Category Archives: graphic novels

Interview: Ulli Lust and ‘How I Tried to Be a Good Person’

Cartoonist auteur Ulli Lust

Ulli Lust is an artist who has created some of the most engaging work in comics. Her long form works include Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (2009), and her latest, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, both published in the US by Fantagraphics Books. These titles are wonderful testaments to the power of auto-bio graphic memoir. You can read my review of  the latest title in the previous post. In this interview, I chat with Ulli Lust about her work and about being an artist. The transcript follows and you can also see the video by clicking the link below.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Do you find that creating comics is becoming easier for you?

ULLI LUST: It’s absolutely easier. After the first one hundred pages, you get into the flow of the book.

What do you think people in the United States might not understand about the great love for comics in France?

Maybe it’s not well known that the French comics readership is the second largest comics market in the world, after the Japanese. And the third largest is American. France is not a very large country and yet it is producing so many comics, I believe it is 5,000 per year, with all those readers, I  don’t think that’s common knowledge. The French love comics.

Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

Please share about your writing process. For example, when you are working out a narrative, do you recite it in your head and then share it with friends, tell them the story and see what they think?

It actually is a very good technique to tell your story to other people because you get to know what points are interesting and which are not. The problem with my comics is that the stories are too complex to tell in a short from to a friend. I need all these pages to bring out a story’s details which sometimes are not very logical in itself. If I do tell a story to a friend, I mainly keep to the fun parts. I don’t talk about all the details that seem illogical. For example, with Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, I would talk at parties about the stories involving the Mafia but I could never really communicate the real impact of the whole trip because these stories aren’t simply funny.

Would you share about your drawing and comics production process. For example, how do you color your work?

The colors I do only on the computer. I care about the linework. It needs to be strong and fixed. The color is only a second layer. I want it to just be flat. The color doesn’t need to have character. So, the computer coloring is perfect.

It’s an aesthetic choice. You don’t want to mess with shading and other effects. You want the color to serve a secondary function.

I like the old-fashioned printing of the early 20th century. The lithographs were very flat. The colors were very separated. The linework is very important but the shading effects are not important. I don’t think that is necessary for comics, at least not for the comics that I create. I really like the more raw drawings.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person

What can you tell us about the love triangle between the characters Ulli, Georg and Kim? What can you tell us about this problematic relationship?

I told this story about a problematic relationship because the problematic stories are always more interesting. I’m in a very happy 20-year relationship with this man (points over to her partner, the artist Kai Peiffer) and we don’t have any problematic stories to tell! I told the story of the triangle with Georg and Kim because I find it important to say that you don’t have to stick to a monogamous partnership. That has its own set of problems. Actually, I was surprised at how well that triangle relationship worked for a time and I wanted to show that. That it didn’t end well in the end is a pity. Maybe it makes for a richer story and brings in other social aspects. It was important to talk about domestic violence. I didn’t experience that a second time, only that one time.

Could you give us a taste of what it’s like leading a class in comics since you teach at the University of Hanover. What are the typical expectations of students?

I teach drawing, comics and storytelling. My students are mainly graphic designers, not illustrators. I do a lot of exercises to train their senses, curiosity and attitude as creators. I think the mindset is important as an artist. Whatever you do, a comic, a painting or a website, it all requires a certain mindset.

How might you compare the process of making comics with other forms of art? For example, with painting and comics, the process begins very loose and bit by bit you are refining.

I envy painters because they can create with their raw emotions and they don’t have to think so much. There are so many details to juggle with comics. I think it’s easier to do a big painting than it is to do a work in comics.

Do you have any observations on the art and comics scene? You always need to maintain a certain cool appearance as an artist even though that has nothing to do with how good an artist you are.

I feel at home in the art scene. I don’t feel at home in a more restricted environment. So, I don’t need to play it cool.

Who are some cartoonists right now that really wow you?

I like a lot of the American women who are creating comics and storytelling: Lauren Weinstein, Leela Corman, Keiler Roberts and Liana Finck. If I were to put together an anthology, I would include them as well as other cartoonists. I discover them through the internet. And they’re really great.

Any final thoughts? Anything else you might like to add?

For sure, there are plenty of things. Going back to teaching, I would tell students that want to go into comics that it isn’t instant success. It involves so much work. My students need to create a comic during the course but I don’t push them to continue on with it after the course is done. It has to be their own decision. They really have to want it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.

Be sure to take a look at the video interview by going to the link below:

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is a 368-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books.

Be sure to visit Ulli Lust right here.

