Category Archives: Interviews

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

ECCC 2018 Interview: Sloane Leong

Sloane Leong at #208 at Artist Alley!

For those heading out to Emerald City Comic Con on its last day, be sure to visit Sloane Leong at Artist Alley at Table #208!

PRISM STALKER by Sloane Leong

Sloane Leong is a self-taught cartoonist who has made remarkable progress with her compelling work. She has a comic book series, PRISM STALKER, with Image Comics. And she also has a graphic novel, A MAP TO THE SUN, coming out next year with First Second Books. What’s her secret? Like any hard-working and driven individual, Leong has a vision and cannot help but need to bring it to life.

A MAP TO THE SUN by Sloane Leong

I hope you enjoy this video interview. I begin with a little observation. Both of the main characters to Leong’s two big projects have monosyllabic names. And they both have an “e” in the middle. PRISM STALKER has Vep. And A MAP TO THE SUN has Ren. What to make of that? Watch the video interview to find out.

Let me add here a review of Leong’s mini-comic, A HOLLOWING:

A HOLLOWING

Here is a wonderful showcase of what makes Leong’s work so intriguing. With a confident and consistent tone running throughout, Leong takes us on a young woman’s tumultuous journey. Leong masterfully balances various ambiguous moments and images. She keeps the reader guessing by not spelling everything out. She takes the theme of horses, one of the great staples of girlhood in culture, and turns it on its head. You could say Leong is exploring deeper as she begins with a quote from Anna Sewell’s 1877 classic, “Black Beauty,” which resonates today with a fresh and relatively subversive vibe.

The dark and enigmatic horse.

In Leong’s hands, the horse is beyond mystery. This is a dark creature absorbing all of the young woman’s anxiety. In the course of the story, our main character, Casey, has been given a horse by her father. Now begins her training. This is symbolic on many levels, including the fact that Casey’s mother was an equestrian champion. Will Casey master the horse? That begs a more complicated set of questions. Leong’s gestural style and poetic narrative are simply mesmerizing. Discerning comics readers are looking for gems just like this mini-comic. If you’re at ECCC, you can get a copy for yourself.

Visit Sloane Leong.

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Filed under Comics, Emerald City Comic Con, First Second, Image Comics, Interviews, Sloane Leong

Interview: Hillary Chute asks, “Why Comics?”

Panel excerpt from Introduction to “MetaMaus”

Hillary Chute is a well-regarded authority on comics, the author of a number of impressive titles, including her latest work, “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” published by HarperCollins. Manohla Dargis, one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, recently wrote a review giving the book high praise. Ms. Chute is a professor at Northeastern University and the associate editor of “MetaMaus,” the companion book to Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel, “Maus.” The centerpiece of “MetaMaus” is an interview of Spiegelman conducted by Chute.

In this interview, I ask Ms. Chute if she would share with us some of the background behind “MetaMaus” as it is, in my view, inextricably linked to her new book, “Why Comics?” I note, in my interview, that there is even a moment in a comics introduction to “MetaMaus” where Spiegelman ends up naming the three key subjects he’s always asked about. First on the list, “Why Comics?” And so I pose that question in a series of questions about a book full of answers. And, ultimately, we find ourselves focusing on the auteur, the lone individual, creating a work of comics, just like any other artist. We are talking about comics as an art form.

WHY COMICS? by Hillary Chute

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: In your new book, “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” you share with the reader what you’ve learned about comics from your vantage point. You have interviewed a number of trailblazers. Let’s start with Art Spiegelman. Would you share with us a little bit about your background and how you came to work with him?

HILLARY CHUTE: Working with Art Spiegelman has been one of the most influential experiences of my life–certainly in terms of learning about comics. I was a graduate student getting a PhD in English at Rutgers University in New Jersey and I got very interested in “Maus.” It became a part of my dissertation. I wrote a dissertation on nonfiction comics that was inspired by “Maus” and had a long chapter on it. One of my students, as I was a graduate teaching assistant, was starting an online comics criticism magazine (Indy Magazine) and he asked me if I’d write something for it about “Maus.” I agreed and, lo and behold, Art Spiegelman read the piece, which was online and had an e-mail attached. He contacted me and invited me to a party at his house in New York City, where I was living.

Meeting Spiegelman was like winning the lottery as, at that point, I had spent years researching the Spiegelman archives, underground comics, and his more obscure works. The party was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Raw magazine. This was 2005. Raw started in 1980. So, at this party I met Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Kim Deitch. It was all the more like winning the lottery.

Quite the experience!

Yes, it was quite the experience! Suddenly, I was in a room with a number of people whose work I deeply admired and I never thought I’d have a chance to meet. After the party, Spiegelman and I kept in touch, we regularly talked about comics, and eventually he asked me to work with him on the book project, “MetaMaus,” which was published by Pantheon in 2011. He and I worked on the project together for over five years. So, we became quite close. The core of the book is an interview between Spiegelman and me. What we did, which was so much fun for me, was that we just talked for two years.

From METAMAUS

Wow!

We recorded interviews for two years. He never wanted to know the questions in advance. He wanted to keep it conversational. So, I would prepare my questions, go over to his studio, and ask him questions. We would talk for hours and hours. We would then get transcriptions made of our conversations. I edited well over a thousand pages of transcripts into the 250 or so pages that are in “MetaMaus.”

That is just amazing. For me, transcribing just one interview can be a daunting task at times–but to do two years worth of interviews!

Thank God, I wasn’t doing the transcription, just the interviews!

I have started to reread “Maus” byway of just getting a copy of “MetaMaus.” I am really enjoying it. I had wanted to make clear, as you’ve just said, that you are the person conducting the interviews. That is the core of the book–as well as a whole lot of other wonderful things that go along with it too.

Right, there are visuals on every page that we picked out to help illustrate what we were talking about at the time.

Well, it’s genius. The concept is genius. Of course, I haven’t finished it as I’ve only just gotten it. But, what I’ve read so far is just wonderful.

It was a real privilege to be able to work with him on that. I’m so gratified that you’re finding it useful and interesting. It wasn’t like the thirteen years that he spent working on “Maus,” but we spent five to six long hard-working years on that book. One of the things that Art taught me, related to all aspects of producing something and that comes from his being a cartoonist, is the art of condensing–and the art of being economical. I think that’s why it took us so long because we generated the material for that book in a leisurely way-so that we could really be expansive–and then the task was to make it an economical object. He was a great model for that.

“MetaMaus” and “Why Comics” are very naturally intertwined. It was a treat for me to read the comics intro that Art Spiegelman does for “MetaMaus.” He says he’s determined to answer all the questions he keeps being asked. And he begins with, “Why Comics?” There’s the title to your book, right there!

It’s so funny. When Art and I were working on “MetaMaus,” I had in mind that he was, not consciously but on some level, structuring our book–which is “MetaMaus–after “Maus,” which is a series of expansive conversations that he had with his father over years. So, it seemed like a mirrored project. And then I realized recently, since it wasn’t at the top of my consciousness–if you can believe it–that the title of my book borrowed the title from one of the chapters from “MetaMaus,” which Art and I came up with together. So, it showed me how my book, in way, is a reflection of “MetaMaus.” So, it’s like a chain that keeps on going.

The concept of time in comics really gets me, which you discuss at length in your book. I have a quick quote from Art Spiegelman that I’ll bring up to the surface: “In their essence, comics are about time being made manifest spatially, in that you’ve got all these different chunks of time–each box being a different moment of time–and you see them all at once. As a result you’re always, in comics, being made aware of different times inhabiting the same space.” Would you talk a little bit about that?

That, to me, is one of the most powerful things about comics as a medium. I think Scott McCloud put it quite well in his book, “Understanding Comics,” which seems quite schematic to a lot of people but then there’s a moment in that book when he just says, “Time in comics is really weird.” I’ve always loved that moment in his book–because time in comics is really weird. One of the powerful things that a work like “Maus” shows is that range of formal experimentation that comics grammar has at its disposal–with panels, and gutters, and tiers–is incredibly effective for work that is about history, the movement of history, understanding history. The central premise of “Maus” is that the past isn’t really the past. The past is informing and clearly inhabiting the present. The fact that Spiegelman can make this so literal on the page–by collapsing moments of time in addition to just juxtaposing them–I think is incredibly powerful. Because it illustrates that history isn’t always linear and it isn’t always progressive. I think there’s something really incredible about what comics can do with time and space.

BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns

What do you suppose young people might not know about comics?

I think that some people who have grown up reading a lot of comics, like my students–who experience comics in so many ways–I think that they might not have thought about just how difficult and labor-intensive it is to create comics. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to tell stories about the careers of different important cartoonists in part to show the kind of labor that goes into comics. I mentioned before that “Maus” took thirteen years for Art Spiegelman to complete. Charles Burns took ten years to complete “Black Hole.” Alison Bechdel took seven years to complete “Fun Home.” I learned from working with Art that he did at least a dozen studies for each two-inch high panel in “Maus.” There’s just a huge archive of studies, outtakes, and draft pages. I think that comics can be so pleasurable and gratifying to read that sometimes students aren’t aware of just how much deliberation goes into every tiny flick of the pen.

