Cartoonist Julia Wertz has a distinctive outlook (irreverent, pithy, snarky) that has gained a loyal following of readers. With her latest work, she brings her unique style to bear on the Big Apple. It is an honest, funny, and insightful approach to learning about how cities evolve, particularly New York City, the quintessential urban mecca. Early in her cartooning career, Wertz said she resisted writing some sort of coming-of-age book set in NYC. Now, more mature, she can dish on the history of the city that never sleeps while also, inevitably, sharing something of her journey of self-discovery. It all makes for an intoxicating blend: “Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City,” published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
Wertz sets up a poignant and vulnerable starting point: the remains of the New York World’s Fair of 1964. It’s not a pretty sight. No, it’s a mishmash of faded totems to the future. Ironic stuff, indeed, irresistible to a wise-cracking cartoonist! Surely, you know that most, if not all, cartoonists have a sardonic sense of humor. And Julia Wertz is just the sort of sardonic tour guide you would want. But it’s not just about the snark–far from it. Sure, Wertz puts the 1964 World’s Fair through the wringer, deeming it a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. Now, the 1939 New York World’s Fair had style but, in its own way, it too was a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. This sort of comparison easily lends itself to delving deeper and therein lies what this book is about, what makes it unique and beautiful.
Egg Creams, best to keep them simple.
New York City is all about the tension between the pretty and the not so pretty. Wertz revels in this fact. It seems as if she can’t get enough. Just when you think you have this book figured out, Wertz will delight the reader with shifts in narrative, compelling visuals, and overall heart-felt enthusiasm, the sort of lust and vigor you’d expect from an Indiana Jones in the jungle except this is Julia Wertz on countless urban expeditions. She tracks down everything: bagels, egg creams, The Village Voice, railroad flats, micro-living units. It’s all here and then some.
I love New York almost beyond words. My heart goes out to Julia Wertz and her marvelous long walks spanning hours upon hours and covering multiple boroughs and miles. I highly recommend taking this book on a NYC trek of your own. It’s a hefty hardcover but, if you make it your primary item in your backpack, you’ll be just fine. You can make your own comparisons and connections guided by all the amazing drawings that Wertz has to share of bygone and contemporary New York. This book is really an inspiring combination of prose and artwork and comics. This is simply a dazzling book collecting a treasure trove of insight and information and making it all feel like a carefree conversation.
223 W. 42nd Street in 1964 and in 2014.
“Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” is a 284-page hardcover published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
If you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see Julia Wertz at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run, or the the Seattle Public Library. At Short Run, on November 4th, Wertz will be giving a slideshow/talk about her urban exploring from 3:30-4:30pm at the Vera Project. And at the downtown Seattle Public Library, on November 5th, Wertz will hold a slideshow and conversation with cartoonist Nicole Georges from 2-4pm.
Has a major American city ever commissioned a graphic novel as a public art piece before? Seattle is on board! Cartoonist David Lasky and writer Mairead Case have been selected (from 71 applicants) by the City of Seattle to create a fictional graphic novel centered around the historic Georgetown Steam Plant. The goal is to increase awareness of this unique landmark with a graphic novel geared toward young adults.
Panel from “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song”
David Lasky is the co-author (with Frank Young) of the Eisner-Award-winning graphic novel biography, “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song.” Chicago writer Mairead Case is the author of the acclaimed prose novel, “See You in the Morning.” A story by Lasky and Case, “Soixante Neuf,” was featured in Best American Comics 2011.
West elevation exterior of engine room. The Georgetown Steam Turbine Station, built in 1906 is now a National Historic Landmark. The plant is owned by Seattle City Light and has been working to restore the plant. It is open for tours the second Saturday of each month and is occasionally used as a teaching facility for steam power engineers and hobbyists.
Here is a brief email interview I did with Mairead Case today:
What went through your head when you got the news about being chosen for this special graphic novel project?
Well I was, am, sincerely grateful: to be from a city that celebrates public monuments with comics, and to have visibility and support for the creative relationship David and I have pretty much always had, even when nobody else was looking. Grateful to have work that includes time for oral histories and site-specific research (no screens!). And aware of the responsibility to accurately represent Georgetown’s diverse history—we want to use this platform to amplify and illuminate the stories that are already here, not co-opt them. For real. (Also, I was really happy to have news that would make my mom proud.)
Are you already envisioning what your routine will be like with the project?
David and I are both pretty focused, detailed nightowls so I expect we’ll have a focused, detailed, nightowl routine. That said, it’s amazing to have financial support for this project so it’s really exciting to think about how we might work in new ways with that gift. (We might even work in the daytime, ha!) But no matter what we’ll be collaborating closely. And we will probably listen to Bowie at some point.
