Category Archives: Comics
Jack The Radio: Creatures is a comic that you’ll definitely want to take to heart during these challenging times. It’s coming to you by George Hage, his band, Jack the Radio, and songs that have inspired comics and pinups from 30 of the top illustrators and colorists from around the world. The book is published by A Wave Blue World and is based on the band Jack The Radio‘s new album Creatures. It was written by singer/guitarist, George Hage and features cover art from Matthew Allison and interior art from Tommy Lee Edwards, Khoi Pham, Aaron Conley, Jorge Corona, Alexis Ziritt, Núria Tamarit and many more. Among the many notable things you’ll find in this comic is something that you may not notice. Our main character could literally be anyone. Basically, Jack (or Jackie?) the Radio is a skeleton, with no overt reference to race, gender, creed, color, or anything else. So, yeah, let’s embrace this uncanny character, just trying to survive, much like you or me.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.
Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.
During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics, would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.
But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.
A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim, to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.
Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.
As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.
Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books as faintly masturbatory).
Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.
But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.
Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.
Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua, New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.
Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers: Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.
A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.
Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
The Necrophilic Landscape. by Tracy Auch (Morgan Vogel). 2dCloud. Minneapolis, MN, 2015, 32 pages, $12.
Why did you release The Necrophilic Landscape as you did, with the color removed and the title changed?
Morgan Vogel: “The Necrophilic Landscape” was composed in 2010 and then shelved after being rejected for a grant. At that time the author was influenced by gothic and genre literature such as Melmoth the Wanderer and The Devil’s Elixirs, or Edogawa Ranpo’s Detective Stories. In my personal work I try to avoid nostalgia in the use of these generic references to male authors. I was asked to edit “The Necrophilic Landscape” and turn it into something suitable for release. I chose to foregoround a theme that was only partially worked out in the original, that is– that the narrative takes place in an almost entirely male world. The most obstructive editorial decision I made was to remove a central passage which contained the original’s only depiction of sex or a female character. The printed version of the book is more disjointed as a result of this decision, but it seemed to me that the only explanation for the narrative’s total mystification of sexual reproduction could be that it takes place in a fantasy world that contains only men and male children. The change in title reflects my critical distance as an editor and was meant to refer to a concept employed by a feminist theorist I like of a male drive towards necrophilia (versus female ‘biophilia’). I believe the color was removed because scans of the original artwork were not available.”
Morgan Vogel’s life was cut short at the age of 34. By all counts, Morgan Vogel was the real deal: a bright light of creativity with a genuine sense of humor. A lot of works in comics, whether mainstream or alternative, barely register as worthwhile. The trouble, as I say, centers around a disrespect for the comics medium by various guilty parties. But dig around, and you find this. The key thing here is a sharp and subversive mind at play. The drawing looks crude but, in fact, it has a power to it. Gary Panter comes to mind. The writing seems dense at first but it has a way of disarming you. What you’ve got is a surreal poetic nightmare.
What you have is a work that employs the same kind of energy you can find in, say, the best contemporary painting or experimental theater. The actual narrative is about an all-male world in which sexual reproduction doesn’t exist and the primary class division in society is between men and children. So, heavy stuff but also an intriguing framework to explode upon the page, to explore the body and soul. And, amid the dark, there is some wonderfully light humor as in a scene showing how the children manage to outwit the men by disguising themselves as adults. The solution is as easy as something out of an early comic strip. One kid stands on the shoulders of another kid and they cover each other up with a big overcoat. Voilà, instant adult.
If this were a movie, it might be unwatchable but, thankfully, it’s a comic. There simply are things you can do in comics that you can’t do anywhere else. Lots of depictions of body horror can be uniquely finessed within comics and so it goes here. Top it off with the sort of melancholy you’ll find in a good Russian novel, and you’re all set and ready to go right into a morbidly happy oblivion. This book gets all the stars I can give it. I guess that’s five, right? Strange. Loopy. Totally radically authentic. Talked about in smart circles but hard to find unless you know where to look. Simply put, this is the Maltese Falcon of indie comics. Seek it out.
