Category Archives: graphic novels

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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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Insight Comics, Insight Editions

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

Review: ‘Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography’

All too often, we are susceptible to allowing ourselves to be cogs in a machine. The ever-expanding technological age has no mercy. It is up to the individual to avoid becoming one dimensional. These are ideas that we don’t necessarily think about enough while, at the same time, we find ourselves confronting them on a daily basis. If you’ve fancied becoming more in tune with philosophical discourse, and would really appreciate a way in that is highly relevant and accessible, then turn your attention to the new graphic novel, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, by author/illustrator, Nick Thorkelson, published by City Lights.

The Swine of 117th Street

There have been a number of comics adaptations of subjects that would seem not to lend themselves to being broken down into the comics medium. However, the truth is that comics is uniquely equipped to take the complex and make it concise. In this case, Nick Thorkelson has crafted quite an engaging book based on the life and work of one of the great philosophers of the modern era, Herbert Marcuse. It is Marcuse who serves as a vehicle to hang a number of challenging and eternal questions dating back to Aristotle: What is our role in life? What are our expectations in life? What makes up a good and purposeful life? And once the questions are asked, who has the answers? Descartes? Marx? Heidegger? Marcuse?

The Reluctant Guru

We follow the young Marcuse as he goes from fighting in the First World War to finding his way among German intellectuals to developing his own philosophy with the help of mentors like Martin Heidegger. But, after Heidegger swears his allegiance to the Nazi Party, Marcuse moves on and, in 1933, finds his way to Columbia University in New York City. The Social Democratic Party, once the hope of a new Germany, had been forced aside by the Nazis Party which had made numerous false promises and had pushed its way into power. Fast forward to the present, we may ask ourselves: Are we headed into a similar abyss? Have we already entered a dark period with some parallels to Nazi Germany? In a very even-tempered way, Mr. Thorkelson is clearly suggesting that, yes, a cycle is repeating itself. But hope is not lost. A way out can be found in the soul-searching work of Herbert Marcuse. Basically, it is up to the individual to demand a better life. And, by and by, Herbert Marcuse found himself in the thick of the fight right alongside the student protests of the sixties.

History has a way of repeating itself.

Over time, Herbert Marcuse established himself as a leading voice within philosophical and activist circles. That voice can still be heard today and must be heard today. With a sense of great timing, Nick Thorkelson brings to the reader an essential and inspiring guide to one of our great thinkers. On each page, from one panel to the next, Mr. Thorkelson has condensed various bits of information into a seamless presentation that is easy on the eyes, both engaging and highly informative. The whole book is a delight as it is clearly organized and designed with a keen sense of style. Thorkelson’s cartoons are highly sophisticated and such a pleasure to behold in their own right. You can say that the artwork expresses the Marcuse joie de vivre quite fittingly.

Step by Step

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 City Lights Publishers, Columbia University, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Herbert Marcuse, Nick Thorkelson, philosophy, politics

Review and Interview: CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America by Box Brown

CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is the new graphic novel by Box Brown, published by First Second. It is a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all. Here you find a detailed yet accessible answer to the question: How do you take something essentially good and make so many people believe the exact opposite–and why? The short answer: Because it is something running counter to the self-interest of those in power. The long and twisted history of how and why cannabis became illegal in the United States is the latest in the always insightful and informative Box Brown books. The following is my interview with the author of artist himself conducted via email:

