Category Archives: Comics

Helping Comics Shops During Covid-19: GIVE COMICS HOPE

GIVE COMICS HOPE

If comics collectors could consider looking over their collections and donating five items or more with a value of $100 to GIVE COMICS HOPE, the proceeds will be distributed to comic book shops around the world struggling during COVID-19. It’s as simple, and powerful, and idea as that. Of course, there are other ways to donate as well. Just visit the GIVE COMICS HOPE website right here. This is one of the best things we can be doing now regarding comics and all the hard-working comics retailers!

GIVE COMICS HOPE is a new charitable initiative founded by Bill Schanes, the teenage founder of Pacific Comics, the comic store that became a chain, a creator-owned publisher and a comic book distributor before it was bought up by Diamond Comic Distributors in the eighties. So, Bill Schanes knows the comics industry like the back of his hand–and he’s the perfect person to lead the way in supporting comic book shops. A press release follows:

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Interview: Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler on ‘The Mueller Report Graphic Novel’

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel

For anyone interested in politics, history, the legal system, or a riveting story, there’s something for you in The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. Yes, it would be nice to have every potential voter read this now as we approach one of the most consequential presidential elections in US history. But, beyond that, this is a book that will spark interest in one of the most misunderstood and significant documents to come out of government. Bob Mueller gets the last word, so to speak, and tells a story every American can appreciate, no matter what your politics.

In conversation with Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler

“Robert Mueller did not go in intending to bring anyone down. What he uncovered was plenty of evidence of very bad behavior.” So, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler sums up The Mueller Report in our interview I had the privilege of getting to talk to both creators of the book: journalist Steve Duin and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler. During our conversation, we got to explore the nuts and bolts behind the daunting task of creating a graphic novel adaptation of such a mammoth book. The truth is, Robert Mueller is an excellent wordsmith so the book itself is not really a slough as it is lengthy and so a graphic novel acts as a wonderful gateway.

 

You can read my recent review of The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, available as of September 16, 2020. And I hope you enjoy our freewheeling interview. Just click above. For more information, visit IDW Publishing right here. This is a fine example of the sort of books we want to see come out of the multi-layered world of comics. Bio and history are the backbone of graphic novels and this one stands head and shoulders above a lot of titles. You want a book that goes the extra mile and delivers satisfying results? Then this is it.

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel

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Review: ‘Paying The Land’ by Joe Sacco 

Paying The Land by Joe Sacco

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Paying The Land by Joe Sacco. New York: Metropolitan Books, 264pp, $29.99.

A decade ago, in a smallish Swiss comics shop, I could identify only two American artists, or (memory doubtful here) perhaps three. Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Joe Sacco’s Palestine. And on a back shelf, evidently dating from years earlier, Gilbert Shelton’s Fat Freddy’s Cat. Robert Crumb had slipped from a high perch, and Shelton, an entertainer always more popular among Young Europeans, was rapidly receding into the past. During the last decade, several of the dozens of US titles translated into French would probably have found their way into this little shop, it if survives. But we can be sure that the first famed Sacco volumes would have stood alongside others of the same artist. He has the pen that seems almost mightier than the swords, planes, bombs, devastated populations and the rest of the war horrors that have made up his journalistic work.

To call Sacco “American” is a bit of a jump. Maltese by origin, we learn in the erudite Disaster Drawn: Virtual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016) by Hillary L. Shute (co-editor of Mega-Maus) that Sacco grew up with family stories of bombings and death during the Second World War, missing relatives and all the rest. War has never, Shute says, not been part of his life. Did Sacco escape the endless warscape by replanting himself in the US northwest? Not hardly. As a visual journalist of war’s horrors, he has placed himself in harm’s way in the Balkans and Gaza, among other places. This time around he finds another war, but it is the war of centuries and the fighting is what the Pentagon has come to call Low Intensity: the War against Canada’a native populations.

“This is going to end the world.”

Paying the Land is a stunning work, both alike and strikingly different from his earlier journeys into suffering and survival. It is substantially an oral history, and as a trip-weary oral historian, I can appreciate the contrasting points of “orality” (memory expressed by an interviewee) and “history” (a different kind of record). Sacco is trying to do both, no easy thing, and at the same time, to present them visually. With himself as part of the book’s story.

He meets a large handful of tale-tellers who are central, but he determinedly makes the trip himself into Canada’s distant North, in a used pickup-truck, over roads that turn into non-roads, ever further to the land of the Dene, the grouping of related tribes. There, the subsistence economy thousands of years old has been replaced, but only with deep contradictions, by the oil economy.

A couple of generations ago, good jobs appeared for men able to open the land up to drilling, mainly by cutting trees. For a while now, they have demanded controls including their own observation of the drilling process, down to the toxic chemicals pumped into the ground. They can watch the despoliation of the landscape, the lakes and streams, and the inevitable decline across the scope of the animal population. But what choice do they have?

“I remember our lives being led by the environment.”

Sacco takes an invaluable step backward in time, through oral histories, to the forced assimilation ongoing since the nineteenth century but intensified after the Second World War. The many cruelties of Catholic education have only begun to be redressed in Canada: virtual seizure of children from villages into towns, violent punishment for speaking aloud in native languages,  widespread sexual abuse, a violence that turned inward, leading to alcoholism, abuse of children by other children and teens, and a loss of anything like self-identity, including the loss of the older skills and their meanings.

What should the deserted family do? Often, it meant abandoning “life in the bush” to find their children, give them a kind of life, often in a grandparents’ setting, while the parents tried to scratch out a living. Here and there a good priest or nun, with education as something better than cultural extermination.

Neither the families nor Sacco is looking to some recaptured utopia. Life in the backwoods was harsh and in some ways, it was easier to live in even the most modest  house equipped with heat, a modern stove, refrigerator and so on. Besides, and this is one of Sacco’s clearest discoveries, there was no going back in any case.

