Comics Artist John Paul Leon (1972-2021)

The Winter Men by Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon

John Paul Leon, an amazing artist in the comics industry with a highly distinctive style, has passed away. I got to know his writing partner, Brett Lewis, and that was such a treat. Brett, if you read this, please contact me. If you want to find out what John Paul Leon was all about, then just seek out THE WINTER MEN, one of the most dazzling and offbeat works of comics you will ever read: so quirky and inventive with its loving tribute to spy thriller tropes in a deliciously subversive way! This is all thanks to the creative team of Leon and Lewis. I love comics and I’m associated with comics on so many levels but it all comes down to the honest hard-working individuals who genuinely have something real and vital to bring to the table. John Paul Leon was such an individual. He is beloved within the industry and by the many fans who got to know his work.

John Paul Leon artwork for Static Shock

John Paul Leon, best known for his artwork for Static Shock and Earth X, gave us a highly energetic and gritty style all his own. Leon died on May 1, 2021, at the age of 49, after a long battle with cancer. The news came via Chris Conroy, a senior editor at DC Comics. He wrote: “It seems the news is out. Last night we lost John Paul Leon, one of the greatest draftsmen in the history of comics, the kind of artist that EVERY artist revered. Those who loved him had some warning, but not enough.” For the ultimate tribute to Leon, read this by Michael Davis, co-founder of Milestone Comics and co-creator of Static Shock.

May 5, 2021 by Tommy Lee Edwards, Organizer
Today was my first attempt at a full work-day since losing JP. Feels like I’ve lost a limb. My sounding board has gone silent. My rudder is broken & my boat’s full of holes. Glasses are fogged & it’s hard to read the map. Reading the lovely comments on this GoFundMe page is helping me stay the course, tho. Thank you.

A GoFundMe has been set up in support of a trust for John Paul Leon’s family. It is organized by Tommy Lee Edwards, John Paul’s studiomate.

Excerpt from Static Shock

Next, let me share with you a post from John Paul Leon’s dear friend and creative partner, Brett Lewis. You can find this and a lot of other goodies by visiting Brett at his Patreon. I only share this one particular post since it is so fitting at this time. This was originally posted back in August of 2020 and is a touching reminiscence of events prior to working on The Winter Men.

The Mail Man by Brett Lewis and John Paul Lewis

Years before Winter Men finally got set up at Vertigo, while we were still shopping it around, i found myself editing and writing a Karl Malone comic book adventure.

(He is a famous now-former basketball player for the Utah Jazz.)

I’ve never looked down on well-executed licensed books the way some do (especially then) and i didn’t want to hire or work with any hacks.

John Paul Leon is always at 100% commitment level and we’d been looking to do something long form for years. I’d also been encouraging him to ink his own work for years (an easier said than done leap in those days) and wanted to see him explore in comics the sort of line qualities& open to color linework he utilized beautifully in his private work & life drawing –where he explored his love of things like Alex Toth fully as well as the kind of gestural 60s-70s editorial illustration style we studied with Jack Potter at SVA. This seemed like a good time and place.

This seemed right.

Best selling comic in the history of Utah. And i did a press conference with the guy, Malone, which was fairly surreal.

The color printed too dark/oversaturated, but the original colors by my other college friend, and John’s hometown friend, Bernard Chang were lovely.

The character designs were by me and the great illustrator and designer Chris Jordon. Maybe i can find some of those.

Above are the only images from it i have at the moment. **

**

Was working on getting a PDF for you guys to enjoy the whole story and original colors, but by a confluence of events the old zip disk it was on has come to be missing in the effects of my friend who had been working on all my old computers and hard drives to rescue into accessibility some files of old projects when he died,

and due to quarantine i can’t go search where i need to go search for it. Yet.

Still hope.

I hope there remain many other small hopes where you are too.

— Brett Lewis

John Paul Leon artwork for BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT

There’s an old link buried somewhere within the innards of this site that has by old review of The Winter Men. I will go ahead and post it all here as it is such a wonderful time capsule and just goes to show the excitement that comics can elicit. The Winter Men was part of the Wildstorm imprint (originally, it began as part of Vertigo) at DC Comics and stands as an amazing example of the artful and edgy stuff you can find at DC Comics when all the stars align themselves properly! Ah, this is a double feature as it also includes a review of another oldie but goodie, RED HERRING. This would be a great time to issue a special hardcover edition of The Winter Men. Let DC Comics know how you feel if this strikes a chord with you.

REVIEWS

Well, wet your whistle on this, pardner. This review was originally posted at Newsarama, November 18, 2009:

REVIEW: THE WINTER MEN

“The Winter Men” is a patchwork quilt of observations and red herrings that takes the spy thriller to new heights of eccentric fun. It’s one of those stories that starts out about being one thing and ends up embracing everything. Meet Kris Kalenov, the main character in “The Winter Men,” he is your guide into the underworld and beyond. It’s a new world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Kalenov is no longer a star player in a Soviet secret weapons program. He has become a Moscow cop, usually full of vodka and, at the start of this tale, is keeled over drunk on a sidewalk covered in snow.

