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Interview: Sarah Mirk, the World of Zines, and Visual Storytelling

Sarah Mirk self-portrait

Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?

SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.

From Interviewing 101 zine by Sarah Mirk

From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?

I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.

Page 1 and 2 from Interviewing 101

You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.

Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.

Pages 3 and 4 of Interviewing 101

I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.

I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.

Pages 5 and 6 of Interviewing 101

Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.

I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.

Back cover to Interviewing 101

Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.

Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.

Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.

Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.

Sarah Mirk

Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.

I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.

The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.

That’s definitely true.

Oregon History Comics by Sarah Mirk

Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.

That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.

I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.

I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.

Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk

Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?

I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.

Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women by Sarah Mirk and Lucy Bellwood

I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?

I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC,  The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.

Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?

I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.

I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.

That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?

No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”

The Nib

How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?

At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.

You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?

At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.

I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!

Any final thoughts?

I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.

Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.

Thank you, Henry.

Guantanamo Voices is a 208-page fully illustrated hardcover, available as of September 8, 2020, published by Abrams.

Keep up with Sarah Mirk right here.

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Comics Spotlight: James Lloyd 

The bits and pieces that make up the texture of everyday life.

James Lloyd is a fellow cartoonist who I consider a friend. Oh, but it’s been many years since I can say that I’ve seen Mr. Lloyd in person. James Lloyd is from Vancouver, BC. I’m from Seattle. So, we do need to properly meet up one of these days. Here’s a James Lloyd comic that was slated to debut at this year’s annual Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (VanCAF), which had to become a virtual event this year. It’s entitled, Black Sunday, and is a beautiful work full of local color, all the bits and pieces that add up to the texture of everyday life. But keep with it as this comic unfolds into a look back at the Fall of Saigon. Yes, that’s the Black Sunday that’s being referred to here. Keep going and you’ll discover a story of searching for family roots and confronting the gentrified Little Saigon in Vancouver. Lloyd makes a comparison between the South Vietnamese forced out of their homeland in 1975 and the more recent squeeze that the Vancouver South Vietnamese business community has experienced from developers.  How often can one be pushed out after doing everything to play by the rules?

From the Fall of Saigon to the gentrified Little Saigon.

James Lloyd is an excellent artist and he is not someone to sit on his hands and is ready to offer up praise and support to a colleague. Praise and support means everything within the comics community which is made up of a lot of loners who would love nothing more than to go back to their drawing board. Well, let’s hope we can all do our part to keep shedding some light on remarkable labors of love.

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Review: YEAR OF ZINES! by Sarah Mirk

YEAR OF ZINES! by Sarah Mirk

Year of Zines! Publishing funded in part by Regional Arts & Culture Council and patrons of Pateron, 2020.  224 pages. $12.

What is a zine? Many people have never heard of one or only have a vague idea. A zine is not necessarily a work of comics, although it often includes some form of comics. A zine is often a personal work running for a certain amount of pages, typically a dozen or two dozen. And a zine is cool but it’s not meant to be cool. It just is. If you try too hard to make one, it will show. If you gravitate too quickly to the zine scene without any prior knowledge, it will show–but that’s okay. Zines are intended to be the opposite of the big glossy corporate magazines. Any original zine artwork is usually only at a functional or even crude level. Zines are often ironic and sarcastic and have a rough and gritty aesthetic. Zines tend to be small, modest, the size of a pamphlet or brochure. And they are usually self-published.  If they are not, then they’re published by a co-op or non-profit. But zines are most often the work of one person, usually someone who finds themselves misunderstood by a general audience, actually enjoys working alone, and yet is also welcoming like-minded souls. You dig? Blogging and zine-making share a lot of overlap! Alrighty then. With that said, let’s take a look at a wonderful book all about zines, and a collection of zines to itself, Year of Zines! by Sarah Mirk.

Panel excerpt from YEAR OF ZINES!

Another thing you need to know about zines: the creator is often immersed in one particular subject or theme per zine. Zines take dedication. Zines can sometimes seem obsessive but that’s part of the charm. Think of the fanzine. Now, in case you haven’t heard of them, fanzines are one of the most celebrated forms of zines. These tend to be home-made dedications to a beloved pop or movie star or any cultural phenomenon. This tradition goes back to the dawn of fandom. The most common trait of fanzines is a collage of cut-up photos from various magazines that have been re-arranged within the curated pages of the zine. It’s so punk. It’s so DIY. Before the internet, if you were searching for a platform to express yourself, you most likely found your way over to zines. You figured out some basic layout techniques and made your way to your nearest Kinko’s. Okay, now Sarah Mirk is hip to all this and a whole lot more. Zines today are not dependent upon runs to the local print shop. Zines can be virtual but, at the end of the day, zines are zines and a printed copy stills exerts its own power and energy. Print is not dead, and don’t you forget it! You see this in what Sarah Mirk has done with her own work with zines. She gets it. Zines share a bit of the same vibe as spoken word with their direct and concise narrative. Mirk understands that a good zine requires focus and specificity. If you start a zine on the theme of “not caring,” then you stick with it and see it through to resolution, just like a masterful comedian sees through a precisely-timed bit of comedy.

Panel excerpt from YEAR OF ZINES!