Toward the end of the book, some of the strongest personalities emerge and flower, and most of them are women. They create new cultural institutions to carry on traditions for the next generations, and they help to make life more possible—free of the accursed alcoholism above all—in the present.

Mineral extraction companies are ruthless and the politicians who make their work possible are just as ruthless, even with the added political rhetoric to make things sound better. Against these pressures, tribal leaders try to balance the shifting economy with ecology. Young folks, raised with no language retention, begin to rebuild cultures as much as possible, networking from sub-group to sub-group.

The book closes with a memorable festival of Dene young people and perhaps that is the most hopeful thing imaginable, Not to await some outside force to heal them or to accept that their inferiority, as a culture, means that they need assimilation for healing.

This is quite a message, delivered in stirring Sacco style, with perhaps less of a Sacco-presence or irony than is usual with him. It’s quite a book.

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.

“There were no buildings like they have now.”

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Review: ‘The Mueller Report Graphic Novel’ by Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. written by Steve Duin. illustrated by Shannon Wheeler, IDW Publishing, 2020. 208pp, $15.99.

How easily we seem to forget or let ourselves become distracted. If you are still not sure about Donald Trump, then consider this fresh new look at a book all of us need to better understand. Take a look at The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. I speak as a reasonable person in search of the truth. I have read many passages from the actual 448-page Mueller Report along with a very insightful pamphlet-sized digest e-book from the Lawfare Institute, Reflections on the Mueller Report. My conclusion well over a year ago was that there is plenty to work with to compel Trump’s removal from office–but then the screws were tightened, as in Barr’s own meddling, and nothing ever happened. What if there was a truly compelling movie that people could watch? Well, how about one better: here is a concise and incredibly clear presentation putting to use the power of comics, visual storytelling at its best! Alright, I have an advance copy. Let’s dig in and have a look.

All the President’s Men.

The simplest way to tell a story is to keep it simple. This is a story that explores criminal acts as well as ways of obstructing the investigation of said acts. It’s a story crying out for a narrator! Duin and Wheeler give the floor over to Bob Mueller and, quoting from his report, manage to pump some fresh blood into the telling. Mueller, as narrator of this book, goes right to work. One of Trump’s favorite tactics is to call anything that calls him out a hoax or a witch hunt. The Mueller Report was all just a witch hunt, according to Trump. However, as Mueller clearly states, real indictments were handed down. Leading the pack: Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort. All of them were found to have lied to Mueller’s investigators about their connections to Russia. While compelling evidence has either been destroyed or made unavailable that would most clearly demonstrate collusion, the facts remain that a lot of key players were willing to lie about their own involvement.

William Barr redacted Mueller Report.

I suppose the saddest thing would be if the general casual reader cannot invest two hours to read this graphic novel. Is it just a fantasy to think that enough readers for this book could emerge and it could turn the election in favor of Biden? One can dream! The fact is that Duin and Wheeler do their best to keep partisan politics at bay and stick to the facts in the report. Maybe they know better than most that this is a labor of love that simply had to be completed. Like any JFK conspiracy scholar understands, whether anyone reads their book right away or not, at least the book is out in the world. Readers will emerge, one way or another. History may not change from this book. But the book will have done something to shed some light on our recent history.

Shouldn’t we be concerned more than ever?

Just follow the money.

One thing that really sticks with me about the whole 2016 Russian collusion saga is that infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. You know, the one where key Trump players meet to discuss obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian operatives. Even Duin and Wheeler get caught up in the Russian adoption red herring thrown in whenever this meeting comes up! This is my Trump Tower test and Duin and Wheeler, following the report, chose not to emphasize a key fact. Mueller simply didn’t bother with this little fact or it just never registered. Anyway, the reason that Russian adoptions always come up is because that was the excuse used for holding that meeting. But, not only that, this was code from the Russians. The reason for using the subject of Russian adoptions was to signal that Russia would maintain a ban on Americans adopting Russian babies for as long as Russian human rights violations were sanctioned through the Magnitsky Act. In other words, this cover story was a way to bring home the point that the removal of the Magnitsky Act was high on Putin’s wish list. In my book, if I were to do one, this is a very interesting little fact and a telling clue.

Sow discord and ramp it up! It worked in 2016. And it looks like it’s working in 2020.

All in all, I’d love to follow the progress of this book in real time as it makes its way to readers. The drawing style here is a steady functional look and that’s really all that is required in this case. In fact, the sometimes gritty and cobbled-together look of the art adds to a sense of urgency. It fuels the idea that there is crazed hope to get the book out in time for it to possibly influence this presidential election. It’s a great fast pace that will draw the reader in, now and twenty years from now. In fact, the more I go over it, the more I’m fascinated by it.

The long tortuous process of “covering your ass.”

I can’t help but get that creepy feeling that we are living through this again but we just can’t seem to see it. Yes, believe it or not, the calls are coming from inside the house! Yeah, that sort of feeling. Trump is here and he is well on his way to sticking around. Ideally, a book like this should sway enough voters away from Trump. No doubt, that thought has crossed the minds of everyone involved with this book. Yeah, what if every potential American voter was up to speed on the contents to this report? In a lot of ways, I believe that the American public has already gotten the gist of it. Liars lie and Trump & Co. do lie, and not particularly well. But that was never the point, was it? As Roy Cohn and Putin, and all the other baddies figured out long ago, the only thing that matters is to lie, lie, lie. Keep lying. Hit them hard. Hit them harder. A graphic novel can do many things but it probably won’t remove Trump from office. That said, I’d love to be proven otherwise. Looking forward, Trump and Russia is far from over with and this graphic novel will be ready whenever someone needs it. And, who knows, once all the MAGA hats have been lost and forgotten, maybe we’ll be in the mood for The Mueller Report, The Musical.

