Category Archives: graphic novels

Seattle Focus: Jason Lutes and BERLIN

Megan Kelso with Jason Lutes

Cartoonist Jason Lutes was in Seattle to talk about the new book that collects his comics series, Berlin. It took place at The Elliott Bay Book Company, November 8, 2018. This event included a conversation with cartoonist Megan Kelso. It was co-presented by Short Run.

Berlin is a monumental work in comics. Few cartoonists will come close to such an achievement–and it couldn’t have been created by a  nicer guy. What came across, over and over, during this talk is the fact that Lutes is very accessible and down to earth. That open approach plays into part of what makes his landmark work so special. It all began when teenager Jason Lutes wanted to make sense of a documentary about the holocaust he was suddenly exposed to in a high school history class. The teacher for that class was an alcoholic who made no effort to hide his struggles. He literally set up the movie for his class and left to get a drink. That abrupt and careless action ultimately triggered an in depth exploration of Weimar Germany through a creation of an expansive work in comics that would take 22 years to complete.

#ProtectMueller march in Seattle on 8 Nov. 2018

It was not lost on anyone during Lutes’s talk related to the dismantling of the German government of the 1920s that concerned citizens, just outside on the streets of Seattle, were protesting Trump’s own inroads into dismantling the U.S. government. Timing is everything. That Thursday night book talk directly coincided with protests across the country in support of protecting the Robert Mueller investigation after Trump installed a loyalist as acting Attorney General of the United States. Details are everything. If you follow the characters and the rich narrative of Berlin, you can’t help but get an eerie sense of having a mirror held up to the past and to the present.

Cartoonists holding each other’s works: Jason Lutes with David Lasky

Authenticity is everything. What is so appealing about comics by Jason Lutes is the solid storytelling. That involves a dynamic use of the comics medium: a crisp consistency in step with strategically placed visual elements that are pleasing to the eye and move the story forward. A quick example: I was standing in line to get my copy of Berlin signed and I made a point of poring over each page as I flipped my way through. Right around the midpoint, there is a page made up of wordless panels showing a mysterious figure in a row boat. He reaches the shore to find what looks like a vicious snake. He picks it up by its jaws and overpowers it. That same character reappears in the book as does the snake, both providing just the right doses of symbolism as well as pure entertainment. It’s important to note that, while Lutes referred to vast amounts of research and reading, he also fondly recalled the influence of key works in pop culture. Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel about Weimar Germany, by Alfred Döblin, holds as much importance to Lutes as his viewing of the original Star Wars movie as a kid. Altogether, what you have in Berlin is an honest look from an individual processing and distilling at a meticulous level.

Cartoonists Revisit: Jason Lutes with Jennifer Daydreamer

For many in the audience that night, it was an opportunity to revisit a respected work and commiserate with a friend and colleague. Seattle is a lightning rod for countless creative people and that includes a high number of independent cartoonists. There’s a certain sensibility to the alt-comics artist with Jason Lutes being a prime example. As he discussed in his lecture, it was Seattle that he gravitated to in the 1990s. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Lutes moved to Seattle and worked for the comics publisher, Fantagraphics. He subsequently worked for the alt-weekly, The Stranger, just as it began publication in 1991. During this era, Lutes became part of a group of cartoonists that went on to form an integral part of the Seattle comix scene. That group included some members that were in attendance that night: Megan Kelso, David Lasky and Jennifer Daydreamer. It was a treat to have part of the gang together again on such a special occasion.

BERLIN by Jason Lutes

Berlin, the complete collection, is out now. It is a 580-page hardcover published by Drawn & Quarterly. Jason Lutes teaches comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Berlin, Comics, Comix, David Lasky, Donald Trump, Drawn and Quarterly, Elliot Bay Book Company, Germany, graphic novels, Independent Comics, Indie, Jennifer Daydreamer, Nazi Germany, Nazis, Seattle, Trump, Weimar Germany

Comics Review: FAB4 MANIA by Carol Tyler

FAB4 MANIA by Carol Tyler

Graphic novels that explore a particular passion can prove to be the most relatable for a wide audience. Consider the new graphic memoir by cartoonist Carol Tyler (Soldier’s Heart). Her new book is entitled, Fab4 Mania, published by Fantagrahics Books. Who doesn’t love the Beatles? Tyler’s book looks back at the Fab Four from her own point of view. The full title of this work is Fab4 Mania: A Beatles Obsession and the Concert of a Lifetime and therein lies our premise and plot.

