Tag Archives: Art

Book Review: ‘The Last Mona Lisa’ by Jonathan Santlofer

THE LAST MONA LISA

The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99

It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions  and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.

Mona Lisa Mania!

The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.

It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.

Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.

The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.

The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.

For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Jonathan Santlofer, Paris

Review: FUNDAMENTAL CAMARENA by Christopher Sperandio

FUNDAMENTAL CAMARENA

Fundamental Camarena. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 144pp, $21.95

The more one digs into the comics medium, the more it rewards you as an immersive world of the mind. You can lose yourself in it as much as any other art form. Christopher Sperandio has taken quite a deep dive into re-working vintage public domain comics just as you would any other kind of “found art.” Check out some of his work on his Instagram. He is genuinely mesmerized by it and respectful of all the souls, many truly unsung heroes, who created the work in the first place. That said, when Sperandio hit upon a cache of original Mexican comic book pages at a public market, he knew right away that this wasn’t just another canvas upon which to recontextualize. This was something special that needed to be called attention to. Sperandio’s long and distinguished career features work that explores the interconnections between mass and museum culture. Sperandio teaches at Rice University where he specializes in working with the comics medium. He recently put together at Rice an arts lab, the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop (CATS) and this book is part of that.

A typical copy of Micro Suspenso, #305, circa 1968,  4 1/2 x 3 inches.

A mysterious packet of ink drawings sitting in a stall in a public market in Mexico City. At that point, the fate of these drawings, half a century old, was utterly dependent upon who might take notice of them. So, it’s something of a miracle that this set of drawings would catch the interest of the most ideal buyer. This bundle of originals was created by Julio Camarena for the comic book series, Micro Suspenso. There was no cover but the comic book could be dated to circa, 1970. The story, oddly enough, is entitled, “The Last Buyer.” With Sperandio’s purchase, this little batch of comic book art had fallen into academic hands and, as it turned out, Sperandio was to be the last buyer of this work prior to his immortalizing it in this book. To add a touch of intrigue, the originals were stolen and probably destroyed.

Julio Camarena is plucked from obscurity and joins the world of academia.

And so Julio Camarena, an obscure Mexican cartoonist, finds his work the subject of an academic study. Well, that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned, Sperandio has a working method that involves linking popular media to museum culture. And that is precisely what this purchase of drawings set into motion. We come back to the idea of a playground for the mind. When you stop and think about it, comic books (particularly strange and offbeat comic books) and museums, are both prime venues for some deep thinking, the stuff that dreams are made of! Sperandio developed his project step by step, bringing together the people and resources he needed under the CATS arts lab. In time, he had what was needed for an installation as well as a book.

From the pages of a comic book…

…to the gallery walls of a museum.

As a work of comics, “The Last Buyer” is more than just competent; it’s a guilty pleasure in the best sense. Right away, I was intrigued by the characters and their hint of Mod style sense. And who doesn’t like a good horror story about a possessed car? I’m Mexican-American, and I do read Spanish but not without some effort. I mean, the words don’t just jump out at me as they do in a work of comics in English. That sense of words jumping out is magical and it’s not happening when I’ve got a work of comics in Spanish. For the Camarena stash to fully function as a work of comics for a now predominantly English-speaking audience, the darn thing would need to be properly translated within the comic itself with the Spanish text replaced by English. There are notes at the back of the book with an English translation but that’s just not the same. That said, it’s a fun read. It is masterfully worked out, especially considering the tiny format that was common for these “micro-comics,” pocket-sized comics meant to be read on the way to work or in some less than rarefied environment. That said, of course, this set of drawings has totally become a creature of rarefied environments.

Page excerpt from “The Last Buyer.”