So many dots to connect.

On March 24, 2019, the White House released a four-page press release presenting its summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 Presidential election. On April 18, 2019, the actual redacted report was finally provided to the public.The difference between these conclusions have led to much debate, and while clearly Mueller’s findings are pivotal to our understanding of modern political history, national security, and American democracy, most Americans have still not read the entire 448-page report to be fully informed on the topic. It seems like right about now would be a good time to make up for lost time. Well, it will definitely remain a must-read well past this election. You can read the actual report for free right here. And you can order The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, available as of September 15, 2020, right here.

This will not end well for Donald Trump.

In The Mueller Report Graphic Novel, Eisner Award-winning New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and veteran Oregonian journalist Steve Duin reach for truth against a torrent of political spin to lay bare the findings of Mueller’s investigative team. Wheeler and Duin capture history in ink, providing a clear, concise, and entertaining way for readers to truly understand the conclusions that Mueller recorded during his exhaustive investigation.

Encouraging readers to ignore the interpretations of political parties and cable news pundits, this comprehensive graphic novel brings to life a range of key scenes, beginning with Trump’s campaign and continuing over three years of his administration. The staggering laundry list of Trump’s inner circle’s controversial contacts, statements, and perhaps even coordination — enough to overwhelm any student of the U.S. Constitution — provides a roadmap to understanding events of the past four years.

With a bite familiar to fans of his long career in political cartooning, Shannon Wheeler reflects on the subject: “I look forward to the day when I no longer have such rich material to work from.”

For more information on IDW’s library of political cartoons, visit IDWpublishing.com, and be sure to follow IDW on social media for the latest information on The Mueller Report: Graphic Novel.

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Review: TITAN by François Vigneault

TITAN by François Vigneault

Titan. by François Vigneault. Oni Press, Portland, OR, 2020. 202pp, $19.99.

François Vigneault is one of the most original and fun cartoonists out there today. If you have not checked out his Titan comics, this is the perfect time since Oni Press presents a new collection of the series coming out November 10, 2020. Consider this an advance review. I will follow up with another Titan-related post closer to the release date. It is often said that the best science fiction has a timeless quality as well as comments with precision on its own time. Titan certainly is relevant to our tumultuous times full of protest. Meet João da Silva and Phoebe Mackintosh: one is a member of the ruling elite; the other is a member of the exploited working class. It is the not-too-distant future, about a hundred years from now. The old mining colony of Homestead, on a moon of Titan, is steadily working its way to obsolescence. In order to try to salvage the situation, MGR First Class da Silva arrives on the scene from HQ, planet Terra. His liaison officer is one of the best workers, Phoebe. What could go wrong? For starters, João and Phoebe immediately sense some hot chemistry between them. Meanwhile, the entire order of things is coming apart at the seams.

Page from TITAN

Vigneault has a very vivid and direct drawing style. Whether he draws with a pen and paper or directly on a digital tablet, he has nailed quite a fluid and expressive line. This is a wonderfully cartoony style with an immediate impact that attracts the reader to the characters and action. Vigneault has a way of evoking emotion that holds its own with any other drawing style with its authenticity. I don’t feel a false note anywhere. Any reader will get hooked into what becomes of João and Phoebe and, by extension, the rest of Homestead, even the whole freaking solar system! In the grand science fiction tradition, the fate of worlds depends upon these two–but also with a touch of irony to boot. This isn’t your father’s sci-fi, after all.

I’ll tell you one thing. Vigneault manages to pull off one of the trickiest of metaphors. In lesser hands, I think this would have felt like a heavy-handed gambit. The ruling class from Terra appear tiny in comparison to the Titan workers, genetically modified for maximum efficiency. When João and Phoebe become lovers, the symbolism is totally brought home, and the stark contrast is pretty powerful, even beautiful. João and Phoebe, as different as they are, fit together. João is small and nimble. Phoebe is large and strong. João can’t help but bring up his concern over whether he is big enough for her to which Phoebe reassures him that “size doesn’t matter.” Over the course of their story, the reader comes to appreciate how right they are for each other.

Panel excerpt: Phoebe reassures João.

Comics and graphic novels share much in common. If a comic strip, for example, is done right, it will entice the reader to go through it more than one quick scan. A reader may not even be fully aware of it but it is likely that the comic strip is digested a number of times, as in a loop. The reader seeks the stimulation and goes for repeated rewards. And then it’s time to move on to something else. But, at that moment, a comics loop experience is enjoyed. And so it can, and does, happen with graphic novels. There are certain passages that must be re-visited. Pages to go back to, pages to compare. Some academics theorize that comics are read in an entirely different way when displayed on a gallery wall and perhaps that even hurts the comics experience. Well, I don’t buy it. I say all this because Vigneault has managed to find that sweet spot in making comics where his creation entices the reader to linger, to re-visit, and to revel in the work. Not all comics do that and perhaps some comics creators don’t even factor that in. But Vigneault does.

I really good novel, or movie, or graphic novel, invites repeated consumption. It is built-in. That is going on here with Titan, a story of two star-crossed lovers caught up in events bigger than themselves. If the characters are compelling, the events in question can recede into the background and come up to the forefront as needed. Not all novels are created equal, of course! The point here is that Vigneault, in the driver’s seat as a auteur cartoonist (both writer and artist), fully understands how to drive a story forward. He is someone who would be fun to chat with over an interview. We would discuss process, storytelling in general, as well as social commentary and science fiction. In the end, what we would talk about would be the art of making comics. It’s not easy and, like the most complex of art forms, it seems to require a bit of magic. You will definitely find something magical about this graphic novel with its pacing, symbols, and daring.

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Review: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics’ by Tom Scioli

Jack Kirby, via Tom Scioli, tells his own story.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics. by Tom Scioli. Ten Speed Press, 2020. 202pp, $28.99.