Did you ever think you’d be creating a graphic novel about a steam plant?
I feel like I’m supposed to say no here, but why not? When I was a kid I wanted to be a tightrope walker so maybe this is not that far off.
What do you think this project might say about the role of graphic novels in America?
Ah, I think our role is to make the book and then other people can tell us! But it is terrific terrific terrific that Seattle is supporting a project like this—it’s really wonderful that an American city in 2017 is using art to build community, as defined and remembered by that community. I’m used to telling (maybe yelling a little too) at the government about that, and am still gobsmacked that this time the government was all “we know. Go.” I hope that other cities say “Go” too. The talent is here! American cities, if you want me to send you lists about the talented storytellers I know in your neighborhoods, just send a flare.
You can keep up with this intriguing project right here.
And, if you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see David Lasky at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run.
COCKROACH, by Joe Garber, is a 70-page graphic novella about Rocky, a psychotic killer. This is a highly stylized comics narrative in the spirit of a long line of contemporary thrillers going back to the original “Psycho” novel by Robert Bloch. You navigate between the grisly content and the artful handling. Garber’s comics take a detached ironic tone, not so much focusing on the blood and guts but on a suspenseful story with a few hints of dark humor.
Garber draws all his people as if they are a bags held up by flimsy wireframe skeletons: slightly deflated, no muscle tone, minimal facial expressions. That’s more of that detached irony at play. And, hey, it can get pretty spooky. You are never supposed to get close to Rocky. When he commits his crimes, it happens in a casual manner. With very little invested in the character, I still found myself steadily turning the pages. I have to hand it to Garber for creating a very creepy yet engaging work.
Page from COCKROACH
In one scene, Rocky murders both a man and woman in their bed while they’re having sex. Within this cartoony context, the level of irony reaches an uncanny meta-level. There’s an intriguing little twist that abruptly shifts the focus off of Rocky and leaves you wondering what exactly has been going on in this story. Garber, by the way, was one of the contributors to the brash, and now defunct, INTRUDER comics anthology series. It was a place to showcase a lot of Seattle cartoonist talent.
This story is part of a much bigger vision. Garber has a line of various titles. For instance, one of his comics is CANYONLANDS with the main character Carl, who “dives deep into his heartbreak and finds what is at the end of it.” Or, another example, is Garber’s 2013 graphic novel THE ODYSSEY OF BLUE BOY, where he illustrated 20 chapters contributed by total strangers.
COCKROACH is a 70-page comic which you can find at Joe Garber’s website right here.
I picked up some fine comics at Seattle’s Short Run Comix & Arts Festival. Short Run is one in a growing number of comic arts festivals in recent years in the spirit of the Small Press Expo (SPX) which was created in 1994 to promote artists and publishers who produce independent comics. The prime objective of SPX, and other comic arts festivals, is its main annual event, a place to showcase artists, writers and publishers primarily of comic art in its various forms to the general public. We are dealing here with a decidedly small demographic but a very important one. Short Run organizers Eroyn Franklin and Kelly Froh have done an admirable job of putting together a comic arts festival that resonates with this niche audience. They have found the big in the small.
Short Run Comix Fest 2016
This year’s Short Run at Fisher Pavilion in Seattle Center saw a steady flow of attendees. You could clearly see an impassioned interest for the hand-made. In spite of our jittery digital world, it seems that a lot of people are attracted to something more basic, something stapled or stitched together that’s printed on paper. And for the actual participants, the various writers, artists, and cartoonists at their tables, the sense of community alone is quite gratifying.
Here are a few nibbles of observations in no particular order. It was nice to stop by and chat with cartoonist Tom Van Deusen. He tells me that he’s thinking about having a new book out in the next year or so. Pat Moriarity has some similar plans. He sees a new book in the future as well as an animated treat down the line. I’ll see about letting folks know about it when it comes out. Pat, by the way, has created some of the most gorgeous prints through the Vera Project press. Noel Franklin has had quite a good year as she has the distinction of having won all three major grants in Seattle. Always good to see Vanessa Davis and Trevor Alixopulos. I had to pick up the new edition of Spaniel Rage, which won’t officially be out until February, from Drawn & Quarterly! Megan Kelso recently created a special collaboration with her 10-year-old daughter, Virginia, which is a lot of fun. While Short Run fell right on Halloween last year, this year it fell within the specter of the most crazed presidential election ever. I asked cartoonist and humorist extraordinaire Greg Stump for his thoughts. He said it felt like a perpetual loop where we never reach the actual day of the election as in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Betty Turbo’s Portrait Machine!