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Review: ANDY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL by Typex

ANDY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL by Typex

The cartoonist Typex presents a comics biography of the artist Andy Warhol that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If you thought you knew Andy Warhol, then read Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. This is quite an ambitious and fascinating biography, a work of art in and of itself. Typex delivers such a detail-rich account in this 562-page book and leaves you wanting more! He does this by keeping to a crisp and finely-tuned and organized narrative. We go from one period of time to the next, evoking the quotidian while distilling the essential. In the process, the reader is treated to a behind-the-scenes look at Andy Warhol’s personal and professional life.

Andy Warhol meets Edie Sedgwick

An inquisitive cartoonist like Typex is not one to be easily satisfied with a standard comics biography, especially for such a towering figure in art and pop culture as Mr. Andy Warhol. Love him or hate him, Warhol has left a significant mark on the culture and, if not for never fully recovering from a murder attempt and a botched up gallbladder operation, he would have remained active that much longer. He would have found a way. That is what this book is all about: finding your way even when you might seem, like Andy Warhol, to be the most unlikely person to do so.

Typex is most interested in subverting any Warhol hagiography and bringing Warhol down to a human scale. Perhaps influenced by the books he chose for reference material, Typex often tamps down Warhol’s reputation in favor of depictions of him munching on Hershey chocolate bars and lusting over young men. No doubt, Warhol was a highly idiosyncratic individual but he was nobody’s fool and a workhorse. Scant mention is given in Typex’s book to Warhol’s contributions to art history. Typex acknowledges Warhol’s commentary of consumer culture but rather reluctantly. Very little is said about Warhol’s landmark use of serial imagery or his revolutionary use of silkscreens. Warhol made art history, after all. That is a major accomplishment and it sort of gets a bit lost in this otherwise marvelous book. You can say this book is not where you go for art history lessons, per se. This is a book decidedly about a scene or a set of scenes. Then again, it’s what’s happening in those scenes where you find the most interesting art.

Adding to the level of interest Typex has for his subject is how he’s presents his work. He has full page and two-page spreads to evoke the energy and mayhem of various moments. And, for much of the book, he keeps to a nicely packed grid format, nine panels per page. He goes that extra mile by anyone’s standards with including a program guide of notable players from each time period. In fact, Typex is just as concerned with the characters surrounding Warhol than simply Warhol himself. That could account for the somewhat slim analysis of Warhol’s actual career and work. You have to find a way to balance it all out and properly address Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground, Valerie Solanas, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the countless followers all in search of their own fifteen minutes of fame. It is Valerie Solana who ultimately stands out among the pack with her unhinged grasp for fame and attempt on Warhol’s life. And it is Basquiat who breathes new life into Warhol just as the two of them are nearing the end.

Warhol was driven and he also had a lot of help from his evolving network of colleagues, mentors, and a myriad of aspiring artists, dreamers, and party people. The Andy Warhol phenomenon did not happen overnight nor did it exist without various setbacks. Andy Warhol was neither god nor monster. It all comes back to the fact he was driven. He had the skill, the intellect, and the resources to actually make art history and, despite any naysayers, that’s exactly what he did. Typex explores this ambition as he sees fit while also demystifying the man and his times. Overall, this is quite a fascinating read to be added to other notable books on one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. In the end, I believe Andy Warhol would have approved of this book.

Cartoonist Typex

Typex is a Dutch illustrator and graphic novelist. A graduate of the Amsterdam College for the Arts, his work appears in many nationwide newspapers and magazines. He has illustrated numerous children’s books and has published some of his own. His graphic novel biography, Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, is published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. He lives in Amsterdam.

French Comics Association

You can see Typex this weekend if you’re in the D.C. area and this event happens to fit into what you’re doing. Typex will be there as part of the invited guests touring with the French Comics Association. The FCA will be taking part in this weekend’s American Library Association Conference. Okay, if that makes sense, then congratulations, you are a true Typex fan and well above average in every way.

The French Comics Association brings together many of the major publishers of French comics, including Dargaud, Casterman, Delcourt, Dupuis, Gallimard BD, Glénat, Le Lombard, Rue de Sèvres, and Soleil. As part of its mission to promote Franco-Belgian comics in the United States and worldwide, the association aims to promote comics translated into English, to support the U.S. publishing industry, and to stimulate cultural exchanges on the basis of literature and visual narratives.

The French Comics Association is supported by the Centre National du Livre, the Bureau International de l’Édition Française, the Syndicat National de l’Édition and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the U.S.