A book that is doing very well these days and just got back on my radar is an in depth look at the life and times of Jack Kirby, the creator or co-creator of such icons as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther. Now, all sorts of things pop in and out on my radar but this one compels me to share. Tom Scioli feels like a doppelganger at the moment: we are both auteur cartoonists determined to get to the bottom of the story. Scioli hitched his wagon to one star and I did to another. In Scioli’s case, it is Jack Kirby. In my case, I have a book that I’m shopping around with George Clayton Johnson as your guide to a wider world. In Scioli’s case, Jack Kirby is the focus and, from there, we see a wider world too. Also, I must stress that Scioli is a one-person operation, a true auteur. That’s the same way that I roll. It’s not easy but it is most rewarding and, in fact, provides the reader with the ultimate comics artistic expression coming from one creator.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Recently, I’ve been taking a very close look at Jack Kirby and how he figures in the study of comics as a true art form. We are very enlightened about comics, as a general audience, but the dust perhaps has yet to settle on all these questions of what constitutes art. For the record, I will state again that there is no question that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. Comics is a big deal and will only continue to grow in estimation and appreciation. As for Mr. Kirby, well, of course, he was an artist of the first rank in many ways and he dazzled all of us with what he was able to accomplish. What is so fascinating about Tom Scioli’s book is that here you have a true comics artist providing his own careful and idiosyncratic look at another comics artist. This is an outstanding example of an extended study of comics created in the comics medium. We have precious little of these sort of works, comics about comics. In fact, we have far more comics about painters, novelists, and various other historical figures. Ah, but that will change. We still have plenty of time, right? No rush. We can relax and appreciate Tom Scioli’s very home-grown approach, which all adds up to visual storytelling at a deep and intimate level. Scioli has a very offbeat style as unique to him as his own handwriting or his casual chatting. So, in a sense, Scioli has pared it all down to just a regular guy holding court and riffing on one of his favorite subjects. Yes, that’s perhaps the best way to look at this book. Maybe it’s not an official biography or the last word on Jack Kirby but it is definitely an unusual and personal take on him.

Page excerpt

Take any figure, well-known or not, and there’s a very high probability of creating a compelling story in the right hands. That is precisely what is happening here. Tom Scioli has the passionate interest in his subject and that energy propels the reader. It’s not like anyone, outside of friends and family, knew anything about the actual life lived by Jack Kirby. And some things will always be left to speculation. Here is where the power and magic of comics comes into play. The comics creator is compelled to make you, the reader, care and so the process begins from the very first page, the very first panel. On page one, we see a family history unfold back in the old country of Galicia. Kirby’s parents meet in New York City at an Austrian social and, by the next page, little Jack Kirby is born, August 28, 1917. It is a life of limited resources on the Lower East Side but it is a life full of love. By the very next page, little Jack awaits the birth of his baby brother while poring over the pages of Krazy Kat comics! And, by page four, it is clear that the only color in little Jack’s life comes from the Sunday funnies. Jack is set for a life of adversity with comics already proving to be a gateway to something more.

Yes, Jack Kirby worked alongside Bob Kane for a time.

Fast forward and, indeed, a life emerges filled with challenge and adventure. And, of course, it is Jack’s particular life story that will bring the reader up close to how things worked at Marvel Comics, specifically the working process known as “The Marvel Method,” with the legendary big-name editor, Stan Lee–and all the complications and frustrations that wrought. But before any of that happens, a lot of rain must fall, a lot of struggle and uncertainly coupled with steadfast determination. Before Jack Kirby became part of the Marvel bullpen, he had to pay his dues in a far more modest role as part of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comic strip staff. This is a staff that included, among others, the now much despised Bob Kane, infamous for stealing credit for Batman from co-creator Bob Finger! Just one of the gems of info to be found here.  As the saying goes, a creative person needs to be their one biggest fan. That is what Jack Kirby was for himself, his biggest fan. It was that level-headed persistence that would get him to the promised land of the Fourth World and a legion of his own fans.

Page excerpt

One of the great things about a book like this is how it ends up becoming a treasure trove of information. It just happens naturally as all the dots are connected. This is what resonates the most with readers, especially those invested in art process and pop culture. Even a casual reader will get caught up in the events and get hooked into learning more about the lad who literally picked up a copy of Wonder Stories just before it was swept into a gutter and saw his fate within the pages of the first pulp magazine he’d ever read. As I’m in a position to articulate these matters regarding comics, pop culture and art, I’m thrilled to do so here and on any panel at any comics convention. This very unique look at Jack Kirby is very exciting stuff. No doubt, when you find one book like this, well, it leaves you wanting more. That is what leads me to know that my book will find a home. I’m so happy to see that Tom’s book found a fine home and has been welcomed by scores of readers!

Jack Kirby by Tom Scioli

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Review: ‘Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio’ by Derf Backderf

Panel excerpt: Allison and Bonnie amid a backdrop of emerging unrest.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. by Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2020. 288pp, $24.99.

The connection between journalism and comics runs very deep. You could say the first cut is the deepest of all. Comics and journalism in America goes back to its very roots. So, it is no surprise that many of the comics I am drawn to and that I feature here have that connection. In fact, more have it than don’t; some more than others. That said, it makes a lot of sense why some cartoonists have one foot in art and the other in writing, specifically nonfiction, more the literary journalism type. This brings us to Derf Backderf who is an excellent example of the cartoonist auteur compelled to explain and report. In his latest graphic novel, Backderf takes his formidable visual storytelling skills and presents, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

It’s a little silly to call yourself a graphic novelist unless you’ve really established a track record of creating graphic novels. Usually, it’s just fine to call yourself a cartoonist. That said, Derf Backderf could, if he chose to, claim such a title. Beginning with his comic strip, The City, a favorite in numerous alt-weeklies, Backderf was building the skills required to take on a longform work in comics. Then things started to evolve when Backderf created a 24-page minic-comic about his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became the infamous serial killer. That project developed into the 2012 award-winning graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. This led to another graphic novel about sanitation workers, 2015’s Trashed. And now, after more than a quarter century of creating comics, perhaps Backderf could call himself a graphic novelist, if he chose such a title! What is clear is that Kent State is a masterful work: a sprawling narrative with great clarity and sense of purpose.