I did not discover “The Winter Men” when it was a comic book but, considering its production delays, including its switchover from Vertigo to Wildstorm, it’s understandable that it somehow slipped by me. Luckily, I did not have to experience any long waits between issues and got to read this new collected trade in one sitting. This is a good read anytime and anywhere but I also see it as perfect inflight reading. Aren’t spy thrillers very popular in airport bookstores? I believe this to be so. It’s because you’re out of your element and open to adventure.

One big thing about “The Winter Men” is that it gets you way out of your element. It’s like “Goodfellas,” one of the best movies about gang life, all about wiseguys and getting whacked. “The Winter Men,” is all about Russia’s new Mafiya and its biznessmen and getting under the right roof. There’s also something akin to “Watchmen” going on in the background, a uber-man that was once the pride of Mother Russia, but it’s Kalenov and his rough and shady bunch, that will have you delight over this convoluted plot as you would in, say, an Elmore Leonard novel.

“The Winter Men” has a real attitude about it too. It promises the world, heroically keeps up with its ambition and, if it falters, shrugs like a good world-weary Russian. Kalenov, our drunk Moscow cop who once was so much more, would prefer to just live quietly and make do with his less than perfect marriage. But too much has happened in the past and it can’t be ignored. “We once filled the sky with heroes…but now they’ve fallen to earth…” That is an intriguing refrain that is looped throughout the book. Within the span of the first few pages: hints of the Soviet super-hero program, a woman is shot, a child is kidnapped and Kalenov is picked up from the snow and enlisted to solve the crime of the century, although he doesn’t know that yet.

All this reminds me of any number of very good television series that, from the narrative, the characters and the production value, are clearly a cut above. And these shows usually make big promises and it’s okay if they don’t deliver on all of them since it’s the world that the characters inhabit that’s most rewarding. I think of shows like, “Life on Mars,” at least the American version, or “Life” or “Dollhouse.” In fact, it’s interesting to consider if these shows would have done better in finding an audience if they were less about process and more about results but, then again, these shows are primarily about attitude. The promises they make, real or not, can be legitimate fuel for the story’s engine.

Another connection to “Watchmen,” I think, is the group of heroes that Kalenov originally belonged to. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the line-up is recalled by Kalenov in a regular loop throughout the book: Drost, the soldier; Nikki, the gangster; Nina, the bodyguard; Kalenov, the poet; for a total of four, or five, if you include The Siberian. There’s even a sepia toned photograph of the gang in much happier times: Nikki has just told a joke and it has The Siberian in stitches. Along with the irony, it’s those details, the atmosphere and texture that this book thrives on.

There are a couple of scenes that come to mind. And, like everything else here, the writer and artist team of Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon tackle it with gusto. One has Kalenov and Nikki creating a disturbance in a McDonald’s so that they can unbolt from the floor a plastic table and chairs console to take home. The employee desperately tries to convince an irate Kalenov that the mayonnaise does adhere to city regulations with “well above the forty percent fat requirement.” Another good one has Nikki in the middle of a full-on turf war with other soft drink vendors. Informing the mayhem and murder are quotes from a self-help best-seller like, “Lose Control to the Maximum.”

Perhaps your reading of “The Winter Men” will find it keeping to all its promises and even holding the answer to the meaning to life. God knows, it is certainly within its reach. If you find fault, some blame, maybe a good bit of it, can go to the fact the series was cut from a promised eight issues down to six. There are parts to the story that do appear truncated. And the ending does seem to come all too quickly. However, the fact remains that this comic is really about the quirk and it’s all there for you to enjoy.

“The Winter Men” collected trade releases on November 25.

Hope you enjoyed this installment of Comics Grinder and I welcome you back for more. You can always check in too at the Comics Grinder site.

And here’s another quirky title, very much up my alley, that I enjoyed from way back. This review was first published at Newsarama on August 12, 2009:

Wildstorm-Red-Herring

Best Shots Extra: WildStorm’s RED HERRING #1
by Henry ChamberlainDate: 12 August 2009 Time: 05:55 PM ET 0 0Reddit0Submit0

Red Herring #1
Writer: David Tischman
Pencils: Philip Bond
Inks: David Hahn
Color: Guy Major
Lettering: Rob Leigh
Published by DC Wildstorm

Reviewed by: Henry Chamberlain

In Stores Today, August 12, 2009

Well, it’s true, as David Tischman says in a recent Newsarama interview, Philip Bond knows how to draw sexy women. So does David Hahn. That’s how we lead into Wildstorm’s latest cool caper comic, Red Herring. A young woman in a lacy bra has just slipped into a pump while chatting on her cell phone. Her languorous pose is surrounded by little bits of intimate narration: “It’s been crazy-busy at the office and talking to your mother calms you down.” We proceed a few pages as Maggie MacGuffin tries to find the right outfit while keeping in mind, as the story title suggests, “Blue Makes Her Look Fat.”