I know this from my own experience–and my partner, Jennifer–we’re both cartoonists.

I’m preaching to the converted!

GHOST WORLD by Daniel Clowes

It’s very typical for a significant work of comes to take at least five years to complete. I wanted to focus on a portrait of today’s independent cartoonist. I don’t see any way around it–although there are some variations–the work has to all be done by hand to gain the most. You begin to farm out things–everything from the lettering to the borders–and, bit by bit, you lose something of the luster to the work.

I agree with you. I profile one creator, Harvey Pekar, who is an example of successful collaborative work. But I think you put it really well when you say that something is lost when you get too many hands working on the piece. In my thinking, and perhaps it comes from my background in literature and novels, is the intimacy of comics. I think it’s what you get from seeing one person’s vision: seeing the same hand that creates the images as well as the words. You get a real world-building happening on the page when it’s done by one person. I think there’s something unique about comics in that way. People sometimes call them auteurist comics, which I believe you touch upon in your review. When you think about it, the term “auteur” comes from film, the New Wave French cinema and people like Godard. But, even on a Godard film, there are many people working on that film whereas a cartoonist like Dan Clowes, it’s just him through and through, the whole thing. It’s really a purchase on a person’s aesthetic vision.

It’s whatever the cartoonist wants to bring to his work. There really wasn’t a place for me to go to just study comics back in the ’80s or ’90s. What I needed was to devour literature and fine art. I ended up majoring in painting. That’s what I needed–even if what I wanted to do was to go back and focus on comics.

That really resonates for me with many of the people who are profiled in “Why Comics?” Chris Ware went to art school, although he dropped out. Charles Burns majored in Printmaking because one could not major in Comics back then. Alison Bechdel applied to art school but didn’t get in. Justin Green went to art school. So did Aline Kominsky-Crumb. And Dan Clowes. There’s a sense among all these people that they knew all along that they wanted to be cartoonists–but they didn’t have that available to them as an option in art school in the ’80s and ’90s. So they did something approximate–like printmaking. Now, everything has shifted up to where you can get an accredited degree in Comics.

RAW #7

Would you touch upon Raw magazine since so much came out of that: not only Art Spiegelman but Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and so many others.

Raw magazine and Weirdo (edited by Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and then Aline Kominsky-Crumb) are in my thinking the two most important alternative publications of the ’80s and ’90s. Really cementing post-underground comics as important alternative culture. I think that Raw’s influence can’t be overstated. Raw set the tone for over thirty years. And the reason, I think, that they were able to do that is because they created that culture for themselves. That relates to my chapter on punk as well as others. When Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly set out to create Raw, they bought a two-thousand-pound secondhand printing press that they had to haul up to their fourth floor walkup in SoHo. It’s the home they still live in, although the printing press is now no longer in their living room.

They did it themselves and that meant complete artistic freedom. It was really a post-underground moment as they weren’t dealing with any editorial strictures, except their own. It also meant that they were trying to distinguish the work in Raw from underground comics by making a magazine with very high production values. It was a way to have people in the art world pay attention to something beautiful that they would want on their shelves…which is a slightly different aesthetic from newsprint and the ephemeral ethic of underground comics. They were taking the powerful do-it-yourself ethic of underground comics but taking it further with a high-end design sense.

“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware

I want to emphasize that each chapter in your book is a category and each is inter-related. So, for example, Chris Ware can figure prominently in more than one chapter. Would you speak to how your organized “Why Comics?”

I have to say that Chris Ware does get the most play since he’s the central figure in two chapters–which felt right to me. I’m an academic by training and I had published three academic books before this new book. The idea was to create a book for a wide audience, which I was keen to do since I think one of the most powerful things about comics is that they’re pitched for a wide audience. Without sacrificing sophistication, I wanted to really not make it boring. I thought that to just have a chronological evolution of comics would be too boring. It would be too academic. It didn’t seem exciting to me. So, I hit upon the idea of themes. Part of the reason I loved structuring the book around themes is that it allowed me to bring in a lot of different kinds of analysis. I could tell the story of a particular cartoonist but I could also sneak in some history of comics. It may not be delivered in a chronological way but I aimed to have coverage and the themes really allowed me to do that.

LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES #1, 2016

Let’s turn our attention to the cover art, an original “Love and Rockets” piece by Jaime Hernandez especially made for “Why Comics?” Do you think “Love and Rockets” is still a comic a lot of young people are not aware of or are they actually more aware of it than we may realize?

That’s a really interesting question. I’m so glad you asked about the cover. It makes all the hard work of creating a book worthwhile to have Jaime Hernandez do an original work of art for the cover. He asked me what I was thinking for the cover and I immediately said, “Women.” I think that is what Jaime Hernandez does best. He put four characters from “Love and Rockets” on the cover and I was elated. I think that people of my generation, in their 30s and 40s, absolutely adore “Love and Rockets.” It began in the ’80s. I started buying it in the mid to late ’90s and just fell in love with it. I hope that this book serves to introduce some younger readers to just how fascinating and also just how feminist “Love and Rockets” is. I think, especially in this time that these interesting, fleshed-out, complicated characters fill a gap. It is also important to note that, in 2016, Fantagraphics did a reboot to this comic in a slightly different format.

The cast of Fun Home: Beth Malone, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris, and Emily Skeggs, photographed in New York City.
Photograph by Mark Seliger.

I am also compelled to talk about Alison Bechdel. Would you share some thoughts.

Alison and I co-taught a course at the University of Chicago in 2012 on comics and autobiography. It was called “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.” It was such a thrilling experience to be in the classroom with her for an entire term. We taught a mix of theory and practice course. Every day we’d have drawing exercises led by Alison and then every day we’d also talk about history and theory of autobiography and how comics comes into that.

I think it’s hard to adequately describe Alison Bechdel’s influence in comics on the 21st century and then also go back to the 20th century and her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” So, she’s just been a huge figure in the comics scene for decades. “Fun Home” was a breakout hit in 2006 and it really called people’s attention to comics, for a broad swath of the population–in a way that was almost unthinkable previously, outside of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and maybe Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan,” which came out in 2000. To have “Fun Home” named Book of the Year by Time magazine in 2006 was huge. It got written up in the Village Voice, where I wrote about it. It got write-ups everywhere, in People and Entertainment Weekly. Alison was already well established among the comics cognoscenti but, after “Fun Home,” she became a household name in the entire country and in Europe. It’s been translated into Chinese, among many other languages. It was a phenomenon on the scale of “Maus.” And then to have it become a Broadway musical and win a Tony Award for Best Musical–you can’t get more mainstream than Broadway! It just underlines that the book, as powerful as it is, had added resonance beyond the original content. “Fun Home” was a real inspiration for my book. I open the introduction with an epigraph from Alison Bechdel. She says, “Comics is like learning a new syntax, a new way of ordering ideas.” To me, I think that’s a beautiful description of what comics does.

PERSEPOLIS, the animated movie, 2007

I think we’re making a lot of progress. Most people can name at least three graphic novels: “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “Fun Home.”

“Persepolis” is similar to “Fun Home” in that it was adapted. In this case, to an animated movie. The “Persepolis” animated movie, which was co-directed by Marjane Satrapi, was France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film to the Academy Awards. That was really groundbreaking as animation had never been entered by France in the category. It didn’t win but it win at Cannes which was a phenomenon in itself.

What do you see in the future for comics?

It will just keep on growing. Now, bear with me, but I think that Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his music is actually a sign of the changing times in a way that shows us where comics is going to go. I think there’s so many rubrics now through which comics is understood and the fact that it is routinely and regularly being understood as literature–which isn’t to say a work that references literature–but the fact that it is being understood itself as literary, as complex and as sophisticated as people expect from a literary work, is helping all of us redefine what literature is. It means that comics is going to keep on being in all sorts of different spaces: in bookstores, in museums, passed around among kids, in comic book shops, in college classrooms, in grade school classrooms, in graduate classrooms, it’s everywhere. Comics journalism is a thriving area. You can now open up any top notch news venue and find a work of comics journalism. Joe Sacco published work on the Iraq War in Harpers. That was extraordinary to me. Harpers was a prime venue for artist-reporters during the American Civil War. There will no area where you won’t be able to find comics and that makes me happy.

Give it a few more years and the general public will be ready for a “Love and Rockets” movie.

Yes! That would be some movie. How are they going to condense all those years of the serial into one movie?

I know. Well, thank you, Hillary.

Thank you, Henry! It was an honor for me to have you review the book and to be on this podcast!