KENT STATE by Derf Backderf

Backderf, like an auteur movie director, focuses in on one specific character and action after another, then rolls back to provide perspective, and so on. The reader gets to know a set of main characters who can speak to events from various vantage points. Some are in the thick of it. Some have their facts wrong. Some are simply caught in the middle. Backderf gives the narrative a journalist’s objective framework with the goal of setting the record straight: events are presented in chronological order, backed up by dates and documented facts, all leading up to May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The book spans five days: April 30 to May 4, 1970.

Every great cartoonist has a certain predominant approach and sensibility. What is clear about Derf Backderf is that he’s very empathetic. When you want someone to bring a subject to life and make sense of it, call on a cartoonist like Backderf. We are living in very chaotic and complex times now and so were we at the height of the Vietnam War. Backderf begins his graphic novel with a quick look back at himself at the time of the Kent State shootings: a 10-year-old boy aware of the world in a “kid’s clueless way.” But it’s where you were at such an age that will stick with you for the rest of your life. So, just as once working as a sanitation worker or somehow briefly being friends with a future serial killer can compel a creative mind, Backderf confronts the big story brewing when he was a boy waking up to the world-at-large. In fact, the Backderf family was living only a few miles away from Kent State which adds another layer. It all adds up to a personal quest to understand and get the facts right.

Page excerpt: Protests, 1970.

It’s quite impressive how Backderf intertwines his research within this book. The reader is never taken out of the narrative and all the moments specific to each character. When you wonder about the future of transmedia storytelling, if you even do, I highly recommend a book like this that lets you know all is well with simply processing information one page at a time. For instance, there’s a sequence following the misadventures of Terry, the most inept of student protest infiltrators. At one point, a segue is made to get a deeper look at the historical record. Here, Backderf provides a lot of eye-opening information like the fact that the CIA’s Operation CHAOS is still not fully declassified. This was during the Cold War and the Nixon administration’s full tilt war on student protestors. These factoids then give way back to more intimate circumstances like the relationship between two students, Sandy and Jeff. While Sandy cooks dinner, Jeff confides in her his being scared of even leaving the house for fear of being spied on or stopped by soldiers. Maybe listening to the new Paul McCartney album can relieve the tension for a little while.

Panel excerpt: Sandy and Jeff try to find a little peace.

You see the world a certain way. And a auteur cartoonist writes and draws the world in a certain way. Backderf’s people are imbued with a fierce earnestness that leaves them looking determined but also quite vulnerable. Even the most formidable villain in Backderf’s world is susceptible to the most utterly heartbreaking self-doubt. These are mostly melancholy people who aspire to some possible happiness. And that’s a profoundly good place to start any story. In this case, this is a story of young men who are trapped by the military industrial complex eager to draft them off to war. Protesting the war comes as natural as breathing. Each one of these young men protesting, along with their female compatriots, wishes to breathe. An older and conservative generation mostly doesn’t understand and it can be easy for some to demonize the protestors. In order to steadily keep track of events, Backderf’s empathetic voice makes a big difference. It is this empathy that will guide the reader and provide an accurate and insightful look at what happened at Kent State fifty years ago. Has it been that long? Well, it can feel like it was only yesterday and, in a way, it was.

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Review: SEEDS AND STEMS by Simon Hanselmann

SEEDS AND STEMS

Seeds and Stems. by Simon Hanselmann. Fantagraphics, 2020. 360pp. $29.99.

It is fitting to talk about Simon Hanselmann after having recently reviewed Comic Art in Museums since Hanselmann is the perfect example of a contemporary cartoonist on display within rarefied museum walls. Last year, was the show, Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway (April 12-Aug 11), in Seattle at the Bellevue Arts Museum. 2019 also had shows in Spain and France. Well, it’s all very fascinating since the adventures of Megg, Mogg and Owl are not rarefied at all–in fact, they are downright scatological! It’s material that would make the original ’60s underground comix creators proud. What is most compelling about Hanselmann’s work is how fiercely uninhibited it all is. A world where a witch is in a sexual relationship with a cat and a werewolf is perpetually engaged in drunken orgies with vampires is not something that just suddenly pops out of nowhere. It comes from a determined mind. A mind that takes creative risks and likes to work on the razor’s edge.

From Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway, BAM, 2019.

Simon Hanselmann is a serious artist making some of the most surreal and irreverent art: original, driven and purposeful. Seeds and Stems is the latest book with Fantagraphics; it collects numerous short works by Hanselmann and it helps explore the creative process. Much of it springs from work that originally appeared as minicomics. Hanselmann became a big name only a few years ago, circa 2013, around the time of a newspaper-format comic with Floating World Comics. Fans quickly grew from Hanselmann’s Girl Mountain  on Tumblr. Megahex, from 2014, certainly cemented his reputation. You can read my review here. It was zines, then webcomics, books, then more zines. Seeds and Stems collects minicomic work going as far back as 2009, with most of the book covering 2016 up to 2019.

From Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway, BAM, 2019.

