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.
Belle Époque meets Airbnb. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris
Airbnb, known for its unique vacation rentals, has a special limited time offer: you can book a stay in a hidden room inside the Paris landmark Moulin Rouge windmill, which dates back to 1889. All for the price of only a dollar. Booking begins on May 17th for three individual one-night stays for two guests on June 13, 20 and 27. The actual room has never served a specific purpose but harkens back to its orgins during the Belle Époque era, the late 19th century, that romantic and decadent period prior to World War I. Working off that bit of info, I was in the mood to create a scenario. There is no punchline here, just a whimsical little piece. This news item proved to be an excellent drawing prompt! I have a good bit of intimate knowledge of old buildings, plus I love history, and romance, so a perfect fit for me.
Airbnb in Paris. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris
You go with your first thoughts on something like this. Given that it’s set in Paris, I thought maybe going wordless would lose the language barrier–or very limited use of words. This led to stronger drawings with any word usage helping to emphasize the scene. My next thought was to focus on a Belle Époque theme and see where it would lead me. More often than not, it’s those quick sketches that sum it up best, at least for the moment. The biggest question of all was whether or not to follow through on an impulse to create something in the first place. I’m glad that I did!
Well, that was fun. Airbnb had a similar offer a few years back when they held a contest where winners were given a chance to sleep inside the glass pyramid of the Louvre. That said, I’m in the mood for some kind of travel adventure and Airbnb is looking very tempting, whether it’s Paris or something closer to home.
Here are details on this amazing Airbnb Moulin Rouge adventure:
Airbnb One-night stay at the Moulin Rouge
For the first time ever, guests will be able to stay inside the never-before-seen interior space of the iconic red windmill. The secret room has been transformed into a Belle Époque boudoir to transport guests back in time to the origins of the Moulin Rouge.
Booking opens at 7.00 PM CET on Tuesday, May 17th for three individual one-night stays for two guests on June 13, 20 and 27.
Situated in the heart of Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the French Cancan, a delightfully energetic dance popular in cabarets through the ages. Throughout its colorful history, the windmill – which was first constructed in 1889 as a nod to the site’s rural origins and reconstructed three decades later following a fire – was never opened to the public… until now. The newly transformed space transports guests back to the Belle Époque with:
– An opulent boudoir filled with exquisite art nouveau features including a miniature paper stage to immerse guests in the spirit of La Belle Époque.
– A dressing area in the room featuring glamorous accessories from the Belle Epoque, including vintage costumes, fragrant perfumes and effusive letters from admirers.
– A private rooftop terrace adorned with an ornate pagoda and garden furniture characteristic of the Belle Époque era – an ideal setting for an après show cocktail!
Greg Cipes snagged the role of Beast Boy on the Teen Titans franchise on Cartoon Network on his first-ever audition. That was twenty years ago. It’s one of the highlights to a wonderful career which also includes playing Michelangelo on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It could not have happened to a nicer guy. Cipes is a mellow and spiritual person with a deep respect for animals. He also happens to know a lot about blockchain technology. This led to him becoming a founder of Bright Moments DAO, an arts organization focusing on NFTs. And that has led to him founding NFTV, a new form of entertainment showcasing the work of NFT creators.
NFTV, boldly heading to Web3!
Imagine a mellow day on Venice Beach. That’s where you’ll find Greg Cipes taking it easy with his dog, Wingman G. Greg is just the right person to be leading a venture that taps into the people power spirit of blockchain technology. His connection to the public and entertainment has led him on this journey. As someone with a keen interest in pop culture, spiritual matters, and the next big thing, I couldn’t help but be interested in the opportunity to chat with Greg. My impression is that he’s very sincere about his efforts to create a space where people can go to get educated about NFTs, build a community and support NFT creators.
NFT art on NFTV!
Greg is in a very good place to be part of the early adapter phase to Web3. He is a co-founder of Bright Moments DAO, an NFT arts organization. And now he is leading the way with NFTV. His advice is to learn all you can before buying anything. Greg believes that NFTV can be an oasis during this time of change when most people, of all ages, are still very new to anything having to do with Web3 innovations.