Of course, zines can cover virtually any topic or subject. Literally, if there’s something you’d like to discuss, then a zine could be a viable platform for you. And, yes, it’s true: no prior experience in the creation of zines is required or expected. You don’t have to worry about prior writing experience or drawing experience or whatever. And the most serious of subjects are open for discussion. In my own experience with leading workshops, I have always stressed that the most important thing is to focus on what you need to say and the rest will fall into place. And so it is in this book. Sarah Mirk is basically talking about her life, all the things she’s dealing with, and the world-at-large. That provides a pretty broad canvas. In her book, she tackles such subjects as gender, privilege, boundaries, finances, the environment, and much more.  Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that no one owns the zine scene. Zines are for everyone and Sarah certainly embraces that egalitarian spirit.

DRINK MORE WATER!

So, I hope you’re getting a sense of what a zine is and what a zine isn’t. And, in the process, you’re seeing that Sarah Mirk is a fine practitioner of the subtle art of zine-making. In fact, if you enjoy her collection of zines that she put together over the span of  one year, then you’ll likely want to follow her other work and pursuits. One last thing, I’ll point out one more fine example. If you’re looking for a neat little collection of observations of growing up in your 20s, do check out Sarah’s zine, Drink More Water – Be More Honest: 30 Lessons from My 20s. In this zine, Sarah provides an irreverent look at everyone’s favorite decade, your glorious 20s! It’s a time when you might look your best without trying at all while also a time when you have a sinking feeling you don’t know if you’ll ever amount to anything. And then, enter your more sober and wiser 30s. Well, with that sobering thought, there’s so much more I could say about zines but I’ll save it for next time. I like what Sarah Mirk has done with this quirky and highly distinctive art form–and you will too. And I hope you will see how accessible and ubiquitous zines are. In a sense, this review, and certainly this blog, is a zine. See what I mean? You only need to go as far as the nearest desk and chair, or whatever is comparable, and try it out yourself.

Sarah Mirk’s YEAR OF ZINES!

Visit Sarah Mirk right here.

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Review: BLOOD AND DRUGS by Lance Ward

It’s basically come down to blood and drugs.

Blood and Drugs, by Lance Ward. Published by Birdcage Bottom Books, New York, 2019, 168 pages. $15.00

Memoir and closely related alter egos are at the core of indie comics. A fine example of the auto-bio genre is Blood and Drugs by Lance Ward. It’s about people on the fringes of society and it’s gritty–but it’s also about triumph over adversity. So much to unpack, as they say on all the talking head shows. We never used to unpack anything but a suitcase. It’s one of those handful of clever buzzwords that irritates more than helps. Anyway, Lance Ward keeps it real with an authentic down-to-earth tone. There’s an energy here that crackles and evokes all the desperation, wild mood swings, and force of will that plays out on the mean streets.

Down and out.

Making a deliberate choice to be an artist, and follow the process and all the steps it takes to actually succeed, is an act of courage. It’s one thing to have some beers and draw a few doodles among friends. It’s quite another thing to give an art form the serious respect required to make anything that can be acknowledged as a significant contribution. Everyone is an artist, sure. That is definitely an accomplishment in itself for anyone to admit to have an innate ability to be creative. But then comes all the steps involved in refining and specifying your vision. It’s all about following steps. So, it makes sense of many levels that Ward has structured his graphic novel around the theme of steps. Ward’s main character is Buster, a cartoonist on the skids struggling with addiction. We follow the narrative in sections that follow the famous 12-step Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr.

Triumph over adversity.

Buster is nothing if not persistent. Well, he has his ups and downs but he retains a sense of purpose. No matter what, whether his drawing hand gets mangled or he gets pummeled down to a bloody stump, he still knows that he will ultimately find a way out. While there is plenty of violence and despair to be found in Buster’s story, there is still undeniable insight to be gleaned, even humor. No doubt, Lance Ward speaks from his own experience. In fact, his own drawing hand was seriously damaged. But he didn’t let that stop him. He powered through with a bold and energetic style. He found a way out.

Blood and Drugs is published by Birdcage Bottom Books.

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Comic Arts Festivals & Covid-19: Small Press Expo Still Has Plans for 2020

Small Press Expo executive director Warren Bernard

I wear many hats, including graphic novel artist, or “cartoonist-auteur.” This year is significant for me since my plans are to attend Small Press Expo and debut my new graphic novel, George’s Run. At least, that remains the plan as we all monitor the Covid-19 crisis. Here, in its entirety, is an interview with Small Press Expo executive director Warren Bernard with The Comics Journal. This interview will be of interest not only to those in the comics community but also provides insight into the response to the current crisis as it relates to landmark events and business in general. Each day, in every way, we are integrating more and more into a virtual and digital world. On so many levels, life will never be quite the same again.

Warren Bernard is the executive director of the Small Press Expo, one of the largest festivals focused on comics art and the indie-comics scene in the U.S. Each year, SPX gathers together creators, retailers, and fans of alternative comics and illustration in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. SPX2020 is currently scheduled for Sept. 12-13 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Warren is also a comics fan and historian, who’s amassed a significant collection of artwork, publications and memorabilia extending back over a century to the early days of graphic storytelling. He’s also the co-author of Drawing Power and has written extensively about the 1950s juvenile delinquency/Senate Comic Book Hearings.

Recently, TCJ writer Michael O’Connell interviewed Warren about the status of SPX2020, in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. In the interest of safety and maintaining proper social distancing, this interview was conducted via Skype.

MICHAEL O’CONNELL: How has the coronavirus impacted SPX 2020 at this point?