If you enjoy rummaging through B-sides and learning about the creative process, then Seeds and Stem will be most satisfying. The world of minicomics is, at its core, the entry point for emerging new talent but it can also serve as an ongoing platform for established artists. Minicomics, as the name implies, are rather humble home-made projects. That’s not to say that a minicomic is to be dismissed as amateurish, although many an aspiring cartoonist would fit that profile. To some degree, you can think of them as comparable to an open mic night at a comedy club. Minicomics are very flexible, open to being very experimental and even treated more like a sketchbook than finished work. So too with young comics on stage not bothering with appearances and reading material right off their phone. That said, minicomics can also be highly polished works all to themselves. With that in mind, you are in for a treat with this collection.

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Animation Review: SUPERMAN: RED SON

Superman: Red Son. Made-for-Video Animation, 84 minutes. Directed by Sam Liu. Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Executive Producers: Bruce Timm and Sam Register. DC Entertainment. Release Date: March 17, 2020

The timing could not be better for one of the great Superman stories. DC Entertainment presents the 2020 animated feature adaptation to Mark Millar’s 2003 Superman: Red Son. This time around, the script is by another DC Comics stalwart creative, J. M. DeMatteis. This is a great time for the alternate-history genre. There’s For All Mankind on Apple TV, a what-if about the Soviets landing on the moon first. And there’s The Plot Against America on HBO, a what-if about a Fascist America. Now, make room for a what-if about a Soviet Superman. This is about what would happen if the future Superman never crash-lands in some corn field in Kansas. But, instead, baby Superman crash-lands in the heart of Cold War-era Russia.

Comrade Superman?!

This is arguably the very best of DC Elseworlds adventures. In this very heated and confused time for U.S.-Russian relations, a story like this provides refreshing perspective. What would Superman do if he found himself part of Mother Russia and developed a loyalty to Communism? Apple pie and baseball don’t mean a thing to the Man of Steel. Superman is more loyal to the latest five-year plan for the people. Capitalism is just a funny concept and the U.S.A. is more suspect than respected. And leading the “greed is good” pack is, of course, Lex Luthor.

What will appeal to a lot of viewers is the clever look at how the world works. No sooner does Superman, innocently enough, prove to be the strongest man at the Kremlin than he’s elevated to the post of supreme leader. To Superman’s way of thinking, he is genuinely compelled to do good. That’s just how he’s built. But he has to do it within the confines of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Lex Luthor, not so innocently, proves to be the strongest capitalist, riding an “America First” campaign, that lands him in the White House. Along the way, we have different versions of the Korean War, the Berlin Wall, and even a taste of Dr. Strangelove thrown in for good measure.

If you’ve never read the original comic book or collected graphic novel, then you’re in for even more of a treat as this story unfolds. I think the animated feature hits all the right marks and could not be better. Voice actors like Jason Isaacs, as Superman, and Vanessa Marshall, as Wonder Woman, lead a lively cast. This is something that I could even see as a major live action movie version. It is certainly a compelling example of what can be done within the formidable world of the DC Universe.

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Interview: Kim A. Munson and COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS

Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back at the Society of Illustrators, March 11, 2020 to October 24, 2020. Photo by Steve Compton.

Comics on a gallery wall are no longer a novelty as in years past. In fact, comics are now seen by more people, from all walks of life, as a legitimate art form. In Comic Art in Museums, Kim A. Munson explores the role of comics in the greater world of art. I had the distinct honor of interviewing Munson last week. We begin our conversation with a classic work on the study of comics, an essay by the noted scholar, Albert Boime, that is included in Munson’s anthology. It is from Boime’s 1972 essay that we get such a clear and in depth definition of the comics medium. I place a number of images here from the new show, Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back, at the Society of Illustrators (128 East 63rd Street in NYC), March 11 – October 24, 2020. See the Women in Comics page for contextual information and artist bios. Exhibition curated by Kim Munson and Trina Robbins with special thanks to Karen Green and John Lind.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I think there’s one essay that might do the best job of explaining how comics fit in the greater world of art. And that’s the 1972 essay by noted UCLA professor Albert Boime. I love how he lines up so many facts and examples and really connects the dots from the early days of graphic journalism to the American Civil War reportage, the Ash Can School and so on. Could you speak to what’s going on in that essay?

KIM A. MUNSON: One of the things that really inspired me was this essay that I originally found in grad school. As an art historian, I’ve always recognized the value of theory but that’s never really been my thing. It’s like another tool in the toolbox. I’m very much a social art history person who wants to write about movements and art, and everything, in the context of its era–how everything interconnects. Albert Boime does a masterful job of that talking about how all of the artists moved in and out of commercial illustration and fine art. He didn’t box the artists in. He also speaks well to all of the artists in relation to all of the art movements. And he even ties in all in with the Vietnam War which was a hot topic when he wrote the essay. When Boime wrote this essay, it was during all the Pop Art survey shows, and shows presenting comics as art. Boime passed away some years back. His son specializes in Pop Art and teaches in San Diego. We were to speak on a panel but that’s had to be postponed until next year.

Bande Dessinee et Figuration Narrative show from 1967.

In my review of the book, I focused on the American contribution and connection to comics. Would you like to talk about comics on a global stage from the material in the book?

For myself, as an American and a Californian, my emphasis is on the U.S., that’s true. Seeing things from a U.S. lens. But I really did try to incorporate other viewpoints. And give people credit for breakthroughs they had in other countries. John Lent wrote this incredible article on the Cartoon Art Gallery in Dubai, the challenges they had and the community they built there. Jaqueline Berndt is a manga scholar who has been teaching all over Europe, who just completed a fellowship at the Tokyo Manga Museum. She wrote an incredible piece on manga exhibitions in Japan evolving from being very library-like to more of an appreciation of the actual artwork. And there are longer pieces, like an essay on the 1967 show, Bande Dessinee et Figuration Narrative. It kick started comics getting back into museums again. It was a real reply to Pop Art. There’s an essay on the first international comic art show and conference in Brazil in 1951 put together by this group of radical intellectuals.

That Paris show in 1967 was pivotal, of course. Some of these shows went on to be extended and toured for years. This same thing happened in the United States.

