Some events take on a life of their own and so it is with Short Run, the annual comic arts festival in Seattle. No matter who is in charge, what keeps this gathering alive is a core group of young people who have faith in comics and zines. No matter who is found to be a star attraction, no matter what the list of new titles known by the experts, it is the rush of young people seeking to connect with art and the zeitgeist who give this annual gathering its energy.
Special Guest Marc Bell
That said, much is put into organizing this event, lots of love and care. There are numerous workshops to enjoy. And this year’s special guest is renowned Canadian cartoonist Marc Bell, known as much for his comics and zines as his paintings. Many cities have at least one sort of arts festival such as this and Short Run is part of the Seattle landscape. It’s a combination of the aspirations of the show’s organizers and the zeal of its audience, the will of the people, that makes this possible year after year. If you are in Seattle, and especially if comic arts festivals are new to you, do make sure to pay a visit to Seattle Center, Saturday, Nov. 9th, 2019, 11 am-6 pm.
If you enjoy experimental art, then do check out the new graphic novel by Frank Santoro. This is a work that will transport you to an immersive mindscape where Mr. Santoro tracks memories and explores family history. It is a refreshing approach to the comics medium that plays with elements like text and panels, shifts them, redirects them, and presents them in unexpected ways within a finely-tuned structure. Pittsburgh, a New York Review Comic published by New York Review of Books, brings together a lifetime of storytelling. This is one of the notable titles debuting at this year’s Small Press Expo this weekend, September 14-15, in Bethesda, Maryland.
One card taped to another card and then another.
Frank Santoro is a well-respected and celebrated independent cartoonist and trailblazer. If you are looking for a new way of looking at the comics medium, then consider taking his comics course. Frank Santoro’s work has been exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and the Fumetto comics festival in Switzerland. He is the author of Storeyville and Pompeii. He has collaborated with Ben Jones, Dash Shaw, Frank Kozik, and others. Santoro lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which brings us to his latest work. In Pittsburgh, the reader is introduced to life in the Rust Belt, that region of the country known as the manufacturing hub, the area famously known as the demographic which Hillary Clinton neglected to win over enough votes. It’s a tough working class landscape. Santoro shares that region with you: his growing up, his family, and especially the doomed relationship between his father and mother.
It’s all about the process.
How do you best convey your observations and feelings about your family? In a documentary? In a novel? In an art installation? The possibilities are endless. What Frank Santoro has done is find a different path that combines aspects of various disciplines within one. This is a comic but not a comic that you are typically familiar with. This could be called a graphic novel or memoir but it also manages to be something more. At times, I felt as if some of the actions, dialogue, characters and settings in this book were shifting from one medium to the next. Very easily, I could imagine the whole book being turned into an art installation. Santoro’s method basically breaks down barriers and pares down to essentials. He likes to play with geometry and create backbones for his pages. The goal is for each element on the page to play off each other, each opposing page, and the entire work. He wants the process to show through so, if he makes a mistake, he’ll sort of leave it in and lightly cover it up so that you can still see it. In a sense, each page becomes animated with unexpected movement.
Every element falls into place and plays off each other.
The quotidian of life, the everyday moments that can blur into each other, that is what Santoro aims to capture and evoke. This is one of the things that the comics medium does best! It is akin to a tour de force cinema vertie experience with the camera being replaced by a sketchbook. Santoro is hardly alone in attempting this but what he does is distinctive. And he makes it look easy and, in a weird sense that actually takes years of experience to appreciate, it is. Whatever the case, it can’t look forced. It comes natural to Santoro as he edits, rearranges, and composes. He make various choices which include various ways of telling the story most efficiently while allowing things to breathe. He wants ambiguity but he also demands clarity. He keeps to a basic palette that, in the end, brings out all the color he could ever want. In the end, he presents something new and compelling. In this case, it is his coming to terms with having grown up in a dysfunctional family that ultimately breaks apart. Like any good documentarian and artist, Santoro picks up the pieces, examines them, and with heart and soul makes something out of them.