With such a stylish beginning, we smoothly move through what is a top-notch sly and sexy story. One goal of this opener is to connect Maggie MacGuffin with male lead, the titular Red Herring. As characters, they could not be more different. They seem to only share the fact that their names represent literary dead ends, false clues in a mystery, but they prove to be very much alive. They are not meant for each other but that could be fun too.

I haven’t had quite as much fun with a comic since another Wildstorm series, Mysterius the Unfathomable. This is a totally different scene, the world of high rollers and espionage in Washington D. C., but it’s definitely got a similar ultra-cool and clever style. Where Mysterius was very good with details about magicians, Red Herring provides the right balance of insider dealing and conspiracy theorist satisfaction.

We already know that things are never quite as they seem so it makes perfect sense to spice up the ambiguity by having fate bring together a party girl with a conscience, Maggie MacGuffin, and an earnest gumshoe secret agent, Red Herring. Couldn’t make matters any worse, could do it? Well, maybe so. Did I mention there is a possible alien subplot and people are already trying to kill Red before he kills them? Yeah, things could get very messy.

This first issue is probably chock full of MacGuffins and red herrings. As for the details that add texture, they build up quite nicely. The narrator mocks Maggie as she struts her way to Capital Hill. “Compromise is the ESSENCE of politics. That’s what your AP History teacher said.” Maggie works down in the lower levels of Congress “where the offices are small and the salary’s even smaller. Two weeks barely pays for a good pair of shoes.” At first, we see Maggie filing away papers but then we come to find out this meek office worker is actually the lover of a high powered Congressman.

The tempo slows down for some procedural scenes with the no-nonsense Red Herring. So far, Red is proving to be a little too dry for his own good. But he has this thing about his glass eye and so he may prove to have some interesting issues. . Red is supposed to be about ten years older than Maggie and the plan, according to David Tischman, is to keep these two platonic. That could be a pity. Or maybe it’s a red herring.

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Filed under Brett Lewis, Comics, DC Comics, John Paul Lewis, Obituaries, Vertigo, Wildstorm

Review: ‘A Fire Story: Updated and Expanded Edition’

A Fire Story by Brian Fies

A Fire Story (Updated and Expanded Edition). Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 186pp, $18.99

As a creative, I’m one of these hybrids, a writer-artist. Many of my longtime followers already know that, right? Sometimes, I will receive a wonderful nugget of wisdom that can make life easier when working with issues of combining words and pictures. One outstanding example was from a conversation I had with cartoonist Brian Fies. He told me that he sort of learned the hard way that often the road to completing a graphic novel can be simplified considerably. He said that he found that the creation of elaborate drawings was not helping him. Often, the best route is to cut out the artfully rendered art and go with simple drawings. That interview was in March of 2019 in connection with the release of his book, A Fire Story. It is a fascinating book. You can read my review of it here and you can read my interview with Brian here. This is the story of the horrific 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Back then, Brian promptly created a quick on-the-spot work of comics reportage that went on to become a webcomic, and then an Emmy Award-winning work of animation–and ultimately, a graphic novel. Now, with two years of perspective, we have the definitive edition of that book.

Some perspective sure can help.

Much can change, and much can drag on, after two years passing. But some perspective sure can help all the same. Life moves on. Life goes on. That is the sort of spirit evoked in this expanded edition that adds a nice coda: a look two years after the events in the original graphic novel.

Upon reflection, more details fall into place.

It’s interesting to see what Brian chose to include to round things out. It’s a neatly balanced addition of items: a new profile; a few more observations; and, yes, even a few deftly placed artistic touches. All in all, this is the definitive edition to a book that will stand the test of time as an excellent example of crisp and concise visual storytelling. Over the years, Comics Grinder has become an undisputed repository for an assortment of issues related to comics. We do venture off to other subjects but I’m glad I’ve stuck around and have been able to make my contribution to documenting the progress of the comics medium. And I believe there is so much more to be said and to be explored, specifically the power of comics to communicate, to process information, and to inform.

Just the right details complete the story.

Enough time has passed since the original release of A Fire Story that it has allowed Brian Fies time for wounds to heal and memories to be processed. Of course, certain things can trigger a person and it can feel like it all just happened moments ago. But the reality is that progress has been made. Enough progress to make it easier to contemplate the centuries old Japanese tradition of kintsugi: the art of celebrating something broken by applying gold to rejoin it so as to call attention to all the broken pieces that have somehow found a way to become whole again.

If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.

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Interview with Artist Christopher Sperandio

Christopher Sperandio in his office at Rice University.

Christopher Sperandio got on my radar many years ago with Modern Masters, a comic book about art that I picked up in an art museum. Subsequently, I recall stumbling upon another title, in a similar vein, put together by Sperandio and his artistic partner Simon Grennan, together known as the Kartoon Kings. This was many years before you really saw an inclusion of much of any comics in a museum setting. Well, that has changed in many ways. I wonder how much the casual observer, the infrequent museum-goer, notices. Whatever the case, the comics medium maintains its presence, stays on the public’s radar as something to take seriously. Sperandio, among other things, makes wonderful contributions that add to the comics art form, like his new book, Greenie Josephinie.