You can listen to the podcast by just clicking the link below:

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Filed under Art Spiegelman, Comics, graphic novels, Hillary Chute, Interviews, Maus

Interview: Jerome Charyn, Crime Fiction, and the American Presidency

Photo of Jerome Charyn by Klaus Schoenwiese

Jerome Charyn concludes his Isaac Sidel mystery series with the recently published “Winter Warning.” In this interview, we begin with discussing the crime fiction genre and quickly gravitate to the strange resemblance between Charyn’s President Sidel and our current American president. Both men are prone to go it alone in the extreme. Mr. Charyn has some choice words to share on his view of the current political landscape as well as the art that can emerge from troubled times

Henry Chamberlain: Would you share with us your thoughts on the American roots to crime fiction and how it was perhaps inevitable for you to make your own contribution to this genre?

Jerome Charyn: I’ve always felt that all novels are crime novels and I just didn’t realize it. Of course, my brother was a homicide detective. And, once I’d read Dashiell Hammett, after having read Hemingway and Faulkner, I began to feel that Hammett had invented a new kind of language: a poetry of crime. To some degree, Hemingway also wrote crime stories. There’s one called “Fifty Grand.” I was overwhelmed by Hammett and not so much by Chandler. Chandler was recognizable in terms of his literary qualities. But Hammett was a true original. We had never had another writer like him, an actual Pinkerton, who described what it was like in that world, and the craziness of that world really mirrors the craziness of the world we’re living in now.

I don’t know if you’ve seen this series, “Berlin Station.”

No, I haven’t.

You should. It’s excellent. It’s about a CIA station in Berlin. And it has the same kind of madness that you would find in my own fiction. So I was very happy to watch it. I think after the discovery of Hammett, and particularly his novel, “Red Harvest,” I felt that this was a world that I had to enter as fast as I could. Also, I had read Ross McDonald but after a while, his novels became repetitive whereas it was Hammett who had invented a new kind of language for the 20th century. And, it seems to me, he has never received the recognition he deserves.

Jerome Charyn, a kid from the Bronx.

You have a terrific hook in “Winter Warning” with a renegade president. What some readers may not be aware of is that you had already laid down the groundwork for Sidel’s political rise to power in the two previous Sidel novels, “Citizen Sidel” and “Under the Eye of God.” With the latest novel, “Winter Warning,” you have Sidel as an accidental president. And you find yourself with the added bonus of the current president.

I wrote this before the election of Trump and, like everyone else, I didn’t anticipate that Trump would win.

Is it a bonus or is it more of a distraction in a way?

It’s certainly not a distraction as much as a mirror, a crazy funhouse mirror of what is actually going on in the world today. There are many resemblances between Trump and Sidel. Republicans and Democrats hate them both. They both have to maneuver on their own. They both have a kind of poetry. Isaac is tenuous. And Trump is not. There are certain similarities: the sense of the maverick, the person who goes his own way.

I imagine you followed current political trends while tapping into timeless qualities of the contemporary American presidency.

I was particularly fascinated with the presidency after writing a novel about Lincoln. And I also wrote a novel about Teddy Roosevelt just as he’s about to become an accidental president after McKinley dies. So, it was very much on my mind as to how the office shapes the man and the man shapes the office—because, in some way, the American presidency will never be the same after Trump. Never. It can never go back to what it was.

The Commander-in-Tweet

It is a very sobering thought. The pieces on the geopolitical chessboard are being jostled with by Trump. With Obama, we had a good role model. With Trump, I think, we have some sort of throwback.

It’s not simply that he’s a throwback. We never realized before the powers that the president had. With the separation of powers, with the Supreme Court, with the Congress, there seemed to be some limits on his powers. But there are no limits. He does what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. He says what he wants. He retrieves what he says. He denies what he says.

And, also, we’ve never had a president who tweets. I mean, it is a kind of crazy poetry. One has to give him that particular credit. He stays up in the middle of the night and tweets his platform. We’ve never seen this. We don’t know how to deal with it. And, obviously, the Democrats, who should have won the election, are completely bewildered—and didn’t know what to do with him. And we still don’t know what to do with him.

I think there is a strange resemblance between “Winter Warning” and the current situation. As I said, I didn’t write it with Trump in mind.

East and West Berliners tear down a portion of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989.

It’s interesting how the timeline for the Sidel series puts us in 1989, or an alternate 1989, I should say. In some ways, that was a more quiet time but the world is always changing and we are right on the cusp of the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Yes, as the so-called Soviet Union implodes, separates into separate nations; it is the end of the Cold War but it’s the beginning of a different kind of war. To some degree the secret agents that were in place, on both sides, remained in place even after the end of the Soviet Union, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and so on. It’s very difficult to determine what is real and what is not real these days as we have a constant variation on the truth, or a constant multiplication of the truth. The truthful lie. I don’t know how else to describe it. Sidel isn’t like that. He’s a very moral person. But, remember, he’s killed his way to the top. He would never have gotten to where he is without his Glock.

I look at “Winter Warning” as a political thriller and a thinking person’s world-weary journey so, in that sense, Trump seems to me to be a distraction. He’s not in the equation to this novel and yet there is an undeniable connection.

He isn’t in the equation except that he is also a kind of accidental president. And Sidel has to go his own way because he’s so isolated in the White House. I particularly like the two trips he makes – to Prague and to Riker’s Island, where he tries to settle a war between the inmates and the guards. New York is still very much in the narrative frame. And everyone around him seems to want to kill him! (laughs)

“I Am Abraham” by Jerome Charyn

There are some presidents who will always lend themselves well to fiction. Lincoln stands out.

Lincoln is quite fascinating. I did a great deal of research on him for my novel. He really grew in the office. He had the prejudices of his own time. The presidency made him great and he made the presidency great. It was a strange evolution. When he talks about the better angels of our nature, there’s real poetry in what he wanted to say. He was our resident poet in the White House. I was hoping that Obama would be the same kind of poet but, in the end, he wasn’t. His speeches didn’t hold up in the same way. We don’t have a Gettysburg Address, which is overwhelming. It’s a kind of tone poem. Everyone was expecting Lincoln to give an hour speech and he spoke for four or five minutes.

Lincoln haunts Isaac Sidel’s White House because, of course, he haunts my own head. We will never see another man like him. I don’t think so. Teddy Roosevelt, in his own way, did a lot of great things but he wasn’t anywhere as poignant as Lincoln.

Of course, I wanted Isaac to be poignant. On the other hand, after completing forty years of work, I didn’t want to have a musical climax or crescendo. It’s just the end. His life can go on. It was the end of a jagged symphony. It was the last twisted movement.

I didn’t want to sum things up. But, on the other hand, I wanted him to end as a sitting president, to go all the way up the American ladder of success. He went from a deputy chief inspector to chief inspector to first deputy commissioner to police commissioner to mayor to vice president, although he never served as vice president. I did think of having him in that job (vice president) but it would have seemed a bit artificial to me. I wanted him to dig right into the dirt.

“Hard Apple” concept art by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka

Without having to give anything away, will the upcoming animated series, “Hard Apple,” based upon the Sidel books, (art by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka) be able to cover all the books?

Well, we will start with “Blue Eyes.” It takes several months to do one episode of animation. I would like it to follow Isaac Sidel’s career. I wouldn’t work on all the books but perhaps six or seven and have Sidel end up all alone in the White House.

Trump on North Korea

Do you think that Trump will make as satisfying a fictional villain as, say, Nixon? Or will people have soured so much on Trump that it will somehow not work?

One never knows. We’re living in such a strange time that I wouldn’t even want to make any kind of prediction. It would be very interesting to write about him just as a phenomenon because that’s all that one can say. He’s a kind of hurricane passing through the entire world. And we don’t know quite what to do. We don’t know how to be prepared for it. And yet, there he is.

If one were to deal with him fictionally, well, you must have seen Saturday Night Live. That’s probably the best fictional representation of him, with Alec Baldwin. I don’t think you can get any better than that. So maybe humor and parody are the way to deal with Trump. Anyway, the relationship between fiction and reality is so tenuous that one can’t anticipate what future writers will do in terms of Trump or how he will be treated.

For example, when we used to think about World War II, we had certain novels like “The Naked and the Dead” and “From Here to Eternity” and then suddenly in the Sixties, we had “Catch-22,” which was a completely different take on the war and the madness of war. It took a long time to re-envision what the nature of war was like.

We would never have thought of war in that particular way. And when Heller tried to do a a sequel, it didn’t really work. The original was too much a product of its own time. In other words, it was the Vietnam War superimposed upon World War II and that’s what made it so interesting.

I think it will take a very long time before we can fictionalize the world as it is unfolding today.

Trump on Distorting Democracy

For someone who seems so unintellectual, Trump does play the most devious mind games. There is his strategy of lying where he flips the lie and makes the accuser appear to be the liar—it’s a Russian technique.

He’s very shrewd in his own way. While Hillary was preparing for her victory at the Javits Center, he was out campaigning on the very last night. He was a man who stood there alone. Whether he believed he was going to win or not, we have no way of knowing. It’s not that easy to figure him out. Certainly, I think the tweets are brilliant. And when he uses the term, “Rocket Man,” for example, he does have a kind of poetry.

You were part of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest in 1968 protesting against the Vietnam War. Do you think that today’s protests get the same kind of attention?