The Paris show from 1967 was at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is part of a wing at the Louvre. That show’s original run was a month and then it extended and toured to six other cities in Europe. The National Cartoonist Society, in the U.S., had extended runs that toured that actually went on for a couple of decades. It’s pretty incredible.

From Women in Comics show: Ethel Hays

There are arguments to be made about comics as an art form, the purpose and mechanics of comics, and then there’s specific arguments about content, like the portrayal of race and gender. Could you speak to that from the essays in the book?

First, I have to say, this is such a rich topic. I have at least another book in me about this. Once the canon was re-established in the 1970s, people were able to open up and focus on specific topics, whether it was race or gender, whatever the topic. I was going over essays related to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. There’s this one essay, which is in the book, from 1992, by Dwayne McDuffie, on one of the first shows of African American art in the U.S. He was writing about his discovery of the comic book character, Black Panther; the representation of the world of Wakanda, where anything is possible; and how that affected him as a kid.

She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists, May 20-November 2006.

Regarding women in comics, I have Trina Robbins. I just co-curated a show with her in New York, which no one can see at the moment. When the Masters of Comics show came out in 2005, it was controversial for only having male artists. Trina immediately called their bluff and started doing counter-programming about it. She spoke at the Hammer and the Jewish Museum. And she curated a show of her own, an all-women show (She Draws Comics), at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York at the same time as Masters of Comics. I include the text of her presentation in the book that demonstrates that women cartoonists did exist and were popular.

The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York had a nice run on its own.

I think it was in 2012 that they were absorbed by the Society of Illustrators.

Society of Illustrators 128 East 63rd St, NY

There’s plenty of stories of museums that run out of funds or something happens and they move on and maybe become something else.

The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art was on Lower Broadway for a number of years. It was a third floor walk-up. It put on great shows but, without a lot of money coming in, it finally cratered. The Society of Illustrators absorbed their collection. They have a five-story building in New York City. They have a second floor gallery dedicated to comic art. And, a couple times of year, they usually have other big comic art shows aside from that.

From Women in Comics show: Trina Robbins

I’ve been to the Society of Illustrators and, I’ve got to say, that is a place anyone will enjoy, whether you’re big into comics or not. It’s a beautiful space and the top floor is just gorgeous, a great place for lunch.

The restaurant is wonderful. I’ll take the opportunity to mention to everyone that the current show at Society of Illustrators in the main gallery, which is two floors, is Women in Comics. The first floor is from the collection of Trina Robbins, about 90 pieces covering everything from Nell Brinkley in the Flapper era all the way to the underground comics in the 1970s. And then, on the lower floor, I have 20 contemporary women artists, including five Eisner winners. It’s a great show. Just this morning, I saw that New York is going to allow the Met, and some other museums, to re-open on August 24. I’m hoping that will include Society of Illustrators. The show is scheduled up to October 24.

From METAMAUS

Then there is the whole process of one artist establishing their position within the context of an art movement. Mainly, that ties in with comics establishing its own position. Could you speak on that from the material in the book? I know that’s a lot to talk about. What comes to mind when you think of  Art Spiegelman?

Art Spiegelman is a very interesting case. He’s a person who is interested in exhibitions and someone who was interested in cultural legitimization for comics really early on. I remember that he was in early shows, going back to 1969. He had a very real passion about being included in shows. I interviewed him about Masters of Comics when I was working on my thesis. And he was the one who told me about the 1951 comic art show at the Met. He’s been sort of on the forefront of trying to figure out how comics are best seen: how to show them and still have narrative. You’re showing them as artwork without dumbing them down or something. I have a piece in the book about his touring show that originated in France. And there’s another piece on Art Spiegelman’s own private comic art museum. It was about his collection and his mentors and inspirations, the artist as curator.

Carol Tyler: Pages and Progress, January-March 2016, University of Cincinnati.

So, we come back to the whole idea of comics displayed upon a gallery wall. Boy, if I were to write a book on this: discussing the purpose of comics on display, comparing comics in book format and on the wall. Comics certainly function in more than one format. Would you speak on that? 

Narrative is such an important topic. And exhibitions. It’s kind of a conflict in a way. People can only read so much standing there in the gallery. Obviously, comics is a narrative format. So, you want to give enough of the story so that people get the gist of what the artist is saying. Obviously, you’re taking pages out of context. The book presents essays that look at this from different ways. Andrei Molotiu, the art historian, asks whether it’s an act of violence or an act of contextualization when taking work out of its context. Molotiu talks about how your eye is led to different parts of the drawing if you’re seeing the work on the wall or reading it in a book. And there’s a sequence of articles that mention Crumb’s Genesis, which toured all over the place, presenting all 200 pages from the book–and how overwhelming that is. Even Spiegelman said that his Maus has been shown in its entirety and that’s not the way to go.

It’s interesting how curators decide how to show the work. Carol Tyler presented much of the work in one of her books on a clothesline because she’s a Midwestern girl and that spoke to her. Denis Kitchen gets around this by showing short story arcs of just a couple of pages or focusing on cover art. It’s an important thing for curators to deal with since narrative is such an important part of comic art.

We’re an excerpt culture, a sound-bite culture. I don’t believe people would have difficulty seeing something out of context or more concise. People simply read so much faster, process information so much faster.

You can do a lot with wall labels too. You can show a couple of pages of something and contextualize what the rest of the story is. It’s also important that some of the places that have the space will have some kind of reading area. One thing that Spiegelman and I discussed was showing every page of Maus for a show on this huge lightbox. I saw the show in Toronto and it had the lightbox display with a long bench with a print copy of Maus at both ends. So, you could go back and forth between the lightbox display and the actual book.

One reason that I included Charles Hatfield’s essay on Crumb’s Genesis was his talking about the exhaustion of trying to look at the whole thing.