In the not so distant future, NFTs will become more and more common and the path to becoming involved will be smoother. Of course, there is plenty of buzz on the net about the metaverse, avatars, tokens, and the blockchain. If you’re patient and willing to take the time to focus on the details, in no time, you too could have a digital wallet and participate in the brave new world of disruption and decentralized autonomous organizations. The biggest stumbling block of all is lack of money. You need money to make money. Greg says his main reason for starting NFTV is to help level the playing field and make the price of admission affordable to all. He stresses the need for NFT education and community. And he says that NFTs featured on NFTV will be within reach for everyone at an average starting price equivalent to a hundred dollars.
Much like NFTs are new, Greg Cipes is riding a new wave with NFTV. I can see that progress is steady and the network will continue to grow and develop. It will be very interesting to see where it’s at in the coming years. The NFTV segment below is just a taste. Keep in mind that this is all blowing up and expanding before our eyes. These are early field notes from the pop culture frontlines.
Greg Cipes is very much a guy on a mission. Before we ended our talk, he wanted to bring out one last very important fact and it demonstrated where his head is at. Greg wants to share with you a special NFT connected to Dog Blessed, a charitable group that helps connect people with dogs. The idea is to provide the means to connect people with dogs and that includes paying for dog adoption, dog food, and paying the “Dogblessed” certified and trained human to take care of the dog. This is a project that is under development and will be featured on NFTV. You can keep up with the progress of NFTV here, here and here.
Helping those in need that love dogs! The first series of “Dogblessed” pays for dog adoption fees, dog food and pays the “Dogblessed” certified and trained human to take care of the dog. A Greg Cipes social impact project around meaningful intellectual property and an extraordinary community of Dog lovers.
Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99
Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.
Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.
For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.
Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.
Panel excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
The death of Justin Green, on Apr.23, leaves poorer the living memory of a revolution in comic book art and narrative. His self-revelation, in the 1972 comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, seems to have literally changed a field of perception of what comics could be or do.He drew frequently for the now nearly-forgotten genre of “underground comix” appearing during the 1970s-80s, most of the “comix’ actually anthologies with fellow artists including Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Sharon Rudahl among others. Comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen recalls that even comics giant Will Eisner was impressed to the point of being influenced by the story line of Binky Brown, and by the uniqueness of the artistic expression.
Page excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
Green grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, in a prosperous family, with a Jewish businessman father and a Catholic mother. In sending the boy to Catholic school, she inadvertantly opened the impressionable Justin to a series of intense, confused glimpses of faith, including sexual repression and the accompanying guilt. The lonely teenager and aspiring artist thus acquired the strangest possible inspiration. A few years later, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving after a Zen Moment of standing on his head in class, according to a story told to his friend and fellow artist Bill Griffith. Relocating to New York, Green joined a handful of other near-future underground greats through strips in the pages of the East Village Other. The “undergrounds,” avidly rebellious and virtually untrammeled by censorship, had been born.
In 1969, Green became part of the diaspora from New York and other points to the Bay Area, gathering spot of the emerging comic art scene. Griffith recalls, “I like to think we were all a ‘band of brothers’ in those heady San Francisco Underground days, tilting at the windmills of the established comics we both loved and rebelled against.” Which is to say, Justin Green was soon prominent among the community of young and wildly prolific artists, his work appearing in a handful of the anthologies being produced more or less collectively and sold largely via “head shops” through the 1970s. In shunning the commercial comic book industry, they gave up a lot and lived cheaply, but gained complete, uncensored autonomy and the copyright on their own work. The most successful comix sold 100,000 or more….until the mini-industry collapsed along with the Counter-Culture.
Cover for Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
In a 1977 interview conducted by this writer, Green tried to explain the logic of the unique genre of artists. “One must consider,” he suggested, “the peculiarly American phenomenon that financed the creative endeavors of a couple dozen individuals whose visions took (and still take) the material form of pictures with words. That phenomenon is mass readership…the artist is under obligation to make his product coherent [and] visually striking—to opt for specific literal ideas instead of obscure personal motives (though granted. I am one of the worst offenders). Comics is simply not the format for making great art. Essentially it is entertainment. There are elements of morbidity, aberration and personal indulgence (again, myself included) in the work of many underground cartoonists which will have the longterm effect of sealing the work off from the cultural mainstream.” A fair prediction, as it turned out.