WARREN BERNARD: There are a couple of things that it’s impacted. Let’s take them one at a time. The first one is the impact on the exhibitors room. Normally, we send out, we’ll call it an invite list. That’s like all the publishers that normally come. And then there’s a selection of people from the indie comics community on an individual creator basis that we also invite. That is put together with input from everybody in the executive committee. So that normally goes out and then we also start the lottery. We pushed things back to see what was going on. And one of the decisions we made was that normally by this time, by April, we’re collecting money from people.

Because we pushed everything back, we’re not going to have all the tables’ stuff done before most probably May. Normally, that’s like by March or April, all that stuff is done so we can push everything out to everybody saying, ‘OK, look, you’ve got a table, send us money.’ We’re not even going to think about collecting money from anybody until late May, early June. There were a couple of reasons for that. In the indie comics community, there are a lot of people out there that have lost their day jobs. They’ve lost any kind of gigs that they’ve got in terms of artwork, freelance gigs. So we don’t want to go ahead and have to force people to cough up money that they may not have right now.

The second reason is that there’s all this uncertainty out there. And by the way, there’s a semi-selfish reason. We didn’t want to have to go through the hassle of refunding people’s money if we had to go ahead and cancel. We also were going under the assumption that people who did need unemployment would be able to get onto unemployment by the time we asked for money, because we do need money to go ahead and run the show. We’re not going to make any decision about holding SPX until most probably somewhere in June.

The second thing we had to do is we had to change the Ignatz Awards. The problem there was all of the boxes go to Dan Stafford’s house. We didn’t want to run into the circumstance where someone sends a box, God only knows who packed it. Dan or someone may not get sick, but they’re a carrier and all of a sudden there’s a problem. Also, by not doing that, we’re saving people a lot of money because normally people would have to send six copies. There’s the price of the books. There’s the price of the postage. And so we decided to take that out of the equation. So we’re going digital. And we’ve already set up a process of how we’re doing that. We sent the email out and we’ve already got close to 200 submissions for the Ignatz Awards to the digital platform.

Is there an entry fee that goes with that?

No, there was no entry fee that ever goes with that.

So that saves them the money of copies and the saves them the money of shipping. That’s a plus.

Assuming SPX gets held, we are going to ask on an optional basis for people to send in one copy of their submission so that it can go into the SPX collection at the Library of Congress. All the submissions that get sent in, whether they’re nominated or not, the Library of Congress gets first crack at all of those books. So if they don’t have them in their holdings, they are donated. And on most years, that’s literally 98 percent of the stuff that’s sent in for submissions that the Library of Congress does not have.

It’s nice that you’re able to have that continuity and you’ve been able to adapt to it, doing what everybody else is doing, virtual stuff. And probably that June date is a good date. My day job, I’m an editor for Patch and one of the beats I cover is D.C, and I know they’re looking at a peak for coronavirus cases at the end of June.

Things may be going back to normal, but are they going to allow 4,000-5,000 people here in Montgomery County to get together? We don’t have a clue.

Things may start to ramp-up, but the people that you talked about who may have lost their jobs or lost hours and gigs, they may not be in a position to travel or do anything.

There are so many different variables right now that anyone who says they think they know what’s going to happen is a liar. Like I said, there’s this whole safety thing. For all I know, they may want to go ahead and reopen stores and stuff like that, but large congregations of people, they may put the kibosh on that for a while. We don’t know. No one knows. So all we’re going to do is take these incremental steps.

Do you have a drop dead date? Is there a point of no return where if you don’t do certain things by like July 15, then that’s it?

I haven’t thought about that yet because in all honesty, I want to get to the first road mark, which is May-June. Every big show has a contract with the hotel for a certain number of room nights. And if you don’t book those room nights, you get penalized. The next step is going to be once we see the lay of the land on a practical basis. Is Amtrak running to bring people down from New York and Philadelphia? Are the planes flying? There are all these other variables that are going to come in besides whether or not SPX can physically hold it here in Montgomery County.

Is there a way to do a smaller show for 2020?

The problem with the smaller show is that we’ve already got a contract with guarantees in it. There are penalty clauses and all kinds of other stuff like that. I don’t want to get into the legal aspects of it. But, the bottom line is, if Montgomery County or the state of Maryland doesn’t want groups of 250 or more, 500 or more or 2,000 or more to get together, it’s not going to make much sense for us to even do a reduced show. Because then you have the whole problem of, in this reduced show, let’s say I do cut it back. We have about 280 tables in the room. Let’s say I cut it back to a quarter of that. We’ll use a quarter of the ballrooms, that’s 70 tables, who do I choose? So there’s this other operational thing that says, ‘OK, if we’re going to reduce the show, who are we going to have? What special guests are we going to have?’ There’s this other thing that says if I do cut it down, what do I cut it down to? And then how do you make those decisions? And I don’t have an answer for that at all.

Let’s talk about the show as if it were going to happen. What is it you’re hoping to do this year?

Because of the coronavirus situation, I’m not going to get into names that can be special guests, but one of the things that we’re doing is we’re going to bring in political cartoonists and people who do graphic journalism, because of the importance of the 2020 election. We started this back in 2008 for Obama’s first term and, so we brought down Tom Tomorrow, Jen Sorensen came, Ken Fisher/Ruben Bolling came, a bunch of people from the alt-weekly world came down, back when they were alt-weekly newspapers. We’re going to do a similar thing as that for this year. In 2012, the AAEC (American Association of Editorial Cartoonists) actually came in at the same time as SPX and had their convention here.