So, what’s so special about this stash of original comic book art that has been taken out of its natural habitat, as it were, and placed under a microscope? First, it’s a learning opportunity, right? Sperandio gets to share some of the history of Mexican comics and he even, early on, gets a chance to demonstrate how unfairly maligned the comics medium has been. His quote from 1999 by noted art critic Rosalind Krauss is priceless. When asked at a public lecture at Princeton University for her opinion on the comics medium, Krauss said the form was “unredeemable.” Ouch! Well, that was over twenty years ago and, I dare say, the general sentiment has changed. As for this stash of Mexican comics in particular, Sperandio is making the case that, yes, this little bundle of obscure comics is a historic and artistic artifact. And, while the originals are now gone forever, the originals had been properly digitized and so can now live on in print, as they were always intended to do. Sperandio, “the last buyer,” managed to pass on a little treasure to all sorts of future buyers, those who buy into the comic medium’s hard-won fight for credibility.

Where all this gets most interesting is in tracking down the one and only Julio Camarena, the cartoonist behind these mysterious comics. Camarena is given his due. He is not presented as some exotic but as the creative professional he was, part of a tradition, part of history. This is the moment when, if you were binge-watching on Netflix, the payoff is finally delivered. Sperandio has gotten to comment on Camarena. A contemporary cartoonist has provided his observations. And a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature has held court– and even quoted a scholarly report that concludes Mexico and Japan are the world’s only true comic book cultures. All very interesting but now Camarena speaks about Camarena! And, like any long-awaited moment, it’s a little poignant and also a little anticlimactic. Camarena loved his work, has no regrets, and has little patience with looking back. He was interviewed a couple of years ago by Mexican cartoonist Augusto Mora. It’s a wonderful exchange between the two creatives. Camarena sounds to be very savvy about the comics market. He simply doesn’t take himself too seriously or put his work upon a pedestal. He makes a comment towards the end that he regrets that Mexican publishers began to dabble in cheesecake pin-up comics in an attempt to boost sales. That went against their core family audience and so it was no surprise to Camarena when that phase of comics tanked. Ironically, the only photos of Camarena have him showing some of his pin-up work. It’s actually rendered quite well, in a classic tradition but, apparently, he didn’t have his heart in it. No, his heart was in the work he was a part of for most of his life, stories that enthralled readers across a wide spectrum. It was a magical time, a time for all kinds of stories whether historic, romantic, adventurous, or even supernatural.

Cartoonist Julio Camarena

So, did Sperandio’s examination of the Camarena stash of drawings stretch and pull it well past anyone’s intended purpose? Okay, sure, but it was all worth it! Indeed, this book is a ticket to play in the playground of the mind. Seriously, this is a most welcome addition to comics scholarship in general–and Mexican comics in particular. We can already find a number of books that gravitate to pretty familiar subjects like Los Bros Hernandez. Sperandio goes further and provides us with some much needed insight into the roots of Mexican comics and culture. This quirky book is a wonderful exploration of many things, not the least of which is the playground of the mind.

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Filed under Argle Bargle Books, Book Reviews, Comics, Mexican comics

Interview with Underground Comix Artist Sharon Rudahl

From Famous Cartoonists button series, 1974

Sharon Rudahl was at the forefront of underground comix as a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, the first on-going comic drawn exclusively by women, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, she has created a range of fascinating underground comix including Crystal Night, which was reprinted in full in Dan Nadel’s Art In Time collection. Rudahl has created two graphic novels, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman and A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American. Read my review here. It is a pleasure to get a chance to share this conversation with you.

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson

I began our talk by mentioning that Sharon marched with Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager. I said that it appears that she has always been an activist. To that Sharon said that she’s found herself speaking out as often as possible. In fact, Sharon began her career as a cartoonist with anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She’s been active ever since and has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions in dozens of countries over the last 50 years. Always a fighter, she proved to be just the right person to take on a graphic biography of another social justice warrior, Emma Goldman.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Interviews, Paul Buhle, Rutgers University Press, Sharon Rudahl

Glenn Head on Chartwell Manor and Being a Voice for Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head