The East Village Other, 1970
He went on to comment about his satires of literary classics in ARCADE, the brilliant but doomed (seven issues before collapse) anthological effort during the second half of the 1970s, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. “All of my ‘classics crucified’ pieces are intended to have a dialectical relationship with history from the shifting focus of the unworthy present. Now that the making of art is within the grasp of thousands of individuals, the false veneer of critical acclaim…must be removed. Unequivocal respect for the ‘classics’ prevents the reader from assimilating material on his own terms. I am trying to do with plot structure what [Harvey] Kurtzman and [Bill] Elder did in the early MADs [Mad Comics 1952-55] for the warbabies bombarded by media—to unmask the subliminal influences of television and especially advertising. In the same way, I try to pick up on those salient details within a great work of literature which will bring matters into a comical perspetive. It is my chosen responsibility to call into question—to see if perhaps there isn’t a little something worth laughing at.”
Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form by Hillary Chute
In an aside, he admitted, “Make no mistake about it, you have to be a bit of an egomaniac to showcase your fantasies to tens of thousands of people.” Hillary Chute’s acclaimed study, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016), more than suggested that Green, in Binky Brown, did much to inaugurate the “serious documentary mode for comics globally.”
This is no small matter. Green may be said to have crystalized the semi-autobiographical impulses already expressed famously in Robert Crumb’s stories, Crumb’s persona “Flakey Foont,” like other hapless males seeking meaning (and definitely eros) amidst the sexual revolution, cheap marijuana and cultural upheaval. Crumb’s own work of the 1970s-80s, in turn, connected personally with Harvey Pekar telling more straightforward stories from Pekar’s blue collar, Cleveland daily life. And thus to Joe Sacco, a collaborator of Pekar’s before his own rise to fame drawing the stories of his travels to troubled sections of the world. The syndicated strips of Lynda Barry’s troubled childhood, later Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home helped bring into being a large, still expanding genre of comic lives recounting youthful hopes and follies. Indeed, these may arguably be the chief mode for women’s large role in comics today, a sustained Bildingsroman in a new popular art form. Way back in 1972, Green collaborated with Spiegelman and others in the pages of Funny Aminals [sic], a genre-bending little anthology of animal stories anything but funny, including the very first published slice of Spiegelman’s Maus.
Funny Animals, 1972
In her analysis of comic art, Hillary Chute makes another key point about Justin Green’s hugely productive decade. All the work of the u.g. comix artists reflected an engagement with the US invasion of Vietnam, directly or indirectly. She quotes Green as explaining that he, like so many (I could have said the rest of us), knew people who knew people—or actually had relatives—fighting and suffering, too often dying amidst the brutal US invasion of Vietnam. “I needed to wage my own war. And so I looked within…I didn’t want to present myself as a hero but rather as a specimen. So the comic form gives you a multifaceted way of doing that.”
This weighty point may, by itself, threaten to obscure the multiplicity of Green’s output, the radicalism but also the sheer joy of moments in his humor, amidst the intense personal confusion and angst of his work. The very, very funny stuff, deeply thought and reflexive, is as full of social satire as Bill Griffith’s own caste of characters later realized in his daily strips.
Show and Tell by Justin Green, 1973
To take a Justin Green case or two in point, “Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Featuring Sol Snake-Eyes, Jack Monterey and Gretel Hansel” (in ARCADE #5, 1975) reinvents the novel with a Jewish stand-up comic as the famed investigator of the maddened young egotist and a bimbo who snags Sol while the criminal goes off to the rock-pile. Meanwhile, “The Gates of Purgatory” (in ARCADE #7, 1976), revisits Dante, with the “Music of the Sack Cloth Five” against a scene of comic horror, with free ginger beer and waterskiing on the Chicago River.
