This is a very meta thing to be doing but here’s a review of a magazine that features reviews. Dating back to 1977, in its heyday, The Comics Journal was a monthly source of comics news and reviews, a trailblazer for the burgeoning field of comics journalism and criticism. It has always maintained a certain quirky attitude, consisting of a mix of features and topped off by a expansive soul-searching interview a la Playboy magazine. It mainly attracts those who consider themselves comics aficionados. In 2013, it ceased its print version, staying online, but now it makes its return to print with Issue 303. TCJ returns this month with new editors RJ Casey and Kristy Valenti.
Now, I go pretty far back. I have fond memories of picking up this magazine at Tower Records back in the day (circa 1995), usually with a recent release from Sub Pop Records. I also fondly recall a special dynamic, or synergy, at play between the magazine and its online counterpart that led many of us to the forums section that let you interact with subgroups within subgroups of people in the comics community. This was long before Facebook or social media as we know it today. I think the monthly magazine, as we knew it back then, is still sorely missed. Towards the end of its print run, it came out less often and each issue covered a big theme and came out in different sizes. The consistency of a monthly had been lost. I think, in a perfect world, this latest return to print would do well to go back to that monthly format. Alas, with this latest #303, we’re seeing the start of a twice-a-year format. You might argue that TCJ is simply working with today’s print reality and is offering up a taste to a new generation of what is possible.
The showcase item in this issue is, of course, TCJ founder Gary Groth’s interview with a legendary firebrand, the satirist and children’s book author, Tomi Ungerer. For those of you unaware of Mr. Ungerer’s impressive career, I highly recommend that you read this interview and, before or afterward, check out the 2013 documentary, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” directed by Brad Bernstein. The title is one of Ungerer’s sayings, along with “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected.” I interviewed the documentary’s director and its writer and the fact that Ungerer is a true force of nature was the overriding theme. So, it makes perfect sense for someone as outspoken as Groth to sit down and talk it out with someone as outspoken as Ungerer! It’s a match made in heaven.
From Ben Passmore’s story in Now: The New Comics Anthology #3, published by Fantagraphics
Among the various features to be found here, you’ll find them under such titles as “From the Trenches” and “Fair Warning.” For example, under the former is a think piece by cartoonist Ben Passmore, who shares his insights on the alt-comics scene from an African American perspective. And, under the latter, you will find an interview by RJ Casey with emerging comics talent, Fifi Martinez. The thing to always remember about TCJ is that its focus is a serious look at comics as an art form. That leaves little room, if any, for superhero comics, per se. What you’ll mostly find here is a focus on the independent artist-cartoonist. It does a heart good to see cartoonists like Passmore and Martinez provided with a platform.
Ultimately, TCJ remains what it’s always been, a valuable resource that is most appreciated by those who take the comics medium seriously. It’s a niche audience but a fiercely loyal one. In the new more fragmented world we live in, it’s all about niches. That is actually a very positive thing. And niches are supposed to attract outside readers too, right? You can only calculate so much as to how strong a presence you can make on today’s newsstands. For some special readership out there, it will be a great treat to see TCJ on a shelf. Newsstands aren’t going away anytime soon from such places as Barnes & Noble, specialty shops, comic book shops, and even airports. TCJ might just want to make a real push into these venues and see how it goes. I asked about TCJ at my local B&N as well as the Pike Place Market newsstand, one of the granddaddies of newsstands. Neither place had ever heard of TCJ or had any plans to carry it. I asked around a couple of nearby comics shops. They heard of it but were not carrying it. This is TCJ’s return to print, right? Let’s see it out there in the real world.
The reality is that creating any kind of magazine, digital or print, is a big challenge. Everyone in the comics community is rooting for TCJ to make as big of an impact as it can. Those of us already in the choir, can keep singing its praises and wish it well. You can find your copy of TCJ #303 by visiting the Fantagraphics store right here.
The Comics Journal is an essential source for reporting on and discussing the comics scene. I am honored to be included in its annual Best of The Year in Comics feature. You can see my list highlighted below. And you will be amazed at the vast selection of suggested reading from various notable critics, creators and publishers. Take a look at this year’s Comics Journal feature right here.
Amongst the Liberal Elite by Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly
For a comics critic who also both writes and draws comics, I am confident in sharing with you what sets Ms. Leong apart. If the cartoonist is particularly driven, the transition can be made from bohemian poet to career path. In this ideal case, the work retains that same idiosyncratic vibe and integrity.
In a fit of petulant bravado, Mr. Kessler will take a gob of primary colors and fling them like a bolt of lightning. A blast of these harsh basic colors will blow up some characters to bits. Others will be saved for a proper decapitation. All in a day’s work.
This work does indeed compare favorably with the best of the original Twilight Zone. That’s a tall order but this is an exceptionally unique work. I don’t take such comparisons lightly and I have no problem striking down false claims that occur quite often. So, yes, this is the real deal with its finely modulated pace and attention to detail.