Comics, elevated to the art form that it is.
Pittsburgh is a 216-page full color hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019, published by New York Review of Books.
A genius is not always fortunate to be appreciated in his own time. That was the fate of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You would think that he’d get some love in such a sophisticated place as Paris but, back in 1778, he needed to hustle in order to get recognition. And Mozart was not one who easily hustled. He repeatedly had to fight for the right to be acknowledged as an artist on his own terms. Frantz Duchazeau brings that struggle to life in his new graphic novel, Mozart in Paris, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
A genius in Paris.
Mozart is Mozart, who can deny that? Maybe Salieri? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen 1984’s Amadeus. But even Salieri, the rival and villain in that movie, had the good sense to know he was dealing with a genius composer. In this graphic novel, we get a wonderful look at the reality of indifference and shortsightedness. French tastemakers, threatened or indifferent to Mozart’s original and innovative music, would try to keep him out of the limelight. Mozart’s own father was relentless in dismissing Mozart’s efforts but, to his credit, he was dealing with a highly precocious individual who did not calm more conservative nerves.
MOZART IN PARIS by Frantz Duchazeau
Mozart didn’t think it was really up to him to convince anyone of his skill and talent. That kind of attitude doesn’t come without a price. Frantz Duchazeau does a wonderful job of showing the reader just what price Mozart had to pay for his own brand of naive arrogance. What if he had only held back and allowed someone to receive a false compliment? What if he had held back and not insulted a rival?
Mozart, as instructor.
Duchazeau has quite an engaging way with the page. Of all the comics I’ve been reading lately, he is definitely among those I see with a magical touch. As if evoking the grace and uncanny elegance of Mozart’s music, Duchazeau balances an engaging mix of variety upon the page with nicely modulated recurring elements, like the way he constructs his panels with one center panel speaking to the bigger picture. In the two examples on display in this review, you have Mozart in the center of one page seeking consensus on his genius. On another page, he is at the center again, but this time he must restrain himself for the sake of his beloved pupil.
Mozart, a young man in a hurry.
Sometimes you must fold your wings in order to someday spread them. That is, unless you’re Mozart. But, on the other hand, this is also the story of a young man in the big city. Mozart was only 22 years-old during this early visit to Paris. And Mozart was driven and had no time to waste. Duchazeau guides the reader through Mozart’s bumpy ride as he stumbles and gets that much closer to his destiny.
Run, Mozart, Run!
Mozart in Paris is a 96-page full color trade paperback, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
An aspiring writer does well to heed that famous Tolstoy quote about families: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Cartoonists, many of them and I include myself among these wonderfully wretched souls, gravitate more often than not to stories about outsiders, people dealing with deep issues. It leads to glorious work like The Nao of Brown, originally published in 2012 by SelfMadeHero/Abrams. A new edition, from SelfMadeHero and Abrams, just came out and it’s a good time to revisit what has become a classic tale of a young woman finding her way.
Welcome to the world of Nao Brown.
Nao Brown, at 28, is still teetering along on the precipice that takes one from childhood to adulthood. Nao comes to understand that one can remain dangling on that cliff forever. This is the year that Nao makes it to the other side. The Nao of Brown is in the same spirit as Ghost World, the Daniel Clowes tour de force graphic novel that seemed, with its major motion picture version, to bring geek culture out of the closet back in 2001. The Nao of Brown is also, just like Ghost World, a crisp combination of exquisite art and writing. Where Clowes is more hard-edged and sarcastic, Dillon is more dreamy and bathed in soft watercolor washes. Our main character, Nao, is struggling to find her place in the world with one foot in her Japanese ancestry and the other foot in her Anglo-British ancestry. And she sees the world in the black and white extremes of an obsessive-compulsive. Her dark thoughts terrify her. Pop culture, hip and ironic, is an island that she can escape to.