Not to name names and possibly people coming, who do you think is doing good political cartooning right now?

I’ve been a subscriber to Matt Bors’ The Nib since day one. And I think that they’re doing, between people like, Ben Passmore and Matt and Jen (Sorensen) and everybody like that, I think that’s the place to go for both graphic journalism and political cartoons these days. I have been actually somewhat surprised, do you know this political cartoon newsfeed called Counterpoint?

Yes, I do.

I subscribe to them also. As opposed to the understandable left-wing view of Matt Bors, Counterpoint, tries to present many more perspectives. Besides that, I subscribe to Jen. I get Tom Tomorrow’s work. I get Ken Fisher/Ruben Bolling. I’ve been an Inner Hive Patreon member for all those. Keith Knight is another one that I pay attention to.

You’re a collector of comic art and know much about comics history. Is there a political artist that is one of your favorites?

Warren: (Laughs).

Pick one. You can only pick one.

I can only pick one, fuck.

You can pick two.

David Lowe would be one of them, the British cartoonist. He saw the Nazis coming early on and actually was on the list of people to be killed if the Germans took over Britain. There was a hit list. He was on the hit list. In terms of American political cartoonists, I’ll show my bias. I was a big Herblock fan. I worked on his book. He’s another one for the 20th century. The third one, you have to go ahead and say Thomas Nast. There’s a bunch of other guys in there, like Robert Minor. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him or not. He was at one time the highest paid political cartoonist in the country and left it to become an avid member of the American Communist Party. Some of his cartoons were some of the best that came out in the teens and ’20s. Off the top of my head, those are probably my four faves.

OK, I’ll give you four. What do you think of the current state of the comics industry right now? I know there’s been a lot of worry, you mentioned the alternative press. I’ve seen a lot of people talking and being concerned about when Diamond announces it’s not going to distribute stuff and there are a lot of comic shops that are facing really tough times because of this. What are your thoughts about where we’re at right at this moment?

I think that all of this stuff that’s going on is really going to hit the retail comic shop industry pretty bad. There are going to be a number of bankruptcies. There are going to be a number of shops that aren’t going to come back.

I’m going to bifurcate this for a second.

On the superhero side, the Image, D.C., Marvel-type comics, I could see the day when those people just go digital only. Yeah. I think that someone took a poll that the average age of the person coming in to buy their comics in a comic shop, I think it’s in their late 40s. So, those are the people that have most of the boxes and stuff like that. I think there’s a sea change coming anyway, as it is with the whole retail business. This has just seriously accelerated that.

Now let me go to the other side, which is a smaller but nonetheless just as artistically important. That’s the indie comic side. … So when it comes to somebody like a Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly or Top Shelf, their main issue is getting their product out and getting it distributed. Plus they also rely upon these festivals, whether it’s a book festival or an indie comics festival, Brooklyn Book Fair or SPX as two examples, to help promote their work, along with book signings. They’re going to see a certain amount of a hit also. And I’m going to be curious to see what that’s going to do because their stuff doesn’t go through Diamond.

Right. But the other thing about them is that they’re also dealing with a specialized audience. There are people who are paying for reprints of, you know, Little Orphan Annie. They’re in big bookstores, but they’re not necessarily reaching a wide audience or they’re not targeting as wide an audience.

Right. But it’s still going to impact them, whether it’s D&Q or for Fantagraphics, I think that they’re going to have a tough time because these festivals aren’t going to be around. That because San Diego isn’t there, because SPX may not be there, or Brooklyn Book Fest, most of them sell lots of books at these festivals. So, yeah, on the reprint side, let’s say IDW, their reprint side, someone like me, if I want something, I’ll go out to their website and just buy it. But the other ones where they’ll bring in people to an SPX, I think that they are going to see cash crunches also. It’s going to be a different manifestation than the superheroes side and a different impact because the business model is different.

As scary as the coronavirus is, I think the economic recovery is going to be pretty scary as well.

Oh, yes.

In times when people don’t have a lot of money, they cut out things, the frills. And for a lot of people the frills are books, comic books, movies, things like that. So even though right now they’re taking a big hit, during the recovery, who knows how long this downturn is going to go on?

On exactly that point, floating back to SPX and this coronavirus thing, without getting into internal details, we have gone ahead and taken a look at our expenses and have cut a whole bunch of stuff. And by cutting a whole bunch of stuff, we are anticipating a 20-25 percent drop in attendance. Assuming we do hold it, we’re going to try, as we get further into the year and if it becomes viable, we’re going to have to see about cutting more stuff. Because, we have no idea who’s going to be able to come through the front door. Even if we do get all these people in as special guests and we can do all the programming that we want to do. So we’re even doing things that, like I said, there’s a whole bunch of different areas that we’re cutting that then impacts people who were depending on us to go ahead and whatever little revenue we were going to throw them, we’re now not going to throw it to anybody.

There’s so many different levels that you’ve got to look at this. You’ve got to look at your own business side of can we afford these contracts that we have to maintain? Are we going to be able to get the people that are going to draw audiences in? And then is the audience even going to be financially able to come?