EDITOR’S NOTE: The New York Post headline says it all, Sex Abuse Rituals at NJ Boarding School Exposed — in Cartoons by Survivor. The newspaper does an admirable job of describing the nuances of graphic novels and Glenn Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor. And The New York Post has no qualms about laying it out as it is: “Don’t let that whimsical cover art throw you: Head’s unflinching book recounts his two years at the now-defunct Mendham, NJ, boarding school run by headmaster “Sir” Terence Michael Lynch — a serial sexual abuser who manipulated young boys into “cuddling sessions” after fondling and beating their nude bodies.” The New York Post also provides an outstanding public service by underscoring the fact that survivors of Chartwell Manor still have time to file a suit against the Chartwell administration of aiding and abetting Lynch, and others, in the abuse of children. Time is running out for Chartwell Manor victims to join those who’ve already filed claims against surviving Chartwell administrators accused of letting Lynch — and other accused faculty — cultivate a culture of abuse. The deadline to file is November 30, 2021. Contact Jeff Anderson & Advocates law firm today.

I’ve been writing about comics and creating comics for many years now–and loving it. In the very near future, I hope to have some news about a book of my own. For now, I want to keep my nose to the grindstone and this is one very special reason to do so. This is an interview with master cartoonist Glenn Head. For those of you familiar with comix, especially those chock full of underground comix DNA as I just talked about in my last post, then this will be a welcome treat. Maybe you’ve gotten a chance to check out Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor, about the abuse that Head experienced at the boarding school, but just as important, the aftermath. Well, this interview helps to put things into further context from the standpoint of Glenn’s previous graphic novel, Chicago, as well as his career as a whole.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Fantagraphics, Glenn Head, Interviews

One More Look: AVENUE D and SNAKE EYES

Snake Eyes #3 cover

Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.

Glenn Head’s Snowman in Snake Eyes

In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.

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On Black Cartoonists and Black Humor: Rethinking the Racist Narrative

A Charles Johnson self-portrait. If you know who R. Crumb is, then you really need to know who Charles Johnson is!

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall

Chicago is one of the great cities for comics with a rich history dating back to the dawn of the comic strip supported by world-class newspapers. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago honors this tradition with Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now (June 19-October 3, 2021), curated by  Dan Nadel. In the process, Nadel also edited a book that focuses on Black cartoonists entitled, It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940 – 1980, published by New York Review Comics. The title of the book comes from a gag panel cartoon by the cartoonist, and National Book Award-winning novelist, Charles Johnson. And the actual cartoon dates back to a collection of Charles Johnson cartoons, Black Humor, published in 1970, when Johnson was only 22 years-old. The two books document where Black cartoonists have been and point to a persistent struggle to rise upward. Discussion of the facts can only help to chart a course for the future—and it’s essential to look at all sides.

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Filed under Black cartoonists, Comics, Essays, The New Yorker

Interview with Illustrator and Cartoonist John Cei Douglas

Self-portrait of John Cei Douglas

John Cei Douglas is a freelance illustrator based in London who got on my radar with his new book, All the Places in Between, which I recently reviewed. We exchanged some email and arranged to do a conversation. To prepare for it, I read a good bit of the comics that Douglas has done since completing his MA in Illustration from Camberwell College of Arts in 2013–including his Masters thesis, Show Me the Map to Your Heart.

All the Places in Between

One striking thing about the comics and illustration of John Cei Douglas is how fluid and effortless he makes it all look. There’s a certain calm and thoughtful quality to his work that is very appealing. There’s also plenty of action and frenetic energy to be found. It’s all part of a distinctive quirky universe.

The distinctive and quirky universe of John Cei Douglas

Another striking fact to keep in mind is that, even once you reach a point of success in a career in illustration, you can never take anything for granted. That is a point that Douglas can’t stress enough. He is in it for the long term and, from what I see, he’s found a niche from where he can continue to grow and prosper.

English Summer. illustration by John Cei Douglas.

I hope you enjoy this conversation where Douglas provides insights into his creative process. For the creation of his new book, All the Places in Between, Douglas relished in giving himself space to explore where the story was going. There was no set blueprint he was working from and I think readers will appreciate those unexpected twists and turns. As I stated in my review, this is a story as much about evoking a certain feeling as it is anything else–definitely a journey worth taking.

Visit John Cei Douglas at his site here. All the Places in Between is published by Liminal 11.

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One More Look: ‘Chartwell Manor’ and ‘Chicago’ by Glenn Head

Chartwell Manor: Father and daughter moment.