Alpha, our main character, while symbolic of all immigrants struggling against the odds, readily engages the reader with his own set of specifics. In this way, the creative team truly gives a face to a problem demanding our attention.
The Dead Eye and The Deep Blue Sea by Vannak Anan Prum
Wren McDonald is a cartoonist and illustrator. His illustrations appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, The Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, and many other places. His first full-length graphic novel, a quirky cyberpunk thriller, “SP4RX,” was recently published by Nobrow Press.
If you are in the New York City metro area this weekend, you can see Wren at Comic Arts Brooklyn. CAB is taking place this weekend with the main event this Saturday, November 5th, at Mt. Carmel Gymnasium, 12 Havemeyer Street, from 11am to 7pm, in beautiful Brooklyn! You can find Wren at CAB, downstairs at Table D31.
Wren McDonald has shot like a rocket since graduating from Ringling College of Art and Design in 2013. Wren has a refreshing take on both comics and illustrations: a rare set of skills, talent, passion, and drive. So, without further ado, here is my interview with Wren McDonald, recorded this Wednesday, as he prepares for Comic Arts Brooklyn.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Wren, if we were to do a virtual tour of your studio, what would we find there?
WREN McDONALD: Well, my studio is my bedroom. So, here’s my bed and here’s my desk. That’s my studio! (Laughter)
That’s the set of circumstances for a lot of cartoonists and illustrators, isn’t it?
Yeah, especially living in New York. It just doesn’t make much financial sense to have a separate studio. But I have plenty of room here. It’s pretty spacious. I can spread out and get my work done. I have a super big desk and an iMac. And I actually have (laughs) the extended studio in the living room! There I have a Lasergraph copier where I print out my mini-comics and zines.
That’s for serious cartoonists.
“Did Trump and Clinton Get a Pass on Education?” illustration for The New Yorker by Wren McDonald
I direct folks who are new to your work to go to your website, wrenmcdonald.com. There you will find a cornucopia of stuff. I’m focusing on one of your current illustrations of Trump and Clinton and they are both sitting in a classroom. These two are hyperreal, larger-than-life, cartoonish. You can’t make them up. Could you give us a window into how you created that illustration?
That illustration was funny because I got the assignment the day before it was due, which was also the day before I was traveling to MICE Expo in Boston, a comics show that I was just at this last weekend. That was like a super rush job which was really intense. The art director at The New Yorker, Rina Kushnir, who is super great, I work with her a lot, she emailed me the article. She said it was last minute but she asked if I could do it. And I said, yes, of course.
Rina needed sketches in the morning and then the final that evening, around 5pm or 6pm. So, that morning, I sent in like four sketches. They were sort of goofy and funny. Like you say, these candidates are already cartoony so it’s easy to characterize them. Rina chose the one she liked. That was at noon. From that point, I got to work on the final and sent it over in the evening.
Those jobs are always pretty stressful but I enjoy doing them a lot because I feel that I work really hard and get a real day’s work in and have something to show for it.
It’s a beautiful illustration.
I wanted to ask you about your evolving into the illustrator you are today. Your work is appearing everywhere. Only a few years ago you were in Florida just starting out. Could you give us the cook’s tour of how you got where you are today.
Sure, I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design, which is in Sarasota, Florida, in 2013. When I was in school, I had a website and was posting things on social media, like Tumblr, and I think that helped me get my feet off the ground in terms of people seeing my work.
From that point, I started going to comics shows like TCAF in Toronto, Comic Arts Brooklyn, and MoCCA. I tabled at TCAF and other shows I would just go to. I’d have mini-comics to give out to help make people aware of me. It’s two different paths, comics and illustration, so I’ll talk about them separately.
The illustration stuff is, like I say, social media and tracking down email contacts and networking. And a lot of promotional stuff. You want to create a portfolio that really looks like editorial illustration. Editorial work has a snowball effect. You start to get jobs and you’re seen as a professional.
CYBER REALM by Wren McDonald
The comics stuff is going to shows and socializing. I was approached by Peow! Studio, based in Sweden, about publishing one of my short stories in of one of their anthologies, “Time Capsule.” I thought that was super cool since I was familiar with their work. I was super excited. I think that was the first comics story that I had published out in the world besides my own stuff online, on Tumblr. Soon after that, I talked to Nobrow about doing a short story (CYBER REALM) for their 17×23 series which is a platform to try out new talent. That’s a small format, just 24 pages. We did that and enjoyed working together. So, Nobrow said they wanted to try something longer. That’s what I wanted to do so it worked out that way.
It’s amazing how quickly things came together. Did you already have an idea of what SP4RX was going to be like while you were working on CYBER REALM or did one work just follow the other?
I didn’t have one story cocked and loaded beforehand. I always hear other cartoonists, or writers, when they talk about their work, saying they had this story they’d been working on since they were 10 years-old and it’s part of an epic world they’ve created. I’m not one of those people. When I sit down to write a story it’s about brainstorming and anything that peaks my interest.
For SP4RX, I’ve always been interested in the cyberpunk genre, especially movies and comics. I wanted to work in that genre. I was already creating work dealing with technology, robots, and dystopian settings. I think it just made a lot of sense to me.