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Review: JEREMIAH by Cathy G. Johnson

JEREMIAH by Cathy G. Johnson

Wonderful things often take place in the world of alt-comics. I’m talking about when a bigger publisher lends a hand to help a smaller publisher. A case in point is the graphic novel, Jeremiah, which joins AdHouse Books in promoting and distributing and One Percent Press in publishing this remarkable work. There are quite a few gems out there among indie comics and Cathy G. Johnson proves that wonders never cease. Johnson’s work has a beauty that looks effortless and pure. In the span of 160 pages, she mesmerizes the reader with her gentle yet powerful watercolor comics.

“You are not a child.”

This is the story of Jeremiah, a young man who seems to be a blank slate with no past or future, just a country boy out in the middle of nowhere. Jeremiah may seem pretty simple and, in a lot of ways, he is. But he also has his own set of complex desires. Johnson masterfully rolls out a narrative pared down to its essentials while brimming with ambiguity and mystery. Just what is the relationship between Catie and Jeremiah? Perhaps a handyman can help sort through an accumulation of despair and confusion.

A boy’s desire may consume him.

Johnson conveys emotion in her artwork in a very direct and economical way. She can evoke years of longing and melancholy with just the right amount of lines and wash. Poor Jeremiah. He’s still just a boy and his mounting desire may consume him if he doesn’t free himself. Johnson practices the subtle art of restraint in telling his story; and, in the end, it all comes out when Johnson is ready to release the floodgate.

Lost among the corn fields.

For more details, be sure to visit Cathy G. Johnson right here.

 

 

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Review: VEI Volume I from Insight Comics

Sword & Sorcery offers a vast canvas of possibilities and it shines when there is a specific tale to tell as is the case with the new graphic novel series, VEI, written and drawn by Karl Johnsson with Sara Bergmark Elfgren as co-creator. It has proven to be a huge hit in Sweden and it is now available in English by Insight Comics.

Vei is our main character, a young woman with enough energy and drive to take on an army of giants. And Vei will need every ounce of strength she has in order to survive her quest which it so happens does involve giants. Vei has been at the mercy of god giants all her life but she has always kept her faith even when a god flings her into the ocean and leaves her to fend for herself. This only reinforces her sense of purpose as she must now return to her homeland of Jotunheim. But that is only the beginning of her journey as she finds herself caught in the Meistarileikir, a bloody game between the humans, the giants, and the gods of Asgard.

Originally serialized in Utopia, a Swedish anthology magazine similar to Heavy Metal, it is easy to see how VEI sparked a loyal following. Artist-writer Karl Johnsson and co-author Sara Bergmark Elfgren have brought to life something truly fun and original. Karl Johnsson is an illustrator and cartoonist who works in children’s books, games, movies and television. Sara Bergmark Elfgren is a writer and screenwriter best known for working with writer Mats Strandberg on the Engelsfors trilogy (The Circle, Fire, The Key). Together, Johnsson and Elfgren have created something very special and, thanks to Insight Comics, we have it all collected in an impressive hardcover edition.

This book is packed with action and information to process. You will become intimately familiar with the gods of Asgard in the same fun way as you do through Marvel Comics and then some. The secret to the success of pop culture icons like Game of Thrones is the right mix of action, characters, and wonderfully arcane bits of information. You too will look in awe as the rival gods approach byway of Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge. And you too will root for Vei as she attempts, against all odds, to secure a rightful claim to Midgard! Johnsson and Elfgren do a great job of making sure to keep all the facts straight. They even provide a section that goes over what created the great feud between Asgard and Jotunheim. And, by the way, Vei can’t resolve everything in just one book. This is only Volume One so savor it for now. This is, no doubt, Sword & Sorcery at its best.

VEI, Volume I, is a 144-page full color hardcover published by Insight Comics.

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Dead Reckoning: THE NIGHT WITCHES, MEN AT SEA, KATUSHA

Panel excerpt from “A Smile of Fortune,” by Joseph Conrad, in Men at Sea

Here are some amazing titles from Dead Reckoning: The Night Witches by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun; Men at Sea by Riff Reb; and Katusha by Wayne Vansant. I am still catching up since being away in New York. So, here we go, we will jump right in. Our first title pairs up two great talents and features a young Russian woman deep in the Nazi fight; our second title is a very compelling collection of comics adaptions of poetic stories about life and work at sea; and our last title brings us back full circle with another brave young Soviet female fighting Nazis. Dead Reckoning is the new comics imprint from the Naval Institute Press and these three titles are only part of the exciting new lineup of books.