The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.

I did get to see that show when it was at SAM (Seattle Art Museum) and I recall enjoying it, getting to study one page at a time and then briskly walking by many pages only to come back later. Maybe, as a cartoonist myself, I was processing it a little differently from a casual viewer.

Actually, I wish I had caught that show. Robert Salkowitz provides a great essay in the book about the show. That show (Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb) not only displayed Crumb’s Genesis but it also included work from Goya and Albrecht Dürer, placing them as ancestors to Crumb’s work.

There’s a special edition that Art Spiegelman put together for Maus. It’s called, MetaMaus. So, there’s an example of a multi-media presentation to compliment the original work. It’s on a CD-ROM so it’s a bit dated now but still very useful. I guess it just depends on what might work to give things a little oomph. A lot times, you just want to read the book or see the originals on the wall and that’s it. Not everything needs that oomph.

There’s a place for that. Charles Hatfield’s essay talks about the Jack Kirby show (California State University) and how it included iPads. There’s one gallery that has one whole issue of Kamandi. So, on an iPad, you could see sketches right along with the finished pages in the gallery.

Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, August 24 – October 10, 2015, California State University.

The original idea for Masters of Comics was to create some sort of hub and spoke display where you would show a key creator and then have all the spokes of the creators who were influenced by that key person. That would make for a great interactive display where you could pick an artist and see the branches that grew out from that key person. I think that would make for an incredible multi-media show.

Lynda Barry comes to mind. She’s a born cartoonist and born instructor. She seems always be on. She makes me think of what can be done beyond the page. She loves to draw on glass, in the spirit of Picasso.

Oh, yeah. I’m happy to say she is one of the artists in Women in Comics right now at Society of Illustrators. When Masters of Comics first came out, I remember so many people asking why Lynda Barry wasn’t included. So, when Women in Comics came around, Lynda Barry was the first person I needed to get for the show!

From Women in Comics: Illustration from Sex is a Funny Word (Fiona Smyth)

It’s a case by case situation on comic art as to questions of narrative and exhibition. Some comic art work could originate as an installation. I can certainly see Lynda Barry doing this–work that is first, maybe only, seen as a mural.

Actually, Gary Panter does a lot of work like this. There’s a experimental form of work known as “gallery comics,” and I include an essay by Paul Gravett, a UK curator who has experiments a lot with this. The idea is that you have a series of alternative narratives as you walk through the gallery space. There’s a lot of multi-media involved with some of these. It’s very interesting to take the sequential nature of comics and play with it.

The youngest cartoonists coming on board I guess may still need to wait a bit to be fully represented at this point. Maybe for another book. I think of someone like Dash Shaw and I believe he could do very well with a gallery comics format.

I was just on a panel at San Diego Comics Fest with Bill Sienkiewicz and Liam Sharp. The two of them are good examples. Their work has so much detail. It looks great on the printed page and displayed on the gallery wall. Liam’s original work is drawn over-sized to begin with. And, of course, Bill’s work is just amazing.

For Women in Comics, I was careful to show a wide range of talent going all the way up to the younger artists like Tillie Walden and Summer Pierre. It’s interesting to see younger artists working in a lot of media. It’s interesting to see how they pull it together through their process.

Things have evened out between traditional and digital. It can be anyone’s guess as to how some work is created. And then you have some younger artists who prefer to keep to the most traditional hand-made methods.

From Snow, Glass, Apples

Yes, or it’s a mix. Like Colleen Doran, who is in Women in Comics. She won the Eisner for Snow, Glass, Apples, the Neil Gaiman adaptation of the Snow White story. (2020 Eisner for Best Adaptation from Another Medium, Dark Horse Comics) It’s this incredible style evoking Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Her process involves scanning her art, drawing on it, then continues to scan and draw again. The final version is pen and ink. Some artists are totally digital. It’s fascinating to see how artists use technology and make it fit with their style.

Is there anything that I haven’t brought into our conversation that you’d like to talk about. Any essay that we may have missed?

One thing to mention from your review of the book. You talk about Alexi Worth. The article that I close with is Alexi Worth on the Charles Hatfield show of Jack Kirby. Worth is writing about Kirby in the context of Pop Art and other art movements. I think he did a good job of contextualizing Kirby’s artwork within the art of the time and also took into account the limitations of comics. Kirby was cranking stuff out. And you had the limitations of printing comics back then. My own essay on the interest of comic art in the ’30s and ’40s allowed me to create a sort of chronology of how comics have been represented since 1930. I had no idea that Milton Caniff was such a pioneer of comics exhibitions! That was a big revelation for me. I spent two weeks at the Billy Ireland library and came away with hundreds of photos of letters and files. It’s just incredible the stuff that they have.

Comics at Columbia University!

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is on my list of places to go. I did, by being in the good graces of Karen Green, get to spend a significant amount of time with the comics and graphic novel collection at Columbia University.

Columbia is pretty amazing. Karen is a close friend of mine. I was very happy to collaborate with Karen Green on an essay on the artist Jonah Kinigstein and his sort of  “comics as art” criticism. That’s a very interesting area: artists that are criticizing art movements and artwork. In Jonah’s case, he was a traditional artist who was really pissed off with the Abstract Expressionist movement and their sort of dismissal of representational art. His cartoons are just absolutely caustic. They’re very satirical. So, Karen interviewed him. He’s 96. I’m glad we got his story in the book because he’s a fascinating character.

I hope to meet up with you at some point, within comics circles.

Yes. I’d love to go to the Museum of Pop Culture and we might meet up then.

Thank you, Kim.

Thank you.

COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS is a fascinating treasure trove of in depth information on the comics medium. You can find it here.

WOMEN IN COMICS is currently showing at Society of Illustrators. Keep checking for updates on when the exhibit will open to the public (possibly as soon as August 24th).

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