Tyler’s experience is essentially the same thing that happened to countless young people, circa 1965, up to a point. Where it diverges is exceptional. One big distinction is that this kid got to go to a famous ’65 Beatles concert in Chicago. The greater distinction is that the reader is following Tyler’s journey full of personal recollections and idiosyncratic appeal. This is an 8th grade girl revealing her innermost thoughts. It all adds up to a wonderful coming-of-age read.

If you enjoy young adult themes, this book is definitely for you. Filled with over a hundred warm and inviting drawings in full color, this is a true tale that will sweep the reader away with its authentic flavor. Tyler has meticulously recreated the diary that she kept throughout that pivotal Beatles year of 1965 to create a treasure trove of insights and humor.

For more details, visit Fantagrpahics right here.

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Filed under Carol Tyler, Comics, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, The Beatles

Comics Review: AFTER HOUDINI

AFTER HOUDINI by Jeremy Holt and John Lucas

Editor’s Note: This book is a Comics Grinder Giveaway. If you would like your own free copy, contact me and I’ll get it out to you.

After Houdini is a graphic novel that truly lives up to its promise: a rollicking adventure that taps into the mystery of grand illusionist Harry Houdini. You have here another riveting original tale with high production value from Insight Comics. The steampunk vibe is natural and spot on. Overall, the work looks and feels like it was fun to create. Written by Jeremy Holt; illustrated by John Lucas; Colors by Adrian Crossa; Lettering by A Larger World Studios.

Teddy Roosevelt runs a tight ship!

You are quickly swept up into a supernatural world with this comic. I think it’s the strange energy that all the characters are feeding off each other that is the true star of the show as opposed to any set of characters carrying the story. And I think that subtle distinction makes this special. By all the rights, the main character is Josef Houdini, son of Harry Houdini. But, as I say, it’s the magic in the air that overshadows everything. No one, not even a Houdini, is going to upstage that. It’s a challenge to convey that but this comic does it with wonderful pacing, gorgeous art, and one quirky tale to tell.

The steampunk vibe is natural and spot on.

All you need to know is that it takes a Houdini to rescue a Houdini. That’s an important point. The rest is, well, a fun and intriguing read. Any story that thoughtfully manages to include Teddy Roosevelt and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as active and viable players is fine by me. I see that another graphic novel, Before Houdini, is an upcoming follow-up to this book and I look forward to it.

After Houdini is a 112-page full color trade paperback. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Insight Comics right here.

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

SPX Spotlight: MY FRIEND DAHMER

A troubled person who grows up to become a monster. That could be the pitch for another superhero movie but this movie is dead serious. My Friend Dahmer is the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most infamous of serial killers. When other boys are out exploring and playing, young Jeffrey is out collecting dead bodies. Not yet human bodies. That will come later. In the same spirit as the graphic novel it is based on, the viewer is asked to observe an awkward teen growing up who, bit by bit, loses his humanity.

Cartoonist John Beckderf, aka Derf, will be at Small Press Expo to participate in a Q&A following a screening of the 2017 movie.

DERF PRESENTS MY FRIEND DAHMER SCREENING AND Q&A
White Oak Room September 15, 2018 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Join creator Derf in a showing of the critically acclaimed film made from his international best-selling graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. Derf will talk about the process of getting the graphic novel made into a film, as well as take questions after the screening. The graphic novel has been translated into over a dozen languages and won the prestigious Angouléme Prize in 2014. Comics historian and SPX Executive Director Warren Bernard will host Derf and the screening.

