Category Archives: Independent Comics

Review WINDOWPANE by Joe Kessler

Windowpane by Joe Kessler

One of the first pages from Joe Kessler’s Windowpane, published by Breakdown Press, shows a wandering dog searching for food and finally finding a baked pie sitting out on a windowsill. There are splotches of color overlay on some of the blue line art. Welcome to a most experimental work in comics. Kessler covers various themes: childhood trauma, alienation, sexual dysfunction, and religion. Everything is a bit off kilter and on edge. What could be better for this kind of work, right? Well, this kind of work can often fall short and not measure up. But, in this case, there’s a lot to like even if it seems that things don’t always add up as the general reader might expect from the comics medium.

Like any artist, Kessler wants to challenge the reader. For instance, he enjoys the harsh use of basic colors. He also likes tossing his characters from one situation into another. He has them suddenly running away from things. He has them hurting each other. Then, in a fit of petulant bravado, he will take a gob of primary colors and fling them like a bolt of lightning. A blast of these harsh basic colors will blow up some characters to bits. Others will be saved for a proper decapitation. All in a day’s work.

There goes that iguana.

Quieter moments will serve for such scenes as an iguana forcing its way into a sleeping woman’s mouth.

It’s pretty wild stuff. Not for kids. Mature content abounds. All in all, this collection of sordid tales is quite fun, original, and worthwhile.

Windowpane is a 272-page full color soft cover. It collects new and previous work by artist Joe Kessler. You will find here reprints of Windowpane issues 3 and 4. This collection is published by Breakdown Press, based out of London.  Visit Breakdown Press right here. And be sure to visit Mr. Kessler right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Art, Breakdown Press, Comics, Europe, European Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Joe Kessler

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

Interview: Bill Kartalopoulos on The Best American Comics

BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2018

Here is a discussion of what makes for the best comics within the United States with Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor of the prestigious annual collection, The Best American Comics, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What does it take to be considered the best? Well, mind you, everyone has their own set of ideas but, essentially, it boils down to compelling work. One way or another, things add up. The work commands your attention and it checks off a number of boxes like being original, structurally sound, and maybe even groundbreaking.

One thing that makes this particular interview special is very good timing. I happen to have been in New York for a combination of business and pleasure. The latest collection of Best American Comics had just come out. In fact, I’d recently reviewed it here. So, one thing led to another. I asked Bill what he thought about getting together in person for an interview and so we did. For me, meeting Bill at Parsons The New School for Design was a nice treat. He teaches there on the subject of comics. Currently in his class, he’s covering Art Spiegelman’s landmark work, Maus. Bill was Associate Editor and Production Assistant on MetaMaus, Spiegelman’s 2011 book and multimedia DVD set examining the production of Maus.

Parsons The New School for Design

My goal in this interview was simply to have a pleasant, perhaps even lively, conversation. I am a fan of Best American Comics but I was setting that aside, so to speak, in order to go through a relatively objective set of questions. I wanted to dig around and see what we might uncover and Bill was certainly up for it. What I come away with  is the fact that this annual best-of collection has gone through a rigorous process. First, we have Mr. Kartalopoulos dutifully gathering up around 120 or so works that he deems worthy. Then, he hands them off to the guest editor. This year, that honor goes to cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner. Finally, a shaking and mixing and final rinse. The editor, after paring down the final cut of titles, may end up adding some of her own, and will ultimately preside over a presentation all her own. Okay, lots going on. So, here we discuss all that and more.

“Yazar and Arkadaş” by Lale Westvind

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Bill, I thought we could take as our jumping off point the last work in this year’s Best American Comics. This is by Lale Westvind. It is quite a surreal sci-fi tale entitled, “Yazar and Arkadaş.” I think it would be good fun to linger over this loopy and wonderful work, an ideal example of what comics are all about. It kicks off with an urgent search for a book and, along the way, the main characters are compelled to continue their journey naked. What can you tell us?