Men at Sea by Riff Reb

Men at Sea is one of the most striking collections of short works in comics I’ve seen in some time. Eight short works, including “A Smile of Fortune,” by Joseph Conrad, are adapted into comics by Riff Reb. This is a virtual treasure trove for those who love art, literature, and history. Each tale is interspersed by seven double-page spreads dedicated to extracts from illustrated classics.

The Night Witches by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun

The Night Witches is a very impressive book. The story’s main character is Lieutenant Anna Kharkova, once a naive teenager, who grows into a hardened combat WW II veteran for the Soviet air force. The glory and the pain of war are brought to life by the legendary team of Garth Ennis and Russ Braun.

Katusha, written and drawn by Wayne Vansant

Katusha, written and drawn by Wayne Vansant, is quite an ambitious work and a truly immersive page-turner. This is the story of  Katusha, a young Ukrainian girl who goes on to fight in the major battles between the Soviets and their Nazi invaders. Follow her story and you gain great insight into one of the greatest conflicts in military history. Vansant puts the reader in the driver’s seat for this riveting narrative.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Wayne Vansant

Let’s add one more: a graphic novel adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front by Wayne Vansant. Along with Katusha, this is another remarkable book by one of the leading creators of historical and military graphic novels. This masterful comics adaptation makes for the ideal companion to the novel.

Dead Reckoning, the new comics imprint from the Naval Institute Press, is a welcome addition to the ever-growing world of comics publishers. The quality and dedication is clearly demonstrated in this comics imprint with a bright future. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Review: HOBO MOM by Charles Forsman and Max de Radiguès

HOBO MOM by Charles Forsman and Max de Radiguès

I am a great supporter of alternative comics and the pursuit of excellence in the comics medium. That means sometimes taking a ruler and wrapping the knuckles of a cartoonist during a bit of constructive criticism. And it means celebrating a work when everything goes right as it does in Hobo Mom, by Charles Forsman and Max de Radiguès, published by Fantagraphics. Hobo Mom gets it right by pursuing a line of specificity to its logical conclusion. Just like a finely-executed novel or painting, all the elements fit into place at a resounding level of precision.

This is the story of a woman who can’t settle down. The open road is in her blood and she is willing to pay the price for her unconventional freedom. Charles Forsman presents his most disciplined artwork to date in seamless collaboration with the script by Max de Radiguès. The pacing is impeccable as you follow one extended scene after another. It’s magical how Forsman and de Radiguès balance so much in a relatively short work. At 62 pages, you need to be prepared to pare down to the essentials in order to give the narrative a natural flow. This is undoubtedly achieved as the reader gets a rich experience within a tight framework. Everything needs to count, down to every panel, ever facial expression, every pause. You need to know what to linger on and when to move on.

Page excerpt from HOBO MOM

Take the first four pages. The first page begins with a big panel that depicts an inviting breakfast being prepared on a skillet taking up half the available space. The next four panels convey a happy relationship between father and daughter, a stable domestic scene. With that established, the next three pages have the luxury of lingering over this happy home: dad goes off to work; daughter tidies up; daughter begins her day; daughter finds comfort in the company of a family pet. Now, we’re ready to move on to what is going on with the absent mother. A rhythm has been set up allowing for the alternating of scenes and characters. Will the hobo mom reconnect with her family or is it just not possible? Here is a book that asks the right questions and lets the reader step in. This book is a prime example of what it possible in the comics medium.

Hobo Mom is a 64-page duotone hardcover, published by Fantagraphics.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Charles Forsman, Comics, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Max de Radiguès

Review: LAWNS by Alex Nall

LAWNS by Alex Nall

Lawns, by Alex Nall, published by Kilgore Books, is a small graphic novel that, to my reading, is essentially a parable about the consequences of turning someone into a scapegoat. No one likes Roger. Neighbors condemn him for his unkempt lawn and for his unleashed dog. It seems like a manageable problem but definitely not in this small town. Roger is the town’s Boo Radley. Nall has put together a narrative that follows the election of the town’s mayor. Chuck is running undisputed. However, Carl, a disgruntled and unsavory sort, has mounted a write-in campaign for himself. Oddly enough, Carl makes a few good points but he’s pathetically unqualified. Poor Roger falls somewhere in the middle as a convenient distraction. Overall, I think the story would have been better off had Roger, already having inspired the town’s ire, had been the sole issue in the town’s election. That said, this is an ambitious undertaking and Nall deserves credit.