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Filed under graphic novels, Small Press Expo

SPX Spotlight: Ellen Forney and ROCK STEADY

ROCK STEADY by Ellen Forney

Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life, by Ellen Forney, is a unique guidebook to mental health. Anyone can find something insightful and useful here. This is cartoonist Ellen Forney’s latest book in a long line of outstanding work. Among that special group of artist-writers, Ellen Forney has done it all: a remarkable comic strip, illustrations, and various other distinguished work in the comics medium. I’ve known Ellen for many years. I was the curator for her first solo art show. With all that in mind, if you’re going to this weekend’s Small Press Expo in Bethesda, then be sure to see Ellen Forney, and one of the most original voices in comics. Here is a bio from Small Press Expo:

Ellen Forney is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Seattle, WA, with her partner. Forney illustrated Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) and authored her 2012 graphic memoir, Marbles. She was the 2012 recipient of The Stranger Genius Award for Literature as well as the winner of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis 2013 Gradiva Award.

Ellen Forney will take part in the following SPX panel:

Writing About Bipolar
September 15, 2018
3:30 pm – 4:30 pm
White Flint Auditorium

As mental health is becoming a subject that’s more openly discussed than ever, comics narratives are emerging about personal experiences with mental illness. Moderator Rob Clough will discuss with Lawrence Lindell (Couldn’t Afford Therapy, So I Made This), Ellen Forney (Rock Steady), and Keiler Roberts (Chlorine Gardens) their struggles with Bipolar Disorder, the choices they make in writing about it, and how this process affects how they think about it.

And you can always visit Ellen Forney’s website right here.

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Filed under Comics, Ellen Forney, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, graphic novels, Seattle, Small Press Expo, SPX

SPX Comics Review: THE WITCH BOY by Molly Ostertag

THE WITCH BOY by Molly Ostertag

The Witch Boy is such a refreshing and original graphic novel that I could not put it down once I started. Published by Scholastic, this is the first book both drawn and written by Molly Ostertag. You may know Ostertag from her work as the artist behind the long running webcomic, Strong Female Protagonist and the graphic novel Shattered Warrior.

Ostertag’s passion shines through each page. In this tale of the supernatural, there is a strict divide between genders: only women are witches; only men are shapeshifters. But Aster won’t abide by the rules. You too will root for Aster, the boy who dreams of being a witch.

THE WITCH BOY by Molly Ostertag

Aster is naturally drawn to what has been deemed the feminine domain. It is only a matter of time before this conflict erupts and forces his community to respond. That becomes inevitable once a dragon monster threatens everyone.

THE WITCH BOY by Molly Ostertag

A golden rule that does make sense to follow is that an artist will do well to pursue what is compelling. I don’t find a false note anywhere in this book and that all has to do with Ostertag’s authenticity. I look forward to seeing Molly Ostertag proceed upon her merry way and continue to delight her readers.

Molly Ostertag will have a table at Small Press Expo in Bethesda Maryland this upcoming weekend, September 15-16. You can see her at two panels: “Comics with Molly Ostertag,” on Saturday, from 4:15 pm – 5:15 pm, at the Glen Echo Room; and “Building The Jungle Gym,” on Sunday, from 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm, at the White Oak Room.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Molly Ostertag, Small Press Expo, SPX

Comics Review: THE BEATLES YELLOW SUBMARINE

“Beatles: Yellow Submarine,” an official illustrated adaptation published by Titan Comics

An announcement about a graphic novel based on The Beatles Yellow Submarine was one of the most popular posts on Comics Grinder. Well, here is a full-on review (with video) that delves right into the book! This is the official illustrated adaptation, published by Titan Comics.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles Yellow Submarine comes this fully authorized graphic novel adaptation! We all know the story:

When the music-hating Blue Meanies invade the underwater paradise of Pepperland, the Captain of the Yellow Submarine sails away to find help… and stumbles upon The Beatles! Can the Fab Four free Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, return music to Pepperland, and overthrow the evil Blue Meanies through the power of love?