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: Lale Westvind did the cover for this year’s Best American Comics. This piece was one that she published during the twelve month cycle that we cover for each volume. Our excerpt doesn’t contain the story in full but it gives the reader a good sense of it. The original work was published on a risograph. We attempted to evoke that same look and feel, including the pink paper used in the original.

CHAMBERLAIN: That unique look that you get from a risograph is part of what defines independent comics.

KARTALOPOULOS: I think a lot of Lale’s work speaks to science fiction. Although a lot of her work is very different, it does bring to mind Jack Kirby and how he played with mythology with his New Gods.  Something else that I think is really nice and speaks to the selection process is what happened when it came time for Phoebe to pick what to excerpt from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. She chose a conversation that refers to Medusa. That moment would end up resonating at the end of the book, with the last work by Lale Westvind and her disembodied head of Medusa with the tendrils of hair acting as arms grabbing at things.

 

Emil Ferris

 

Lale Westvind

CHAMBERLAIN: It happens every year. I recall us talking about interconnections between the selected works during our phone interview a few years back.

KARTALOPOULOS: It’s  not a heavy-handed thing.

CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, of course not.

KARTALOPOULOS: It’s something you can’t force. It’s natural and organic.

CHAMBERLAIN: I think of how iconic My Favorite Things is Monsters is for readers. To present it in this collection, the challenge was to find an interesting way to revisit. Maybe you could give us another look behind the scenes. What is the significance of having Gabrielle Bell’s piece as the opener?

Gabrielle Bell

KARTALOPOULOS: That’s an interesting question particularly with how it relates to the creation of this collection. Each new guest editor handles the job a bit differently. For example, Scott McCloud created categories and wrote short introductions for each. Jonatahn Lethem, the next year, aware of what McCloud had done, followed suit in his own idiosyncratic way.This year, with Phoebe Gloeckner, she decided to see what it might look like with  alphabetizing the titles–which is exactly what she ended up doing for the book!

CHAMBERLAIN: You can’t be any more fair than having the book alphabetized! That’s a good tip for aspiring cartoonists. Get a pseudonym that places you towards the front. I’m looking at Tara Booth’s work now. It’s a very raw and powerful style. And then you’ve got, after that, the very lean and clean work of J. D. Bryant. Some of the elements in Tara’s work are very challenging for the viewer. While, with Bryant, it’s very cool and detached. Maybe we can do a bit of comparing and contrasting with these two. 

Tara Booth

 

D. J. Bryant

KARTALOPOULOS: Sure, these are two very different ways of working.  I certainly hope that it demonstrates the wide variety of work on display in these pages. Tara Booth shares with the reader the more private aspects of life, things you wouldn’t typically share, like popping a zit. She works mostly, if not exclusively, in gouache for this piece. Bryant works in the tradition of alt-comics from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a naturalistic style with pop appeal, very dense, with a surreal narrative that loops back on itself. The types of brushes and pens and inks he uses go back further to the ’30s and ’40s. Booth has a very different approach, wordless little moments. Both are extremely effective styles.

Geof Darrow

 

Max Clotfelter

CHAMBERLAIN: It does take a lot for a major comic book publisher to appear in Best American Comics, doesn’t it? It happens from time to time. This year we have a piece by Geof Darrow that appeared in Dark Horse Comics. I understand why that is. A lot of the work is market-driven and would seem out of context in Best American Comics. That said, I see a lot of interesting work coming out of Image Comics, for example. Is it a case of stepping back from the major comic book publishers in order to secure room for the independent cartoonists?

KARTALOPOULOS: We don’t really think about the scale of the publisher necessarily. We’re just looking for good work, something that is unique that expresses a personal vision, not necessarily an autobiographical vision. Dark Horse does publish a good amount of creator-owned work. This piece by Geof Darrow is very much an auteurial work: it is his vision; he is doing the work just the way he sees it. This is a personal vision regardless of the means of production. It is a personal vision as much as the work just before it, a self-published piece by Max Clotfelter.