I’ll leave you with a parting thought. What makes me a good guide into the world of Morgan Vogel? Well, you can take your pick amongst a number of good souls. As for me, I happen to be someone who paid the price of admission into the indie comics community. I’ve experienced it in all its many facets and, I can tell you, it all can amount to a good kick in the teeth or a most rewarding loopy detour depending upon how you look at it. Believe me, I have nothing to prove. I choose to look at it as a natural extension of what I do creatively and I understand it within a broader context of all sorts of artistic endeavors. I just think that Morgan and I would have gotten along.
For more details on The Necrophilic Landscape and an impressive assortment of cutting-edge comics, visit 2dCloud right here.
Crash Course. by Woodrow Phoenix. Street Noise Books. Brooklyn, New York , 2020, $16.99.
Woodrow Phoenix provides a compelling case against the automobile in Crash Course, a work in comics. This is an excellent example of the power of the comics medium. Phoenix masterfully distills his argument into images and concise text that engage the reader. Phoenix drives home the point that cars are a devil’s bargain. Whether you own one or not, we all have to live with them, the price to pay for civilization. Phoenix filters brilliant facts, examples and accounts into an artful framework that ensures it will resonate and be retained by the reader. This is what the power of comics, and the world of visual storytelling, is all about. Cars! So easy to be seduced by them. Cars! So easy to be killed by them. Cars are easily turned into weapons, by accident or intentionally.
Our life with cars is indeed complicated. We’ve become so dependent upon them. Our daily routine, our everyday environment, is dominated by cars. Phoenix keeps his narrative streamlined and accessible. There are no abrupt detours. Phoenix provides a smooth path as he presents facts and commentary, both thoughtful and artful. It’s quite literally a smooth path as all humans have been eliminated from this narrative. We’re just left with empty streets, parking lots and freeways. Phoenix really gets into the head of the reader and provides some priceless observations like this: “Drivers get frustrated when pedestrians fail to behave with appropriate gratitude and deference for being allowed on a street. Pedestrians should not dawdle. Pedestrians should cross streets as quickly as possible. Hurry up. Run. Listen, it’s for their own safety.” Mix this with some cold hard facts: “City planners and traffic engineers are responsible for our entire transit environment. But in practice that means one thing. ‘Providing roadway conditions that contribute to smooth and efficient traffic flow. Flow. Flow is what it’s all about. Keep the traffic moving. A wide, clear, straight street is a good street. But people on foot or on bicycles barely register as traffic. They are slow, erratic, unpredictable, inconvenient impediments to flow.”
As an avid pedestrian, I was really taken with this book. I prefer to walk. I like to take long walks, barefoot when possible. I’ll do my best to find some peace and time for reflection during a walk but usually not for very long. Soon enough, I’ll be interrupted by whatever I have to do next involving a car. Either it’s a car idling in a carport on the verge of pulling out. Or a car at a stop sign with the driver taking a phone break. Or a crosswalk that may or may not be acknowledged. When I was a kid, I saw this brilliant animated short that depicted a world completely run by cars, or at least that’s what it looked like to the intergalactic visitors observing Earth. That’s how I feel sometimes: the world is run by cars and we humans are only grudgingly tolerated. Woodrow Phoenix would appear to agree. However, it was a bit of a shock to discover at the very end of this book that Phoenix not only owns a car, he owns a sporty Mini Cooper One. Well, life is complicated. Phoenix didn’t have to reveal that but I’m glad that he did. I understand.
Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car is a 208-page fully illustrated trade paperback, available starting August 4, 2020. For more information, visit Street Noise Books right here.
I’ve been carving a little niche of some kind for many years and sometimes wondering where it all will lead—but I do know. I just mean that, push comes to shove, I will occasionally feel obligated to account for my actions. From time to time, all of us indie creative types must ask, “Why are we all doing this?” Indeed. We do it because it’s rewarding in its own right. As we progress through life, I think a lot of us out there begin to think we’d better be a little more respectful of our own work/worth. Why not? It makes sense. That brings me to this post, a look at Morgan Vogel, a remarkable talent now gone all too soon.