This book beautifully and faithfully adapts all the antics and charm of the original animated feature. It’s genius to create such a work. Who doesn’t love The Beatles? And who can resist a book that transports you to Pepperland and beyond? Here is a perfect gift for any Beatles fan. And it can make for a dazzling bedtime story too!

THE BEATLES YELLOW SUBMARINE

The layout to this work is quite impressive. The pacing is spot on as it captures the wacky and irreverent humor. An adaptation of this scope and significance requires a master and that is exactly what we get from writer/artist Bill Morrison, co-founder of Bongo Comics, artist on classic Disney posters, and editor of Mad Magazine. Usually, it works the other way around but Mr. Morrison has managed to take a legendary work in animation and find a viable graphic novel counterpart. He has done a wonderful job of sequencing a narrative from something that is both iconic and rather loopy and might seem impossible to properly transfer from one medium to another.

There is plenty to love here. All you need is love, right?

The Beatles Yellow Submarine is a 112-page hardcover, in full color, published by Titan Comics.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Music, pop culture, The Beatles, Titan Comics

Comics Review: A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

James Burns is a very interesting cartoonist. It was a pleasure last year to review his work. A Life Half-Forgotten is an impressive piece of memoir comics, or “autobio,” as this work is commonly referred to within comics circles. Burns taps into his childhood with a confidence and curiosity that sets the bar high. It challenges and inspires each of us to reach back and take a closer look into the past.

Analyzing one’s childhood can be a daunting task. Where to begin? As an exercise in recovering memory alone, you have quite a job ahead of you. When did life truly begin for you? For Burns, life seems to have begun in preschool as he dutifully accepted a box of crayons at the start of the day. He goes on to write and draw his way to insightful observations. All the forgotten traumas come home to roost. Burns made it his goal to sift through the big and small details and see what mattered most. This is a childhood in a Central Ohio suburbia during the 60s and 70s. With great care, and a good dose of humor, Burns explores the high and low points: freedom and privilege as well as murder and divorce.

A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

Burns plays with that special ambiguity inherent in comics as he casts himself in this first-person narrative. We have Burns at the beginning playing host followed by him appearing to walk back into his childhood past. He is now a child but he appears to remain an adult. His face retains the same mature features in many panels but also seems to shift to a softer and younger version in other panels. The results, for my tastes, give the scenes an added edge. These are all memories, after all, with a dream-like tone. The black & white with gray tones also helps to heighten the sense of searching into the past.

As Burns puts it, we are all dealing with fragments when it comes to our personal memory. One person paints a picture based on childhood while a sibling paints another. We are summoning up phantoms. We are asking our phantoms to dance again. Burns points out that his recollections seek a greater truth. He acknowledges that he wasn’t concentrating on capturing anyone’s likeness. Instead, he wanted to try to understand things better like the tragic death of a classmate.

Now, I’ll get back to this wonderful tension between the adult Burns seeking out his childhood self, with Burns depicting himself as a child but with an adult’s face. It makes for some very compelling passages. I think I like best where he looks back at how much he enjoyed wearing a Superman costume for Halloween when he was seven years-old. He loved it so much that he ended up wearing the costume on a regular basis underneath his street clothes, just like Clark Kent! It’s such a sweet and innocent recollection–and there’s a depiction of Burns, as a child in a Superman costume but with an adult’s face. It’s an scene filled with haunting melancholy and one of the more striking images I’ve seen in comics this year.

Actually, there are more scenes I could get into. I’ll also mention here the birthday party for Burns when he turned six. That’s another passage that I find very moving. The conflict between nostalgia and truth can take a rest here. For one moment of pure joy, Burns is having a grand time with friends in his backyard. He’s having cake and ice cream. And he gets to play with the most amazing toy fire engine, his featured birthday gift. You attach a garden hose to its side and it gushes out water through its tiny fire hose! I would have loved one of those toys!