CHAMBERLAIN: I agree. This brings us back to our theme of different approaches. One piece is technically crisp and another is stripped down. I want to ask you to share with us something about your intimate connection with comics. I know you spend quite a lot time on comics in various ways. Would you give us a window into your day or whatever you might like to share.

KARTALOPOULOS: I teach at Parsons about comics so at least once a week I’m teaching. Then I’m either preparing for a class or grading papers. I just finished reading for Best American Comics 2019. Each book has a time lag. For example, the current volume covers work created from September 2016 to August 2017. It goes from Autumn to Autumn. Then it takes a full year to create a volume. I’m at a place right now where I’m about to hand off work to our next guest editor. At the same time, I’m working on a book on North American comics for Princeton University Press. It’s pretty far along but I still have a number of chapters to complete.

CHAMBERLAIN: How do you gauge the reception that the book gets. With each year, do you sense that you’ve got a locked-in audience?

KARTALOPOULOS: The print run is somewhere around 20,000 copies so that’s a lot of copies out in the world. One thing that I think is very helpful is that the series tends to fairly automatically enter libraries. I think this series has a pretty useful life as an entry point into comics for many readers. We put as much information as we can about the sources of each title. We have bios and websites. So, for example, if there’s a self-contained work among the selections, maybe readers will seek out that creator and read more. In this way, we can make a quite impact well beyond the initial release of a volume.

CHAMBERLAIN: You’re talking about a quiet impact. You’re not exactly thinking in terms of setting a standard–or maybe you are, to some degree?

KARTALOPOULOS: I think we’re seeking out good comics. I’m putting together a larger pool of material, over a hundred pieces, for the guest editor. I select work worth considering…really give the guest editor a lot of options. Really select pieces that are meaningful to them. I try to give them a broad palette. The guest editor is applying their own sense of critical judgement of what they consider a good comic. If you look at the series from multiple volumes, you’ll see a consistency, a pretty high level of quality.

A mark of success for the series is how each guest editor leaves their personal mark.  This year’s volume, edited by Phoebe Gloeckner, feels different to me to the volume edited by Ben Katchor, which feels different to me to the volume edited by Roz Chast, and so on. There’s consistency, a high level of quality, and each guest editor brings in their own point of view.

CHAMBERLAIN: That’s a wonderful place to end. Thanks for your time, Bill.

KARTALOPOULOS: Thank you.

*****

We had a really good, insightful, and fun conversation. You can listen to the interview by just clicking the video link below:

You can visit Bill Kartalopoulos right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Art, Best American Comics, Bill Kartalopoulos, Comics, Comix, Independent Comics, Interviews, mini-comics, Minicomics

24-Hour Comics Day 2018: Character and Narrative Development

Emily is haapy, right?

The unique character of Emily emerged in the mist of the night. Who is she? Well, if I could talk with Emily, I would tell her that she’s intriguing and deserves everything wonderful in life. It looks like I’ve found my main character. It is a very natural discovery.

When you’re building up a story, you do a lot of things on the fly and juggle as best you can until it’s time to settle down. What I started with was a whole bunch of background stuff.

Not so happy.

And then, as I wandered along, a character fell into place that could carry along and support the background. We see her smiling. Next panel, we already see her not smiling. Okay, what’s up?

Radio silence.

By the third panel, everything has gone quiet.

The plot thickens.

And on the last panel, we’ve got some conflict. The plot thickens. So, suffice it to say, I am intrigued with Emily and I wish her well on her journey.

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Filed under 24 Hour Comics, 24HCD, Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comix, Henry Chamberlain, Independent Comics, Indie

SPX Comics Review: GOOD KINGS BING & BOWIE SWING

GOOD KINGS BING & BOWIE SWING

Good Kings Bing & Bowie Swing, published by Brain Cloud Comics, is a comic book with a gentle, quirky, and upbeat theme. I’m always fascinated with the innate ability of comics to crossover into various subjects and demographics. It sounds sort of counterintuitive to say but comics are not just for comics enthusiasts. Comics will always surprise you with how elastic it is and how broad its appeal is. This can apply for any comic, even a comic that may have, by all intents and purposes, been created with a small group of readers in mind. So, this is a lengthy way of saying that I see this weird and funny book as being something a lot of readers will enjoy!