We’re always hearing about the digital versus the physical. I direct people to the comic you did for The Comics Journal. How did that come about?
I’m not sure if Nobrow contacted The Comics Journal, or the other way around, but The Comics Journal approached me about doing one of their A Cartoonist Diary columns. I was all for it since I have the attitude of wanting to try something out and make it work. I had not done diary comics before so I had to think about how to do this. Mine is not a traditional diary comic since it has these fantastical elements to it. Despite it being involved with things I was experiencing, the more apt title to it turned out to be “Not A Cartoonist Diary.” That was a fun project.
Over the years, illustration is deemed dead and then it comes right back. It all runs in cycles. You’re firmly in both the world of comics and illustrations. Some cartoonists, I know, have never printed mini-comics nor done the comic fest circuit. But you love that.
Right! I love making comics, reading comics, and telling stories. I am passionate about my comics work because I am able to draw what I want to draw. Illustration is a fun back and forth since it involves work that I would not necessarily choose to draw: it’s more like a puzzle. Okay, how do I use these images to convey a specific idea, very concisely, to pair with the article? It’s a fun back and forth. Maybe I’ve been working on comics for two weeks straight, and then I get an editorial assignment. That’s great, I can take a break from comics and do an illustration, take a break from having my face too close to the page and switch my train of thought–and vice versa.
SP4RX by Wren McDonald
If we were just chatting, we’d end up talking about books and movies, especially science fiction and cyberpunk. I imagine that “Videodrome” must be a favorite for you.
I do love “Videodrome.” David Cronenberg is amazing but I don’t think that “Videodrome” had a specific influence on SP4RX. Instead, concerning SP4RX, I had just read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” which I thought was like the coolest book ever. It is considered “cool.” I wanted to make something “super cool” like that! I’d always been into “Akira” by Katsuhiro Otomo. And “Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow and his Appleseed series. And movies like Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” or “Robocop.” Or James Cameron’s “Terminator II.” “The Matrix.” “Aliens.” Stuff like that. I wanted to do something in the vein of that genre.
Let’s focus back on SP4RX: a super hacker going up against corporate enslavement. How close are we today to corporate enslavement?
There’s a lot of parallels that I was drawing from. Basic stuff that I’d see on the news. Even just going about my day-to-day, going shopping or whatever, that would end up in SP4RX. It’s a world with hover cars and sci-fi elements but there are plenty of parallels to our real world throughout. For example, I’d be watching some crazy video on YouTube with one newscaster harassing another newscaster and I would basically copy and paste that into the book. Within a sci-fi setting, you can focus on the human element. You don’t get caught up in a specific nation or political agenda. It’s just people in this science fiction world.
Everyone may not get a hover car but we’ve got plenty of the weird and nefarious stuff already. What do you think about Edward Snowden and us being monitored? The future is here.
Yeah, it makes me think that the cyberpunk genre and movement is more relevant than ever. When the internet was first coming about, that genre seemed so cheesy. It’s fun to laugh about it but there’s so much of it that’s relevant. Like you say, that NSA stuff is really happening. It’s important to pay attention to that and be aware.
Panel excerpt from SP4RX
Is there anything you’d like folks to know about that you are currently doing?
It depends upon when you think this post will go up. There’s Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend.
I can push things up and get this out by Friday. I’d love to go to CAB. I have my own book I’m working on that is very much science fiction oriented. It’s about the science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson. His career and life’s journey has a very intriguing arc. He began with writing the story for the Rat Pack classic, “Ocean’s Eleven” and crescendoed with co-writing the novel that was the basis for the cult classic, “Logan’s Run.”
Oh, yeah, that movie has a nice sci-fi cheesy quality.
Well, the thing with George was that he kept to his set of values and the integrity of his storytelling. “Logan’s Run” is an example of a big studio having its own ideas on what the story should be. It’s totally fun though and I think a remake would be great. The original novel is very different. I think you’d enjoy it.
I will check it out.
Comic Arts Brooklyn
But getting back to CAB.
Yes, I will be at Comic Arts Brooklyn this Saturday, November 5th. You can find me downstairs at Table D31. So, come by and say hello! And I have a new mini-comic that will debut at CAB and then be available on my site which is called, “Dirt Dart,” a 12-page story about a soldier lost on another planet.
Well, it’s been fun talking with you, Wren. I know that you’re having the time of your life.
Yes, staying busy!
Thanks so much, Wren.
Thank you, Henry. When you’re in New York, stop by and we can have a drink.
You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below. I did not make any edits so you’ll pick up on some slight differences from the transcription which is a smoother read. One thing to mention here is that I was not aware of the title, SP4RX, being pronounced “Sparks.” I must have been firmly in the mindset of George Lucas and his 1971 classic, THX 1138:
SP4RX is out now. Find it at Nobrow Press right here. Visit Wren McDonald right here. And, if you are in the New York City metro area, be sure to visit Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend. Visit CAB right here.