MODERN MASTERS, DC Comics, 2002.

Sperandio has come a long way from Modern Masters to Greenie Joesphinie. And that is basically the framework I put to use for our conversation. Below are some notes on Sperandio’s career. I sincerely hope you enjoy this interview. I do these in depth talks as much for myself as for my audience and, in the end, it is my goal that the results help instruct and inspire, and document a bit about the ever-expanding comics and art scene. For me, the processing and discussing of these topics is like manna from heaven. I hope this exploration resonates with you as well.

Greenie Josephinie by Christopher Sperandio

In addition to putting himself through graduate school working as a truck driver, Christopher Sperandio, half of the artist team of Grennan & Sperandio, has produced 22 comics books as artworks for museums in the US and Europe. Bridging the High/Low divide, these works include Modern Masters, a cross-over comic for the Museum of Modern Art and published by DC Comics. Other works include Life in Prison and the Invisible City, published by Fantagraphics Books. He has been written about extensively in newspaper and magazines, as well as in books on the subject of art.

Protest Art as Instagram Meme.

He has produced new collaborative and artworks in conjunction with museums and art centers in the US, Germany, Northern Ireland, Denmark, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, and France. Commissioning institutions include MoMA/PS1, the Public Art Fund, Creative Time, London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Two of the landmark art exhibitions that he participated in are listed among the fifty most influential exhibitions of contemporary art in the book, SHOWTIME.  Sperandio was also the Creator and Executive Producer of ARTSTAR, an internationally syndicated documentary television series about emerging contemporary artists filmed in New York, Chicago and Miami.

Sperandio is an Associate Professor of Drawing and Painting at Rice University in Houston TX, where he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop. CATS is a classroom, academic research resource and exhibition space dedicated to the study of Comics. Sperandio also turned a diesel bus into an off-the-grid mobile living space, but that makes him sound… idiosyncratic. For more information, please visit: cats.rice.edu

Just click the link above for the interview. And for more information and to purchase Pinko Joe, Greenie Josephinie, or other compelling titles, be sure to visit Argle Bargle Books.

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Review: GREENIE JOSEPHENIE by Christopher Sperandio

Greenie Josephenie by Christopher Sperandio

Greenie Josephenie. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 94pp, $21.95

Comics, just like any other media, are often recontextualized and there’s no stopping it, maybe especially for misbegotten comics, in the public domain, that have fallen into a vortex of utter obscurity. There are a lot of these misfits and misfires just gathering dust. But one’s man trash can be another man’s treasure, as the ole saying goes. And so it is in this case. Artist Christopher Sperandio saw an opportunity to create new and fun narratives from old washed-up comics trash–and the trashier, the better! Who knew what art might someday be created from such mediocre and exploitative work like women-in-prison comics! Inserting new text into old comics is not exactly new. You see it all the time on social media. But Sperandio is in it for an extended and robust thematic exploration. His latest book is out this month and it follows the adventures of a renegade activist-superhero, Greenie Josephinie, a continuation of the Pinko Joe saga. It also invites the reader to follow along upon a most offbeat path dotted with landmines of subversive humor.

Recontextualizing like mad!

It’s the droll humor of Christopher Sperandio that seems to guide readers as they navigate through the murky world of the realpolitik. Sorry, sonny, this ain’t no place for children or cry babies! Morality has gone out the window and corporate profits are king! It’s a clever concept of injecting new and funny text into tired old comics and I give Sperandio a lot of credit for seeing it through. I think a process like this can be taken for granted after the reader becomes familiar with it. I think what keeps it interesting is all the neatly inserted provocation. You are almost dared to keep reading. You don’t read this like a typical comic book but more as you would view a series of work in a gallery. This is not a comic book. This is culture jamming. You see that the joke is only part of the work. The act itself, the successful reworking of the “found art,” taking it from its original genre and transforming it into protest art is the aim. If the jokes are really all that funny, that is beside the point–and yet, the humor remains part of the glue that holds it all together. Funny how art can get so complicated!

The droll humor of Christopher Sperandio

In a world where capitalism has run amok, what else can one do but turn to superhero types who are true blue real patriots? Yeah, and so a hyper-convoluted story ensues. It is far more cerebral while, at the same time, far more silly than many genre comics out there. Although, mainstream comics publishers today can often prove to be quite artful and do a good job of keeping at bay any easy satirizing of their product.

You can just run with it.

Sperandio goes to the trouble of attempting to show respect for the creators of the public domain comics he has used as found art fodder by including their names. That’s a totally reasonable and honorable gesture. Real human beings did create the artwork in these shaggy dog comics of yesteryear. But I wonder how many of these creators who are still around are losing any sleep over the fate of these particular creations. Honestly, this is C-level journeyman work, just work-for-hire grunt work, not any better nor worse than typical clip art. Honest work to be sure but no one is trying to win any prestigious award from it.

A learning opportunity.