A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

The murky world of memory is evoked quite well and Burns manages to snare some of his childhood ghosts. He manages to sit down with them, talk to them, play with them, and reach some sort of closure. This book invites the reader to do the same.

Visit James Burns right here. You can find A Life Half-Forgotten at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Childhood, Comics, Family, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Independent Comics, Indie, James Burns, Memoir, Memory, Not My Small Diary

Book Review: ALPHA: ABIDJAN TO PARIS by Bessora and Barroux

Our hero: Alpha, an Everyman for Today’s Immigrant.

The plight of the immigrant has never been easy and, currently, their fate could not be more dangerous. Many, fighting to leave threatening circumstances, stand no chance of finding the freedom they seek. This brings me to another unique work in comics that defies our expectations of the more traditional graphic novel format. The artwork here is not exactly in panels and there are no word balloons for the characters to speak from. Alpha: Abidjan to Paris is published by Bellevue Literary Press and written by Bessora, illustrated by Barroux, and translated from the French by Sarah Abizzone. Alpha, our main character, while symbolic of all immigrants struggling against the odds, readily engages the reader with his own set of specifics. In this way, the creative team truly gives a face to a problem demanding our attention.

Page excerpt from ALPHA

It was never an easy dream to fulfill but our hero, Alpha, finds he has no choice. Like so many others before him, Alpha is compelled to flee his homeland in search of a better life. In his particular case, he is leaving his home in Côte d’Ivoire to reunite with his wife and son who fled ahead of him and are supposed to be living in Paris with his sister-in-law. Alpha joins a vast number of Africans from varied regions united in plans to outwit ever-tighter border security, and find the right port of exit along the northern coast.

There are a number of detours that Alpha must take on his journey. Each side trip suggests the end of the road. But Alpha is quite persistent and his hopes never dampen even when he ends up in the role of the much despised human smuggler. At least, he fully appreciates that he is part of an necessary evil. That said, whenever he confronts a dilemma in his work, he can’t help but side with the migrant. He simply lacks that killer instinct to make that maximum or, in some cases, only profit. Many of his clients have been accepted on credit that he is unlikely to ever collect on.

ALPHA: ABIDJAN TO PARIS by Bessora and Barroux

Thanks to Barroux’s highly emotive artwork, the reader is quickly hooked in to what reads as a series of diary entries. The frenetic quality of the art is matched by the conversational tone in Bessora’s writing. Adding another layer is Sarah Ardizzone’s translation from the French which further unites the sensibilities of illustrator and writer. All in all, the results, with their raw sense of urgency, are quite captivating. Alpha has gone on to become an international award–winning graphic novel supported by Amnesty International and Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving human lives in Senegal.

A migrant once stood a much better chance of crossing a border to safer ground but not now. Once, a migrant could have a reasonable chance at mercy but not now. The fate of the immigrant is in crisis across the globe, including in the United States of America. Books like Alpha help to educate the public and help to build toward a safer and more merciful world.

Alpha: Abidjan to Paris is a 128-page, full color, hardcover now available. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Bellevue Literary Press.

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Filed under Africa, Amnesty International, Bellevue Literary Press, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Human Rights, Human trafficking, Immigration

Book Review: THE DEAD EYE AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by Vannak Anan Prum

THE DEAD EYE AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by Vannak Anan Prum

There are more slaves today, well over 40 million, than at any time in human history. A new book, a graphic memoir, by Vannak Anan Prum provides a most vivid and compelling testimony, through luscious watercolors and the author’s honest oral account, transcribed and composed to meld with Prum’s artwork. The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea is a 256-page hardcover, in full color, published by Seven Stories Press.

First and foremost, this is a unique and remarkable book that readers will quickly find themselves immersed in. Human trafficking is not an obvious subject matter for the casual reader but Mr. Prum handles the subject with great dignity, never delivering a false note, and even maintaining a sense of hope throughout.

Teamwork equals survival.

