Tag Archives: Art

Will EISNER art show – ‘A Contract With God’ at Comic Art Factory (Oct 15-31, 2020)

Work from A Contract with God

Will Eisner is such a unique cartoonist with a determined spirit and an unwavering vision. You could say he’s the gold standard when it comes to the tradition of the auteur cartoonist, the artist-writer who creates singular works in comics, specifically graphic novels. In the special case of Mr. Eisner, he arguably created what we now know as the graphic novel, at least in North America. Undoubtedly, his 1978 graphic novel, A Contract with God, caused quite a stir in the creative community and, most significantly, crossed over into the general public. With that in mind, it is notable to have any art show that displays original work from this landmark book. Comic Art Factory will exhibit a selection of pages (tight pencilled prelims and inked pages) that have never been exhibited nor offered for sale.

Excerpt from A Contract with God

The exhibition will take place from the 15th until the 31th of October at the Comic Art Factory gallery, based in Brussels, Belgium. Over 60 pieces will be available for sale at the gallery and through the website.

Excerpt from A Contract with God

Excerpt from A Contract with God

If there is one person who can speak to what is great about Will Eisner, it is Denis Kitchen, who published all of Will Eisner’s graphic novels. You can listen and view my recent interview with Kitchen right here. Kitchen got to know Will Eisner very well and freely admits that it was Eisner who led the way on the future of graphic novels. As far back as the 1940s, Eisner envisioned the future of long form comics collected in book form. Eisner’s long-running comic strip, The Spirit (beginning in 1940), which went on to be collected into books, indicates what lay ahead for Eisner.

Comic Art Factory is a leading gallery in comics art. Frederic Lorge is the manager of the Comic Art Factory gallery. Denis Kitchen is a long-time publisher of Will Eisner and an art agent, handling art sales of such leading artists as Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman through his company Denis Kitchen Art Agency. All images are ©Will Eisner Studios Inc.

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Review: CARTOON ANIMATION with Preston Blair

The wide wonderful world of Walter Foster books!

Maybe like me, you grew up with Walter Foster books. In the ’70s, when I was a boy, these oversized (old Life Magazine format) books were already wonderful relics from a bygone era, most dating back two or three decades. I knew, right away, that they came from another time and place but they were so well put together and the instruction seemed so crisp and clear that I just loved them even if I had no idea how I was supposed to take that information and become a famous cartoonist in New York or a famous animator in Hollywood. No matter. That could always be dealt with sometime in the future. These same Walter Foster books have been reprinted many times over filling the heads of countless people of all ages with fanciful dreams that may or may not ever come true. It didn’t seem to matter. The books themselves were so wonderful! I have been looking at a recent book from Walter Foster, now an imprint at Quarto Publishing Group. It is a classic and brings up a lot of happy memories, Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair.

Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Animation with Preston Blair is a fine example of the lineup of Walter Foster books from Quarto in a contemporary trade paperback format. Preston Blair, born in 1908, was trained in fine art and illustration and went on to become a leading animator at Disney. Blair animated such famous work as the Hippos dance in “Dance of Hours” and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both in 1940’s Fantasia. Blair is also known for his work at MGM, most notably his animation with Tex Avery. And he is also known for his work at Hanna-Barbera for The Flintstones. Blair offers plenty in the way of lively and inventive examples.

A page from Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Upon a closer examination, it’s clear that this book is a treasure trove of samples and guidelines to inspire an artist at any level. A book like this will help get you on track because it makes no pretense and gets to the heart of the matter: page after page of straightforward drawing. And new animators will appreciate plenty of examples of anatomy, perspective, and various movement along with timeless principles.

From Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Combining two previous titles, this manual is organized into six chapters covering cartoon construction, character development, movement, animation principles and animated acting. The retro drawings alone are worth the modest price for this 128-page fully illustrated book. Solid instruction never goes out of style and is timeless. This is recommended for all ages.

For more details, visit Quarto Publishing Group right here.

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Filed under animation, Art, Book Reviews, Education

Wisconsin Funnies | Underground Comics | Alternative Press

The Bugle alternative weekly, circa 1975.

Interview with Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

Excerpt from Lynda Barry

The comics discussion continues. This time around I interview Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky, co-curators of the comics art show, Wisconsin Funnies: 50 Years of Comics, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), on view through January 10, 2021.  Of course, comics is an art form but we’re arguably still moving beyond old prejudice and misunderstanding. A show like Wisconsin Funnies helps to provide context and history in the study of comics. For example, while an underground comics are often associated with San Francisco, popularized by such leading figures as R. Crumb, a rich history of independent comics activity can be found in the midwest, specifically Wisconsin. Today, that hub of comics energy continues to percolate, led by such notable figures as Lynda Barry, winner of the the prestigious MacArthur Genius Foundation fellowship and an an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kings in Disguise, a graphic novel published by Kitchen Sink Press, by Dan Burr and James Vance.