Page excerpt from LAWNS

A hallmark of many a work of alt-comics is that it is all done by hand and basically retains an organic vibe. Nall is certainly aware of that and appears to revel in it. My only quibble is that the drawing, at times, falls short on clarity and consistency. I’m not saying the rendering needs to be worked over in some elaborate way. If you take a look at Charles Forsman’s Hobo Mom, this is quite a compelling short graphic novel, only 62 pages, done in a relatively simple style. Nall seems to want to vary how he depicts the main character, Roger, but the way he goes about it has the potential to lose the reader. And, towards the end, there are some scenes that are a bit rushed. This is not to say that Nall should ever consider losing his expressive line. I do prefer a more sketchy line than one that is way too polished. Sometimes, you just go where you need to go as a cartoonist and let your expressive line evolve as you evolve. I am certainly curious to see what Mr. Nall does next since he’s clearly hungry for a challenge and he’s a capable cartoonist.

Lawns is a 108-page trade paperback, b&w, published by Kilgore Books.

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Interview: Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries

Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University

I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.

Butler Library at Columbia University

The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages.  The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.

Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery

The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content.  These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.”  Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.

Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.

We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.

The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.

Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia. 

KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.

Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?

I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.

Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?

What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.

I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.

Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!

Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.

Absolutely.

What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?

The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.

Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer.  However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?

Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of  other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two.  Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.

I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics. 

I agree.

While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.

But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.

That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.

You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.

Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.

Yes! I love gray!

What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?

That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings  takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.

Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.

Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.

We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels? 

I think there’s still a lot of room to grow.  There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.

We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.

You’re very welcome, Henry.

That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Columbia University, Comics, Education, graphic novels, Karen Green, Libraries

Interview: Nick Thorkelson and HERBERT MARCUSE: PHILOSOPHER OF UTOPIA

Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography

Herbert Marcuse is not a household name in the same way today as, say, Marshall McLuhan, another intellectual who broke into mainstream consciousness. However, Marcuse was a huge focal point for many protesters during the sixties and his ideas have great relevance for today’s challenging times. I say this as a way to cast as wide a net as possible for potential readers of a very compelling new work in the comics medium, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, co-authored and drawn by Nick Thorkelson, edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew T. Lamas, published by City Lights. It was my pleasure to get a chance to interview Mr. Thorkelson.

Herbert Marcuse, a hero of the student protest movement.

Marxism. Socialism. Capitalism. Philosophy. All of this does not add up to light and casual reading. However, a concise grinding through the comics medium can result in something quite enlightening–and here Nick Thorkelson succeeds to unpack issues with just the right touch. If you are at all interested in the politics and philosophy behind the tumultuous times we live in, then you will appreciate diving into this graphic biography. We cover in this interview just enough to give you a sense of the subject at hand. There’s the pesky sound of a leaf blower that momentarily vies for attention but it just goes to show that life is forever moving forward which is rather apropos to the spirit of our chat. Without a doubt, we live in dangerous and troubling times but, by learning from the past, it informs and inspires our present and our future. If you are not satisfied with the status quo, and dream of a better future, then you’ll want to read this essential guide to Herbert Marcuse.

Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia is a 128-page trade paperback in duotone, available now, published by City Lights.

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Filed under AOC, Bernie Sanders, City Lights Publishers, Comics, Donald Trump, Frankfurt School, Graphic Biography, graphic novels, Herbert Marcuse, Martin Heidegger, Nazi Germany, Nick Thorkelson, Socialism, Socialists

Review: FAMILY MAN by Jerome Charyn & Joe Staton

The Empire State Building looms large over Alonzo.

“To finally have this collaboration between two giants available in a single volume is a gift for which we can only hope to be worthy.” — Howard Chaykin

Sometimes, a book is placed under my nose and I just can’t stop reading. So it is with Family Man, the crime noir graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and drawn by Joe Staton. This is a deluxe edition to the 1995 series by Paradox Press, an imprint of DC Comics. This new 2019 edition is by It’s Alive and IDW Publishing. For a brief moment, both publishers were working together. What matters most is that this book packs a wallop, full of the grim and gritty underbelly of New York City that novelist Jerome Charyn knows so well. As is the case here at Comics Grinder, while we enjoy sharing images from books with you, we also don’t rely on it so much to the exclusion of thoughtful reviews. That said, let’s take a closer look at a book that well deserves it.

Alonzo pays his respects and kisses Don Furioso’s hand.