Well, it wasn’t exactly the way it sounds. What I did was help to educate people. I went door to door in California. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone about how they should feel about the war but just provide them with some history.

That is why I’m a little disappointed with the new Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam because it was a more complicated matter, with opposition coming from within the government, but those details got glossed over.

Johnson himself knew that we could never win the war. And we lost the war the first time American soldiers appeared on the ground. It was a very sad epic. And when you think of what we were able to do in World War II and how we rebuilt Europe. We brought these countries back into the world. So, it was a very different kind of strategy, the way Americans used power. And now, I haven’t got the slightest idea. For example, I wouldn’t be able to write about the current situation. But I did write a novel about the Vietnam War and felt comfortable doing it.

There are two films about the current situation, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” that really capture the craziness in the world. You have these young American soldiers, who haven’t traveled much, and then find themselves in a world where they can’t read the signs or the signals.

What I found most interesting about Vietnam was the lingo that Americans produced. The way that they combined colloquial French and a sort of Broadway slang, to create a whole new language for Vietnam was extraordinary. But the war itself was never winnable, no matter what we did.

Franklin D. Roosevelt fishes with Winston Churchill at the presidential retreat Shangri-La (later called Camp David) outside Washington in May 1943.

All of the characters in “Winter Warning” are colorful and interesting. One that stands out for me is Ariel Moss, the former prime minister of Israel. As a kid, I remember paying attention to the Camp David Peace Accords so I know that Moss is inspired by Menachem Begin.

I didn’t want to use the name. I wanted to invent a Begin-like character and evoke the sadness he went through after his wife died. Then there’s Camp David. And I had fun researching the presidential helicopter service, Marine One. I knew that Camp David and Marine One were going to create the thrust for the novel. I read whatever I could about Marine One and the squad of pilots and how each president leaves his own stamp on Camp David.

Franklin Roosevelt first used Camp David as a retreat. Lincoln had his own summer retreat. He’d go to the Old Soldiers’ Home and then ride back to the White House. After writing about Lincoln embodying that world, it was a little bit easier for me to see Sidel in that same house in Lincoln’s shadow. There’s also the way Truman described the White House as the “little white jail.” All of those takes are interesting.

“War Cries Over Avenue C” by Jerome Charyn

Could you name any of the French and Broadway combinations of lingo that emerged from Vietnam?

I wrote a novel called, “War Cries Over Avenue C.” For instance, for “city,” they would use the word, “ville.” I would have to go back and look at the novel. Once I’m out of a world, it’s not easy to go back. It is lingo like you see coming out from this war. You have that in “The Hurt Locker,” just think of the terms themselves. “Black Sites.” “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Like I said, I think “Berlin Station” is very powerful. I think some of the best writing is being done in episodic television. The movies now are for twelve-year-olds. But, in terms of HBO, Amazon, and Netflix, we’re getting exciting options. Think back to “The Wire.” Did you ever see that?

HBO’s “The Wire”

I have yet to see it.

You should. “The Wire” is one of the very best. There are others. “Deadwood” is another one. A lot coming out of the BBC, like “The Singing Detective.” That was probably one of the most creative things I’ve seen on television. It’s the writer-producer who creates the show. In that sense, you can have some very good things as well as bad.

New editions of Sidel books in Germany.

As I wrap up, I just want to say that I enjoyed “Winter Warning” very much and I am going back to read the other books. I am currently enjoying “Marilyn The Wild.”

The series, at the beginning, was very different. It evolved as I evolved as a writer. You never think that you’ll finish all twelve. I consider them three quartets. The only reason I was able to complete the Sidel books is because my editor/publisher at Liveright, Bob Weil, spent a long time on each draft. I’d be working on the Sidel books while he was working on Lincoln, or the book on Emily Dickinson. I had a strange surreal time between novels, trying to keep the distinct voices inside my head.

What I like best about the Sidel books is that you can read any title without knowing anything about the others. It will enrich the experience if you do read the others but each stands alone.

In Germany, they have been republishing each of the Sidel books with a photo of me on the cover that coincides with the time I wrote each book. It’s an interesting idea.

The main thing is that you want to keep working as a writer. I feel that we’re living in a time that is hostile to the writer. You have to have an inner resource to sustain yourself. Writing was something I always wanted to do from the time I finished high school. I never thought in terms of failure or success. I just thought in terms of how to sustain myself. I was very lucky, as my generation was the first that welcomed creative writers to teach at the universities. It had never been the case before. And then I stopped teaching and moved to Paris. And soon I began to teach there. I started a film department at the American University in Paris. As with anything, you also need a tremendous amount of luck.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Yes, luck and will power.

Well, you can have all the will power in the world but if you don’t have any kind of luck, then you defeat yourself. You need some kind of acknowledgement. The books I’ve written are there for people to read. Some of them may survive and some of them may not. One never knows.

Also, the graphic novels that I wrote are very important to me. I was the first American novelist in Europe to work with a French artist and then other French writers began doing it too. I grew up with comics, as you already know. We’ve talked about it.

You have so many portals that one can slip into. You have so many outlets for people to discover your work.

Well, if they take the time. The problem is you don’t have as much time to read anymore. Everything moves so quickly, but if you can take the time to read then you can take the time to discover.

When I went to college, reading was the central occupation of what we did as students. You didn’t do anything but read books. You were much better equipped to deal with the outside world having had these dialogues with writers, with having had Plato inside your head.

Today it’s more of a juggling act. A student’s attention is divided between reading and engaging with social media.

It is in social media where people do their discovering. And, going back to Trump, it’s with his tweets where he’s so brilliant. Maybe you need a child-like manner to do it. I don’t really know. But he has a sort of brilliance with his tweets that very few people have. (laughs)

It’s a very different world. And it has evolved very quickly. What place there will be for books, I don’t know. I don’t feel very optimistic about the future of books.

The art of rediscovering books: “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth

I feel there are a lot of dedicated readers. My daughter, at 21, prefers to read in print. I like both print and digital equally. There’s a healthy community of readers out there.

It’s not a question of a lack of readers. It’s about the lack of venues for these readers. For example, it’s so much more expensive to put out a print book. When I first started writing, if a publisher liked your work, he knew that you’d have a library sale of between 1,500 to 2000 copies so that you could easily sell four or five thousand copies. That would be enough to do a second book and a third book.

But now the library sales have disappeared; the book clubs have disappeared; and the paperback houses have disappeared so the avenues for income are not there. The only avenue you have left is the translation of a book into a film—and that may be more prominent that it was before. Or a television series. One or the other. And that may be what rescues fiction.

As long as I still get pleasure from books, I will write them. There are fewer book reviews, fewer publishing outlets, so it’s hard to reach the reader.

I think people are reading as much as ever but what they’re reading, I don’t know. Also, someone has to make predictions based upon book reviews. If you look back at the last fifty to sixty years, most of those predictions have been wrong.

What seems to be wonderful isn’t so wonderful. I’m not talking about myself. I am talking about how books can come out of obscurity. For example, “Call it Sleep,” by Henry Roth. It was published in the ‘30s and disappeared. Then it was republished in the ‘60s and it was a phenomenal hit. These things do happen but they happen much less frequently.

That’s the same case with “The Great Gatsby.”

That’s absolutely true. Fitzgerald died at a very early age. He was only 44. He was completely forgotten. It was only because of Edmund Wilson’s essays in The New Yorker that he was revived as a writer. In his own lifetime, Fitzgerald had disappeared into the void, his fame all eaten up.

It’s odd which writers are recycled, which writers come back to haunt us, and which writers speak to us in our own generation.

Thank you, Jerome.

Thank you, Henry

You can listen to the podcast conversation by clicking below:

“Winter Warning” by Jerome Charyn

“Winter Warning” is a 288-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd. For more details, visit Pegasus Books. Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here.

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Filed under American History, Books, Comics, Crime Fiction, Culture, Dashiell Hammett, Donald Trump, FDR, Fiction, graphic novels, Interviews, Jerome Charyn, mystery, politics, Thriller, writers, writing

Interview: Ben Katchor, Guest Editor of The Best American Comics 2017

Ben Katchor, guest editor of The Best American Comics 2017

Where are contemporary comics headed today? Is it best to remain underground or to be viewed as respectable? For legendary cartoonist Ben Katchor, comics that interest him need to be unusual. Ben Katchor is known for his critically-acclaimed comic strip, “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.” Mr. Katchor is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is Associate Professor of Illustration at The New School-Parsons School of Design.

“The Best American Comics 2017”

And he is the guest editor of The Best American Comics 2017. I had the pleasure to review this year’s edition. And, to add to that, I am honored to share with you this interview with Mr. Katchor. Just click the link below:

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Interview: Martin Olson: A Writer’s Life

Martin Olson

It is another night of bright lights in the big city when a tall dapper gentleman strides into Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood’s legendary restaurant, frequented by stars of today and ghosts of yesteryear. This is Martin Olson: comedy writer, TV producer, bestselling author, playwright, stage director, composer and poet. Here I am, with a reservation at the Three Stooges booth, across from the Charlie Chaplin booth and the Marilyn Monroe booth. I wave Martin over to join me and Jennifer. We’re in town for a bit and honored at the chance to get together for this interview. Mr. Olson is a very busy, very talented, and very nice guy. If you see a publicity photo of him frowning (see above), that’s part of an act. He is really nice. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I’m putting it out there just so you know.