Chartwell Manor. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2021. 236pp, $29.99

Chicago: A Comix Memoir. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2015. 168pp, $16.97

Glenn Head is part of that select group of auteur cartoonists who has steadily been building up a body of work, with its surrealist bent and underground comix influence,  that reaches the level of art. Much of his work, as creator and/or editor, has appeared in various comix anthologies: Bad News, Snake Eyes, Hotwire, and  R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. And so it makes sense that Head has steadily been climbing the Mt. Everest of comix, the grand ole graphic novel.

Chicago: Searching and learning.

Most aspiring cartoonists will never follow through on creating their very own full-length, full-bodied (sorry, no stick figures) autobiographical graphic novel, the pinnacle of auteur cartoonist ambition. However, where there is a will, there is a way. Glenn Head has done this particular feat twice. The most diligent of cartoonists would do well to follow closely what Head’s been up to with his last two books, observe how they oddly mirror each other, one a variation on the other. What I’m talking about is Head’s 2015 graphic novel, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, which was regarded as Head’s coming-of-age magnum opus. Well, he’s followed that up with his latest work, Chartwell Manor, which is another coming-of-age magnum opus: same protagonist and life struggles but, nearly twice as long, more refined, and pivoting off a different focal point.

Chicago: Father and daughter moment.

As I leaf through this graphic novel, I am struck by all the intricate line work, all the meticulous detail, and all the frenetic energy. There’s a marvelous dance with death (and life!) going on, almost spinning out of control, and yet very well balanced. The artist is in the lead. Death will have to wait its turn. If we try to compare both books, Chartwell Manor is perhaps more focused and detailed, not to take anything away from Chicago. While the Glen character in the first book is going through a series of dark episodes, including an interlude with a troubled woman, it is the second book that confronts what is the root cause of Glen’s instability and struggle. The significance of this root cause is underscored by the fact it is not mentioned at all in the first book. The harrowing events of being molested at a boarding school, by the headmaster no less, are not afforded even one panel in the first book. But, by astonishing contrast, the boarding school IS the second book, covering most pages.

Glen with a gun. You keep feeding the underground comix beast.

Sordid content, twisted and unabashed, all that very messy human stuff, is only hinted at in most mainstream graphic novels. Whatever the case, great work will emerge, sometimes from a big traditional publisher. But, aside from self-published work, the really gritty stuff comes from the smaller niche publishers. Among that set, Fantagraphics is a leader in the United States. In fact, it has cultivated a particular vibe that, along with a high standard of excellence, places it in a unique position. Much angst going back to underground comix of the sixties finds a home there. This particular point of view, this grungy campy swagger, has had plenty of time to ferment into a brand. Those who are part of it find themselves deeply enmeshed in a scene: part way of life; part putting on an act. But what is an act and what is real? That’s part of the mystique. What matters in the end is the end result, a work that aspires to something bigger, a work of art.

Demons to be exorcised.

Dancing with death can tire you out so it’s good to pace yourself. The reader will see the satisfaction that comes from someone working on their craft. On one level, it’s the very act of working on a big project, whatever the content, that sustains an ambitious cartoonist. This is a graphic novel focusing on Head  experiencing abuse at Chartwell Manor, a boarding school, and the years of living with that, a lifetime of living with that. This book provides a latter day underground cartoonist like Head another chance to push his style further, to level up his connection to the past, compared to all the  great soul-baring cartoonists who have come before: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and so on. It’s feeding, what I call, a “persistence of style.” Like he does in Chicago, Head can evoke an extended passage about him as a young and troubled youth, walking around naked in his family home with a loaded gun, aiming it at his head and pulling the trigger, and the act of creating that into comix is not necessarily a cathartic act, as much as it’s an artistic act. That’s not to belittle at all what happened to Head at Chartwell Manor. There are definitely demons to be exorcised. That’s just to point out that Head would be a lesser artist if his main aim was to have his graphic novel simply be a therapeutic act. It’s a complicated and thoroughly fascinating journey to explore the past while navigating your way to creating art.

Chartwell Manor: A rare moment of quiet joy.