As a reviewer who also happens to be a cartoonist, I can tell you on an intimate level that this is a very special book. It’s a perfect pairing of writer and artist. Both Staton and Charyn are not holding back anything while also working as a team. Charyn is busy condensing his prose to the perfect concise distillation. Staton is busy letting loose with his highly expressive line ever mindful of disciplined efficiency and consistency. Both are being the artists they were born to be, both working on the same page. Take a look at the panel above. A whole story, a whole way of life, is held together in that one rectangle. Staton is depicting a connection between two brute men. Alonzo is the Mafia hitman showing respect. Don Furioso is the kingpin in decline who has been reduced to fretting over his colon.

Family Man page excerpt

We can see that Alonzo and the don are both past their prime and yet remain quite deadly creatures with no immediate plans to depart this earth. To that end, Alonzo the mob’s hitman, fixer, and “family man,” has been assigned the job of killing a band of rogue assassins who are bent on killing off all the Mafia dons in the city. It won’t be an easy task for Alonzo by any means. Add to the mix Charles, his own brother, the local Monsignor who works for the NYPD. If the killers don’t get him, Alonzo’s own brother just might.

Family Man page excerpt

Let’s take a moment to skip back to Joe Staton’s artwork. If you examine the above examples, you’ll start to focus in on the distinctive shades running throughout. Before everything went digital, artists had to be rather crafty about finding ways to create tones to spice up black & white line art. One way was with the use of a special bristol board that was embedded with shading inside the board. Applying a brush that had been dipped into a special solution would reveal the shading hidden within the board. What tones ended up making it to the surface were dependent upon the artist’s choice of brushstrokes. It’s my guess that Staton had a hefty stockpile of Duotone board at his disposal. By the early ’90s, around the time of the creation of this graphic novel, this old-fashioned board was pretty much already extinct. Staton probably had hoarded more than enough of this board going back decades. The results are stunning, of course, and it would take some doing to even try to come close to emulating it in Photoshop. Staton has a clean sharp style to begin with so this special shading technique was really just an option, an option that he makes the most of in this book.

Greetings from the Bronx Boys

With Family Man, Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton create  their very own crime noir mythos. Alonzo, the mob hitman, and Charles, his monsignor brother, have numerous tales to tell and to act out. The setting, the mood, and the attitude all add up to an edgy good time. Joe Staton (Batman, Green Lantern) seems to channel the best of the work he’s done during his impressive career. He also seems to offer a tip of the hat to Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Jerome Charyn plays with various crime fiction tropes and brings in his unique sensibility as evidenced by his critically-acclaimed Isaac Seidel crime novel series. Alonzo is a “family man” in more ways than one. He used to be a true family man with a wife and kids. Later on, he became a family man to the mob alone. And, to further frustrate and complicate matters, he finds himself in mortal conflict with his only remaining member of flesh and blood family, his brother, Charles, the man of god who is not what he seems. As Charyn and Staton drop each layer of the narrative into place, the reader becomes all the more invested in the outcome.

Family Man page excerpt

A satisfying narrative, whatever the medium, is made up of a finely spun web of action, deliberation, long and short pauses, and a resolution that resonates, perhaps even transcends. It’s a matter of a myriad of creative choices and observations, big and small. Bit by bit, it all comes into focus: Alonzo, our big hefty protagonist, seems up to any challenge given enough time to digest a hoagie. Something about a certain metropolis is forever swirling in the background, and creeping into the foreground. New York City welcomes everyone but it coddles no one. Better to be tough, tough it out. A flamboyant so-called “man of god ‘ should wear a cloak or cape. And Alonzo better have a secret weapon. All the hoods eat hoagies too. Lastly, in the end, all the corruption, filth, mayhem, and blood lust tallies up. Maybe nobody gets the girl, like they used to in the movies. It’s all set “one hour into the future” with a crime-ridden New York City on her knees! But Alonzo will prevail, one way or another, and live or die as a “family man.”

Family Man, published by It’s Alive and IDW

I welcome everyone, especially my longtime readers, to check out the video review below. I invite you all to like, subscribe, do whatever you like to engage with, the Comics Grinder YouTube channel. Comics Grinder welcomes your support, as always, to help expand our reach and scope with your feedback and general goodwill! Take a look:

Family Man, by Jerome Charyn & Joe Staton, is a 300-page hardcover. For more details, and how to purchase, visit IDW Publishing right here.

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Filed under Comics, DC Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, IDW Publishing, IT’S ALIVE! Press, Jerome Charyn, Joe Staton, New York City, Paradox Press, The Spirit, Will Eisner