And, by the way, if you did go to Short Run, did you get your face drawn at Betty Turbo’s Portrait Machine? Looks like a hoot. Visit Betty Turbo right here.
Short Run promo by Vanessa Davis
We’ll take a closer look at some of the comics I picked up this Saturday in the next few days. Some have a direct connection to Short Run and some don’t. In the end, it’s all about comics with that special touch. Call them comix, or call them alt-comics. They may appear at this or that comic arts fest or only online or even in an actual comic book shop. Whatever route you need to take, seek them out. And, if you’re in Seattle, be sure to visit Short Run right here.
Our friends at Short Run are known for their comic arts festival but they have other wonderful events going on year-round. Consider their summer school schedule. I just took Megan Kelso‘s seminar on graphic novels. And I found that to be a very special treat. I like how she equates working on a graphic novel to playing with a big ball of yarn. How true. Even for an experienced cartoonist like myself, there is always something new to learn. I may end up taking some more of these classes if my schedule allows and, if you’re in Seattle, I highly recommend that you do the same. You can take a look at the remaining schedule right below starting with an essential Photoshop workshop led by James Stanton for cartoonists looking for tips on how to color their comics:
Even in what would seem to be the carefree world of alt-comics, there is a creeping feeling of “self-publish or perish” that can nag at many a cartoonist. This can be a good thing as it helps to motivate many who must rely upon their own self-imposed deadlines. Despite all the interest that is supposed to be heaped upon the DIY world and a myriad of other endeavors conveniently labeled as “hipster,” “quirky,” or the grand ole workhorse, “geek,” there’s really no money, let alone a livelihood, to be expected from all the scribbling in notebooks and sketchbooks. Maybe, for some, there’s at least a real feeling of accomplishment from one’s efforts, not just a pat on the back. And, for a relative few who keep honing their craft, and especially at the alt level, each year brings a little more recognition. Each year makes the big picture more clear. This is certainly the case with cartoonist David Lasky. Here’s a look at a special annual publication that he’s been putting together to coincide with the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival in Seattle.
David Lasky and I are of the same vintage. I consider him a good friend and a fellow cartoonist that I’ve always admired. We’re both in Seattle and share a certain sensibility. So, of all the people who take a moment to read what I have to say, he’s one of my readers who I will hope to especially resonate with. Let me put it this way: I appreciate what he’s doing on a deep level. I believe there’s this chasing after the brass ring that was drummed into folks from our Generation X. People like us will make good on the dreams we’ve envisioned since we were little kids, as corny as that sounds. I know that makes sense to David, and probably, I would hope, to everyone reading this.
What we find in “Manifesto Items #5” is special indeed. David Lasky highlights his creation of comics from the past year. It’s a fascinating window into the creative process. Like I say, there’s that “publish or perish” mantra that can dog cartoonists. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? That’s the challenge that many creators must contend with. They can certainly opt to work alone until a project is complete and many are just fine with that. But some want to keep stoking the fires in between significant work and so they need to hunt down viable options such as anthologies, local publications, and comics jams. In the case of Lasky, it is this short form work, with its room for experimentation, that he loves the most and that he can raise to the level of significant work. We get a nice sampling of all of that, notably a sci-fi satire that appeared in The Intruder.
Perhaps most revealing are a couple of things that feel very natural. One is a father and son comics memoir. David is visiting his dad. And his dad gives him some advice: Rid yourself of clutter! He then proceeds to unload a bunch of books and DVDs on his son who gladly accepts each and every one. I think that speaks to a particular Gen X mad love for all media.
The other is a prose essay recollection of David visiting the Hirshhorn Museum as a little boy to see a Saul Steinberg retrospective. David was fascinated by Steinberg on many levels not the least of which was his noncommercial approach to cartooning! Here you had Steinberg creating cartoon characters without a comic strip or any scent of franchise. Ah, that’s fodder for Gen X rebellion! And to make the point, David emulated Steinberg’s penchant for drawing cartoons directly onto the envelopes he sent off in the mail. How unconventional back then and even today.
Be sure to visit David Lasky right here. Find David at Etsy right here.
Noel Franklin explores various Gen X concerns, with a Seattle sensibility, in her ongoing comics series, GONE GIRL. It will grab you right away with its distinctive use of chiaroscuro. Franklin’s artwork comes from a printmaking background and that is what you’ll find here, printmaking turned into comics.