There are key moments in the book, during and after Head’s time at Chartwell Manor where he talks to his parents and tries to let them know about the horror. In an early scene, while Head is still a student there, it seems like the parents are right on the verge of knowing but don’t want to know. It’s one of those instances when you wonder if something was said between the panels. Other moments, depicted from years later, also leave the reader wondering what the parents are aware of and what they are in denial about. It’s an ambiguous thread running throughout–and done to great effect.

Where there is a will,…

All those dirty little secrets that seem to have no way of getting out! And then they do. Ways are found to vent out frustration. It’s no exaggeration to say that underground comix have a lot to do with venting out frustration! The whole autobio comics genre has weathered various cycles of backlash, unfairly labeled as heavy-handed and a way for cartoonists to use it as therapy to work out personal problems. But, at the end of the day, most readers are fine to take the risk that some work will fall short while some will rise to the highest level. Honestly, any artist worth their salt, is going to tackle some form of autobiography. And, hey, all comics of this sort, in one form or another, is a story reflecting back to its creator.

…there is a way.

It’s important to note that each book has its lighter moments. In Chartwell Manor, those moments are mostly concerned with the process of creating comics. Chicago has a more experimental vibe, even whimsical at times, as when Head stumbles upon a visit to Chicago by Muhammad Ali and nearly gets his block knocked off. The point is that Head is in a wonderful place. Like any artist at this stage of their career, Head has a treasure trove to work from, plenty to return to for future books. With Chicago and Chartwell Manor, readers can see for themselves two distinct ways of presenting similar facts and the promise of what lies ahead.

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Interview: Charles Johnson on Creativity, Prose and Chicago Comics

Dr. Charles Johnson, UW professor emeritus of English, is a distinguished novelist, as well as a professional cartoonist. It is a pleasure to get to chat with him and consider a thing or two about the somewhat  enigmatic comics medium and the creative process in general. In our conversation, we talk about the interconnections between comics, journalism, and creative writing. It is a subject I keep coming back to as it speaks to who I am, someone compelled to create with words and pictures. What is it that compels others to pursue both the comics medium and prose writing? It has to do with a desire to express one’s self. It is inextricably linked to journalism, an in depth reporting of one’s observations. And where does this all lead? It all depends upon the person, their temperament, and a number of other factors of luck and opportunity. In other words, it’s a fascinating topic for a good talk.

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall

We spent a good amount of the interview discussing humor. We go over some samples from Johnson’s 1970 cartoon collection, Black Humor. This is a set of nearly 90 single panel gag cartoons. They are the kind you still find in a few magazines today, notably The New Yorker. But, back then, The New Yorker was not seeking to publish Black cartoonists. It was on one rainy night, after listening to a fiery talk given by Black activist poet Amiri Baraka, that Johnson set out on a mission to draw a whole book’s worth of gag panels, about and for the Black community. Johnson conjured up one joke after another. Over fifty years later, the gags retain a certain bite, perhaps more earthy than for today’s tastes. Some seem downright surreal. But Johnson dropped a key word into our conversation, a word that hinted at a far more expansive view. He spoke of the cartoon’s incongruity.

From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson

This interview is in connection with Dr. Johnson’s work included in the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the book published by New York Review Comics. In partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, New York Review Comics presents IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel. Read my review here. This book focuses on nine Black cartoonists from the show at MCA: Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, Jun 19–Oct 3, 2021, which includes over 40 artists.

Excerpt from Black Humor

A special note: Washington University in St. Louis recently acquired the Charles Johnson Papers, an archival collection of materials related to Johnson’s work as an author and illustrator. “Spanning nearly six decades, the collection brings together manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, artwork and ephemera, and serves as a testament to Johnson’s wide-ranging career as a public intellectual.”

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

Also, of note is Johnson’s recent role as guest-editor and contributor to a special edition of Chicago Quarterly Review, “An Anthology of Black American Literature.” Johnson wrote the introduction and contributed a story to the anthology — the journal’s volume #33 — called “Night Shift,” which he penned for the 2020 Bedtime Story fundraiser for Humanities Washington. The volume contains work by more than two dozen Black writers. An earlier special edition of the journal was dedicated to South Asian American writers, and an upcoming issue will focus on Native American literature.

