Tag Archives: Alt-Comics

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

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

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

A mashup of bio and autobio.

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

A young and feisty Fred Rogers.

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

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

The Washing of Feet.

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

Francois Clemmons speaks out.

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

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

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

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

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

Review: SCORCHED EARTH collection by Tom Van Deusen

SCORCHED EARTH collection by Tom Van Deusen

SCORCHED EARTH collection by Tom Van Deusen

A wretched staleness in the air. Lost souls strewn about. And it’s all played up for laughs! Welcome to the wonderful world of cartoonist Tom Van Deusen. I really admire Tom’s style, in person and in his comics. Tom is a very likable and professional gent. So, it’s a unique treat to then read his comics featuring Tom’s vile and hateful alter ego. I reviewed a couple of issues of his Scorched Earth comics. You can read that here. This new collection, published by Kilgore Books, that came out this year simply goes by the same running title and contains a fine mix of old and new material. You will want to seek this out.

Tom Van Deusen’s aim is to satirize the oily underbelly of hipsterdom with a neo-underground sensibility. His characters traffic in a Robert Crumb-like netherworld where hedonism and arrogance commingle. Like Crumb, Van Deusen is both fascinated and repulsed by the hipster zeitgeist. Van Deusen’s alter ego, Tom, struggles to connect with a woman who is willing to sleep with anyone…except him. She’ll even sleep with his doppelgänger but not the original. Tom can’t even get a handle on the e-cigarette craze that all the “cool kids” have latched onto. For Tom, vaping does not involve a slim little gadget delivering dramatic puffs of vapor. No, for Tom, it involves a monstrous contraption that looks like an iron lung.

Hanging out at Glo's Diner

Hanging out at Glo’s Diner

One of the best bits in the book takes place at Glo’s Diner, located in what is the Capitol Hill district of Seattle, a densely populated area and a counterculture mecca. I curated art shows at Glo’s Diner for five years and presented work from local cartoonists including David Lasky, Ellen Forney, Jennifer Daydreamer, Farel Dalrymple, and myself. It is a small space. The food is okay. But there is something about that peculiar little oily spoon that reads authentic. It’s great to see a cartoonist of Van Deusen’s caliber pick up on that. He takes his time to capture the place’s true dimensions and spirit.

Full page excerpt from SCORCHED EARTH

Full page excerpt from SCORCHED EARTH

The not so sweet young things remain out of reach for sad sack Tom. He remains on the fringes of the fashionable fringe element. The beauty of it all is that Van Deusen dares to keep vigil, take notes, and then pile it all into a blender and create some very funny comics.

Visit Tom here, find his comics at Poochie Press right here and find this recent collection of SCORCHED EARTH at Kilgore Books & Comics right here.

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Comix, Hipsters, Kilgore Books, mini-comics, Minicomics, Robert Crumb, Seattle, Tom Van Deusen, Underground Comics, Zines

Review: TERRA FLATS #1 by Jason Fischer

TERRA FLATS #1 by Jason Fischer

TERRA FLATS #1 by Jason Fischer

I first encountered the Venus of Willendorf, that most iconic symbol of fertility, flickering on the screen from a tedious college slide lecture. Despite the less than inspired presentation, that overt and voluptuous figure won out. Up close, it was so imposing while, in fact, it was such a tiny, and quite vulnerable, statuette. Cartoonist Jason Fischer couldn’t help but want to play off that irony with his new comic focusing on two friends. One is in the spirit of the Venus of Willendorf. Her name is Vee, a 20-something fast food worker. And her best friend is Pony and she’s a demon. So, a whimsical and supernatural team-up.

Reading TERRA FLATS at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland

Reading TERRA FLATS at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland

This is an independent comic, published by Press Gang, out of Portland, Oregon. What it reminds me of most is the light-hearted humor of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, or Casper, The Ghost, where there is a menace, there’s a showdown, and then things float back down to normal. No one really gets hurt and you learn something about the characters. In this case, the showdown is between a brother and sister who are both toying with the affection of Vee. In the process, we learn about what Vee really wants.

There’s a winning upbeat style to Fischer’s artwork. And his balancing of humor and thoughts on the dynamics of relationships adds up to a fun read for readers of all ages. I picked up my copy of this comic at Floating World Comics in Portland. And, if you’re in PDX, or want to order from them online, you can find them here. I also saw this comic again, out of the corner of my eye, at the blur of activity that was this last weekend’s Short Run comic arts festival in Seattle.