Bing Crosby and David Bowie to the rescue!

It’s remarkable to see how well the creative team (written by Jim Ousley; illustrated by Carlos Gabriel Ruiz; lettered by Brandon Daniels) works with its chosen subject: an enhanced/fanciful look beyond that time that Bowie and Bing sang together on a holiday special. For this book, this unlikely dynamic duo is lending a helping hand to those in distress.

Brain Cloud Comics offers a wide variety of quality comics. I go back with this publisher to my reviewing one of its earliest projects, Pretentious Record Store Guy. You can read my review right here. And you can read my interview with creator Carlos Gabriel Ruiz right here. What I enjoyed about this book was its irreverence and style. When you reach that sweet spot of irony, it’s something special. That said, this Bowie/Bing comic gives us a taste of that.

If you are heading out to Small Press Expo this weekend, be sure to stop by at Table B10 and visit Brain Cloud Comics. You will find the SPX debut of Good Kings Bing & Bowie Swing as well as the debut of Blood on the Track #2, plus many more titles.

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Filed under Brain Cloud Comics, Carlos Gabriel Ruiz, Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Small Press Expo

Small Press Expo: 2018 Ignatz Award Nominees

Ignatz image by 2017 Promising New Talent winner Bianca Xunise

The Small Press Expo (SPX), the preeminent showcase for the exhibition of independent comics, graphic novels and alternative political cartoons, is pleased to announce the 2018 nominees for the annual presentation of the Ignatz Awards, a celebration of outstanding achievement in comics and cartooning.

The Ignatz, named after George Herriman’s brick-wielding mouse from his long running comic strip Krazy Kat, recognizes exceptional work that challenges popular notions of what comics can achieve, both as an art form and as a means of personal expression. The Ignatz Awards are a festival prize, the first of such in the United States comic book industry.

The nominees for the ballot were determined by a panel of five of the best of today’s comic artists: Mita Mahato, Carolyn Nowak, Kevin Czap, Leila Abdelrazaq, and Taneka Stotts.

Congratulations to all our nominees!, with the votes cast for the awards by the attendees during SPX. The Ignatz Awards will be presented at the gala Ignatz Awards ceremony held on Saturday, September 15, 2018 at 9:30 P.M.

Outstanding Artist

Yvan Alagbé – Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures
Ivy Atoms – Pinky & Pepper Forever
Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It
Richie Pope – The Box We Sit On
Sophie Standing – Anxiety is Really Strange

Outstanding Collection

Beirut Won’t Cry – Mazen Kerbaj
Blackbird Days – Manuele Fior
Language Barrier – Hannah K. Lee
Sex Fantasy – Sophia Foster-Dimino
Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition – Julia Kaye

Outstanding Anthology

La Raza Anthology: Unidos y Fuertes – ed. by Kat Fajardo & Pablo Castro
Comics for Choice – ed. by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor and Ø.K. Fox
Ink Brick #8 – ed. by Alexander Rothmans, Paul K. Tunis, and Alexey Sokolin
Bottoms Up, Tales of Hitting Rock Bottom – ed. by J.T. Yost
Lovers Only – ed. by Mickey Zacchilli

Outstanding Graphic Novel

Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom – Marcelo D’Salete
Uncomfortably Happily – Yeon-sik Hong
The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish
Anti-Gone – Connor Willumsen

Outstanding Series

Ley Lines – Czap Books
Nori – Rumi Hara
Bug Boys – Laura Knetzger
Gumballs – Erin Nations
Frontier – Youth in Decline

Outstanding Minicomic

Dog Nurse – Margot Ferrick
Greenhouse – Debbie Fong
Common Blessings & Common Curses – Maritsa Patrinos
Mothball 88 – Kevin Reilly
Say It With Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food – Shing Yin Khor