Hunson Abadeer

By the way, among the various credits that Mr. Olson can point to, he will forever enjoy a place in pop culture history as the voice of Hunson Abadeer (aka the Lord of Evil), ruler of the Nightosphere, and father of Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olson’s daughter, Olivia, is voice talent) on the legendary animated series, “Adventure Time” on Cartoon Network.

“Rocko’s Modern Life”

Encyclopedia of Hell,” Olson’s popular and critically-acclaimed satirical book will continue in a new book in 2018. We chat about that. We discuss the Boston Comedy Scene which Olson helped form. And another fun item is a reunion of the original cast of the landmark animated series, “Rocko’s Modern Life.” Olson was part of the writing team behind a new one-hour TV special that will run in 2018.

“Encyclopedia of Hell” by Martin Olson

When the subject of writing, or any form of creativity comes up, people usually seek some insights and tips. We tackle that sort of stuff here too. So, sit back and enjoy this podcast. Given the nature of our talk, more in tune with a conversation over a meal, it is split into two sections: one before dinner and the other after dinner. Oh, dinner was great, if you were wondering.

Click the two links below to go to Part One and Part Two:

Visit Martin Olson right here.

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Interview: Jerome Charyn and the Art of Fiction in Prose and in Comics

Portrait of Jerome Charyn by Henry Chamberlain

Much is brewing for novelist Jerome Charyn and I imagine that’s always been the case. Currently, he has a new novel out, “Jerzy,” which tackles the controversial life of writer Jerzy Kosinski. The development of “Hard Apple,” an animated series based on Charyn’s Isaac Sidel crime novels, is on a fast-track. “Winter Warning,” perhaps the last installment of the Sidel novels comes out this October. And “Family Man,” a deluxe re-issue of Charyn’s collaboration with cartoonist Joe Staton will be available later this year, with a Kickstarter campaign in support of the IT’S ALIVE Press print run closing on May 21st.

For a writer steeped in the works of great literature, it is comic books and movies that influence his work as much as anything else. In 1986, “The Magician’s Wife,” a graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by François Boucq, published by Casterman, won for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. That is tantamount to winning an Academy Award for the comics industry. Mr. Charyn’s contribution, and subsequent collaborations, have significantly added to the developing art form that is the comics medium, specifically graphic novels.

We begin our conversation talking about character. In this case, the celebrated and controversial writer Jerzy Kosinski. At the end is a link to the podcast:

Jerzy Kosinski with David Letterman, 1984.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s begin with your recent novel, “Jerzy.” My thinking is that the life of Jerzy Kosinski fits in well with your work as you’re drawn to unusual characters seeking salvation.

JEROME CHARYN: When you look back at it historically, it almost seems like he didn’t exist. He seems like a made-up person. He led so many fictional lives. To me, it was very sad because the first two books he wrote, “The Painted Bird,” and his second novel, “Steps,” which is just as unusual, were works of genius. But, when he put on the mask of Jerzy Kosinski, in the other books, they’re no longer anywhere as interesting. They don’t have the same sad, hard touch. They’re made-up, invented. They’re not authentic.

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

“Steps” talks about his life after the war and how he lived. We have such a narrow glimpse into what it must have been like to live in a communist country after the war. And this is, you know, almost like Kafka. I mean, the world he describes in “Steps” is extraordinary. I found him to be a strange man. Very hard to deal with. But the early work was incredible.

You share a certain sensibility with Kosinski: a connection to Russia.

Yes, my mother was Russian. And I love the literature. There’s nothing like it. This is not to take anything away from American writers but when you go back to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, it’s almost like being caught in a landscape of illusions.

Lowes Paradise Theatre in the Bronx. “It was comics and movies. That was my education.”

Would you share with us your special connection to comics. You grew up in the Bronx with comics.

Yes, that’s why it’s not so strange to be involved in the whole aura of comic books. I’m about to embark upon an animated series based on my Isaac Sidel crime novels. People talk about the special role of storyboard artists. Well, I’m a storyboard artist in the sense that I can see the storyboard in my head. I grew up with comics. I learned how to read with comics.

As you wrote in one of your articles, I’m one of the first people to make the crossover from fiction to comics. I started out as an artist but I had no talent at all. So, I needed artists to work with. And I was lucky to find some of the very best artists while I was living in France. Had I not been living in France, it probably would never have happened.

A SUIVRE, a Franco-Belgian comics magazine published from February 1978 to December 1997 by the Casterman.

Your work in comics began with your connection to the comics magazine, A SUIVRE.

Yes, the title means to be continued. It was an extraordinary magazine. It lost its circulation, which can happen as you move from one generation of readers to the next. The magazine reviewed one of my novels. I was sent a copy of the issue with the review and I was exposed to some of the most extraordinary art: Tardi, Bilal, and José Muñoz, a master of black & white. I wrote a letter to the editor, Jean-Paul Mougin, a wonderful editor. I wrote to him about my desire to work with an artist. He found for me François Boucq, and we were able to collaborate on several graphic novels, including “The Magician’s Wife.”

When you were entering into this collaboration, were you at all thinking that you were about to a make your mark on this exciting and emerging comics art form or were you thinking more of it as an interesting experiment?

I would say it was both. To declare that I was making my mark would have been thinking too far ahead. I adored the work Boucq did. I remember working in television for the first time twenty-five years ago. And I recall thinking that I would love hearing the lines that I wrote for the pilot, adapted from one of my novels. And I didn’t love it at all. But when I saw the art that François Boucq did, I almost cried. He took a story that I wrote and interpreted it in his own way. The results felt totally personal. On television, the words each actor and actress spoke had no relation to me whatsoever. I was startled. I’d seen the rushes. I thought I would really enjoy it. It was dead to me.

Do you recall what televsion show that was?

Yes. It was an adaptation of “The Good Policeman.”

I wanted to build a little more on what you’ve said about comics, that it comes in and out of reality. And you’ve talked about how one can linger upon a panel. The framework of comics is unique, is magical.

Yes, it is magical. It has its own framework, like a house. It’s architecture. The panels are pieces of architecture. Also, you can move them around and shift the logic. You can possibly do that in a novel but it’s going to be difficult for the reader. You see how I do that in “Jerzy.” I shift the narrative, in a way. It seems to me, going back to Krazy Kat, you move from panel to panel and you’re in a different landscape. That, to me, was very exciting. In other words, there were no rules. You could tell the story in any way you wanted.

“Once Upon a Droshky” by Jerome Charyn. Cover art by Edward Sorel.

I wanted to chat with you about your first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” published in 1964. It has beautiful cover art by Edward Sorel.

I really love that cover. I’m disappointed that I never worked with him again. I chose one of my friends to do the cover for my next book. That was a mistake since you shouldn’t mix friendship with art.

Is there anything you can share with us about Edward Sorel–did you guys socialize?

I think I did meet him. I do adore the cover. I don’t know why he was chosen. He was a young man at the time. It is simply a wonderful cover as it fits the book perfectly. I was delighted to learn that you had just interviewed him. Not only that, we both have the same publisher, Liveright.

You guys should have coffee some time.

I hope so. I would love to meet him. I always wanted to be a writer and, when you see your first book, it doesn’t seem real. I’m holding it in my hand right now and it still doesn’t seem real!

You seem to have anticipated my next question. I wonder if you could give us a window into that time, at the height of the modern era. Sorel could create the Great American Illustration and you could create the Great American Novel.

“Great American Novel,” no, but it was a time when serious literature thrived. Hemingway was still alive. I believe, Faulkner was still alive. Literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something to the culture. In other words, when I went to Columbia College, we spent four years just reading books. So, one did not talk about the possibility of whether or not you might become a doctor or a lawyer. That was incidental to the idea of learning a way of life. And that has remained with me. The greatest gift I ever had was spending four years studying books. We had a colloquium of ten students and two professors. In the colloquium there was a student who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, another student who became a professor of philosophy at Harvard, etc. These were all very serious guys with a murderous intellect. And literature was a kind of religion. It’s difficult for me to speak about the current generation. But I know that, at that time, literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something.

It’s always been a relatively small group of serious readers. Literature used to mean more to the general public–we’ve lost that.

We’ve lost a lot. There are fewer book reviews and fewer bookshops. It’s the same thing that’s happened to the movies. They’re just remakes of superhero flicks and a few small films. The small has disappeared. It’s the mega-book. It’s the mega-bomb, you know. And that’s not the kind of art that I want to do.