The life and times of Nao Brown.
Will one more mix tape be able to save Nao? She works in a pop culture boutique run by Steve, a hapless nerd if ever there was one who has a crush on Nao. She cringes at the thought of the pack of teenage boys who frequent the shop only to worship her. She knows she’s too old for them. She intellectually knows her youth is relative. But she still thinks like a little girl. For most of the book, she works out her feelings for a man she’s developed a relationship with recently. Her initial interest in Gregory was triggered by the fact he resembles a pop culture toy she adores.
Steve, trapped in the friend zone.
This is a fascinating read, no two ways about it, as immersive as any of your most beloved movies, music, novels…or graphic novels! And, as an added bonus, alternating throughout the main narrative is a “story within a story” that is simply icing on the cake! All that said, it’s a crowded field these days with one amazing graphic novel after another. The solution sometimes, just as with any other art form, is a revisit or reissue. And so that brings us to this recent reissue of The Nao of Brown. This new edition, with additional production art, is a totally well-deserved relaunch into the world and will undoubtedly enchant a whole new crop of readers.
Searching for Nao Brown.
The Nao of Brown is a 216-page hardcover. For more details, visit SelfMadeHero and Abrams.
Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Here is one family’s unique experience with the Vietnam War byway of the diplomatic corps: Such a Lovely Little War, written and drawn by Marcelino Truong, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. As a cartoonist and writer, I’m attracted to the more idiosyncratic works in comics and this led me to the work of Marcelino Truong.
A family terrorized.
These deeply personal comics resonate the most with me. Add to it the fact that the author is dealing with being bi-racial, and feeling out of place, and that gets my genuine attention. Truong’s mother, Yvette, is French and his father, Khánh, is Vietnamese. It is circa 1961 and the family has left Washington, D.C, the home they’ve known. Khánh, as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, has been called back to Saigon where he will become the personal interpreter to the new president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem . Thus, our narrative unfolds. It’s quite a perspective, one that is up close and encased in a bubble, in step with the cheeky title to this graphic memoir.
One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror.
Truong’s story is triggered by a need to come clean with as many facts as possible. The Vietnam War is many things. One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror. A boy safely tucked within the circles of affairs of state will witness one thing. A boy who is part of a family in the killing fields will witness another thing. Obviously, little Marco and his brother Domi have got a lot to learn if they’re thrilled to see napalm bombs on the wings of a plane upon their family’s arrival in Vietnam. Of course, Marco and his family are in for an education. Truong goes to great lengths to lay out as many pertinent details as possible, the sort of details that can get lost in, well, the fog of war. This is a story of relative safety, even at the most privileged levels, slipping away. It’s up to everyone to know when to jump before reaching that boiling point.
One family’s experience of the Vietnam War.
Truong’s work is another exquisite example of the auteur cartoonist. As I’ve said many times, it is the auteur cartoonist who meets the full definition of a cartoonist: the creator who does it all: the writing, drawing, and even coloring when applicable. These are the three main roles, along with editing and layout, that are often taken up by a creative team. It’s fascinating to study work where you have one creator basically calling all the shots. It can result in a work that weaves together script and art to an uncanny level. It is a tradition favored in indie circles in the States and even more ingrained in Europe. You can even take this auteur profile one step further and say it involves creating work by hand, as opposed to digital, as much as possible. A lot of artist-cartoonists, with Truong being a leading example, prefer to engage with their comics within a painter-cartoonist mindset. You’ll find here in Truong’s art that you can break it down into a series of watercolors, a complex network of watercolors. Truong does an exceptional job of modulating his use of color. This is a delicate balance, a shifting between duo-tone to full color, whatever fits best. It all adds up and enhances the immersive quality of Truong’s exceptional memoir.
Siagon Calling: London 1963-75 by Marcelino Truong
And there is a sequel. If you’re inspired to pursue further, then you will want to read Saigon Calling: London 1963-75. The irony is as front and center on the cover as it could be as you have the main characters strolling down a crosswalk, ala Beatles, with a napalm blast in the background.