This is not a conventional graphic novel/memoir. But, in the process of reading it, I found myself open to seeing this book as functioning as comics–even if it forgoes many of the building blocks of the comics medium. Was Prum ever really intending to create a work in comics, per se? I think Prum is working on a pure level, one that takes the tools required to get a job done. So, given his background and his harrowing experience, I’m sure that he wasn’t mulling over whether he might end up creating a book that would be deemed one of the hippest graphic novels of the year by the A.V. Club, The Comics Journal, etc. No, this man was in dire straits, as serious as a heart attack, and he was most interested in documenting his experience. Surely, he was thinking of working as an artist in some general sense but, even more so, Prum required his work to align with the accuracy of a top notch courtroom sketch artist. Get the facts out, first. Then take care of the artistry and poetry.

Death on a slave owner’s whim.

Even after the experience and with time for contemplation, Prum is driven to document, much in the artist tradition of, say, Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer, or Charles Fritz. And, I believe, the initial collection of Prum watercolors gave way, somewhere in the process (through the translating and transcribing of his oral testimony) to having this all adhere more to a graphic novel/memoir framework. And, as you progress from page to page, alternating between artwork and text, you can’t help but totally empathize with Prum, from his stumbling into danger to his dogged perseverance. So, yes, ultimately it does feel and read like a work of comics.

Prum begins his journey as a newlywed with a child on the way living in a tiny poverty-stricken village in Cambodia. Without any prospects, no education, no employment opportunities to speak of, Prum is one very desperate and vulnerable young man. Like so many others like him in similar situations, Prum is lured into a too-good-to-be-true offer of a good job with good money. It is just a matter of one footstep into a truck, and overwhelming desperation, that leads Prum and a band of other victims onto a fishing vessel–followed by years of toil and torture, at the mercy of his overseers.

“I want everyone to know about this. Through my pictures, I want to warn all cross-border migrant workers to be careful. Even if they do not keep my own story in mind, they will at least have an idea of what life is like for people trafficked onto boats for forced labor.” Vannak Anan Prum is an artist who was held captive as a slave for four years on a Thai fishing boat before being sold into slavery on a Malaysian plantation for another year. He has since escaped and now lives with his family in Cambodia. Read his story here: http://tiny.cc/deadeye Vannak’s store is run by a handful of English speaking friends. 100% of the royalties earned from this store go directly to Vannak. Feel free to email us if you have any questions or would like to commission a work directly from Vannak.

–from Vannak Anan Prum’s Twitter

It is to the credit of Prum’s own natural artistic and poetic inclinations that his story never turns maudlin. It is also to Prum’s credit that, despite the grim circumstances, his narrative never grows too dark, as if the reader can rely upon Prum to find a way, to rise above, while also not suggesting he was some sort of hero. What Prum turned out to be is an authentic artist/journalist. While I’ve stressed that Prum’s main goal is accuracy, there is no denying that he also managed to remain faithful to artistry. He has a keen sense for pacing, composition, and for color. Life is back to the normal for him now, back with his wife and little daughter. While he continues to heal from his past, Prum can take solace that his voice has been heard and that his contributions are greatly appreciated. No doubt, this book will have readers wondering about where their last seafood meal came from.

A tattoo artist emerges.

As I say, this is a tough subject to deal with, but it is essential that we educate ourselves on human trafficking and this book is invaluable in that process. Personally, I am very inspired by Prum’s story, made up of so many nuanced moments. I wondered, as I read, how he would make a life for himself after having been forced into slavery. What will freedom look like for him? I think this book will make a difference, not only to educate others but, hopefully, to help Prum and his family rise up to where they belong. I can see him developing further as a fine artist. And, as the book demonstrates, I can also see him doing quite well as a renowned tattoo artist. I look forward to whatever he does next.

Prum’s artwork saves his family.

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea is a 256-page hardcover, in full color, published by Seven Stories Press. To learn more about Vannak Anan Prum, and purchase his art, visit him here.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Human trafficking, Seven Stories Press, Vannak Anan Prum