Found pop art, and the noble work of recontextualizing it, brings to mind the Pop Art masters, specifically Roy Lichtenstein, who carved out a very significant place for himself with his use of comic book motifs. What Lichtenstein did was hardly new and dates as far back as the first artist who chose to incorporate other art into his own. One prominent figure, and my favorite, perhaps the first to really succeed with it was Edouard Manet. A more recent example is Shepard Fairey. Both Lichtenstein and Fairey have wrongheadedly been slammed by critics for appropriating the work of others. Manet not so much, or not at all, since Manet is no longer as commonly known; most people don’t care, nor would it make any sense for them to care. The bottom line is that reworking art into another work of art is sound and legitimate. It all comes down to what the results are and knowing how to avoid the trap of “garbage in; garbage out,” which is certainly not the case with Sperandio.

The little handy handbook to making comics.

I applaud Sperandio’s efforts and sincerely would love to chat art with him over a coffee or beer. Christopher Sperandio is doing essential work out on the front lines of higher education. Be sure to check out Comics Making, also published by Argle Bargle, a little book that covers quite a lot including a short history of comics and notes on production. Also in the book, Sperandio provides a guided tour to all the fascinating activity related to his CATS program at Rice University. I wish that had been around when I was working on my own college paper comic strip. The fact is that “comics making” is essentially a solitary process–but the right level of support can prove to be invaluable. Sperandio is a very interesting artist who has pushed himself throughout his career resulting in such creative achievements as Cargo Space, his artist residency project on a bus that he started in 2012. Other notable recent projects include working with fellow Rice professor Brian Huberman to see through the completion of a documentary on cartoonist Jaxon, which premiered at the 2020 Angoulême comics festival.

It’s all in how you handle your found art!

So, Speranio’s process is one worth perpetuating: mining for gold, or diamonds, for as long as it makes sense to do so. Depending upon the right chemistry between “found image” and wry joke, all sorts of magic is possible. Sometimes the results may fall flat. But, ah, sometimes you end up with a real gem. It’s all in how you handle your found art!

Find GREENIE JOSEPHENIE and other fine books at Argle Bargle Books!

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Review: ‘Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer’ by Trina Robbins

Lily Renee, Escape Artist

Lily Renée, Escape Artist. written by Trina Robbins. art by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. Graphic Universe (Lerner Books). 2011, 96pp, $9.99

Lily Renée, a comic book pioneer, celebrates her 100th birthday this week, on May 12th. Defying the odds, which included evading the Nazis, Lily Renée secured her place in the history of comics. Another comics pioneer, Trina Robbins, was inspired to take Renée’s story and turn it into a graphic novel. This book stands out as a compelling biography that is meant for younger readers, probably up to teens. It’s a gentle narrative meant to relate to readers in their formative years that focuses on Renée’s early years with some hints as to what lay ahead once her family is able to move to New York.

How best to tell the story of someone who survived the threat of the concentration camps–and then sort of stumbled upon and got to play a small role, as a woman, within a “man’s world” during the great golden age of comics? I believe Trina Robbins got it just right! As I suggest, this is a character study, one best appreciated by readers who are still getting their first batches of history and processing it. The art by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh is right in step with the crisp narrative. All in all, this is a great example of the sort of informative book that can be read in one sitting, perhaps as part of a classroom presentation.

Lily stumbles upon her destiny.

In 1938, Lily Renée Wilheim is a 14-year-old Jewish girl living in Vienna. She proves to be a natural artist and that provides a hook, a purpose. Then the Nazis march into Austria. The Night of Broken Glass was not just a nightmare, as young Lily first thought, but very real. Thankfully, Lily is able to leave the Nazi threat behind, essentially “escape,” to England as part of a Kindertransport refugee program. Her parents will eventually follow but the die is cast: Lily learns that she must depend upon herself, cultivate her own talents.

A chance to make her mark.

This is a slice-of-life narrative and it definitely succeeds. It is not intended to be epic storytelling. It is meant to gently share a certain time and place: a time when a girl is becoming a woman and must face life and find her way. So, to end the story just as Lily is beginning a career in the comics industry is a fitting place to say goodbye. And, as if to underscore the fact that this is for younger readers, Robbins includes a series of short supplementary material on concentration camps, internment camps, high tea, English currency, Queen Wilhelmina, the Holland-America Line and Horn and Hardart automats.


Women in Comics panel discussion hosted by ComixPlex

This brings us back to Lily Renée celebrating her 100th birthday in 2021. There will be a panel discussion celebrating Lily Renée and Women in Comics that you’ll want to check out. Just go over to ComixPlex to get more details and to register.

Portrait of Lily Renee by Jennifer Daydreamer

And, by the way, as cartoonists, my partner, Jennifer Daydreamer, and I were notified about Lily’s upcoming birthday and we sent a birthday card. It is trailblazers like Lily who have shown the way. Above is Jennifer’s portrait of Lily in her youth, around the time she would have been working for Fiction House comics.