Not just financially able. I don’t know how much you listen to business news. I read the Wall Street Journal. I watch a lot of business news, and one of the things that some people are beginning to talk about is, let’s say for sake of argument, July 1 you open up the restaurants, you open up the movie theaters. On a real basis, how many people are really going to go? Forget about money. Forget about the ability to afford it. But particularly people who have diabetes or have high blood pressure, have those extra things. The mortality rates for people with those kinds of things who may want to go to a show just make it really risky to go ahead and go out into large crowds. I think Baltimore Comic Con is going to have a similar problem. Let’s say everybody did have a job. Let’s say everything does open up. Are people really going want to go?

It’s going to take some time.

Oh yeah.

What would you say to the retailers, to the people who are going to want booths, and also the the people that may be coming to do panels and things? What would you say to them? And then also, what would you say to other people who want to attend?

I would say do what you feel safe doing. It’s the only thing that you can do. I’m not going to get up here and plead with people to come and ask them to go against their own self-health interest. By the way, if it comes down to that we have to cancel SPX because of strictly health reasons, then that’s something that we’re going to have to do.

So, to those people that are thinking about coming, everyone’s got to assess their own circumstance and everyone’s got to feel safe in terms of not only getting here, but staying here and then being in a room with however many people are going to be allowed in the room. For instance, what if they go ahead and they say, ‘Ok, you can hold it, but you have to maintain the six-foot distance.” How would that even work in an SPX situation? Here in Montgomery County, they’ve basically told all the stores, ‘Look, you have to enforce the six-foot rule. You have to have someone out front to control the number of people coming into your stores.’ So all of this gets back to everyone has to feel safe in what it is that they’re doing. That’s the message that I think everybody needs to have.

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Lulu.com Relaunches New Site with Broad Range of Options

Lulu.com Supports Indie Authors!

EDITOR’S NOTE: WATCH FOR A SPECIAL COMICS GRINDER 20% OFF LULU.COM COUPON NEXT WEEK

Lulu.com is the top one-stop-shop destination for print-on-demand and now even more so. Over this weekend, Lulu.com is relaunching its site with a broad range of new options. This is great news for any type of book project, including comic books! There’s so much to choose from to meet the needs of authors, artists, educators, and even nonprofits.

Here is a quick look at what Lulu.com has to offer:

Authors

Fiction and non-fiction writers alike can create, print, and sell their books through all major retail channels.

CREATE YOUR BOOK

Educators

Easily publish textbooks, course materials, and research. Sell your work on Lulu.com or buy the books you need immediately.

CREATE YOUR BOOK

Artists

Showcase your work with our archive-quality, full color, hardcover & paperback options.

CREATE YOUR BOOK

Nonprofits

Easily create a book, calendar, or photo book to raise money and awareness for your organization.

CREATE YOUR BOOK

 

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Review: MITCHUM by Blutch

MITCHUM by Blutch

Mitchum. by Blutch. English translation by Matt Madden. Published by New York Review Comics, New York, 2020, 232 pages. $24.95.

I adhere to the strict view that the truest, most robust, and most legitimate forms of comics are created by the cartoonist auteur. You can’t just shrug and say, “Comics are comics!” Nope, that is way too broad and just plain nonsense. If we’re talking about comics as a true art form, then there is only one answer. And, keep in mind, comics are not just art but words too. So, the auteur is a very special creator, the artist-writer. I’ll even go one better and declare that the best living cartoonist auteur is Blutch. Yes, it’s that simple when you take into account such a versatile style and broad range of subject matter. Now, consider one of his best graphic novels, Mitchum, which has recently been re-issued by New York Review Comics with a new English translation by Matt Madden. I applaud New York Review Comics, part of the vision of New York Review Books, for bringing Blutch another step closer to a wider audience. Imagine a dazzling light, a smooth caress, a melodious song, a deliciously bitter coffee, or a wondrously smokey scent. All of this is Blutch!

A cartoonist as artist and an artist as cartoonist or magician.

Blutch is the sort of artist that I relate to the best. He is an artist as well as a magician–or even a wizard. Perhaps you must be working at the same craft, aspiring to that same level, to truly appreciate what I’m saying but I think, in fact, I know that I can explain it. It’s sort of one of those cases of it takes one to know one. I can engage in similar loose drawing and disjointed narrative and know what I know and, in that way, I share my insight. Christian Hincker, otherwise known as Blutch, has enjoyed an ongoing career as a cartoonist since graduating with a degree in illustration from the Decorative Arts College in his hometown of Strasbourg, France. It’s been a bit of a charmed life. At 53, Blutch could be looked upon as the grand old lion of comics. However, as some seasoned cartoonists, like Daniel Clowes, point out, serious cartoonists are only coming into their own after age 40. Whatever the case, Blutch seems to be in that heroic tradition of the wild bohemian artist, following some deep sensual instinct. Often, you see his characters either naked and about to erupt or well into some sexual act. On the cover of Mitchum, we kick off with a provocative image: a dog licks the slick and smooth bare foot of a beautiful young woman while a naked man lounges with a paper bag over his head. It’s totally a loaded image however you care to look at it. Pure Blutch.

Beautiful, raw and unbridled Blutch!