During the course of our conversation, we touched on the unique difficulties that may arise in mounting a comics art show in a museum. I specifically suggested that Wisconsin Funnies could become a traveling show. That is actually an idea that has a history behind it. Both Danky and Kitchen, while certainly happy to indulge such an idea for this show, tend to think the focus is too regional. What would stop a curator in another state from favoring their own state over a showcase of Wisconsin comics? That said, Wisconsin natives Danky and Kitchen have led the way in putting together a most compelling show and set the bar high. You also have to factor in that a lot of the power and strength about this show is due to the fact it is made possible in large part by Denis Kitchen, a huge figure in comics. I factor in all the contributions that Denis Kitchen has made: his own comics, writing, journalism, publishing and promotion, his founding Kitchen Sink Press, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; and his work with so many leading figures in the business, including Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Scott McCloud, Stan Lee, and Alan Moore. It all adds up. Right alongside Kitchen is James P. Danky, a respected historian and authority on the alternative press. It was a pleasure to talk with both of these men. I also want to add to the credits for this show: associate curator J. Tyler Friedman and guest curator Paul Buhle.

Group Self-Portrait of the core group of midwestern cartoonists, circa 1971: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson.

Any worthwhile endeavor like a major art show is made up of many unique individuals. The story of this art show is the story of numerous high-spirited and hard-working artists. One of the highlights to this interview was getting a chance to explore the inner lives of these cartoonists by using a group self-portrait as a starting point. I am referring to the above work. Here you find the core group of cartoonists who Denis worked with: Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson. Some went on to professional careers while others moved in other directions. But, in that special moment in time, they were all making a little bit of history. Maybe they were too busy to ever acknowledge it at the time. That’s okay. The art is now on the walls and can speak for itself.

MOWA can be proud to have a show that celebrates Wisconsin’s rich and varied comics tradition. You will find a broad spectrum of content here, including underground comics, editorial cartoons, graphic novels, and even the state’s own superhero comic, Badger, by Jeff Butler!

Denis Kitchen, Henry Chamberlain, James P. Danky in conversation.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Comics Scholarship, Counterculture, Interviews, Museums

Interview: Barbara Slate and a Career in Comics and Graphic Novels

Barbara Slate self-portrait

Barbara Slate spent twelve-hour days working on The Mueller Report Graphic Novel in order to get it out in a timely manner. In fact, her book got mentioned by a Republican representative during the Trump impeachment hearings in the House of the U.S. Congress. Trump went on to be impeached by the House. But there’s more to Barbara Slate. Here is an in depth look at a wonderful career in comics and graphic novels. Barbara Slate is known for being a pioneer in feminist comics. Her first big break came with her character, Ms. Liz, which began on greeting cards (selling over two million), then a comic strip, and even an animated short on NBC’s Today Show! What an honor. And, as I suggest, there is much more like writing for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Harvey Comics and Archie Comics. Among her many accomplishments in the visual storytelling biz, I was intrigued with the fact that she wrote 150 Betty and Veronica stories for Archie Comics! We cover that in this interview! Barbara was always fascinated with the friendship between these two young women who were so different. And, by the way, what the heck did they see in Archie in the first place? Good question.

Barbara Slate lecture poster

So, as always, I share with you about my own journey to better understand and appreciate the comics medium. I do it by sharing of my own work and by reviewing as much material as I can. And, of course, I do it by putting together special interviews such as this. You can say that I do my best to find a different angle to the people and subjects I choose to focus on. And I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. Not when I have creators like Barbara Slate to help guide the way.

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

Now, a few words on the two recent titles that we feature in this interview. First, let’s cover The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. And then we’ll take a look at You Can Do A Graphic Novel. First off, I think Barbara has definitely created one of those books that becomes a keepsake. I am constantly culling through my books but this one is a keeper. And why? Well, within its 107 pages, it masterfully makes sense of one mammoth of a book that deserves close attention. The actual Mueller Report, a text-dense book clocking in at nearly 500 pages along with supplementary material, lays out how Russian interference has wreaked havoc upon our electoral process as well as provides a jaw-drawing look at how the Trump team, with Trump himself very much involved, have obstructed justice. A stream-lined concise graphic novel actually makes sense–and this is it! This book is, no matter what the subject, a perfect example of how to condense a complex subject into a compelling read.