Both Such a Lovely War and Saigon Calling are published by Arsenal Pulp Press. And be sure to visit Marcelino Truong at his website right here.
#SaveSpiderman and #SaveSpidey. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain
This was a shaky situation right from the start: one mega-corporation owns a universe of beloved superheroes; and another mega-corporation owns one of the most beloved characters from that same universe! How is that going to work? For a brief shining moment, it looked like Disney and Sony could play nice and live in a world where Spider-Man could frolick freely right along with his fellow Avengers. But no more, at least not for now. Disney and Sony simply cannot play nice. Fans have their own opinions on that and have #SaveSpiderman and #SaveSpidey trending like crazy. We wish all involved the best of luck! Tom Holland would have made a great Spider-Man right alongside The Avengers.
Here is a graphic novel that many of you, especially in the States, will be intrigued by–or it might make you scratch your head: Les bijoux de la Kardashian, (loose translation, Kardashian’s Jewels) published by Glénat. Of course, this is a book focusing on the ordeal that Kim Kardashian went through in Paris back in 2016. This is a French graphic novel that just screams out for an English translation. Given that Glénat and American comics publisher, IDW, work closely together, it would be easy to see this happen. That said, just enjoying the lively artwork alone is well worth it. Would a U.S. audience not be receptive to an English translation version of this?
Talk about how anything can become content for a graphic novel! The Kim Kardashian hotel heist is actually a complicated story and comics, in fact, prove an ideal tool to sort through the details. Written by journalists François Vignolle and Julien Dumond, this graphic novel is decidedly fact-driven. The artwork is by cartoonist Gregory Mardon who does a marvelous job of bringing what amounts to a classic crime story to life. Mardon’s style is very crisp and clean, as if he were drawing wonderfully concise sketchbook drawings. It is a particular look, very French, exemplified by such legendary French cartoonists like Etienne Davodeau, Jacques de Loustal, and Blutch. So, Mardon’s artwork will evoke for the reader a reporter’s notebook come to life.
The Hôtel de Pourtalès, where Kim Kardashian West was robbed. Celebrities seeking privacy often stay there. From Vanity Fair.
It is quite an undertaking to bring this whole story together. You have two dramatically different worlds colliding: all the aspects of the crime, including the criminals and the police; and all the aspects of the glitzy lifestyle of a true American reality TV icon. The story is based upon police records and investigations into the high-profile crime that took place in an apartment in Paris’ upmarket 8th arrondissement on Oct 3, 2016. François Vignolle, one of the French journalists who co-authored the graphic novel, states: “We explored the routes the thieves and Kardashian took, we went to the places where they were, spoke to sources and took photos of the spots so that the story would be as real as possible.” And it was as if all other news took second place at the time of the media circus. “We no longer were talking about the terrorist attacks in France or Donald Trump in the United States. Everyone wanted to know about the Kim Kardashian theft.” So, all in all, a full portrait of the event and its aftermath.
An unlikely high-profile criminal.
Ultimately, a fabulous story emerges involving a most unlikely band of thieves. The time is right to take a closer look, with the initial story processed in our minds, a story that gratefully did not turn more violent than it might have. And that’s not to diminish at all the very real trauma of being robbed at gunpoint. Only after the passage of time, in hindsight, do we get a full story. The thieves were all past the age of 50, some even past 70. They had no idea who Kim Kardashian was. They initially were just after a ring but managed to stumble upon a collection of jewels worth some $10 million. And their getaway was on bicycles which they had a very hard time with. The whole thing, with respectful hindsight, brings to mind some Pink Panther caper. So, it is no surprise to find a bit of humor. There is no malice here, no ridicule. But you do get a lot of scenes of the queen of reality TV posting on social media.
Kim Kardashian back in her element.