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TCM Classic Film Festival | May 6-9 2021 | Interview with Mark Harris

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

Cinema is one of the great pleasures in life. If you love good movies, then you will be delighted with the lineup for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (May 6-9 2021). This post will point you in the right direction as well as provide an added bonus. One of the titles featured during the festival is 1996’s Nichols and May: Take Two. I had the honor of interviewing Mark Harris, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Mike Nichols: A Life. I hope you enjoy our chat and be sure to catch all the great movies during the festival. During our conversation, I tried to fit in as much as possible regarding Mike Nichols (1931-2014), such a iconic figure in the world of improv comedy, theater and film known for such landmark films as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Catch-22 (1970), and Carnal Knowledge (1971). And those three titles are just scratching the surface!

Cast and producers including Al Pacino, third from left, Meryl Streep, third from right, and Mike Nichols, second from right, hold the award for outstanding miniseries for their work on “Angels In America,” at the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Harris first got to know Nichols during his work adapting Tony Kushner’s landmark play, Angels in America. By then, Nichols was in his seventies and a master of his craft many times over. During our talk, Harris noted: “It is remarkable to me how Nichols kept looking outward during a production, while the meter was still running, finding ways to construct and to add.” As for what might be said in describing Nichols’s body of work, Harris said it wasn’t a matter of maintaining a thematic structure. It was really more down to earth. “It was about finding what excited Nichols to pursue a project: a script, a collaboration, a writer, an actor.”

NICHOLS AND MAY: TAKE TWO (1996): TCM premiere of this documentary about the influential comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Four of their radio sketches have been re-created with new animation created especially for the program.

Includes conversation with author Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life.

Nichols and May: Take Two

SATURDAY, MAY 8 11:45AM ET

And remember, the festival kicks off May 6th! This year’s Festival will be presented virtually and feature four days of incredible programming on TCM and within the Classics Curated By TCM Hub on HBO Max, a dedicated destination for classic movie fans within the HBO Max app.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Catch-22 (1970)

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

2021 TCM Classic Film Festival

Thursday, May 6 through Sunday, May 9 at two virtual venues: the TCM network and the Classics Curated by TCM Hub on HBO Max.

To learn more, go to the TCM Film Festival site right here. You’ll discover a unique film festival experience on TCM.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: Lafler at Large

Steve Lafler’s 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona

Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler’s 40 Hour Man

1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona.  By Steve Lafler. Cat Head Comics, 2020. $9.95.

40 Hour Man. By Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler. Manx Media, 2006. $18.00

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Steve Lafler’s themes and art work take us back, at least, to the Alt-comics of the 1980s-90s but in form and content, back further still. He’s an original, by any standard, whose inspiratino hails to the glory era of the Underground Comix and the downslide that followed and followed and followed. Not entirely unlike Peter Kuper, Lafler got himself and family to Oaxaca, Mexico, for years at a time, using local influences and themes for his volume Lucha Bruja.

He has offered us helpful information about an earlier influence, explaining not only 1956 but an earlier, out of print whopper Bughouse (issued also as a set of three volumes) on the lives of jazz musicians, depicted most curiously as insects of various kinds. Lafler’s father, a garment center buyer of the 1940s-50s, swam metaphorically in a world of hard-selling and mostly Jewish middle-men, hustling between manufacturers and buyers. Noir screenwiter Abraham Lincoln Polonsky captured them perfectly in the film I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951), more recently revisited as the husband of the lead character of streamed television’s “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.”

Sweet Ramona!

Never mind. In Lafler’s reconstructed world, a prime interest, bording upon obsession, is the jazz of Manhattan’s 52nd St, then at its apex, and the hipsters who hung out there, interacting with the salesman. Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk and so many other marvelous musicians could be heard on any given night, and among them, players who would jam for hours after closing at practially any location. The multiracial hangers-on,  Latina or Black, work the angles, mainly providing a portion of the sex trade while taking in the music. In this case, the Ramona in question is also Ramon. They get into trouble and get out again, as much as possible in this 54pp, with more to come in later installments.

Does it have the feeling of the real thing? Yes, at least metaphorically so, within the natural limits. The businessmen seem less cut-throat and lacking the New York, Yiddish-heavy accents of the more colorful part of the trade, but so what? It’s Lafler’s version. His hipsters are likewise his own creation, but not far from what we can learn from scholarship of the time and place.

The typical mindless office meeting.

I am more drawn to 40 Hour Man, for which he supplied only the illustrations. The writer notes his debt to Harvey Pekar, a debt both fascinating and curious. A collaborator of mine during the final decade of his life, Harvey had a unique approach to almost everything. He made daily existence in a heavily ethnic, most declining blue collar city seem entirely real, from job to home life. But it should be noted that Harvey’s 35 years as a file clerk at the VA hospital gave him a centering, stabilizing place in life. He was a good file clerk and proud of it.  Our protagonist in 40 Hour Man is the opposite.

Here we have a steady romp from one bad job to another, always at about the minimum wage, in the neoliberal American economy of the 1980s-90s. Alienation is the name of the game, and if 1950s writers introduced the idea to the public (Karl Marx had written about it in his youthful 1944 manuscripts), our protagonist is living it day by day and hour by hour. He is no struggling proletarian with a vision of workers’ triumph over capitalism. He just wants to get along while doing as little as possible, and the jobs encourage, even demand, such a response. He also wants to drink and get high, something easier to achieve by moving from job to job, sometimes leaving, jsut as often getting fired.