What will charm you is Franklin’s recollections of such things as Seattle during the grunge era. Looking back on it, it was a fleeting time but perhaps no more fleeting than any other scene. Things happen. Time marches on. Fortunately, we have such keepsakes as GONE GIRL.
From GONE GIRL COMICS #1
This is a comic on a slow boil. Take a careful look and every bit of it has been patiently put together. That owes, in no small measure, to the Gen X ethos which I proudly share with Franklin. Yes, we are Gen Xers. Baby Boomers still hold their own. Millennials shine in their own way. And Generation X still informs discussion at-large in spite of ourselves. In our youth, many of us often adopted a spacey belligerence mixed with pre-snark weird humor. In the end, we always demand authenticity.
GONE GIRL COMICS #2 by Noel Franklin
Each 24-page issue of GONE GIRL collects an assortment of stories. For the first issue, Franklin features recollections that take us all over Seattle in the ’90s. There is a moving tribute to the OK Hotel which hosted some of the greatest alt-rock acts of the era. She recounts that in 1991 Nirvana first performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the OK Hotel. In 2001, the Nisqually earthquake left the venerable music venue structurally unsound and had to be closed down.
From GONE GIRL COMICS #2
The second issue features stories ranging from childhood recollections of Chicago to a fantasy piece about anachrophobia. They are all held together by a fiercely independent vision which brings me back to the idea of a Gen X spirit running through these pages. It seems to me that we were creative trail-blazers without fully realizing it or making a particularly big show about it. All this was pre-internet. We didn’t just draw something and then post it on Tumblr. No, instead, it was like the recollections Franklin shares here about doing an odd day job to get through art school. In her case, she was working as a welder to pay her way through a degree in Photography. Back then, it seems that the art-making process was more far-ranging and we deliberately took the road less travelled. However you want to look at it, this leads to compelling art and remarkable work like this series.
For more details, visit Noel Franklin right here. Visit her on Patreon right here.
Especially in uncertain times, we seek escape in such genre as post-apocalyptic fiction. For her ongoing graphic novel, “The Age,” Katie Wheeler turns genre on its head by giving it a decidedly alternative comics sensibility. Her artwork has that crunchy, bold, and inky look to it, very expressive and direct. This 78-page first installment is one of my favorites from this year’s Short Run Comix & Arts Festival in Seattle. The story thus far has a nice self-contained feel to it while prompting you to look forward to more.
I believe that both Wheeler’s art and writing have a distinctively raw and authentic quality. So, when she goes in and tackles genre, it is handled in a meaningful way. When you reach that inevitable confrontation, and violence, it’s not empty entertainment, per se, but something to think about. We begin with ten-year-old Emma searching through a neglected home. The theme of searching runs throughout as Emma, and a lot of other kids, find themselves in a crisis with an aggressive airborne disease. Worse yet, it is the children themselves who may be the cause of this strange disease. No one seems to really know for sure. The only thing that is for certain is that it has led to a definite split between children and adults.
THE AGE is one of those works in comics that achieves what it sets out to do with flying colors: it holds your attention. Like I say, this has everything to do with a genuine interest in the characters and that’s a hallmark of alternative comics. Wheeler has the patience, and dedication, to spin her yarn with care. And, keep in mind, this is actually how folks like Robert Kirkman began. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but The Walking Dead began as an indie comic all those years ago. While there are no zombies to be found in Wheeler’s comic, it is going to appeal to readers looking for something different, offbeat, and with some bite.
“The Secret Life of Plants,” by Sarah Romano Diehl
In the 1932 short story, “Green Thoughts,” by John Collier, we are treated to some dazzling horror but we are also invited inside the mind of a giant orchid. This unique plant’s point of view is what we find in this recent mini-comic, “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Sarah Romano Diehl.
Collier’s work most likely inspired the cult classic movie, “Little Shop of Horrors.” Diehl’s work takes a more mellow approach. In fact, her inspiration was a song by Stevie Wonder, “Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants.” You can listen to it right here.
This is a beautifully rendered little book in the true spirit of mini-comics. It’s like a little calling card for a new cartoonist. You present yourself at the party, you do a little dance, and finally you leave and go on about your business. And then maybe you wait. Someone like me might pick it up, set it down, and then return to it.
What’s interesting here is a sense of determination and an adventurous artistic spirit. This comic is alive, like a bee making its way into a flower! There’s a good deal of interesting ambiguous imagery. I really have no idea what the colorful flames represent at the end but I don’t believe you’re supposed to know. From what I see, Diehl is an accomplished artist and this little book is a fun and open-ended work that is very enchanting.