Be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and view the Chicago Comics show!

MCA Chicago Comics: Lynda Barry

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Studies in Comics: Education and Comics

Studies in Comics

Studies in Comics, Vol 11, No 1. Intellect Books. 2021. Bristol, UK. 234pp.

The case for comics having a place beyond the local newsstand or comics shop has grown to the point where it is now no surprise to hear about the latest comics course being taught at a university. We’re now, more than ever, accepting of comics in its many forms and purposes, not the least of which is its role in education. Comics and Education is the theme of the latest issue of the scholarly journal, Studies in Comics. And there is much to cover as the journal lists itself: teaching and learning with published comics; case studies of education comics/comics as education; teaching and learning by creating comics; comics, literacy and emotional development; and public information comics. While such a listing may sound rather dry, there is much life to be found in the comics medium–and that’s the whole point. Comics can breathe a whole new life into a myriad of subjects.

True Comics, 1941

But warming up to comics as an educational tool hasn’t been without its fits and starts as noted in the first article by Christopher Murray and Golnar Nabizadeh. Consider this early entry into educational comics: True Comics, from 1941, launched by The Parents’ Institute, publisher of the influential Parent’s Magazine. As to distance itself from the popular superhero, crime and adventure comics of the day, the cover boldly states: “Truth is stranger and a thousand times for thrilling than fiction!” That is a quote from the introduction by founder and publisher George J. Hecht, responding to a general misunderstanding of comics. For example, Sterling North, the Literary Editor of the Chicago Daily News, had recently attacked the comics industry on the basis that comics was, in his words, a “national disgrace” and a “poisonous mushroom growth.” And when comics did receive support from leading academics, as the authors of this article point out, it could be a mix of condescension and genuine interest:

“While the overall message is that comics are being utilized in many educational contexts, the use of the terms ‘invaded’ and ‘reduced’, and the suggestion that not even Sunday Schools are exempt, puts comics in a negative light. However, Zorbaugh and Gruenberg, along with Paul A. Witty (Professor of Education at Northwestern University), were among a handful of academics and educators exploring the psychological and educational aspects of the comics in the 1940s. In general, they presented the view that comics, far from being harmful, were a powerful way to engage children and especially reluctant readers.”

A selection of educational and information comics produced by Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS)/University of Dundee.

In fact, comics have proven many times over to be a powerful tool to process information. Anyone entering the world of comics, as a reader or as a creative, is setting foot upon an incredibly exciting journey. Another article among the eight full-length features here is one focusing on comics about healthcare and science, featuring Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS), by Damon Herd, Divya Jindal-Snape, Christopher Murray, and Megan Sinclair and it is really at the heart of what this journal is all about. For example, here is an excerpt on a comic about mental health and dealing with hate crimes that involved role-playing in order to unearth some solutions:

“The stories were fictional but they were drawn from their own real-life experiences of hate crime. This fictional aspect gave them space to ‘play the character’, creating a safe space to the discuss difficult subject matter (Jindal-Snape et al. 2011) by inhabiting the world of ‘the image of reality and the reality of the image’ (Boal 1995: 43). This was an educational and emotional experience for the rest of the team. For example, the Advocators insisted that the abusive language that had been directed against them was used in the comic. As they explained, ‘if we don’t show that it is a hate crime, then people reading might not know that it is’. Under the guidance of Advocating Together, the finished comic presented six hard-hitting stories that showcased the stark reality of the hateful (and criminal) experiences they suffer on a regular basis.”