There’s something that Marilyn Monroe said toward the end of her career, and it’s my credo. She said, “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wonderful.” I feel the same way. I love Marilyn Monroe but she had no idea how to live her life. When she moved back to L.A., she didn’t know how to furnish her house. All she had was a bed and a lamp. It’s kind of sad but also poetic at the same time.

You have an amazing formal education. But, first, you had comic books and the movies. Do those two forces strongly influence your work, the magical realism that keeps popping up?

Yes. Remember, when you grow up with films, you have a visual sophistication that you don’t have in real life. I came from a very poor family. I remember going out with a girlfriend of mine. She came from a very aristocratic background. She was chastising me for not holding my knife the correct way. I seldom get angry. But I really exploded. I said that I lived all my life being told what to do and I didn’t want to be told how to eat. I didn’t have her table manners. I didn’t have her customs. I grew up like a kind of wolf.

But, on the other hand, I had this visual sophistication from a very early age. Joyce Carol Oates explained it to me. I thought that maybe I’d just seen so many movies. She said that maybe my brain was wired in a special way. In other words, I can distinctly remember the back of an actor’s head I had seen in a film thirty years ago. I don’t have to see the front of his face. That crazy visualization was imprinted in my brain.

There were no books in the house. It was comics and movies. That was my education. School didn’t give you much, just little things like how to spell.

“The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” by Jerome Charyn

What can you tell us about your debut novel. What led you to choose the subject behind “Once Upon a Droshky”?

My grandparents came from the Lower East Side. You have to remember, I’d never traveled. I’d never been anywhere. Even as a kid, I very rarely went into Manhattan. Even though I was sophisticated in terms of what I read, I could not, at that point, take what I read and turn it into what I wanted to write. I had to find a theme, or a group of characters that made sense to me. I remember walking around the streets where my grandparent lived on the Lower East Side. And I can still recall the Yiddish theaters—the marquees and the actors. So, in my first novel, I picked a Yiddish actor who is unemployed. And I was able to move into that world and find his voice. Voice is critical. Writing is music. There’s nothing else but the music.

I certainly enjoyed reading your first novel. I would encourage everyone to grab an existing copy while you still can. It would definitely make sense for this book to come back in a new edition.

That’s when you get into issues of commerce. At some point, things will either work out or not. I’m grateful that I was able to do it. Someone will ask me about how I wrote that novel. Well, I found the music for it. And, for a long time, while I was living in Europe, I’d lost the music. I really wasn’t able to write. I was only able to write about New York. I was able to write stories about New York but I wasn’t able to be more adventurous. Language is a gift that can disappear as quickly as it can reappear. It’s almost magical. You write in a dream. It’s really a dream state. I don’t know how artists draw. I can only tell you how I write. You’re writing in a dream.

Your body of work is breathtaking. When someone goes over the many titles and considers the quality of the work, it’s stunning. A recent example is “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.” I had not read that much of Dickinson prior to reading your book. But I have now. And your novel is quite beautiful.

Thank you. I like that book a lot. I was chastised for writing in a woman’s voice. I’d rediscovered Emily Dickinson rather late. I’d never read her letters before and they are just as extraordinary as her poems. I knew I wasn’t finished with her. So, I started “A Loaded Gun.” The wondrous fact is that she never wanted to publish her work. She was like Kafka in a way. She had a secret self that was very tough. People don’t recognize her toughness. And this is what I wanted to write about.

“Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories” by Jerome Charyn

I wanted to ask you about your story collection, “Bitter Bronx.” I would recommend that as a wonderful point of entry. I love the fable-like quality to the stories. They remind me, in a way, of J.D. Salinger.

I’m not a great admirer of “Catcher in the Rye.” But I love “The Nine Stories.” I read them in high school. There are three or four of those stories that can make you cry with sadness and delight. The important thing is a book that you can reread and still feel the same affection: Ernest Hemingway’s early stories, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel. The thing about “Bitter Bronx” is that I had to relearn the craft. My editor in France suggested that I write a collection of stories about the Bronx, and like Yankee Doodle, that became my quest.

I want to call attention to the four recent graphic novel re-issues, translated in English, by Dover Publications. Readers can follow up on my previous reviews for that. I also want to call attention to FAMILY MAN, a crime noir graphic novel that will receive a deluxe reprint from IT’S ALIVE Press led by Drew Ford.

We currently have a Kickstarter campaign for “Family Man.” Drew Ford has not received the recognition that he deserves. He is a shrewd editor and gets exactly what he’s looking for from a project.

Page from FAMILY MAN by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton

Tell us about “Family Man.”

Andy Helfer was the editor at DC Comics. I was interested in writing a Batman story but they had other ideas.

I’ll bet you could get your Batman story today.

Yes, but I’m no longer interested. Jeanette Kahn, president of DC Comics, was interested in one of my novels for a comics adaptation. At the time, in the very small printed format for “Family Man” in three stingy booklets, I didn’t like the art. However, when I finally saw the original art, I loved it.

The deluxe edition is faithful to all the duotone details of the original work.

Exactly.

My quirkiest question for you: You have these leather masks that all the trainees wear in “Billy Budd, KGB.” Where did you get those masks?

They just came from my head!

Well, they’re very arresting visuals!

Trump cartoon by François Boucq for Le Monde.

The thing is that Boucq is an extraordinary artist. When he focuses in on a subject, he gets extraordinary results. These days, he also does political cartoons for Le Monde. For “Billy Budd, KGB,” Boucq made certain changes in the story. Mine was more of a straightforward spy story. Boucq added in the Native American spiritual quality.

That reminds me of your Isaac Sidel stories. What can you tell us about the “Hard Apple” animated series based on your crime series?

We hope to get eight half hour narratives based on the first book, “Blue Eyes.” Then continue from book to book. I’ve done what they call the bible which is a summary of the characters. And soon I will be working on the pilot. I am excited about it. I didn’t realize how lyrical one could be in that animated format. The original idea, six or seven years ago, was to do a live action series. When we moved from that to animation, that’s really my country.

Then you have “Winter Warning” coming out.

Yes, the twelfth book in the series. It may be the last but at least we’ve completed the series. As you know, the main character ends up becoming president of the United States. He’s a Trump-like character. In his case, he’s a Trump of the left, rather than of the right.

Do you think that Donald Trump would make an interesting character to write about or are the people working for him more interesting?

I really don’t know. He’s a phenomenon we never thought would have happened, coming out of reality television. The country has changed so much that now a television star can become president and there will probably be other television star presidents. Say what you will about him, but he was able to speak to the American people in a way that the other candidate could not, except maybe Bernie Sanders.

I hope we may see a re-issue of “Panna Maria.”

Yes, everything in its time. If you shove to hard, you lose everything. You have to see it within its own sequence. If “Family Man” works, then everything else will work.

Things need time to breathe.

Yes. Right now, I’m working on a sequel to “Little Tulip.” I have a wonderful Belgian editor. And we’re at work on a graphic novel of Charlemagne.

It’s great how you rekindled your relationship with François Boucq.

That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.

That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.

And I look forward to the “Hard Apple” animated series. That’s being put together by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, who created art for the animated movie “Waltz With Bashir.” They’re twins. One does covers for The New Yorker. It’s going to be a wonderful animated series. It’s a chance to do something that’s never been done before.

It would be great to pick up the thread again sometime, especially leading up to the next, perhaps last, Isaac Sidel book.

As you can see the discussion is endless: the relationship between comics and novels, the whole notion of graphic art, the notion of narrative in every form, we could be talking for days.

Your book, “Movieland,” there’s an hour of conversation right there.

Exactly. You should pick up a copy of “Metropolis,” my book on New York, when you get a chance.

I will.

I really appreciate your interest. And we’ll talk again.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

“Winter Warning,” Book 12 in the Isaac Sidel crime novel series.

Click the link below to listen to the podcast interview right here.

Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here. And be sure to check out the FAMILY MAN graphic novel Kickstarter campaign, running thru May 21st, right here.

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Filed under Comics, Crime Fiction, Donald Trump, Fiction, Interviews, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, New York City

Interview and Review: Donny Cates and REDNECK

Donny Cates

Donny Cates (GOD COUNTRY) is a writer to watch. His new comic book series, REDNECK, comes out this Wednesday, April 19th, and it is a highly imaginative mashup of vampires and good ole boy Texan tall tale storytelling. There’s a lot going on here that raises this comic to the level of exceptional work. And that certainly includes the masterful inks by Lisandro Estherren and colors by Dee Cunniffe. You can find it at Skybound, an imprint of Image Comics.

Cates comes across as a natural born storyteller. He’s got a passion for bringing the reader into his world. In this case, it’s a motley crew of vampires holed up in a little patch of Texas hill country. These are good folk. Don’t mean no harm. Just want to live out their endless lives in peace, you see what I’m saying here, pardner?

It ain’t easy bein’ a vampire.

First off, you need to know that this is a real tasty twist on vampires. Cates suggests that this is a reverse image of The Walking Dead where it’s humans surrounded by monsters. In the case of Redneck, it’s monsters surrounded by humans–which can be a lot more dangerous as humans can get organized about their violence. The Bowman vampire clan would much rather be left alone to run the local barbecue joint while surviving all these years on just plain old cow’s blood.