Outstanding Comic

Recollection – Alyssa Berg
Hot to Be Alive – Tara Booth
Hot Summer Nights – Freddy Carrasco
Whatsa Paintoonist – Jerry Moriarty
Baopu – Yao Xiao

Outstanding Online Comic

Woman World – Aminder Dhaliwal
The Wolves Outside – Jesse England
A Fire Story – Brian Files
Lara Croft Was My Family – Carta Monir
A Part of Me is Still Unknown – Meg O’Shea

Promising New Talent

Yasmin Omar Ata – Mis(h)adra
Tara Booth – How to Be Alive
Xia Gordon – The Fashion of 2004, Harvest
Rumi Hara – Nori and The Rabbits of the Moon
Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It

Outstanding Story

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures – Yvan Alabge
Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
Rhode Island Me – Michael DeForge
How the Best Hunter in the Village Met Her Death – Molly Ostertag
The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish

Small Press Expo is this weekend in Bethesda, Maryland, September 15-16!

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comix, Ignatz Awards, Independent Comics, Micropublishing, Minicomics, Small Press Expo

SPX 2018: Time for Small Press Expo, September 15-16!

SPX illustration by Molly Ostertag

Time for Small Press Expo, September 15-16! SPX, created in 1994, is the cornerstone to the comics community. It is at the forefront in promoting and providing support. Each year, more than 4,000 cartoonists and comics enthusiasts gather in Bethesda Maryland for North America’s premiere independent cartooning and comic arts festival. Let the latest news speak for itself. This is from a press release that just came out:

“Small Press Expo announced that it will immediately make available $20,000 and also launch a legal aid fundraising vehicle to support members of the SPX community who are currently facing a defamation lawsuit. The fundraising vehicle, administered by SPX, and created in consultation with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, will be established for the purposes of defraying the cost of legal representation for the eleven members of the independent comics community named as defendants in the ongoing lawsuit.”

So, yeah, it’s September and that can only mean one thing for die-hard indie comics fans: Small Press Expo! Yes, indeed, each year Bethesda Maryland suddenly becomes, for one weekend, the lightning rod for some of the most cutting-edge comics. If you’re in the area the weekend of September 15-16, then come out to this event and check out some awesome alt-comics.

Now, I must admit that, although I’ve gone and I’ve participated in numerous comics festivals and events as a journalist and as a comics creator, I have never gone to Small Press Expo. Some folks there will have heard of me and some know me from years back. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m new to SPX. So, I hope to do my best to provide some stellar coverage to this most venerable and respected gathering. Small Press Expo is where much of the indie comics scene gained traction and it remains the jewel in the crown.

So, say hello if you see me and we make eye contact or somehow slip into conversation. We’ll figure it out. Or say hello here at Comics Grinder. If you’re a creator, let me know what you’re up to and maybe we can set up an interview or I can plan to review your work. I don’t exactly expect an avalanche of responses– but I always end up making a decent number of connections at these events. I understand that things will get hectic and maybe you’re shy to begin with. I understand– and I can only focus on so much myself. The main thing is to have fun and to always strive for authenticity. The rest works itself out.

The full press release on the Legal Aid Fund for Cartoonists follows:

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comix, Independent Comics, Indie, Millennials, mini comics, mini-comics, Minicomics, Self-Published, Small Press, Small Press Expo, SPX

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

Review: ‘Grab Back Comics Anthology Volume 1: Acts of Love and Resistance’ Edited by Erma Blood

“Grab Back Comics Anthology Volume 1: Acts of Love and Resistance,” edited by Erma Blood

Minicomics will always retain the capacity to inspire and engage. A fine case in point is “Grab Back Comics Anthology Volume 1: Acts of Love and Resistance,” edited by Erma Blood, and available through Grab Back Comics. The disturbing and threatening rhetoric and related activity connected to Donald Trump and company have been responded to with numerous acts of love and resistance, including this collection of comics.