His adventures fascinate, but what fascinates more is the bullshit character of the jobs and the management that appears almost as lost as the protagonist. Like the sometime higher-level employees of the popular British comedy “The IT Crowd,” they sit at their desks, sometimes give or accept “directives,” and also try to get through the day, nevertheless setting themselves off notably from the proles who have no desks and mainly move product from shipping floor to transport.

Sometimes the protagonist has rather more stimulating work, like clerking at a record store or even playing intern in a local radio station. No job looks like it will last, and none do. Our hero has no real aspiration beyond getting through the day or week, and this goes on until he meets the fictive and real woman of his life.  By the end of the book, he seems to have removed himself from the Karmic  Work Cycle, and we don’t need to know how.

The joy of this book is more visual than literary, although both are appealing. Lafler seems to me at his peak in adapting his comic drawing to the text. The antic ambles could be traced back to Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and for that matter Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few movie heroes. Everything that can happen more or less does happen, although the update has more drugs and alcohol than hardly ever allowed in film until the age of the screw-up The Cable Guy.

Paul Buhle

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Review: ‘The Secret to Superhuman Strength’ by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

The Secret to Superhuman Strength. by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York. 2021. 240pp. $24.oo

Alison Bechdel is on a mission, perhaps the greatest of all, in her latest book which explores the connection between mind and body. Ostensibly, this is a book focusing on fitness but Bechdel, in her distinctive way, has taken things much further. In earnest, but also with a touch of irony, Bechdel is in search of the big prize, a light out of the existential abyss. Well, perhaps Tennessee Williams had his finger right on it when he said, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” Ah, there’s the rub indeed and the perfect jumping off point for Bechdel’s collection of visual essays which unfold into a highly engaging narrative, a new dazzling exploration of an artist and a life.

It’s a mad, mad world–and this is only the gym!

When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out was launched in 1983, it was cutting-edge counter-culture in a bite-sized format. Today, gender issues are much better understood and accepted. What remains most provocative for some might be another aspect to Bechdel’s work, the fact it carries a brainy tone. Americans, in general, have not favored the intellectual. We’ve had smart American heroes but it’s never an easy and obvious thing. That said, the overall quality of a work tends to have the final say. We look forward to Bechdel in the same way we might look forward to any number of articulate writers–sometimes despite, or because, of the cerebral challenges they set up for themselves. Yes, Bechdel tends to overthink things–she’s defiant about it; she revels in it. And, nowadays, there’s no end of material to scrutinize. Bechdel gets it. She even wonders, at one point, just how privileged is it to bring into the world “another book about fitness by a white lady.” Just keep in mind this isn’t just a book about fitness.

A life of mind and body.

Bechdel’s mind likes to take the more esoteric route. When most people are asked to think about fitness, they might start thinking about their favorite workout. Bechdel sees her passion for fitness as inextricably linked to her compulsive need for self-improvement which she attaches to the progressive spirit going back to The Romantics and The Transcendentalists. I happen to enjoy the sort of Byzantine multi-layered narratives that Rachel Maddow is famous for. Well, you’re in luck because that’s what you’re getting here: a book that truly explores the interconnections between mind and body. To be honest, sometimes things are bereft of rigorous intellectual inquiry. When you gotta go, you gotta go. The body has a way of pulling rank, of having a mind of its own!

Can we get there from here? Let’s see!

As with all of Bechdel’s work, this book will charm the reader with its particular pace and rhythm. Bechdel is unapologetically nerdy. And, truth be told, she’s not exactly in the minority. I know I just said that we Americans collectively are anti-intellectual. But, again speaking in general, we are collectively more inclined to be couch potatoes than jocks. And maybe, among all those coach potatoes, there’s something akin to a more thoughtful sensibility. Maybe not totally bookish, but no doubt more nerd than not which is a good thing. It’s safe to say that we have a reliable mass of readers that keeps growing and evolving. With that in mind, I think this book definitely has a vibe with great mass appeal. For more dedicated readers, I’m also sure it is safe to say we can all agree that Bechdel’s book advances the comics medium. In this case, Bechdel provides beautiful passage after passage of extended thought. This speaks to the hard-won lessons learned from doing a comic strip for decades. You learn to pare down text to fit tight spaces. And, when you find you have more space, you come to it with a more nimble and elegant sense of organizing words and pictures. When Bechdel ruminates, she knows how to do it to fullest effect.

Yes, we’ll get there. Feel the burn!

I think Bechdel’s esoteric approach is simply divine. This is such an authentic voice. Basically, think of this book as an extension of Bechdel’s graphic novel format storytelling, with a interconnection to her previous books, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? If you enjoy a book that truly takes a deep dive into exploring human nature, this book will definitely satisfy you. The comics medium is a never-ending unlimited platform for any type of storytelling. You can slice it and dice it, constrict it or expand it. What you want to be careful about is knowing how to juggle those words and pictures so that your story shines and Bechdel is one of our great masters in comics without a doubt.