Will we ever get back to a sensible approach to cannabis? Will cannabis ever lose the stigma attached to it?
It’s getting better every day and I think in states where it is legal we are seeing the stigma end.  They’re seeing that it’s a good, normal industry and the world has not in fact ended.  It’s more difficult for teenagers to get cannabis in legal states, people aren’t turning into sociopaths or anything.  I think people really need to live through things to really get used to them and understand the real truth about things.  My new mantra is that we need to legalize the whole plant.  There is still tons of stigma baked into medical cannabis laws.  As a PA medical patient you have to go to this special facility with all kinds of security and pay in cash, etc.  this is not helping the stigma.  It makes patients feel like they’re carrying some sort of radioactive material.  It’s going to be a constant push and pull for the next 10, 20 years or more!
In looking back at how a stigma was created over cannabis, you feature how Mexicans were turned into scapegoats during the Great Depression. The “over-immigration” of Mexicans was blamed for lack of jobs for U.S. citizens, the evil of marijuana and whatever else Mexicans could be blamed for. I guess everything old is new again, right?
This was what immediately stood out to me.  I knew cannabis was tied to race now.  It was disheartening, though unsurprising to find out it’s been like that since the beginning.  The first laws against cannabis were in places where Mexicans were butting up against Americans.  El Paso, TX had the first local ordinances and it was 100% just so they could arrest Mexican people, almost nothing has changed in these 90-100 years.  
The road to cannabis illegalization in the U.S. was secured when it became a matter of self-interest for the federal government to discredit cannabis. And you show how William Randolf Hearst promoted his own brand of “fake news” in the campaign against cannabis. That propaganda took its toll and has left its mark. Is it your hope that your book will help in rehabilitating how the general public views cannabis—or are you just reporting the facts?
I think my philosophy in this respect is that the facts themselves are so absurd that they make their own argument for legalization.  I want people to walk away from my book not only supporting legalization but realizing that this isn’t just a cash grab.  Ending cannabis prohibition is righting an 83-year-old wrong.  It’s not there simply for people to get rich.  We screwed up royally with prohibition and we need to fix it. 
What sparked your interest in pursuing this book? Maybe you can provide a window into what set the wheels in motion. It seems to me that it might be a case of the more you learned about the federal government’s misinformation campaign, embodied in Anslinger, the more it motivated you to document it.
I was arrested for cannabis possession when I was 16, 1996.  Since then this has been an extremely passionate interest of mine.  It just didn’t make sense to me that cannabis possession was treated with handcuffs, probation, possible juvenile detention, court, etc. and underage drinking was treated with a phone call home.  I found out in my research that in 1996, the year I was arrested the Clinton administration was looking to be tough on drugs and the number of people arrested for cannabis in the US in 1996 DOUBLED from the previous year.  I was caught up in Clinton wanting to be perceived as tough on drugs. 
What can you tell us about your process? I asked you once at some convention about your hand lettering and you said that you prefer to hand letter since you get the best kerning that way. I think you’re right. Share with us how you put a page together and what you do by hand and what you do digitally.
Okay, so I do most everything with traditional tools: pencils, bristol board, ink, micron pens.  Everything is hand-lettered.  Then I scan inks and do finishing in photoshop, this basically just means adding screen tones.  Although recently I bought a bunch of actual screentones from Japan and scanned those.  So now when I add tones in photoshop I’m adding in a scan of an actual screentone. 
Share with us anything you might like about the research involved. How long did it take for you to put this book together?
It’s kind of a never-ending process.  I feel like I’m still researching the book even though it’s been done for a long time and is now published.  I had to edit my bibliography for space, the book would have had 20 more pages.  Even still I feel there are things that could be updated but you have to call it a day at some point.  The whole process takes 1 to 2 years. 
You have certainly achieved an impressive level of excellence in creating graphic novel format work that manages to go into detail, finds just the right places to linger, while being mindful of being concise and consistent. Has your storytelling style come to you naturally or did you set out with a plan on how to tackle a subject, being it Andre the Giant or the story of Tetris?
I often think of it the way I think about comedy improv.  I think all of writing and creating is improvised.  There’s never a plan from the beginning.  Even people who do sit down and make a plan are improvising when they’re making up the plan.  You’re always making stuff up as you go along and then editing out the bad or irrelevant or inauthentic stuff.  I’ve definitely learned a lot since I made the Andre the Giant book.  I think I’ve matured a lot as a person and as a cartoonist.  Still trying to work on my drawing though!
What lies ahead? Please give us any final thoughts on projects up ahead, whatever comes to mind.
Very focused on cannabis right now, but I will say I’ve got two projects in the pipeline both concerning 1980’s television. 
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is a 256-page trade paperback available as of April 2, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Box Brown, Comics, First Second, graphic novels, Interviews

Review: DARK PANTS #4

DARK PANTS #4

When I review comics, I look to see how that work is engaging with the medium: Is it the best possible comics? With the subgroup of alt-comics, I’m also asking myself: Is this the best use of the art form–just how artful is it? Matt MacFarland creates comics that rise to a high level as art. Just take a look at the latest issue of his ongoing humorous noir series, Dark Pants #4.

MacFarland has treated his series like an artist goes about creating a body of work, mindful of various components: theme, motif, overall sensibility. The recurring pattern here is a pair of sexy vintage black jeans. Anyone who wears them will need to confront their darkest desires and also be compelled to live them out. In Issue 4, we find a woman at odds with her life. Lisa is a realtor and sick of it. She has convinced herself that she can get out of her rut if she has an affair with Cal, her yoga instructor. Enter the dark pants.

We all live our lives in a series of narratives. Even the dullest day job can act as a backdrop for some sort of relatively compelling drama. Maybe the most interesting thing about some people at work is how they avoid work. Maybe the most interesting thing about how some people avoid life is the lengths they will go to avoid it like subjecting themselves to the most empty distractions like being pathetically immersed in hopelessly shallow TV shows. The big challenge for a MacFarland character is to try to avoid their own mediocrity and despair and not just add to it.

There is delicious despair on view with every brushstroke in every panel of MacFarland’s comics. The characters are already so beaten down that you root for them to simply not hurt themselves much more if possible, to just survive another day. Doesn’t that pretty much sum up what noir is all about? Dark characters doing dark things until their nihilism gets the better of them! Well, our main character, Lisa, is ready to roll the dice and damn the consequences.

And you’ll love the object of Lisa’s desire. Cal is an ultra-groovy dude, with long shaggy hair that he keeps in a “man bun.” He plays his role to perfection as he tempts Lisa to take a walk on the wild, or sort of wild, side. In fact, not wild at all but just another stupid distraction so stupid as to chill the bone.

Dark Pants #4 is available now. For more details, visit Matt MacFarland right here.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Matt MacFarland, Noir