From time to time, I feel compelled to define/explain what I do and this blog is a very good place for that. What I want to share with you right now is a little moment in time, because that is mostly what this blog does, filter through, and grind out some truth. Today, I bring up to the surface a remembrance of a young artist who recently passed away. Morgan Vogel, a name many of you will not know. But she fits the bill for the type of curious creature I hold in high esteem. Morgan was a determined artist. To die at 34 is truly heartbreaking. She was only beginning. I want to direct your attention to a tribute posted by Austin English over at The Comics Journal. Austin English runs Domino Books, a fine online boutique of comics and zines and he’s quite an authority on the indie zine. Austin leads a moving tribute that gives me confidence that Morgan’s legacy is safe and won’t be forgotten. Here’s Austin’s introduction:
Morgan Vogel, a cartoonist known for her distinctively intelligent work, went missing on April 8th. She was found dead Sunday, May 24th, at age 34. While her body of published work was small, its effect on those who read it was immeasurable. Her comics in anthologies (she appeared in Weird Magazine, Smoke Signals, Suspect Device, Tusen Hjärtan Stark, But is it…Comic Aht? and more) were often the stand out piece of the volume in question. The Necrophilic Landscape, a solo masterpiece published by 2dcloud in 2015, is one of the most stunning works of comic art in the last decade. Her recent self published zines, Valle and Nightcore Energy, were beautifully drawn and upsetting to read, a divide that appears in so much of her art and became more pronounced over time.
Morgan was a favorite cartoonist of mine and many others. Her work was, at once, cruel, funny, forgiving, un-affectionate and, most of all, incredibly perceptive. She often zeroed in on personas that people (in much of her work, artists specifically) constructed for themselves. She would at first offer a satire of these poses, but within a few panels, a more moving–and therefore devastating–portrait of the subject would be revealed. The maturity of her expression, the avoidance of an extreme of anger or acceptance but instead a complicated and upsetting synthesis of the two, was achieved with a precision that I rarely see in comics. Many of my favorite artists make work that, on a superficial level, seems confrontational, but at heart is urgently humane—Morgan’s work, to me, got at this better than most. When I wanted to start a magazine about comics, including Morgan’s work in whatever way possible was one of the highest priorities, because of the nature of her views on art. She wasn’t interested in style or gestures of sophistication, but instead on the true implications embedded within peoples art. In one remembrance below, a quote by Morgan is repeated: “I cant think of any other way to love except through artwork or some other medium that is public, loving everybody is easy, when you have an actual commitment to a thing or to somebody then it gets more complicated than I can handle.” A belief in the power of art often gets a lot of lip service, but for many artists of consequence, it is a real and specific thing. Morgan, I believe, was one of those artists.
Morgan’s work was well known to her peers and to many readers, but because she worked under so many pseudonyms (I originally knew her as Caroline Bren, then as Tracy Auch, later as Hennessy, and finally as Morgan or Morgan Vogel), the entirety of her output remains a tangle. I think this is, in part, how she wanted it. But I also know that she was an avid reader of this website and focused much of her thinking on cartoonists and cartooning history. There are no doubt people reading this with feelings about the form that mirror Morgan’s. In spite of her resistance to clarifying her body of work, attention and discussion of it seem important to fulfilling the belief she had in the medium. I think Morgan’s high standards for cartooning were often met most precisely by her own art. It’s hard for me to imagine an artistic achievement equal to that.
The Necrophilic Landspace is 32 pages, 7.75 x 9.25 inches, 1 color risograph, $12, available at 2dcloud.
Brian Canlis and the Canlis family lead the way in how restaurants in Seattle respond to Covid-19. It’s done with integrity, spirit and class! Here is a sketch I’ve done to honor that leadership. Be sure to tune in to Canlis Piano Livestream! If you’re in Seattle, be sure to order food delivery from Canlis. If you’re not in Seattle, there are some choice items you may still consider. Visit Canlis right here.
When there was a tragic accident on the Aurora Bridge a few years ago, Canlis took it upon themselves to provide food and water to first responders and victims. And that was not the first time that Canlis stepped up. Now, Canlis is at the forefront by, once again, behaving responsibly and courageously. Instead of folding up and letting people go, Brian Canlis and his family have repurposed their landmark restaurant with innovative take-out and food delivery including an easy way to support the community by purchasing from local farms.
Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?
SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.
From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?
I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.
You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.
Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.
I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.
I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.
Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.
I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.
Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.
Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.
Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.
Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.
Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.
I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.
The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.
That’s definitely true.
Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.
That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.
I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.
I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.
Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?
I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.
I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?
I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC, The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.
Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?
I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.
I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.
That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?
No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”
How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?
At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.
You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?
At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.
I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!
Any final thoughts?
I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.
Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.
Thank you, Henry.