Inks by Lisandro Estherren; Colors by Dee Cunniffe

Our main character is Bartlett. He’s a lanky old fella who is constantly being spooked by Perry, his young niece who reads his thoughts. We begin with Uncle Bartlett reminiscing over his time in the Civil War. Perry insists on knowing which side he was on. Bartlett gives a gruff but worldly response: Live long enough, and you learn not to take sides. But that level of tolerance is lost on the boys in the family who are restless and want to stir up a little trouble. Mind you, “the boys” are in their sixties. But it’s all relative when you’re talking vampire years.

What Cates envisions for this comic book series is an exploration of Southern culture through an entertaining story. You get to know these vampires on a deep generational level. There’s the boys, and Uncle Bartlett and his niece, Perry. Then there’s the patriarch, J.V., leading the pack. And there’s also Granpa who is God only knows how old. Best to keep him locked up in the attic. He makes a brief and cryptic appearance in this first issue.

I asked Cates about a moment in the story when J.V. complains about these “pincheways” the young people use. What the heck is that? Cates did not miss a beat and provides a window into the authentic flavor to this story. Pincheways are a name an old Texan friend of Cates’s uses for cell phones. Seeing a new generation and their rapid-fire texting sort of disgusts him. That’s one of the many quirky cultural gaps you’ll find in this first issue. The combination of quirky script and art definitely makes this a welcome twist to the vampire genre.

REDNECK #1 is available as of April 19, 2017. For more details, visit Image Comics right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Horror, Image Comics, Interviews, Skybound Entertainment, Texas, Vampires

Todd McFarlane Playboy Interview: 25 Years of ‘Spawn’ and Image Comics

Todd McFarlane

It was such a pleasure to listen to Todd McFarlane speak at a reunion of Image Comics founders at Emerald City Comicon. One thing is clear, Todd is not shy. No, the guy is a master at public speaking. The running gag that Mr. MacFarlane ran with at the ECCC panel discussion involved co-founder Jim Lee having jumped ship and returning to DC Comics. When you help to found a comic book publisher all about creator-owned independence, returning to the place you ran away from in the first place is not exactly taken lightly. That said, McFarlane had a great time describing Lee’s lack of a baseball pitching arm. It’s a long story but one that only McFarlane can tell, and ultimately tell with a good sense of humor and regard for his old friend.

Yes, it was 25 years ago that seven Marvel and DC Comics artists and writers, seeking creative control and a better deal, jumped ship and built their own which they christened Image Comics. The driving ethos was that all of their titles, released through their own individual studios, were creator-owned and controlled. Among the rebels from the Big Two was Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, and the upstart company quickly rose up in the business, with several of their series, including Youngblood, The Savage Dragon, and Wildcats, reportedly selling hundreds of thousands of copies or more per month.

Well, to know that McFarlane recently sat down for a Playboy Interview instantly caught my interest. In the interview, McFarlane looks back on his first 25 years at Image Comics. He also offers his own hard-won advice on how to push forward as an industry insurgent by stating, “People-pleasers don’t change the world. It’s the rebel, it’s the dick, it’s the troublemaker. There are a lot of labels for us. You have to say at some point, ‘I don’t care.’” Ah, that certainly sounds like vintage McFarlane.

Read the entire Todd McFarlane Playboy Interview right here.

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Filed under Comics, Image Comics, Interviews, Playboy, Todd McFarlane

Interview: Edward Sorel and a Grand Career in Illustration

Edward Sorel in his studio.

Edward Sorel in his studio.

Anyone interested in illustration, art, satire, or the specific art of drawing, will know something about the career of Edward Sorel. The work of Edward Sorel covers a wide spectrum resulting in a hefty portrait of the human condition, with a notable eye to speaking truth to power.

My interest in Edward Sorel runs deep. I checked out from my school’s library Sorel’s 1972 collection, “Making the World Safe for Hypocrisy.” It was 1973 and I was a sensitive and highly impressionable lad of 10 years-old. I was filling sketchbooks with portraits of Watergate personalities, both villains and heroes. I tore into that book and marveled over Sorel’s distinctive crosshatching and his lively expressive line work. I was in awe with how he brought to life various dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars. The gold standard had been set in my mind and it hasn’t changed ever since. What really wows me now goes back to my early introduction to the work of Edward Sorel.

Quotes from reviews for Mr. Sorel’s new book, “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Company:

“Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to ‘Moose Murders.’ Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny, and in the end, touching.”
—Woody Allen, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Rapier-sharp…With a tip of his pen to Daumier, the artist evokes the quaint, febrile glamour of Astor’s Hollywood, and his affectionate, conversational prose gives Mary and her story a kind of valiant dignity never bestowed while she lived.”
—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal

“Delightful, colorful, and occasionally cheeky.”
—Allison Sadlier, Entertainment Weekly

From "Mary Astor's Purple Diary" by Edward Sorel

From “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” by Edward Sorel

Edward Sorel (born Edward Schwartz, 26 March 1929, The Bronx) has recently released a book from Liveright/W.W. Norton. The book, entitled “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” is about his lifelong obsession with film star Mary Astor but it’s also a memoir of a sort. You may have read Woody Allen’s review of the book in The New York Times Book Review. Allen had the honor of introducing many new readers to the opening story in the book: It is 1965 and Edward Sorel, newly married and settling into new digs, is left with the task of replacing the old linoleum kitchen tile. Lo and behold, buried underneath is a stash of old newspapers chronicling the scandalous 1936 custody battle of Hollywood star Mary Astor. Well, the rest is history and this most engaging book.

I interviewed Mr. Sorel this last Wednesday, February 8th. I hope you enjoy it.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Turning our attention to Mary Astor, what is intriguing about her is that she had a life where one plus one kept equaling three. Despite a series of bad choices, whether in lovers or career options, Mary Astor managed to persevere. Is that part of the appeal, that she took such an offbeat path?

EDWARD SOREL:
The appeal came when I read her memoir. She was a self-denigrating and witty writer. Very observant. Somewhat cynical about Hollywood. She had an intelligence that appealed to me. Then I started seeing her movies and I was hooked on her. Her bad decisions that you refer to have to do with having had an abused childhood, not in any physical way but in a mental and psychological way.

Her father kept her from having friends because he didn’t want her to see how Americans lived, how Americans treated their children. He wanted to be the dictator of his home. And he succeeded. She was unable to break free from him until quite late in her life. And it kind of ruined her. And God knows she made a lot of terrible mistakes in her life.

Marry Astor and John Barrymore.

Marry Astor and John Barrymore.

I was watching 1924’s “Beau Brummell” and I am intrigued by the relationship Mary Astor developed with her co-star, John Barrymore, of all people. In their case, the twenty year age difference was inappropriate. However, it was what it was. And it was through Barrymore that Mary Astor learned a lot and gained self-confidence.

He did do her a lot of good but not for any altruistic reasons. He was out to nail her. He was on his way to Hollywood on the 20th Century Express. He had just completed the most successful run of “Hamlet” that America had seen. He was acclaimed as America’s greatest actor. He was on his way to the coast to make “Beau Brummell” for Warner Bros. because they were paying him a lot of money. And he picks up a magazine that has a photograph of Mary Astor about the age of 16 and under the photograph it said, “On the Verge of Womanhood.” Barrymore had a particular liking for virgins.

As I pointed out in the book, it was Barrymore who had his way with Evelyn Nesbitt, who later married Harry Kendall Thaw. And it was Thaw who shot Stanford White, America’s great architect, because he thought Stanford White had taken his wife’s virginity–when, in fact, it was Barrymore. That is a sidebar I’m proud of since I pieced together that bit of information.

According to Mary Astor, Barrymore really believed that he was going to marry her. And maybe he did plan to. But when Mary would not break free from her parents, after Barrymore offered her starring roles, because her father forbade it, Barrymore realized that she was just a child. She was completely under the sway of her father. Marrying a woman twenty years younger was one thing but marrying a child was something else. He broke her heart by calling it off.

I think it’s a cartoonist thing, as I’m a cartoonist, that we keep seeking out the offbeat. So, in the spirit of that I throw out a curveball, and ask you about your changing your last name to Sorel. You are referring to Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” I loved that book and the main character, Julian Sorel. Is there something interesting going on there with that connection?

I liked to think that I saw myself in Julian Sorel because he was like catnip to women, which I really wasn’t, and he hated the corrupt society of his time, as I hated mine. The first election that I voted in was the one between Eisenhower and Stevenson. I took a dim view of both of them and voted for a third party.

The other thing about Julian Sorel was that he hated his father. God, I certainly hated mine, not only because he tried to discourage me in wanting to be an artist but because he was a mean-spirited ignorant man not kind to my mother, not kind to anyone. And I didn’t want anything to do with him. I was going to be a cartoonist and I didn’t want to sign my name, Schwartz, in the right-hand corner. And I chose the name, Sorel, because of the novel. It seemed as good a name as any.