Dr. Allie Gray and Erika Rier

The first work in this collection is entitled, “Naming It,” story by Dr. Allie Gray and drawings by Erika Rier. In four exemplary pages, Gray and Rier express why it is never okay for a man to overpower a woman, never okay for someone to exploit someone else. In this case, Dr. Allie Gray, a young female professor, is just getting her bearings at an international conference when she is overwhelmed by a bear, a man in a position of power, a VIP scientist. This VIP bear forces himself upon Gray and manipulates Gray into a protracted relationship. A part of Gray is confused although she does her best to resist him. In retrospect, Gray concludes that the VIP bear was never confused. He wanted what he wanted and grabbed it. He was abusive. In the end, Gray has the power to name what she has experienced: abuse.

Nicole J. Georges

Nicole J. Georges shares a story about same sex predatory behavior in “I Had a Crush on My Rapist,” which further demonstrates the complexities and simple truths involved when we talk about sex. Georges recounts a situation where she was forced into sex by a pushy and aggressive friend. It left her questioning what happened, in a similar vein to Dr. Gray’s narrative. Georges, with her formidable storytelling skills, brings to light an area often shrouded in misplaced guilt. In the end, we come back to basics: no means no.

Erma Blood

Erma Blood shares a story about survival, “Did You Find Her?” Blood uses a minimal style to tell a powerful narrative about recalling abuse that took place at a very early stage in life, before Blood had learned to speak. This simple and direct story speaks volumes. The first page to this collection carries another subtitle, “Comics Stories About Sexual Assault, Rape Culture and Advocacy.” That further defines what is to be found on these pages. Blood’s work fits in perfectly, haunting but not heavy-handed.

Oana & Maria Heller

In an excerpt from a longer piece, “Interval of Trust,” Oana & Maria Heller tell the story of misplaced anger. Mara, the main character, has suffered abuse but she feels she has not been heard, not been provided an outlet for her pain. When a rude boy insults her, this triggers an avalanche of violence that she inflicts upon the boy. It is an intriguing piece that subverts expectations. The girl is not a traditionally sympathetic character. But, in spite of her actions, we can also see how vulnerable she is.

All the work here is quite compelling. This 87-page collection also features: Robin Elan, Rachel Masilamani, Tatiana Gill & Kathy Naughton, Mikko Galpin, Tess LeBlanc, Amy Camber, T.O. Walker, Anna Vo, and E.T. Russian. There is also a mini poster by Barry Deutsch and Ellen Forney. Cover and spot illustrations are by Gillian Rhodes.

For more information, and how to get your own copy, be sure to visit the Grab Back Comics website right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Erma Blood, Grab Back Comics, Independent Comics, mini-comics, Minicomics

Review: ‘Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours’ by Alex Nall

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” by Alex Nall

Comics is uniquely suited for any form of biography and to quite a fascinating degree. I’ve said that before and, to prove my point, I have all sorts of new things I can say about this theme in regards to Alex Nall‘s graphic novella, “Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours.” This is a look at the life and times of Fred Rogers (1928-2003), the host of the landmark PBS children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Intertwined in this biography is a look at Nall’s own life as a grade school art teacher. As often is the case, the comics creator has created a mashup of bio and auto-bio. It’s a natural occurance among cartoonists to include themselves into the narrative. When done right, the results can feel like a smooth dreamy story.

A mashup of bio and autobio.

Nall’s artwork has a primitive child-like quality about it. He depicts himsself with a cumbersome bulbous pink nose. It is all hand-drawn, down to the lettering and color washes. This is a style that falls right in line with a lot of alt-comics: keep it simple; keep it slapdash. In this case, that look fits in. Nall evokes the frenetic energy of children: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Kids, the little angels we’d wish them to be, usually are far from saints. Time and again, Nall shares with the reader the reality of the daily grind of interacting with these wee people. Ah, big segue: Nall comes to find inspiration in his nightly revisits on his laptop to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This triggers an exploration by Nall thus leading to confronting more than he bargained for.

A young and feisty Fred Rogers.