Page from The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

Barbara Slate has the magic touch with bringing the essential facts in better focus. The reader gets to know all the players and what they did. The often Byzantine-like world of Russian oligarchs is treated in a straightforward manner. A con game that no one was expected to be interested in or even be able to follow is made accessible. As we’ve heard many times over, it was not Robert Mueller’s place to determine if the President of the United States, no matter who they are, should be impeached. It is up to Congress. As we all know, Congress took a very different path than would have been expected on their way to impeachment. The Democrats had the compelling case all along with the Mueller Report but they chose to focus on Ukraine. That said, the Meuller Report is still with us, many portions of which await removal of redactions and future days in court. This graphic novel remains a handy guide for when the chickens come home to roost.

You Can Do A Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

If you’re looking for a wonderful instruction manual on comics, then you’re all set with Barbara’s You Can Do A Graphic Novel. This book will guide you through the process of telling your story through comics. You can aim for doing a full-length graphic novel in the long run. But, to begin with, you can follow these easy-to-follow steps and learn all the components to storytelling. This 232-page, fully illustrated, book will delight newcomers and even more experienced cartoonists because you have Barbara Slate sharing techniques and industry insight from a long and successful career.

Pages from You Can Do A Graphic Novel

As I say, even more experienced cartoonists will welcome the easygoing and highly informative format. Yes, you too can learn how to properly plot a comics script. Barbara Slate learned from the best. When she first started at DC Comics, she was taught the color-coded plotting system by none other than Paul Levitz, one of the biggest names at DC Comics. The book is perfect for all ages, and it will specifically appeal to young people just starting out.

Barbara Slate is one of the best. Check out her website to learn more about her work and her online comics courses. Visit Barbara Slate right here.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Interviews, Visual Storytelling

Comics Studies: WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

Wisconsin Funnies. Catalogue edited by Terry Ann R. Neff. Exhibit co-curated by James P. Danky, J Tyler Friedman, and Denis Kitchen with contributions by Paul Buhle. Museum of Wisconsin Art. 2020, 248pp.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

The Real vs. The Ideal, ink on bristol, by Lynda Barry, 1989.

I have nursed a habit, that became a way of life, that became a saving grace. Specifically, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to my own lifelong work in the comics medium. Being a cartoonist really is something very special. It is something so special that all sorts of interested parties want to be part of the magic and that includes all sorts of academic types, galleries and museums. That is all to the good. Comics is still a relatively young medium in some respects so anything that spreads the word can’t be all that bad, right? Comics is an art form, owing so much to countless American contributions and around as far back as there’s been a United States, only now getting the sort of recognition it deserved all along. We can’t, nor should we, include every single shred of work ever made but we have a great bounty of examples to hold up as bona fide works of significance and value. The art show currently on view at MOWA (extended to January 9, 2021) is another step forward. Let’s take a close look at the museum catalogue.

Frank O. King’s Gasoline Alley, page from 1922.

It takes a historian’s perspective to look at Wisconsin and explain all the comics activity there as having a lot to do with Chicago. Well, it’s true. A hundred years ago, Chicago was a home for newspaper empires with a high demand for cartoonists. This is made abundantly clear in Paul Buhle’s essay to this catalog. If a young cartoonist wanted to make it big, a very good place to hone their talent would be in nearby Wisconsin. Keeping to a historian’s long view, we come to understand that comics got baked into Wisconsin bohemian culture. By the 1960s, it was so much a part of the local art scene’s DNA to make you think you were sipping wine and munching on croissants in Paris, where they embraced comics, the Ninth Art, with great fervor as opposed to your average American, especially a corn-fed citizen right in the heart of farms and honest working folk. All sorts of factors simply added up over time. For one thing, never underestimate a cartoonist’s need for peace and quiet. A more methodical pace can lead to a more cerebral and productive life. Wisconsin native Frank O. King, who made the big move to Chicago, showed the way with his deceptively simple comic strip honoring Americana, a comic strip which was also amazingly innovative, Gasoline Alley, which debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Take a look at the example above and you might see how this highly stylized format would have influenced another master of comics, Chris Ware. Along with King’s trailblazing work, add Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Claire Briggs (Casper Milquetoast), and Carl Anderson (Henry). For an in depth look, read Paul Buhle’s Comics in Wisconsin.

From Denis Kitchen, Star Reporter, 1972.