"Stagecoach." 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.

“Stagecoach.” 1980 illustration for Esquire magazine.

I think back to myself as a boy wondering about how you created your work. You’ve spoken about “finding lines.” Could you share a little bit about that?

When you work commercially, and you’re taking assignments, you have to show the art director what you plan to do. So, you do sketches of the drawing you plan to do. And, after a while, I began to notice that my sketches had more vitality and life than my finishes did. My finishes were often dead and overworked. And so I tried to emulate the quality that I had in my sketches which meant doing it without tracing. In point of fact, that’s impossible to do if you’re doing very complicated scenes. You can work direct if you’re doing a face, a figure, a still life, or anything relatively simple. You can work direct without tracing and the work has a vitality to it. But when you’re doing complicated scenes, with many different elements, you really do have to know where you’re going. So, I found out that if I just had a light outline of where I wanted the elements to be, and didn’t trace, I could keep this sketchy quality that I think gave my art work some distinction.

"The Goodwood Races," 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).

“The Goodwood Races,” 1939, by Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).

That quality of your art has influenced so many artists, whether they realize it or not. And, certainly, there have been other artists who have used an “expressive line.” You have talked about some of your favorites, like Feliks Topolski. There’s a certain sensibility that you both share.

Yes, well, he wasn’t trying to be funny like I always have. But his work has spontaneity, which I value in every artist. Wether its Bemelmans or Topolski. What shocks me now is to find so many artists who enjoy doing art work with a computer. I’ve seen some very nice computer art. You can get that nice flat color and can do all sorts of tricks that you can’t do by hand. But, to me, it doesn’t seem like fun. It seems like working on a machine. I just love the act of drawing. I’m a throwback. Most of the illustrations that you see today in magazines, and God knows you don’t see too many, are computer-generated in some form or another.

One compromise is for the artist to draw some of the illustration by hand, scan it, and do the rest on a computer.

It doesn’t seem fun to me but it must seem fun for them. I don’t cast aspersions on their way of doing it.

I think it boils down to being a time-saver. And, once a routine has set in, that’s the way it’s done and that’s it.

The other thing about computer art is that there’s nothing original, nothing to hang on the wall. You could have a show but it would only be prints. To each his own.

"Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition," 1967, by Edward Sorel

“Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition,” 1967, by Edward Sorel

I wanted to touch on one of the all-time classics, your 1967 anti-war illustration, “Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.” The real life punchline there is that you were all set to roll out a poster when the focal point of the piece, Cardinal Spellman, passed away rendering your satire unsellable. Now, there’s some divine intervention.

The day it came off the press is the day he died. It never sold in any store in America. It is in a museum in Amsterdam. One store in Chicago tried to sell it and had its window broken. Apparently, Cardinal Spellman had some fans in Chicago. That was a bad break. You get some bad breaks and you get some good ones. I was the recipient of Woody Allen’s praise on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. That was the best break I ever had.

From "Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It," 2011, by Leo Sorel.

From “Edward Sorel: Nice Work If You Can Get It,” 2011, by Leo Sorel.

I encourage everyone to check out the short film on you that your son, Leo, did. That is quite informative and a treat. It shows you in your studio. And then the Q&A afterward with illustrator James McMullan is very impressive. Towards the end of that, you talk about the pen you favor, a Speedball B6. I’ve always had a devil of a time with steel point dip pens. But the Speedballs I could manage. And then you flip it backwards to get the crosshatching.

Yes! That was my secret. The Speedball does move and it allows you to be kind of spastic over a piece of paper.

"Nixon and Mao," 2007, The New Yorker.

“Nixon and Mao,” 2007, The New Yorker.

I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump. There was that drawing of him as Medusa you did last year. The big news at the moment is all about Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren. I could see that as perhaps triggering an Edward Sorel drawing.

I can’t cope with Donald Trump. I haven’t done political cartooning in a number of years. I can’t deal with him. With all other presidents, you could make fun of their hypocrisy and have fun with them. But Mr. Trump is kind of crazy. And he’s dangerous. He’s cruel. Making fun of him doesn’t seem what’s called for. It’s trivializing him. He shouldn’t be trivialized. He’s really a danger. People are really scared. They wake up with Donald Trump on their mind and they go to bed with him on their mind. He’s a heavy presence in our lives now. I don’t know how to deal with that.

You can’t call him the new Nixon. At least with Nixon, there was a mind at work. It’s being very generous, but there was some sense of integrity compared to Trump. Nixon you could call a president. But, with Trump, he’s president only by title.

He seems unhinged. I think it was Bernie Sanders who called him unhinged. He seems too crazy to be in that office. I don’t know what else to say about him.

Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.

Donald Trump illustration, 2016, for Vanity Fair.

Especially living it right now. It is stomach-turning. I won’t talk about him anymore. But I do need to mention Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer. Have you seen that?

No, tell me about it. I’ve been trying to avoid the news lately.

Well, Melissa McCarthy is a comic genius and she was on Saturday Night Live last weekend. She did a spot on impersonation of Sean Spicer, had the look and mannerisms down.

Oh, wait, I did see that! A friend sent that to me.

I think that has the power of a political cartoon and then some. It captivated everyone. It was an emotional release for everyone to see that.

Yes, I’m sure it was. It was very funny.

It seems to me that every artist needs a hero, someone to play off of. I see your book, weaving your life with Mary’s, as following the artist’s struggle. I think of how Mary evolved. I think of how Mary and Bette Davis were able to rewrite “The Great Lie,” turning that around into a notable film.

She did become a very fine actress. But she also became a little bit like her father, terribly obsessed with money. She twice turned down contracts for starring roles since she believed supporting roles would provide a longer career. She did indeed have a long career. She was in over 100 movies. And she was going strong until about 1959. She didn’t take chances. Maybe she didn’t believe she was a good enough actress. She missed having a chance at great roles and great performances. That was too bad.

My obsession with her has to do with my thinking I wasn’t a great artist because I didn’t have an obsession. So, I was very grateful when people called my interest in Mary Astor an obsession. Yes, it was an obsession and I do think it helped produce my best work.

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

Can you tell us about your connection with Boston University?

I was very lucky to have Boston University buy my entire work, my oeuvre, as we say. In March, they’re having a retrospective of all my work and, as a matter of fact, I’m still packing up things to send there.

The Howard Gottlieb Center at Boston University has one of the finest collections from all walks of life. They have the second largest Martin Luther King collection. They have many of America’s great writers. They have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They have most of the actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood. I’m very delighted to be part of this collection.

Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.

Mural by Edward Sorel at The Waverly Inn, completed in 2007. From left to right: Eddie Condon, Donald Barthelme, Willa Cather, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Jane Jacobs, John Sloan, and Andy Warhol.

I heard a siren in the background. It brings back my visits to New York. You are a lifelong New Yorker and I know how much you love New York. Could you share some of your thoughts on the city?

I do love New York. I don’t love the crowds anymore. I do worry. When you live in a city like New York, you do begin to see a kind of science fiction future: crowds everywhere, lines everywhere. New York is kind of becoming that. They keep building these enormous skyscrapers without thinking about how the city will accommodate it. They’re not building out, like they did in Los Angeles. They’re building up. It used to be that the only crowds were in midtown but now crowds are all over. And you find yourself walking in the gutter because there’s too many people on the sidewalk.

So, yeah, I love New York. The New York that I grew up with, where the museums were free and everyone went to public school, seems to have vanished. Everything is expensive now, including the museums. It’s very difficult for young people. When The New York Times that I used to buy for three cents is now $2.50, The New Yorker which I used to buy for ten cents, is now something like $7, it’s bizarre. And, of course, the wages that young people get are pitiful. So, yeah, I love New York but I don’t like the time particularly.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I can tell you about my next book. It’s going to be similar in structure to the Mary Astor book. It’s going to be a memoir. It will be about my growing up in New York. And it will be about the thirteen presidents that I’ve lived through.

My point is that every one of these presidents, whether I liked them or not, committed illegal acts, overthrew governments illegally, and did unconstitutional things. Starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became enamored with Billy Graham. It was through those machinations that they put “In God We Trust” on our currency and inserted “Under God” in our oath of allegiance. Somehow, I regard that point in history as the slope we’ve been sliding ever since.

Now, it’s done so garishly with someone like Trump.

Right. Trump, the great Christian, who apparently was much loved by the Bible Belt. I don’t think there’s anything more derogatory I can say about organized religion than that they were responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

Is part of the new book you’re working on sitting on your drawing board?

Not yet. A little bit is sitting on the computer. Nothing has been drawn yet.

I wish you well on that. It’s been exciting and quite a treat to get a chance to talk with you for a bit.

You’re very kind. Thank you so much.

You can listen to the interview right here.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Art, Cartooning, Cartoonists, Donald Trump, Edward Sorel, Illustration, Interviews, New York City, Political Cartoons, politics, Richard Nixon