First, some words on Fred Rogers and his monumental achievement. Keep in mind, the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” program ran from 1968 to 2001. There was nothing like it before and there will probably never be anything like it again. This is a show that speaks to kids on their own terms — and in a distinctive format that defies duplication. The viewership is mostly meant for 2 to 5 year-olds, but it appeals to any age. Fred Rogers became sort of a surrogate parent for countless children, spanning generations, simply by being there with kind and gentle entertainment mixed in with thoughtful observation and guidance. Everyone seems to fondly remember Fred Rogers and have a favorable opinion of him. You may have seen footage of a young and feisty Rogers testifying before Congress in support of PBS funding. Rogers was able to melt the heart of at least one tough and jaded senator.

Nall highlights a particular aspect in his story and provides an excellent example of how one element can affect the balance of the whole. Comics, with their panels and unique narrative structure, are inherently tricky balancing acts. You can include a scene in one panel and the ripple effect is under way. Refer back to it and the overriding subject behind it, and you’ve underscored it, boosted its significance. Return to the subject again, and the whole story points back to it, in a way, as if in service to that one aspect. These sort of shifts in focus happen all the time in big prose works. For example, a book on current events will have its most newsworthy items plucked for greater scrutiny by all the news outlets.

The Washing of Feet.

Nall makes a strategic choice to focus upon the relationship between Mister Rogers and Police Officer Clemmons. The scenes are from the point of view of Francois Clemmons. Rogers hired Clemmons to play the role of a police officer on the show. This was the late 1960s and police brutality was a hot news topic. In one particular panel, we see what looks like Mister Rogers washing the feet of Officer Clemmons. The unique nature of comics allows the reader to linger on a panel. The panel is already a highlighted moment, suspended in time, radiating beyond its borders. The actual moment that occurred on the show was held together by a very different medium. In the course of that scene with Clemmons, he and Rogers are indeed enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. As they are about to complete the scene, they both begin to get their feet out of the water. For a split second, Rogers takes a towel and passes it over Clemmons’s feet. It occurred so fast as to be subliminal. Certainly, it was packed with Christian symbolism.

Francois Clemmons speaks out.

That moment, both subliminal and highly symbolic, is what Nall sort of plucked and focused upon to keep the reader wondering. It is unusual. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Sure, it is benign. You could see it as ideal too. But it is also unusual. It was Rogers’s way of gently and kindly getting a message across, specifically of racial tolerance but transcendent as well. A moment of kindness. Done. We move on. However, Nall has tapped into something that he pursues further and which he would be hard pressed to avoid. His research consisted of four articles and two books. It is really the one book, 2015’s “Peaceful Neighbor,” by Michael Long, that is at the crux of this. In the book, Francois Clemmons claims that he was told by Rogers that, while Rogers supported Clemmons coming out as gay, the program was not ready for an openly gay character. If he came out, he would have to be let go. To further complicate matters, Clemmons claims that Rogers advised him to marry a woman and Clemmons did just that. Considering the era, Clemmons would certainly not be alone among closeted gays. Even today, there is no openly gay character on a children’s program.

Overall, Nall has done a good job in conveying some compelling facts. He is not bringing to light anything that was not already covered in “Peaceful Neighbor” but he has presented these facts in a different format and reached a number of new readers. Nall’s book is an achievement in the sense that any book of this kind put together by one individual is a small miracle in itself. So, yes, of course, I wholeheartedly congratulate Nall. It would be very interesting to chat with him on what parts of his book are style choices and what parts are simply the result of his current skill set. Personally, I am a strong believer in cartoonists perpetually pushing themselves to make the smoothest and most readable content.

I look forward to what Nall does next as he considers his next project. Nall has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to tackle as ambitious a project as the life and times of Fred Rogers. And, as I say, he has a good grasp of how the comics medium works. It can be a deceptively simple affair but, in fact, it has quite a built-in complexity. Once the process is set in motion, just like any other creative endeavor, it takes on a life of its own.

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” is the latest installment of Nall’s “Teaching Comics” series. Visit him right here.

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Filed under Alex Nall, Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Mister Rogers, PBS