Arcade: The Comics Revue, 1976
The 1977 interview contains another theme crucial to the story of the underground artists’ saga: Green had a new baby in the house and had to find another way to make a living. A small handful of artists, including Griffith, Spiegelman, Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins and others, managed to get along while doing their work, sometimes, especially in later years, by teaching comics classes. Most uniquely, Green turned to sign painting, and some of the stories that he later drew about the quirks of the job are hilarious as well as revealing. Raised in prosperity, he found himself reduced to working class standards, confessing that “I am continually broke, exhausted, under pressure.” He continued to draw the occasional story but his moment had passed. One is tempted to add that the comic artists lacked the way forward successfully found, for instance, by the equally rebellious and radical painter Philip Guston, whose sometimes comics-like retrospective now exhibits in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Sign Game comic strip by Justin Green, 1994
It is more than a footnote to relate that Green’s widow and fellow artist, Carol Tyler, eventually found a comics niche for herself with a realistic, semi-autobiographical series about her father, the veteran of the Second World War who could not relate, let alone deal psychologically, with the effects of the trauma in his own experiences. Thus, in a way, you could say that the circle, or a circle, has been completed after all, and with as much meaning for the twenty-first century as for the one left behind. The artist sees the world, looks inside himself or herself, and through creative expression, makes the best of an obviously bad and likely worsening situation. This is what an artist in any genre can do, but what no one expected the creators of “funny pages,” “funny animals” and “funny books” to seek, let alone accomplish.
Paul Buhle published Radical America Komiks (1969) and was described in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine as the “first serious critic of underground comix.” He has edited more than a dozen nonfiction graphic novels.
Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”
Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.
So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.
Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.
Sarah Firth books.
You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.
THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth
Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.
I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!
Our featured cartoon is entitled, “Free of Social Media Tyranny,” and was created in response to a snide comment that Hurricane Nancy received suggesting that she needed to be doing “political cartoons,” when that had nothing to do with what she was up to. So, she didn’t care for the comment. Well, these abrupt and harmful misunderstandings occur all too often on social media, thus the title to this piece!
Rounding out the collection this time around are a couple of intriguing animal-themed works. I hope you enjoy them!
As always, it’s a real treat here at Comics Grinder to present to you work by Hurricane Nancy. And be on the lookout for a collection of Nancy’s work to be published by Fantagraphics. More on that as we get closer to the release date.
Urban sketching is a lot of things: fun, stimulating, useful, and an all-around creative workout, especially the more you add to it. I like a little salt and pepper to spice things up, and usually little to no hot sauce. I’m being silly but, yeah, I’m just saying here that I find I’m usually doing more than just urban sketching when I do it. Often, it’s part of a bigger project. Or, like in this example, I’m also crafting a little movie, which is a whole creative endeavor to itself. That said, it’s really part of the process to relax and become one with the subject, regardless of anything else going on in the background. This time around, I tackle one of Seattle’s most beloved landmarks, and one of the all-time great tourist attractions, The Fremont Troll!
He’s always there ready for a hug.
The Fremont Troll is in the spirit of the great roadside attractions and then some. Due to the fact of its scale, history, intention, and overall artistic merit, it all adds up to a very unusual yet significant local treasure.
The Fremont Troll is definitely a thing, if you didn’t realize that. There doesn’t appear to be a totally quiet time for the guy as there is always a steady stream of visitors. Like clockwork, whole families pile out of minivans in order to situate themselves to best advantage for a pose with the landmark. The Troll goes back to the hippy-dippy days of the ’70s, well, actually, late ’80s. It was decided that Fremont needed something else that would speak to the quirky counterculture vibe it had cultivated over the years. And so it began as an art competition in 1989 and so it was, the following year. All the way up to today. No matter what your political bent, or vibe, there seems to be something about this community effort that can resonate with people on just about any level.
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.
Susan MacLeod has developed a crisp and smart cartooning style that puts her shoulder to shoulder with today’s cartoonists. In this interview, we chat about MacLeod’s new graphic memoir, Dying for Attention, a focus on the nursing home care industry. MacLeod also talks about the creative process: growing as an artist, cartoonist and graphic recorder.
MacLeod got an in-depth look at the Canadian nursing home care system through the years that she oversaw the care of her mother and she could see it was wrong. Her conclusion, borne out by research, is that for-profit nursing home care is too invested in the bottom line to ever provide adequate care. It’s the value of human life versus capitalism. An ideal resolution is not likely anytime soon. But being aware of the realities is a first step.
MacLeod is someone with a drive to do good. She finds it highly rewarding when she does a graphic recording session with residents at a nursing home. She always leaves enough room for everyone to have a chance to come up on stage, grab a marker, and add their own contributions to the mural-in-progress. It’s during this process of putting words and pictures together that people try to solve problems and make connections. MacLeod knows this better than many folks. She’s modest but quite insightful too. She knows that what she does matters. And maybe she prefers to let her book speak for itself. In that case, she’s got the best calling card any cartoonist could hope for.