Fibromyalgia and Us

This is a perfect example, of so many, that demonstrates the power of comics and the unexpected results that are possible both at the time of delivery and in the process of creating the work. In the case of a team-oriented event, this is known as a “comics jam” and, as this article explains, it is through this hands-on process that participants get to experience the comics medium as part of a creative team. It is an event that requires no prior art background and you can always partner with an artist as the project develops. The following is an excerpt representative of all the insights and goodwill derived from these team-oriented comics that led to a whole collection of healthcare and science comics, like Fibromyalgia and Us, from the University of Dundee:

Fibromyalgia and Us (2017) was a project initiated by Divya Jindal-Snape (School of Education and Social Work), who has fibromyalgia and wanted to use the comics medium to inform the healthcare professionals and the public about this less-known and often-misunderstood ‘invisible’ condition that is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. The comic opens with an auto- biographical story by Jindal-Snape, with contributions by her family, and artwork by Ashling Larkin. This story highlights the impact of fibromyalgia on the individual as well as their family and friends. Her colleague Lynn Kelly also wrote a story about her own experiences and benefits of gentle exercise, with artwork provided by Letty Wilson; and there were stories by Judith Langlands-Scott, who detailed the trauma of being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia in a story with artwork by Zuzanna Dominiak. Judith’s son, Andrew Keiller, wrote a story that was drawn by Elliot Balson. This was an important addition as the general perception is that only women, or more commonly older women, have fibromyalgia. His story detailed his struggle with fibromyalgia while at school, where teach- ers and classmates were rarely understanding or sympathetic. Damon Herd and Letty Wilson drew stories based on the experiences of a doctor and a physiotherapist. This comic was launched at an event that received significant attention from both local, national and international press, and a digital version of the comic was subsequently downloaded over 13,000 times.”

A Hero’s Journey through Words and Pictures

Another process-oriented article comes from Zak Waipara, and his comics essay about setting up a new comics and animation curriculum at Auckland University of Technology.  Comics and creativity go hand in hand and so why not use comics in order to better understand how to teach about the comics medium! In the above excerpt, Waipara quotes from Christopher Vgoler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “Magic is a good way to describe the synthesis between words and pictures.” Indeed, I believe he’s onto something!

One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale

Comics need not be mistrusted or misunderstood. We’ve come such a long way from the clumsy efforts to slap a portrait of Winston Churchill on the cover of a comic book and lecture to kids that truth is far better than fiction! We are more “sophisticated” general readers: less patient; more prone to criticize; less accepting of authority. The end result should be a good thing: We are better positioned today to question the content we digest. That brings us to the work of cartoonist Nathan Hale and the article about his work by Brianna Anderson. The book in question is generally intended for middle graders and Anderson explores the book’s benefit to this group. Anderson hits upon the author’s use of inserting himself into the work, a fairly common practice in comics, particularly indie comics; and how the author presents information, whether innovative, irreverent, or whatever it might be. Anderson concludes that the author has done a great job of opening up the subject for discussion but does take issue with some choices:

“However, the paratext also reinforces racist and sexist paradigms by displacing black and female voices to the comic’s supplemental endpapers, underwriting the comic’s well-intentioned attempts to educate readers about important voices excluded from white-centric narratives. Thus, while One Dead Spy demonstrates how historical fiction comics can provoke much-needed discussions about the inherent biases and erasures of dominant historical discourses, it also reveals the dangers of relegating opportunities for children to learn about marginalized perspectives in history to the literal margins.”

The difference between how True Comics was judged in 1941 and the way that One Dead Spy is judged in 2021 is as stark as night and day. All in all, that has to be a strong indication of progress being made. A cartoonist like Nathan Hale and an academic like Brianna Anderson can sit down and compare notes. One discussion leads to another. What’s important, as Anderson commends Hale for doing, is to question authority. Anderson claims that Hale is “relegating” already marginalized voices. However, that is a debatable point, just to be fair. The story of Crispus Attucks is certainly worthy of a book all its own. So, for Hale to include a small story about Attucks in a book about American spy Nathan Hale, is reasonable. For a book with a more decided focus on marginalized perspectives, Anderson may want to check out Hale’s book on the Haitian Revolution. That said, this is not to negate but to celebrate Anderson’s analysis. We now live in a time with no simple cookie-cutter answers but, instead, we welcome robust discussion.

Studies in Comics is an essential resource in the ongoing discussion of the comics medium. You will find a treasure trove of useful and insightful content from some of the best minds on the subject of comics as art and as a communication tool. Studies in Comics is published by Intellect Books. Visit them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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