The sexiest part of the human body is the brain, of course. The brain controls our emotions, whatever they might be. Any good artist appreciates that and Blutch understands this better than most. So, it’s not just sex that he’s after but all sorts of goodies, naughty, sensual, primal and nearly unspeakable. If that sounds good to you, then you’re really gonna love Blutch. Dreams. Rants. Jazz. Not necessarily in that order. And a good healthy does of Robert Mitchum just for the hell of it! Out of a dream! But it’s not a rattled mess. Just think of it as that sketchbook come to life that I mentioned in a previous review. This is like the best jazz, highly structured while highly improvised, or at least appearing that way. The trick, if there is a trick, is that Blutch loves to draw and he does a hell of a lot of it. Back at the start of this new century of ours, when the indie comics boom was in full gear, it was Blutch who so many young cartoonists were emulating, even if they didn’t know it because they were so enthralled with emulating Craig Thompson, who was Blutch’s biggest fan. Thompson tried to tap deep into Blutch’s relentless passion but he was only going to be able to take what he needed. Fair is fair among artists. Thompson has a tidy version of Blutch’s style so, in that sense, he spun off his own style. As for Blutch, he keeps being Blutch because that’s the best way to be and he’s in it for the long haul, even if he may say he’s ready to hang it all up. In the end, Blutch maintains his position as an artist: unorthodox, unruly and mischievous.

A comic entitled, MITCHUM, only obliquely having to do with Robert Mitchum.

Anyhow, you can’t really fully copy the way someone of any caliber creates art just as you can’t fully copy the way someone else chooses to spend their day. It goes that deep! No one reviews comics the way I do, nor should they try. You might hurt yourself. Nor does anyone draw exactly like I do, and that has to do with my drawing long enough to develop a style. Not all artists are patient enough to develop their own style or anything coming close to it. By that, I mean many artists are more than content to follow a particular trend, school of thought, house style. That brings me back to all the disciples of Blutch. I won’t hesitate to say that there’s a ton to learn from Blutch and, if one is patient, one can avoid looking too closely at the sun and power through to an individual vision. In other words, I advise that any aspiring cartoonist would do well to study the hell out of Blutch but keep some energy for yourself and be willing to look away at some point and craft your own personal way of drawing.

I suppose if there are some more secrets to success to dispense with, I’d throw in the need to pace yourself. Rome was not built in a day, right? Well, this graphic novel sure wasn’t. It’s actually a collection of single issues of Mitchum comics. A very arthouse thing this all is since Robert Mitchum doesn’t even appear in the first couple of issues. And, when he does appear, well, many people won’t even know unless you’re of a certain age or a big fan of film. With that said, Blutch is a huge fan of many things, including cinema, pop culture and high culture. Alright then. Now, how about a few words on the English translation by notable cartoonist Matt Madden. Mr. Madden is notable for many reasons, as a man of good taste and the author of one of my favorite books related to comics theory, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Madden also happens to know French very well and lived in France for a good long while with his wife, fellow cartoonist Jessica Abel. By far, Madden has just the right sophisticated palate to capture the essence of Blutch’s words. Both Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have made some amazing contributions to the comics medium and, at the end of the day, that’s priceless. When you consider the work of Blutch, you can understand how art can be, when it’s all said and done, the most lasting gift.

A dazzling work by an uninhibited artist.

Mitchum is available through New York Review Comics.

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Interview: Steven Appleby and DRAGMAN

Dragman: Enough with the Secrets!

Steven Appleby is, among his many accomplishments, the creator of the comic strip, Small Birds Singing, and the BBC radio series Normal Life. One of Britain’s best loved cartoonists, his Loomus and other comic strips have appeared in newspapers and magazines internationally, and he has written and illustrated numerous books. His new book, Dragman, brings together themes dating back to Appleby’s early work in the ’80s in his comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express.

From Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Loomus, in The Guardian

Indeed, Steven Appleby is a prominent cartoonist, illustrator and artist. Steven’s early career included creating cartoons for the legendary British humor magazine, Punch and a comic strip for the prestigious New Musical Express. This activity branched out in many directions, including many more comic strips, an animated series, a theater show, art shows, and many books, all the way to the new graphic novel, Dragman. Steven’s new book is about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes. As I point out in my review, this is a delightful tale about identity while also being a riveting thriller to boot. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview. A portion of the audio file is included at the end. During our conversation, we discuss process, a wonderful career, and the art of just being yourself.

Dragman by Steven Appleby

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s jump in and discuss Dragman. First, let’s discuss a bit the title and main character. It seems to me that Dragman begs the question as to who is Dragman and the actual idea of dressing in drag. At one point in the book, the main character, August Crimp, takes issue with being called a dragman. Could you talk about that? 

STEVEN APPLEBY: The name Dragman comes from a comic strip I did for The Guardian. I was a transvestite in secret, this was around 2002, and so I was using that name. When I came around to creating the book, the name still had a nice ring to it. Drag is a different thing from trans. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was experiencing cross-dressing in secret, the term, drag, clearly referred to performance. In the book, August is labeled as drag by the press and he resists but it sticks.

Dragman is truly a graphic novel in every sense, in terms of playing with words and images. You even have some wonderful prose passages that link up the narrative. I could easily see you writing the whole book as prose. Could you talk about the process of putting the book together?