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A Conversation with Karl Stevens: Realism in Comics

Karl Stevens comics commissioned by the Gardner Museum

Penny is the new graphic novel by Karl Stevens. I reviewed it recently and now I provide you with an interview with the author. If you go on to see the video below, you’ll get to know a bit about a most engaging and talented artist with quite a distinctive style. As a cartoonist, he finds himself in a unique place as a champion of realism in comics, something of a lost art, certainly not as common today as it used to be in Alex Raymond’s day.

There’s a point in my conversation with Karl Stevens where he really gets to the heart of his motivations as a cartoonist. Karl was discussing where he was heading with new projects and that got him to thinking back to the process in general. He started looking back at the artists who influenced him, like Fragonard and Rembrandt. Currently, he’s been exploring genre comics, including a lot of work in Heavy Metal from the ’70s and ’80s, specifically the work of Caza and Moebius.

The Alston scene. Will Greta Gerwig want to turn a Stevens comic strip into a movie?

The point is that Karl was thinking about his attraction to a certain crisp line in the service of realism in cartooning. It’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s relatively rare. Thinking back on it, I’ve always loved exemplary cross-hatching from such greats as Thomas Nast, Edward Sorel, and David Levine–or, for something finer, Goya. Anyway, Karl went on to share:

“The history of comics has always been based on other comics or commercial illustration. It’s rare that you have a cartoonist who has studied art history in a serious way. A lot of comics look like they’ve been commercially made. They have that slick line to it. It’s different from a fine art line. As a younger artist, I was trying to bring that sensibility to comics. I did try to draw in a more cartoony  way. But I found realism to be more complicated, and more interesting.”

Karl, took a pause. He laughed a bit, and said he realized it might sound pretentious to be speaking this way. But what’s an artist supposed to do, really? This is how we explain things. And so he continued.

“The history of realism in comics died in a serious way in the ’60s, along with representational art in general. You had people like Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud railing against realism, stating that realism was antithetical to comics. I don’t believe that’s true. I just don’t think realism has been fully explored.”

We chatted about a lot of other things, including the great art heist at the Gardner Museum, but I think what I’m quoting here is probably the best gem. As far as representational art goes, I think the death of figurative painting is something that is perpetually declared in art circles. And, as for realism in comics these days, well, I think there are some fine examples that pop up here and there but you really don’t often enough see realism in comics, at least not in the United States. What came to mind as part of my response in the moment to Karl’s comments was just that, as much as I like to play with quill pen points, I don’t tend to have the patience to pursue realism. I’ve gotten some nice results but I really need to be motivated. Clearly, Karl is very motivated!

With that said, I do hope you enjoy our full conversation. I provide a number of images that help round things out and give you a better sense of the man and his art. For now, it’s Karl’s latest book, Penny, that’s the main focus. Do check it out! For more details, be sure to visit Chronicle Books.

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MAD Magazine June 2021: Jim Woodring Cover Art

MAD #19 – MAD PREDICTS THE FUTURE

MAD Magazine, as we used to know it, is gone. However, what we still have is to be treasured. Due to a number of factors, it just became unsustainable to maintain the magazine. So, the idea now is to keep to a pared-down schedule that showcases various work from the past. It leaves room for some exceptions too like the amazing new cover art by visionary cartoonist Jim Woodring for the current issue. I just got my copy in the mail as part of my subscription. You can too by visiting MAD Magazine.

Alfred E. Neuman is the fictitious mascot and cover boy of MAD. Alfred’s first appearance was on a 1954 MAD paperback collection and on the actual magazine starting with Mad #21 (March 1955). Woodring pays homage to Alfred and all things MAD by having Alfred in the role of Zoltan the fortune teller. The fortune is a wry reference to MAD’s legendary fold-in back cover gags: “The Secret to Longevity is Not Folding In.” And, most fitting of all, is a 100th happy birthday wish to one of MAD’s greatest cartoonists: Al Jaffee, a regular contributor to the magazine for 65 years, the longest run ever, including his trademark feature, the Mad Fold-in.

Back in December of last year, Jim Woodring let his friends on social media know just what he thought about getting to do a MAD Magazine cover:

“If anyone in a position to know had told me when I was a boy that I would one day do a cover for MAD magazine I would have died of self-satisfaction right on the spot. Issue #19, due out March 2021 from DC comics.”

Each issue of MAD is thoughtfully curated following a theme. The theme for this current issue is The Future:

MAD #19 – MAD PREDICTS THE FUTURE

Gaze into the wonders of tomorrow, courtesy of yesterday’s MAD! It’s our far-flung future issue, in which we look back at the shape of things to come, including parodies of time traveling sci-fi flicks “Back to the Future” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Plus, MAD examines prognosticators like astrology, palm reading, and, just for good measure, a little MAD E.S.P with birthday boy Al Jaffee for his 100th year on this planet, and some new outta this world art by Tom Richmond! We predict there will be a new Fold-In by Johnny Sampson too! Materializing in stores APR. 13th!

Get your copy by visiting MAD Magazine right here.

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