That all brings us back to whether or not it makes sense to have an English version to this graphic novel devoted to the Kim Kardashian jewel heist caper. Is it just too much for audiences outside of France to comprehend? Time will tell. The thieves go on trial in 2020 and there’s talk of a sequel graphic novel. Perhaps the biggest barrier is not language to this story. Perhaps something culturally would get lost in translation. And that’s a shame.
Les bijoux de la Kardashian, (loose translation, Kardashian’s Jewels) is published by Glénat.
Karen Green, curator of comics at Columbia, provides a most effective forward to the new graphic novel, The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan. Green begins with a quote from the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. In an interview from the early 1970s, Zhou Enlai was asked for his thoughts on the French Revolution. His response: “Too early to tell.” That anecdote will stick with readers as they navigate through a book with an eerie relevance. The Invisible Empire is written by Micky Neilson and Todd Warger, illustrated by Marc Bostel, and published by Insight Comics.
History is a settling down of seemingly disparate, raw and random events. Patterns emerge. Connections and conclusions are made over time. Sometimes, the facts are so undeniable as to smack you across the face. And then the passage of time covers them up, one layer of distraction and denial upon another. And so it is with what happened across the United States in the 1920s with a reinvented Ku Klux Klan. In the big scheme of things, you may have blinked and not noticed but that Robert E. Lee statue at the forefront of the Charlottesville tragedy in 2017 was a statue erected in 1924, at the height of the white supremacy hysteria. The story in this graphic novel focuses on events from the 1920s Ku Klux Klan in the north, specifically Indiana. A culture of hatred and violence had taken hold until a particular event broke the fever. It wasn’t until a local corrupt official was indicted with murder that citizens woke up and took back their state from the KKK and subsequently knocked it off its pedestal across the country.
Scheming with Stephenson.
That local corrupt official was D.C. Stephenson. It’s remarkable that there is no specific mention anywhere in this graphic novel of Stephenson’s title in Indiana government. But, in fact, he had no specific title beyond, perhaps, wheeler-dealer. In today’s parlance, he’d be thought of as a political operative in the same vein as Karl Rove or Steve Bannon, once known as “Trump’s brain.” Stephenson was similarly well connected, on intimate terms with Pres. Harding and Pres. Coolidge. In this graphic novel, the reader connects the dots, following Stephenson on his way to becoming a KKK Grand Wizard, and finding he was far from alone in his embrace of white supremacy.
A moment of clarity.
The trigger for change is Madge Oberholtzer, the young white woman that Stephenson raped and murdered, an event that would subsequently inspire a backlash against the KKK. The most compelling scenes in this book are devoted to simply providing some room for Madge to go about her life. Left alone to make up her own mind, she befriends a young black man, despite her segregated upbringing. Amid all the machinations depicted between Stephenson and his cronies, it is refreshing to see what a life not cut short might have been like for Madge Oberholtzer. And while it sometimes seems impossible to imagine a world free of hate, it is these upbeat moments of peace that can free the mind and encourage hope. Indeed, this book ends with an appropriate mix of defiant hope and resolve.
The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan is a 112-page hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019. For more details and how to purchase, visit Insight Comics right here.
THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner
Many a high school and college student will be amazed at how easy and truly fun it can be to learn about biology in a comics format. And in a significant way. Seriously, all you students out there at whatever level, you can have an enjoyable immersive experience and LEARN, not just cram facts. Behold, THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
A riot of life!
Let me jump right in and get to an important point. If you are somehow new to comics, well, this may blow your mind. If you are familiar with comics, then this will still blow your mind. Here’s the deal, comics are uniquely capable of explaining all sorts of things. And cartoonists are uniquely compelled to explain things! I should know. I am a cartoonist. What Larry Gonick excels at is really utilizing the impressive tools offered by the comics medium. One of the most magical things about comics is its ability to make the most impact by being as concise as possible. There is truly an art to taking something complex and boiling it down to its essentials. Gonick has figured out how to do that. Anyone who has lugged a biology textbook can appreciate this, if there was a way to make the subject more relatable and accessible, then that would be a most awesome thing. Gonick has done that! And he’s teamed up with Dave Wessner, a Professor of Biology and chair of the Department of Health and Human Values at Davidson College. Between the two of them, they deliver the goods.