Colorist Nathan Fairbairn, Drawing Assistant Jason Fischer, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and me

Colorist Nathan Fairbairn, Drawing Assistant Jason Fischer, Bryan Lee O’Malley, and me

Now, a few more words on our cartoonist, Jason Fischer. I saw him a couple of years back when he did a presentation with Bryan Lee O’Malley for Bryan’s most recent graphic novel, “Seconds.” He was the drawing assistant. Jason drew backgrounds, food, monsters and did some design work. It was his introduction to the comic industry. He’s been steadily making progress and could use some more patrons. Visit his Patreon right here.

Press Gang is an imprint of Alternative Comics. Find Press Gang here. And find Jason Fischer right here.

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Floating World Comics, Press Gang

Short Run 2016: The Big in the Small

Short Run 2016

Short Run 2016

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

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!

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

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.

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Filed under Art, Comic Arts Festivals, Comics, Comix, DIY, mini-comics, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, Small Press Expo, SPX

Review: LAID WASTE by Julia Gfrörer

LAID WASTE by Julia Gfrörer

LAID WASTE by Julia Gfrörer

Julia Gfrörer‘s ethereal comics are a perfect counterbalance to our world of memes and jittery nonsense. There are certainly a number of notable artists and writers who have carved out for themselves an intriguing landscape, an answer or a retreat from the everyday. Julia Gfrörer is one such person. What she does astonishes and resonates: those blank stares from eyes without pupils; all the delicious longing and despair; and that distinctive haunting feeling running throughout. Well, if you dig that, then you are going to be head over heels for her latest work, “Laid Waste,” published by Fantagraphics Books.

Like many a great cartoonist, Gfrörer takes what she does seriously, takes it to heart. I dare say that we see her inhabit her own comics more often than not. And that’s perfectly fine. When one undertakes a longer work, even a short piece, one needs to establish some hooks. Nothing is more natural than to include one’s self. So, that said, I suspect that Gfrörer is Agnès, our main character, a young woman at odds with circumstance and fate. She is in a medieval hamlet as she watches everyone around her succumb to the plague. She has supernatural powers but seems at a loss as to what to do with them.

Panels from LAID WASTE

Panels from LAID WASTE

Gfrörer has established herself over a relatively short time as a masterful storyteller with a distinctive gothic style. I have followed her work with great admiration. She is following in the footsteps of a select group of cartoonists with similar sensibilities. Edward Gorey comes to mind. A contemporary for Gfrörer would be the equally bookish visionary, Kate Beaton.

Along with a gothic vision, Gfrörer is quick to emphasize the theme of pain. In her new book, Agnès suffers greatly. She only sees gloom ahead. Only a brief sexual respite provides some relief. It is one of the more compelling unions I’ve seen in a good while. It is not explicit, per se. We only see the tip of a penis. There is room to explore and she strikes the right balance: a heady mix of passion and angst. For that moment, all the surrounding darkness can just go to hell. Afterwards, once alone again, the pain returns.

This book has been categorized as a “graphic novella.” Sure, you can call it that. The page count of about 80 pages would safely keep it within the range of a proper “graphic novel,” especially by European standards. What takes place within this story might have it qualify more as a vignette than a full-bodied narrative. It is certainly possible to pull together decades of activity, bring in generations of characters, from far-flung locales–all within 80 pages–and have that more in line with the idea of a graphic novel. In the case of this story, we are concentrating on a very special character with remarkable traits in a severe and desolate place with questions of life and death before her. Sounds like a great story no matter what category you place it in. For my money, go ahead and call it a graphic novel, for God’s sake.

Page from LAID WASTE

Page from LAID WASTE

Julia Gfrörer has poised Agnès, who I am suggesting is her alter-ego, in the position of a saint, or at least a heroine. It’s a gutsy move. But the risk is worth taking. As a cartoonist myself, I can fully appreciate the desire to take control of the hero’s journey. Let the cartoonist be the hero! Why not? I see it as a totally organic process. If it works, you go with it. In this story, while seeming to be modest in scope, we find a main character engaged in a full arc of growth. It is, at times cryptic, and, to be sure, heroic.

There is a relentless energy to Gfrörer’s light line work. It is delicate, determined and well-balanced. She keeps to a steady pace. She aspires to poetic heights and reaches them. The narrative does well within a four panel grid per page. This consistent framework complements the story and has a way of catching subtle shifts. There are moments like an abrupt appearance by Death that get a extra magical pop from taking place within this four panel system that can act as a stage. Gfrörer’s work can be called dramatic but it is never merely theatrical. That said, I would surely welcome a play, or maybe a set design, by Julia Gfrörer.

“Laid Waste” is an 80-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books, available as of November 1st. You can pre-order now at Fantagraphics Books right here. You can also find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comix, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Julia Gfrörer