When you consider what gives a certain place its character, you must think about its guiding forces. One such consequential force of nature in Wisconsin is Denis Kitchen. This is the story of an enterprising young cartoonist who bought some farmland in Wisconsin and converted the barn into a comics studio. From here emerged Kitchen Sink Press, the legendary comics publisher. In 1973, Kitchen joined the back-to-the-land movement and converted a barn in Princeton, Wisconsin and all sorts of comics emerged, underground and mainstream alike. Kitchen was in a position to continue to grow as an artist himself as well as publish the work of other artists and help them out when he could.

From Buddha Crackers by Michael Newhall, 1977.

Michael Newhall, one of the indie cartoonists in the area, rented a space at the Kitchen barn for $50 a month or, given that he was perpetually cash-poor, would pay Kitchen with a work of art each month. While Kitchen would be the first to joke around about whether there truly existed an underground movement or if it was all just a bunch of hype, there was no doubt that numerous like-minded souls gravitated towards each other. For example, Kitchen includes in the MOWA show a portrait of some of the leading cohorts of that era: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, and Skip Williamson. Of course, that is just one snapshot of some of the creative folk at the time. Other cartoonists that were part of the scene in one way or another included Peter Loft, Mark Morrison, Peter Poplaski, Trina Robbins, John Porcellino, Lynda Barry, and even R. Crumb. Plus many others. Since Denis Kitchen is also an art dealer and collector, he also includes in his collection the work of some of the all-time greats of past eras like Al Capp, Will Eisner, Will Elder, Ernie Bushmiller and Milton Caniff. All these names are part of this amazing show at MOWA.

A Short History of America, serigraph by R. Crumb, 1993.

The catalog for the show does a great job of presenting the subject of comics in both an insightful and irreverent way. One thing all of us art lovers can’t help but address is what is it that we really want to see. What will it be that compels the viewer to seek out the museum in the first place? While this or that movement will come and go, at the end of the day, the actual human being who is investing time and energy to view an art show will have a significant say in what works advance and, over time, are bestowed with greater legitimacy. It may not always be a work invested in identity. It may not always be a work of raw and simple quality. Or a work of realism.

From Kings in Disguise, script by James Vance, art by Dan Burr, 1988.

From Alice in Watergateland by Bill Sanders, 1974.

From Dreams by Leilani Hickerson, 2011.

From Wildcat Bill From Grizzle Hill by Marty Two Bulls Sr., 2013.

What it will be, one hopes and expects, is work that best represents the comics medium. That, of course, needs to be carefully considered by those in a position to keep the ball rolling. That said, by presenting as wide a variety of thoughtfully selected work, MOWA does a great service to comics. Now, getting back to the catalog, if you want not only a taste of some of the best comics from the last fifty years, but also a fascinating look at the counterculture over the years, then this is the book for you. For an exploration of a particularly notable zeitgeist, running from the late 1960s to early 1970s, turn to a  wonderful profile in the catalong of Denis Kitchen by James P. Danky. If there ever really was an underground comix scene, Denis Kitchen would certainly know.

The Bugle, cover art, ink on bristol by Dan Burr, 1975.

Danky follows the history of American underground newspapers, beginning in 1964, with a parallel narrative to Kitchen’s own career, starting with his leap into publishing in 1969 at the age of 23. Over the years, Kitchen became part of undergound comix history. In 1970, for example, R. Crumb invited Kitchen to publish his next comic, Home Grown Funnies. That title proved to be Kitchen’s all-time best-selling comic book, eventually totaling 160,000 copies. Among the landmark work that Kitchen published was some of the best graphic novel work by Will Eisner, including securing the rights to Eisner’s seminal work, A Contract with God. Kitchen would go on to develop The Bugle, his own contribution to underground newspapers. He would go on to other notable ventures, like his partnering with Stan Lee for Comix Book. The rest, as they say, is history–with much to share. For instance, much of the artwork for this art show comes from the collection of Denis Kitchen.

From Will Elder’s Goodman Beaver Meet S*perm*n, 1962.

So, with all the amazing achievements accomplished by cartoonists, why would any serious cartoonist who, by all rights, has created art, ever question whether they have truly created art? Because there are countless people who get in the way for countless reasons. Maybe their mother didn’t love them enough. For example, you have people from various other disciplines who suddenly lurch their way into the comics bandwagon. You have critics and academics who do it, not from sincere interest, but because it can seem like an easier way to gain attention and prestige. This results in more and more blathering from a pretentious echo chamber. No art form deserves this. Then there’s the more straightforward elitist prejudice against an art form from those in the establishment. The best example of this is the ongoing war between fine art painters and the artists who work in the comics medium, part of the larger highbrow vs. lowbrow war. Of course, hip painters are hip to hip comix, but I digress.

A typical comics blowhard. Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, by Jay Lynch, 1976.

And, by the way, if you think for a second that my referring to pseudo-intellectual blathering is just something I’m pulling out of thin air, I have news for you. It goes on all the time. Your typical review at The Comics Journal, for example, has perfected this posturing tone, a mix of hyperbole and odd use of language. And I’m really not sure for what purpose. It seems that many who aspire to something great get caught up in their own web of stilted expression. It brings to mind a scene in one of the comics on view at MOWA. It is an illustration by Jay Lynch for the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, 1976. In one corner you see a pudgy middle-aged man wearing a cartoon wig. He is trying to impress a sexy woman in a Playboy bunny outfit. He drones on about his doctoral thesis on Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip, Nancy. He states: “the basic tenets of Bushmiller’s cosmology are to 20th century man essentially what Manichaeism must have been to your typical Albigensian.” I can see that a work of profound beauty, like Nancy, can inspire someone to overreach with the most curious of prose. But does it help advance the cause of comics? I only drag The Comics Journal into this because I know these folks can take it. In fact, one might argue that the quirky attitude at The Comics Journal can be traced back to the subversive humor of cartoonist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, who is included in the MOWA show.

From You Had to Be There: George Mosse Finds Himself in History, art and text by Nick Thorkelson, 2014.

Getting back to the hi-lo wars, Photography had to run the gauntlet and prove itself a legitimate art form up against Painting. And, today, a lot of painters are intimidated and in awe of photography as well as video. For comics, it seems like there’s still a bit of a problem about making proper room for it at the great Art table. This is a problem that doesn’t have to exist if common sense were allowed to rear its ugly commoner’s head.

From One Flower Child’s Search for Love by Trina Robbins, 1972.

That brings us to this show currently on view at MOWA. I sincerely believe that the biggest obstacle to understanding comics in the United States (because I don’t believe this dysfunction really exists elsewhere) is a disingenuous notion that comics need to be on some “separate but equal” plane outside of other art forms; or comics require experts to explain how to properly read and appreciate it. No doubt, thoughtful discourse is welcome but a lot of it comes down to common sense too. Some work meets the highest of standards and some doesn’t even come close and has not earned a place of honor. Some comics are so simple it seems like any child could have made them. And some comics are highly sophisticated and unquestionably demonstrate the work of a master.

From King-Cat Comics and Stories #75 by John Porcellino, 2015.

At the end of the day, a comic can tell you a lot if you’re willing to simply share some time with it. The MOWA show is an excellent opportunity to spend some quality time with some exceptional comics.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

Kitchen Sink Press Headquarters, Princeton, Wisconsin, ink on bristol by R. Crumb, 1985.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Comix, Counterculture, Culture, Museums

Trumpland: VOTE HIM OUT!

The Mad King is not pleased.

Sometimes, more often than not, a drawing demands that it be drawn and shared. Here is such an example. I created this illustration upon viewing what is such an iconic and powerful moment. This just happened about an hour ago at this writing. You can easily search for news about it. I think even the most ardent Trump supporter can concede the optics are not good. Just take a look. Trump looks like the Mad King none too pleased. It doesn’t take him too long to finally realize it’s time to retreat back to the castle or, yeah, the White House.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump was booed Thursday as he paid respects to late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He plans to nominate a replacement this weekend for the liberal justice, best known for her advancement of women’s rights.

VOTE HIM OUT!

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Filed under Donald Trump, Editorial Cartoons, Political Cartoons, politics

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

May Ruth Bader Ginsburg continue to guide us through these dark times. Here is an illustration I just did to honor RBG and what she stands for. Yes, this is real. Let’s all get political. Contact your US senator. Vote for Joe Biden and Democrats to the US Senate.

“My Most Fervent Wish Is That I Will Not Be Replaced Until a New President Is Installed.”

–Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Let us do whatever we can to honor her wish.

From The Nation magazine:

“That was not her wish alone. Tens of millions shared it. Now, however, the dread prospect is upon us. If Joe Biden is elected president, and if Democrats take control of the Senate, Trump and McConnell will be delegitimized. And it might just be possible to convince a few Republicans to respect Justice Ginsburg’s fervent wish.”

 

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Filed under Illustration, Obituaries

Review: ‘Paying The Land’ by Joe Sacco 

Paying The Land by Joe Sacco

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Paying The Land by Joe Sacco. New York: Metropolitan Books, 264pp, $29.99.

A decade ago, in a smallish Swiss comics shop, I could identify only two American artists, or (memory doubtful here) perhaps three. Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Joe Sacco’s Palestine. And on a back shelf, evidently dating from years earlier, Gilbert Shelton’s Fat Freddy’s Cat. Robert Crumb had slipped from a high perch, and Shelton, an entertainer always more popular among Young Europeans, was rapidly receding into the past. During the last decade, several of the dozens of US titles translated into French would probably have found their way into this little shop, it if survives. But we can be sure that the first famed Sacco volumes would have stood alongside others of the same artist. He has the pen that seems almost mightier than the swords, planes, bombs, devastated populations and the rest of the war horrors that have made up his journalistic work.

To call Sacco “American” is a bit of a jump. Maltese by origin, we learn in the erudite Disaster Drawn: Virtual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016) by Hillary L. Shute (co-editor of Mega-Maus) that Sacco grew up with family stories of bombings and death during the Second World War, missing relatives and all the rest. War has never, Shute says, not been part of his life. Did Sacco escape the endless warscape by replanting himself in the US northwest? Not hardly. As a visual journalist of war’s horrors, he has placed himself in harm’s way in the Balkans and Gaza, among other places. This time around he finds another war, but it is the war of centuries and the fighting is what the Pentagon has come to call Low Intensity: the War against Canada’a native populations.

“This is going to end the world.”

Paying the Land is a stunning work, both alike and strikingly different from his earlier journeys into suffering and survival. It is substantially an oral history, and as a trip-weary oral historian, I can appreciate the contrasting points of “orality” (memory expressed by an interviewee) and “history” (a different kind of record). Sacco is trying to do both, no easy thing, and at the same time, to present them visually. With himself as part of the book’s story.

He meets a large handful of tale-tellers who are central, but he determinedly makes the trip himself into Canada’s distant North, in a used pickup-truck, over roads that turn into non-roads, ever further to the land of the Dene, the grouping of related tribes. There, the subsistence economy thousands of years old has been replaced, but only with deep contradictions, by the oil economy.

A couple of generations ago, good jobs appeared for men able to open the land up to drilling, mainly by cutting trees. For a while now, they have demanded controls including their own observation of the drilling process, down to the toxic chemicals pumped into the ground. They can watch the despoliation of the landscape, the lakes and streams, and the inevitable decline across the scope of the animal population. But what choice do they have?

“I remember our lives being led by the environment.”

Sacco takes an invaluable step backward in time, through oral histories, to the forced assimilation ongoing since the nineteenth century but intensified after the Second World War. The many cruelties of Catholic education have only begun to be redressed in Canada: virtual seizure of children from villages into towns, violent punishment for speaking aloud in native languages,  widespread sexual abuse, a violence that turned inward, leading to alcoholism, abuse of children by other children and teens, and a loss of anything like self-identity, including the loss of the older skills and their meanings.

What should the deserted family do? Often, it meant abandoning “life in the bush” to find their children, give them a kind of life, often in a grandparents’ setting, while the parents tried to scratch out a living. Here and there a good priest or nun, with education as something better than cultural extermination.

Neither the families nor Sacco is looking to some recaptured utopia. Life in the backwoods was harsh and in some ways, it was easier to live in even the most modest  house equipped with heat, a modern stove, refrigerator and so on. Besides, and this is one of Sacco’s clearest discoveries, there was no going back in any case.

Toward the end of the book, some of the strongest personalities emerge and flower, and most of them are women. They create new cultural institutions to carry on traditions for the next generations, and they help to make life more possible—free of the accursed alcoholism above all—in the present.

Mineral extraction companies are ruthless and the politicians who make their work possible are just as ruthless, even with the added political rhetoric to make things sound better. Against these pressures, tribal leaders try to balance the shifting economy with ecology. Young folks, raised with no language retention, begin to rebuild cultures as much as possible, networking from sub-group to sub-group.

The book closes with a memorable festival of Dene young people and perhaps that is the most hopeful thing imaginable, Not to await some outside force to heal them or to accept that their inferiority, as a culture, means that they need assimilation for healing.

This is quite a message, delivered in stirring Sacco style, with perhaps less of a Sacco-presence or irony than is usual with him. It’s quite a book.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

“There were no buildings like they have now.”

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, Guest Column

Review: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics’ by Tom Scioli

Jack Kirby, via Tom Scioli, tells his own story.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics. by Tom Scioli. Ten Speed Press, 2020. 202pp, $28.99.

A book that is doing very well these days and just got back on my radar is an in depth look at the life and times of Jack Kirby, the creator or co-creator of such icons as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther. Now, all sorts of things pop in and out on my radar but this one compels me to share. Tom Scioli feels like a doppelganger at the moment: we are both auteur cartoonists determined to get to the bottom of the story. Scioli hitched his wagon to one star and I did to another. In Scioli’s case, it is Jack Kirby. In my case, I have a book that I’m shopping around with George Clayton Johnson as your guide to a wider world. In Scioli’s case, Jack Kirby is the focus and, from there, we see a wider world too. Also, I must stress that Scioli is a one-person operation, a true auteur. That’s the same way that I roll. It’s not easy but it is most rewarding and, in fact, provides the reader with the ultimate comics artistic expression coming from one creator.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Recently, I’ve been taking a very close look at Jack Kirby and how he figures in the study of comics as a true art form. We are very enlightened about comics, as a general audience, but the dust perhaps has yet to settle on all these questions of what constitutes art. For the record, I will state again that there is no question that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. Comics is a big deal and will only continue to grow in estimation and appreciation. As for Mr. Kirby, well, of course, he was an artist of the first rank in many ways and he dazzled all of us with what he was able to accomplish. What is so fascinating about Tom Scioli’s book is that here you have a true comics artist providing his own careful and idiosyncratic look at another comics artist. This is an outstanding example of an extended study of comics created in the comics medium. We have precious little of these sort of works, comics about comics. In fact, we have far more comics about painters, novelists, and various other historical figures. Ah, but that will change. We still have plenty of time, right? No rush. We can relax and appreciate Tom Scioli’s very home-grown approach, which all adds up to visual storytelling at a deep and intimate level. Scioli has a very offbeat style as unique to him as his own handwriting or his casual chatting. So, in a sense, Scioli has pared it all down to just a regular guy holding court and riffing on one of his favorite subjects. Yes, that’s perhaps the best way to look at this book. Maybe it’s not an official biography or the last word on Jack Kirby but it is definitely an unusual and personal take on him.

Page excerpt

Take any figure, well-known or not, and there’s a very high probability of creating a compelling story in the right hands. That is precisely what is happening here. Tom Scioli has the passionate interest in his subject and that energy propels the reader. It’s not like anyone, outside of friends and family, knew anything about the actual life lived by Jack Kirby. And some things will always be left to speculation. Here is where the power and magic of comics comes into play. The comics creator is compelled to make you, the reader, care and so the process begins from the very first page, the very first panel. On page one, we see a family history unfold back in the old country of Galicia. Kirby’s parents meet in New York City at an Austrian social and, by the next page, little Jack Kirby is born, August 28, 1917. It is a life of limited resources on the Lower East Side but it is a life full of love. By the very next page, little Jack awaits the birth of his baby brother while poring over the pages of Krazy Kat comics! And, by page four, it is clear that the only color in little Jack’s life comes from the Sunday funnies. Jack is set for a life of adversity with comics already proving to be a gateway to something more.

Yes, Jack Kirby worked alongside Bob Kane for a time.

Fast forward and, indeed, a life emerges filled with challenge and adventure. And, of course, it is Jack’s particular life story that will bring the reader up close to how things worked at Marvel Comics, specifically the working process known as “The Marvel Method,” with the legendary big-name editor, Stan Lee–and all the complications and frustrations that wrought. But before any of that happens, a lot of rain must fall, a lot of struggle and uncertainly coupled with steadfast determination. Before Jack Kirby became part of the Marvel bullpen, he had to pay his dues in a far more modest role as part of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comic strip staff. This is a staff that included, among others, the now much despised Bob Kane, infamous for stealing credit for Batman from co-creator Bob Finger! Just one of the gems of info to be found here.  As the saying goes, a creative person needs to be their one biggest fan. That is what Jack Kirby was for himself, his biggest fan. It was that level-headed persistence that would get him to the promised land of the Fourth World and a legion of his own fans.

Page excerpt

One of the great things about a book like this is how it ends up becoming a treasure trove of information. It just happens naturally as all the dots are connected. This is what resonates the most with readers, especially those invested in art process and pop culture. Even a casual reader will get caught up in the events and get hooked into learning more about the lad who literally picked up a copy of Wonder Stories just before it was swept into a gutter and saw his fate within the pages of the first pulp magazine he’d ever read. As I’m in a position to articulate these matters regarding comics, pop culture and art, I’m thrilled to do so here and on any panel at any comics convention. This very unique look at Jack Kirby is very exciting stuff. No doubt, when you find one book like this, well, it leaves you wanting more. That is what leads me to know that my book will find a home. I’m so happy to see that Tom’s book found a fine home and has been welcomed by scores of readers!

Jack Kirby by Tom Scioli

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Review: ‘Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio’ by Derf Backderf

Panel excerpt: Allison and Bonnie amid a backdrop of emerging unrest.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. by Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2020. 288pp, $24.99.

The connection between journalism and comics runs very deep. You could say the first cut is the deepest of all. Comics and journalism in America goes back to its very roots. So, it is no surprise that many of the comics I am drawn to and that I feature here have that connection. In fact, more have it than don’t; some more than others. That said, it makes a lot of sense why some cartoonists have one foot in art and the other in writing, specifically nonfiction, more the literary journalism type. This brings us to Derf Backderf who is an excellent example of the cartoonist auteur compelled to explain and report. In his latest graphic novel, Backderf takes his formidable visual storytelling skills and presents, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

It’s a little silly to call yourself a graphic novelist unless you’ve really established a track record of creating graphic novels. Usually, it’s just fine to call yourself a cartoonist. That said, Derf Backderf could, if he chose to, claim such a title. Beginning with his comic strip, The City, a favorite in numerous alt-weeklies, Backderf was building the skills required to take on a longform work in comics. Then things started to evolve when Backderf created a 24-page minic-comic about his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became the infamous serial killer. That project developed into the 2012 award-winning graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. This led to another graphic novel about sanitation workers, 2015’s Trashed. And now, after more than a quarter century of creating comics, perhaps Backderf could call himself a graphic novelist, if he chose such a title! What is clear is that Kent State is a masterful work: a sprawling narrative with great clarity and sense of purpose.

KENT STATE by Derf Backderf

Backderf, like an auteur movie director, focuses in on one specific character and action after another, then rolls back to provide perspective, and so on. The reader gets to know a set of main characters who can speak to events from various vantage points. Some are in the thick of it. Some have their facts wrong. Some are simply caught in the middle. Backderf gives the narrative a journalist’s objective framework with the goal of setting the record straight: events are presented in chronological order, backed up by dates and documented facts, all leading up to May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The book spans five days: April 30 to May 4, 1970.

Every great cartoonist has a certain predominant approach and sensibility. What is clear about Derf Backderf is that he’s very empathetic. When you want someone to bring a subject to life and make sense of it, call on a cartoonist like Backderf. We are living in very chaotic and complex times now and so were we at the height of the Vietnam War. Backderf begins his graphic novel with a quick look back at himself at the time of the Kent State shootings: a 10-year-old boy aware of the world in a “kid’s clueless way.” But it’s where you were at such an age that will stick with you for the rest of your life. So, just as once working as a sanitation worker or somehow briefly being friends with a future serial killer can compel a creative mind, Backderf confronts the big story brewing when he was a boy waking up to the world-at-large. In fact, the Backderf family was living only a few miles away from Kent State which adds another layer. It all adds up to a personal quest to understand and get the facts right.

Page excerpt: Protests, 1970.

It’s quite impressive how Backderf intertwines his research within this book. The reader is never taken out of the narrative and all the moments specific to each character. When you wonder about the future of transmedia storytelling, if you even do, I highly recommend a book like this that lets you know all is well with simply processing information one page at a time. For instance, there’s a sequence following the misadventures of Terry, the most inept of student protest infiltrators. At one point, a segue is made to get a deeper look at the historical record. Here, Backderf provides a lot of eye-opening information like the fact that the CIA’s Operation CHAOS is still not fully declassified. This was during the Cold War and the Nixon administration’s full tilt war on student protestors. These factoids then give way back to more intimate circumstances like the relationship between two students, Sandy and Jeff. While Sandy cooks dinner, Jeff confides in her his being scared of even leaving the house for fear of being spied on or stopped by soldiers. Maybe listening to the new Paul McCartney album can relieve the tension for a little while.

Panel excerpt: Sandy and Jeff try to find a little peace.

You see the world a certain way. And a auteur cartoonist writes and draws the world in a certain way. Backderf’s people are imbued with a fierce earnestness that leaves them looking determined but also quite vulnerable. Even the most formidable villain in Backderf’s world is susceptible to the most utterly heartbreaking self-doubt. These are mostly melancholy people who aspire to some possible happiness. And that’s a profoundly good place to start any story. In this case, this is a story of young men who are trapped by the military industrial complex eager to draft them off to war. Protesting the war comes as natural as breathing. Each one of these young men protesting, along with their female compatriots, wishes to breathe. An older and conservative generation mostly doesn’t understand and it can be easy for some to demonize the protestors. In order to steadily keep track of events, Backderf’s empathetic voice makes a big difference. It is this empathy that will guide the reader and provide an accurate and insightful look at what happened at Kent State fifty years ago. Has it been that long? Well, it can feel like it was only yesterday and, in a way, it was.

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