really don’t have a leg to stand on if they try to dismiss the popular works in contemporary comics. Again, a mild digression but worth stating, for sure!
In the end, it is the marvel of creation that Snider can enjoy over and over again–and his readers get it. I can tell you from my own comics-making that magic is definitely possible during the creative process, just as legitimate as in other art forms. What Snider does is go to the deep end of the pool and work his magic. Snider is a true storyteller; his art often, if not always, has a literary quality to it. What Snider ends up giving the reader is work that one can truly come back to and enjoy for multiple views/readings. Through the process, you end up with stuff that reverberates, is iconic, or is simply just the thing you need at that moment.