The comics medium can be as clear and as ambiguous as the work requires. One of the great things about comics is its unlimited and distinct potential to alternate between clarity and mystery. When you feature yourself in your own work, you seek the right balance. Someone quite capable of playing with those modulations is writer/artist Ariel Schrag. Her recent collection of comics is entitled, Part of It: Comics and Confessions, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ms. Schrag is known for a number of brilliant memoir comics that feature her growing up, struggling through high school, and finding her way. While her work can neatly fit within the categories of YA and LGBTQ, it certainly transcends any label or genre. And don’t let anyone tell you different: a good coming-of-age story will always be welcome and never go out of style. We’re human and we all have our own unique tales to tell. This new collection of comics provides compelling proof of that.
Page from Part of It
Part of It is a collection that culls through some of Schrag’s best work over the years. Probably the best piece is one from a 2004 anthology with an eyeglasses theme. In this one, we find Schrag having been sucked into a vortex of vacillation over just what constitutes the perfect pair of eyewear. Is it promoting the best experience possible? Does it look right? Does it fit right? Is it dated? Is it…sass? Just one meaningless derisive utterance from her little sister triggers heartbreaking regret. Schrag tentatively enters a room with her latest choice in glasses. All it takes is one negative comment, “Sass,” from her sibling, and it’s all over.
Just wanting to be “part of it.”
Ms. Schrag has proven to be quite a funny and adroit writer. As an openly gay woman, she has shared excellent insights and observations. That said, whatever a writer’s background, it’s the work that speaks for itself in the end. Sexuality is not the key element, for instance, in the eyeglasses piece just mentioned above. In fact, sexuality is often part of a bigger picture in a typical auto-bio comic. You simply share things about yourself in the process of telling a story, in the service of the narrative. If all goes well, your tale combines the universal and the specific in a satisfying way. While all these pieces come from different places and times, Schrag finds common ground and eloquently returns again and again to a theme of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be “part of it.” This is a great collection of comics. Wonderfully wicked good fun!
Part of It: Comics and Confessions is a 176-page trade paperback, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!
From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell
The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.
Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”
Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.
Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”
Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.
Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”
By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.
Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.
From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward
Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.
“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon
Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.
From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein
One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.
Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac
An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.
From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert
Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.
From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell
Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.
“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG
“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.
From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum
And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”
The Best American Comics 2016
“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.
It is a pleasure to chat about comics, especially with someone as well-versed on the subject as Bill Kartalopoulos. For this interview, the occasion is the 2014 volume of “The Best American Comics,” which Bill takes over as the new series editor. I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on the term, “alternative comics,” since he led an interesting panel discussion on that topic at SPX back in 2012 entitled, “Life After Alternative Comics.” This was a way to frame the conversation.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a great observer of, and participant in, today’s comics scene. Part of his impressive resume includes being the program coordinator for the Small Press Expo as well as the program director for the MoCCA Arts Festival. Both of these events are essential barometers of prevailing trends. So, if Bill suggests that alternative comics are dead, I listen. Of course, he doesn’t really suggest that, at least not as you might think. But, let me continue…