It was really hard as I’d never done a project like this that is so long. I was used to doing short comic strips. I wanted to have everything in it: I wanted it to be funny, serious, have the superhero parody, be a thriller and be true to my own trans experience. That was difficult to do. I love writing prose and maybe I’ll do a prose book in the future. It was a lovely way to have a different sort of atmosphere and also not reveal the character who is referred to in the prose, keep that a secret for later in the book. It took me around two years to write it and I was creating little scenes, as in a play, but then I needed to figure out how to draw all that. At one point, I had written 40 pages of material that didn’t fit into comics. So, in a sense, it seems a wasteful process. But I love graphic novels. I love both the visual and prose side of it.

Captain Star in Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express

Your career is so impressive. You’re quite prolific. You’ve found ways to connect your work with other media. You’ve found ways to sustain your vision. What can you tell us about Dragman as part of your body of work?

Take a look at the early work, Captain Star in New Musical Express, the character there was obsessed and repressed. There are dressing up scenes. The navigator of the starship, Boiling Hell, he’s obsessed with fish. So, I had them all have obsessions, like my dressing up obsession. It’s all in there but coded in a different way. Dragman is the whole thing coming out into the open. I’ve lived dressing in women’s clothes for the last twelve years now. This is me being honest in my life, especially to my children. I didn’t want them to discover I had this big secret that they never knew about. So, I came out twelves years ago for that reason. I had such a warm reception from people I worked with, like at The Guardian. With the book, I wanted to explore all of that, the life I’d lived in secret, when nobody knew; and the parallel of superheroes who have secret identities.

Linda McCarthy’s adaptation of Appleby’s comic strip, Small Birds Singing

Could you tell us a bit about your influences? Perhaps you could talk about your studying under Quentin Blake?

I moved to London to go to the Royal College of Art. Quentin Blake was the head of the Illustration Department and he was my tutor. I wasn’t so much influenced by him in terms of actual drawing style but very much in terms of work processes. How he uses a lightbox. I find that I still use that way of working now: very loose rough drawings that you then place on a lightbox and ink very loosely. Yeah, he’s great, really inspirational. We still see each other from time to time.

Is the artwork in Dragman all hand-done or also digital? 

Mostly hand-done. It’s using that process that I just said. I do rough drawings and then ink them with an old-fashioned dip pen and India ink. Then I scan the art and print it out so that watercolor can be added. My ex, my wife Nicola, did the watercolor for me. She did it on a lightbox so that the line drawing and the watercolor are separate. I then would scan the watercolor and I manipulate the colors on the computer. I also addd skin tones, made colors richer, tweaked the colors and so on. The flashbacks scenes are all colored on the computer by me, a slightly muted, more monochromatic way. It’s really pretty traditional the way I’ve worked for years.

Steven Appleby, 2019

What can you share with us about growing up and discovering your creativity and who you wanted to be in the world?

I grew up in the north of England up near the border with Scotland, in a small village. We lived in a big old house, an old vicarage that my mum and dad had bought. It had leaky roofs and lowsome bedrooms. My mum and dad were in the ameuter dramatic society so they stored scenery in one of the out buildings. It was like a magical place growing up. When I was a little kid, I remember a room full of furniture and we’d go there to play. There were rooms that were never decorated and kept this old brown wallpaper from the ’20s. My mum drew comics in the ’30s in her school notebooks and that inspired me. We had New Yorker cartoons books with artists like Charles Addams and Ronald Searle. And I loved Dr. Suess as well. The artist who had a huge influence on me was Edward Goery. I discovered Gorey when I was in art school in the ’70s.  It wasn’t so much the drawing style that influenced me as much as the way that Gorey put things together. The surreal ideas, the macabre, in his books. I had thought that I could only  write and draw books for kids but Gorey showed me that you could really do anything. He liberated me.

Would you share with us a bit about being a professional cartoonist and maintaining a comic strip? I see there’s a recent collection of your Loomus comic strips in The Guardian.

I became a cartoonist kind of by accident, like many things that have happened in my life. It turned out to be perfect for me. I could write and draw as I wanted. I had this little space at the NME and I could do whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t go too crazy. At The Guardian, for example, where I was for 23 years, I think they only rejected two comic strips during the whole time I was there. I’ve always tried to do things that aren’t too topical but more just about life, what’s life all about, because I like it when you can return to the work like Edward Gorey–it’s not just a joke; it’s a comment on life. So, I’ve always tried to do that. And, I think a deadline focuses the mind. Mostly, it’s a good thing to have a deadline. There was a short period when I did a daily comic strip for a German newspaper while I also did my Guardian strip along with a few other things and that was like heading for a nervous breakdown, the amount of ideas I had to come up with. But I really did enjoy doing the comic strips. If I was still doing them, I wouldn’t have been able to do Dragman. It wouldn’t have been possible.

Excerpt from Loomus comic strip.

I know creating comic strips are quite time-consuming. I can recall my own comic strip work for my college paper. Among the many titles that readers can choose from, I highly recommend that folks check out a collection of your Loomus comic strips.

Thank you for mentioning that.

This is sort of a two-part question. What can you share with us about being trans and what can you tell young people about self-expression?

I would say that it’s something that’s been with me since my late teens, when it occurred to me that I could wear women’s clothes and having it be completely secret for 25 years. It was an engine that powered my work. In quite a lot of my comic strips and other work there are themes of secrets. I came across Philip K. Dick in my late teens. I loved his books because they have that constant theme that nothing is what it appears to be. That felt like my life that things weren’t what they appeared to be. In a funny way, when I started to come out to be siblings, family, and friends, and eventually work collegues, I kind of lost some of the mystical power of that secret that was an engine in my work. I found that very interesting.