The pulmonary arteries.
Gonick has tapped into the art of being economical with text as well as with artwork. And it’s all for the sake of clarity. We don’t want any clutter, especially when learning about as heavy a subject as biology. But, oddly enough, Gonick finds a way to keep things consistently light, or light-hearted. There are little jokes to keep the pace moving along. And, there are just so many wonderful moments of sheer energy and involvement that it can’t help but rub off on the reader. It’s as if Gonick has timed it just right to give you a little joke here, plus a light illustration there, then a fun detailed illustration, and so on.
The cell membrane.
We all learn in different ways and it’s usually not as straightforward as you might think. It’s not just a case of some people learning best by doing and other people learning best by reading and so on. It’s a mix of a lot things and it involves whatever will engage the student. It’s pretty hard to resist the comics medium, especially when you have such a master as Larry Gonick leading the way. He takes numerous bits of information and manages to give the reader the sort of hooks they will need to not only remember but to thoroughly process such things as how a plant creates glucose from carbon dioxide and water. This can be pretty dry material for any student to slough through so having such an engaging book as this becomes a most valuable resource.
THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY is a 313-page trade paperback, full illustrated, available as of July 30, 2019. Be sure to visit HarperCollins for more details on this book as well as others like THE CARTOON GUIDE TO ALGEBRA and THE CARTOON GUIDE TO CALCULUS.
Alright, let’s get serious about comics, and let’s take a look at Me, Mikko, and Annikki, by Tiitu Takalo, published by North Atlantic Books. This is a graphic novel in the best storytelling tradition. The gathering up of stories, whether oral or written, is a process that might miss a precise fact here or there but will shine through with a greater truth. Takalo suggests that she might have very well have missed a more nuanced hisorical fact, given that she’s not a professional historian. Her concern is reassuring and, in this case, she has nothing to worry about. She really does get it right. This is the true story of a community’s fight to secure and maintain their homes that rings true in every way.
Me, Mikko, and Annikki
Takalo is going from the general to the specific. We get to know her country, Finland; her town, Tampere; her section of town, Tammela; and, most importantly, her neighborhood block, Annikki. We get to know her and her partner, Mikko. We get to know about their lives and dreams, And, ultimately, a story emerges of the saving of Annikki, a blockyard that had been in danger for far too long of being demolished altogether.
Me, Mikko, and Annikki
The reader can’t help but empathize with Tiitu and her fight to create and maintain a community. This is everyone’s fight. Most of us on this planet but face the basic need of affordable housing. Tiitu, in her youth, stumbles upon what could be the answer for her in the long term. A block of homes are available to the right buyers, those with a certain determination and persistence. Tiitu understands that she must be willing to not only rebuild her home from scratch but also be ready to fight the local bureaucracy and keep the forces of gentrification at bay. Tiitu Takalo charms and informs with her words and pictures: part history, part memoir, and part quirky observation. Takalo offers up a most inviting narrative that just goes to show that, no matter where one lives, whether in Seattle or in Finland, we are more alike than we are different. We all need shelter. We all have an instinct to fight for our lives. And it is all too often the least fortunate going up against the powers that be. Takalo brings all of that home for the reader.
This book was quite a sought after gem when it was originally published in Finland in 2014. Now, for the first time, you can read it in English. The original Finnish text is beautifully translated and edited by Associate Professor Michael Demson and Professor Helena Halmari, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Finnish Studies.
Me, Mikko, and Annikki
Me, Mikko, and Annikki is a 264-page trade paperback, in full color, and available as of August 6, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, visit North Atlantic Books.