I have two boys, who are now 24 and 22, and they are completely cool, as well as their friends, about me choosing to dress like this. I was so impressed how it didn’t phase them at all. They would be surprised if you ask them if it was difficult finding out and they’d say no. It was fine. I think, nowadays, it’s a very good time to not just to be trans but to be who you are. There are so many ways for people to be who they are. It seems to me to be a very good time.

Page from Dragman. Captain Star poster in the background.

It’s interesting to me to think about all the potential there is for everyone to veer off the status quo. For instance, a man can have his nails painted, crossing into a female-dominated domain. It seems like a small gesture but you are actually entering into a social exchange. If I were to get my nails painted, I’m engaging with the public–and that’s mostly about their curiosity.

I remember when my Captain Star character became a TV series back in the ’90s. I would paint my nails gold back then. And that would get commented on. One of the things that happens for me is that I use my name Steven and, when someone comes to the door, people will initially do a double take and then usually that opens up a conversation. I haven’t had a bad conversation yet. I agree with you that it’s something to deal with sometimes but it’s often in a positive way.

Share with us what lies ahead for you. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

This is such a weird time. I’m sure it is in Seattle. It is in London. I’ve been ill lately and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve had the virus or not because they’re not testing people in the UK all that much. I think something having to do with all this will probably go into my next project, but I don’t know at the moment what that will be. I’m in this strange little time when Dragman has come out and I’m starting to think about what will come out next. For me, that process is partly an intellectual thinking of ideas and partly an emotional instinctive reaction to things. So, somehow I’m going to decide what I’m doing next.

I wish you great health and thank you for doing this interview.

It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we’ll meet the next time you’re in London.

Yes, absolutely.

That would be great.

Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.

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Drawing: The New Normal in the Age of COVID-19

Humans and Nature coexisting with Disruption

We can all only hazard a guess if we’re asked to imagine a post-covid crisis world. COVID-19 will ultimately settle into whatever a virus like this does. Can we contain it, for all intents and purposes, like polio? Probably so, in due time. The question now is how long will this Age of Covid last? All the disruption: and all the anxiety over uncertainty. We wear masks and practice social distancing while wild animals emerge and fill the void. For all of us fortunate enough to be able to draw, write or do something else productive, we must remain grateful and patient. So, I share with you a recent drawing I did as I go about my process of reflecting and resetting. Sure, I’ll post more. It’s healing to express one’s concerns. Trying to add a bit of the whimsical is not easy. I don’t even know if I was trying to be whimsical with this piece. Life will, and must go on, amid death. Hope will, and must, prevail over despair. These are strange times but we need to remain calm, respect everyone on the front lines, and keep working towards the future.

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Filed under Comics, COVID-19, Drawing, Henry Chamberlain

Review: DRAGMAN by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2020. 336 pages, $28.00.

Especially today, as we continue to make huge strides, while still sometimes stumbling one step forward with one step back, it is healthy for everyone to acknowledge gender fluidity as being as natural as breathing. I’ll share this. When I was very young, I fondly recall dressing in drag a handful of times. This was back in the ’80s during my art school days. It was fun, thrilling, and even liberating. My girlfriend at the time thought I looked cuter in lipstick and pumps than she did. Anyway, life moved on and the occasion for indulging in drag became less available but one never knows. I’ve always fancied interviewing Simon Hanselmann with both of us all dolled up. We all need to loosen up, open up, and acknowledge nothing is ever really totally cut and dry. Even a conservative darling like Rudy Giuliani had a good time in drag, and this was as recently as 2000. So, with that in mind, it’s a joy and a privilege to introduce to you a new graphic novel inspired by cartoonist Steven Appleby’s own personal journey, Dragman, a story about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes.

Dragman on the case!

Now, Steven Appleby is a beloved British cartoonist, right up there with other greats like Posy Simmonds and Quentin Blake. I had quite a nice time, by the way, viewing the work of Simmonds and Blake last year at the House of Illustration in London. I’m an artist-cartoonist myself so that visit, for me, is equal to visiting Big Ben for someone else. I’d love to view Appleby originals sometime too, perhaps on a future visit. I’m not going to scrutinize the work in quite the same way as I would standing before a Rembrandt but it’s not too different either. I’m still gazing and pondering the energy. It’s that distinctive line, with its skittering quality, that is so appealing. In the case of Appleby, a cartoonist auteur, we can marvel over how the words seem to dance right along with the images. If Appleby collaborated with a writer, to be sure, we’d see a similar play too. That said, the auteur has a distinct advantage of owning the whole vision. So, for Appley, for all of us, this graphic novel provides a full-blown vision. The reader gets to enjoy a madcap adventure, all the time savoring the journey for its own sake!

Clark Kent, meet August Crimp.

As Appleby makes clear, this is not an autobiographical work, although it can’t be denied there are some similarities to Appleby and his comics alter ego, August Crimp. Both went on a particular journey in search of themselves, in pursuit of coming to terms with an attraction to dressing up as the opposite sex. What’s clear is that August Crimp, and Steven Appleby, both triumph. It’s a celebration of life. A celebration of boys dressing as girls and girls dressing as boys and anything else in between. We’re all superheroes if we just relax and let ourselves be ourselves. Dragman is a heart-felt exploration of identity while also a riveting crime mystery to boot. What more could you want from a graphic novel?

Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews