I have interviewed Steve Lafler and I’m letting that sink in. The man is a walking encyclopedia of experiences and knowledge. I do hope we can chat again sometime. For a first interview, we covered a lot of ground. I was intrigued and delighted and I’m sure you will be too with this most provocative cartoonist.
Steve Lafler is a very cool cat–and, as promised, we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Long before Zoom interviews, I’ve been taking notes and chatting with a good many talented folks. I think we cartoonists, at least a certain subgroup, are compelled to express ourselves in numerous ways. You’ll find, for instance, that comics and journalism have been entwined since the American colonies. In Mr. Lafler’s case, he has devoted a lot of energy in two directions, the love of comics and the love of music. In my interview, I try to focus on how Lafler has lovingly included music, especially jazz, into his comics.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is Lafler’s latest title and we enjoy talking about it. The subtext is pretty much in the forefront: our main character, Ramon, seems to be most happy when he gets to be Ramona. Or, if not most happy, then it’s definitely a sweet joy to dress up and be a woman for the night. That said, the comics pretty much speak for themselves. Lafler, himself, has provided a few clues over the years that he enjoys indulging in some gender-bending dressing up. One must follow their muse! I think, with 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona, Lafler beautifully expresses that most basic and primal human need to be true to one’s self.
On Wednesday, 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Life as we’d known it had changed forever. We are all still in this together with renewed hope and resilience. Many of us became creative. And for many of us who are already creative, we’ve found ways to explore further, and seek out joy, humor and grace. I spent 2020 completing a special graphic novel project as well as this whimsical tribute to the New York Egg Cream. You can get the book in print and on digital. Sometimes You Just Want an Egg Cream adds up to a neat showcase of artwork as well as a guidebook tour involving New York history, culture, and egg creams. It is a long time coming and it feels like the perfect time is now to share this with you.
Sometimes You Just Want an Egg Cream!
Briefly, an egg cream is an amazing soda drink, preferably chocolate. But within that simple mix of milk, seltzer and syrup, all kinds of dreams and memories are made. It was back in the ’80s, during that young lean time, that I made my first visit to New York City. I was coming from Houston, which is a hell of a big city but with a small town character if that makes any sense. I was looking forward to roughing it for a couple of weeks and staying in the no-frills yet intellectually lively 92nd Street Y. What I was not expecting was to have the airline lose my luggage! So, there I was nearly naked except for the clothes on my back for two weeks with the mean streets right along with the cultured streets ahead of me.
A book devoted to the egg cream!
Well, I was young and full of energy and imagination. I gorged on all kinds of sights and sounds. I had my list of things to see and do based upon all kinds of reading I’d done: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Met, Broadway, the Strand, Coney Island, St. Marks Place! And, moving along at a quick pace, I invited it all in: high and low; bright and dull; big and small; euphoric, melancholic, erudite and electronic. Brash youth that I was, I went for the people’s food, not fancy-schmancy. I was still many years away from taking any notice of Michelin ratings. I delighted in street vendor hot dogs and pizza by the slice. In fact, I still love that grub! And, in my young dewy-eyed state, my mind was first blown to the charms of the knish at Yonah Schimmel Knish right along with the awesome experience of pastrami at Katz’s Deli, and the delectable high of the egg cream at Gem Spa–as well as at Lexington Candy Shop! I was as much in love with the Upper East Side as I was with the Lower East Side! Ever since, whenever I visit NYC, I stop by somewhere and have an egg cream, which is what led me to create this book. Recently, I even connected with Gem Spa and they have some of my art on sale at their site. So, one thing leads to another!
Gem Spa, an East Village legend!
I also have related items, like cool prints and t-shirts, which you can buy right here. And I will keep playing around with this. I foresee more books and related events. If you get the book, you’ll see what I mean. I should also add here that I fully encourage you to buy one of my New York Egg Cream t-shirts and then post a photo of you wearing it, preferably while having an egg cream at one of my favorite spots in NYC. Who knows, it could happen! You might be reading this right now and thinking that would be a pretty rad thing to do! And so the egg cream revolution is on!
Lexington Candy Shop, an Upper West Side classic!
I will definitely post again items from the book and hopefully start a whole big wonderful New York Egg Cream conversation! What is your egg cream memory? I’d love to know. You can comment here or contact me directly. And join the egg cream club!
Jerome and Henry discuss writing, history, and J.D. Salinger.
Just about any reader has an opinion about J.D. Salinger. In his latest novel, Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn takes that most celebrated and enigmatic of writers and crafts a story about history and heartbreak. It is about history nearly lost. It is about history relived. It is about heartbreak of the most sorrowful. In the end, this is a dazzling work that will take you on trip that will give you a more vivid sense of World War II and the journey that led J.D. Salinger right to the precipice. Was J.D. Salinger a great writer. Yes, he had that magic touch, that artistic vision. What does Jerome Charyn do with this story? As Jerome was adamant to tell me, this is not a story seeking to find out who J.D. Salinger was in any conventional sense. This is, after all, a work of art, a work of fiction.
Slapton Sands was a debacle that was almost covered up and lost to history.
For me, I just want to share with you a marvelous novel. There’s so much to enjoy in the way of masterful writing. I cite one example here where J.D. Salinger finds himself levitating up and flying over Central Park on his way to Belvedere Castle. He is transformed back into a boy along with his sister, Doris, becoming a young girl again. They confront a sinister figure, a witch, who is actually Salinger’s estranged wife, Sylvia. Doris is puzzled when the witch invites Doris to a lesson she can’t learn in any school. What could that be? asks Doris. “What can you teach me?” The witch looks at Doris and replies, “How not to exist.” I know this is out of context but I trust you feel a chill from this.
J.D. Salinger was there for D-Day on Utah Beach.
Another reason you may enjoy my conversation with Jerome Charyn is the historic ground that we cover. We do talk some about literary theory and such. But, I think, a lot of you will find more than just interesting a brief overview of World War II. Yeah, in short order, we end up covering a lot of ground. But it couldn’t be helped. J.D. Salinger covered an enormous amount of ground during his service in the war. Salinger witnessed more combat than some of our most celebrated writers on World War II. Salinger was there to observe the calamitous Exercise Tiger, the D-Day landing at Utah Beach, and the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp. Salinger saw so much, too much. And it sort of broke him. But not so much as to keep him from going on the complete a small but significant body of work, which includes, of course, The Catcher in the Rye.
J.D. Salinger was also there for Hitler’s last stand at the Battle of the Bulge.
Given our conversation, and my continuous searching to understand, Charyn summed it up nicely towards the end of our talk. “As for meaning, I don’t know what the ‘meaning’ is. I know what the music is. The music becomes the meaning. I’m not a philosopher.” Yeah! Kick-ass writing without apologies. For Jerome, the war, J.D. Salinger, New York City from a certain era, all of this Jerome lived and breathed himself. So, creating fiction from it came easy to him. “History is a very strange kiss that lands on you and invigorates and destroys. It is the past that I’m most interested in. It is the past that I try to summon up in my own way.” J.D. Salinger wasn’t a person to dissect and create a profile from. For Jerome Charyn, J.D. Salinger was a haunted house which he moved into and built some solid fiction from. Bring your A-game reading to this one!
And J.D. Salinger was among the first Americans to witness the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.
Be sure to view is conversation. I kid you not, you’ll be glad to did. And, if you have a moment, your comments are always welcome.
Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE
Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.
From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain
You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.
You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.
from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
Teddy. written by Laurence Luckinbill. illustrated by Eryck Tait. Dead Reckoning. 176 pp. 2021. $24.95
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is ranked among the top U.S. presidents. Reasons for this include decisiveness, activism, and leadership. For even a casual observer, many people will easily recognize the hearty Teddy cheerful command: “Bully!” For me, as a precocious kid interested in history and politics, I instantly gravitated to the Roosevelts, and the two iconic presidents, FDR and TR. Only a handful presidents become so ingrained in the public mind to be known by their initials! FDR, even today, cannot be ignored, given his fundamental influence in steering the country through the Great Depression; introducing such landmark programs as Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission; and, of course, being a world leader in determining the outcome of World War II. FDR aimed to follow his cousin TR’s lead. Theodore Roosevelt did not preside over a war or an economic collapse but, nonetheless, TR was a most consequential president. TR’s presidency (1901-1909) was about grand progressive accomplishments like creating the Food and Drug Administration and the National Forest and Park Service. With that said, with Presidents Day upon us, it is a pleasure to share with you this recent graphic biography of Teddy Roosevelt.
Page excerpt from Teddy
This graphic novel originates from the author’s one-man stage show, Teddy Tonight. Laurence Luckinbill is a stage actor and writer known for his one-man shows of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Clarence Darrow and Lyndon Johnson. Luckinbill’s script for this book adapts his stage show in words while Eryck Tait further condenses with his artwork. By anyone’s standards, this is a remarkable book, and while this is quite suitable for high school students, it can certainly be enjoyed by fans of history, theater and graphic novels in general. From the examples on view here, you can see that Eryck Tait has done an admirable job of following Luckinbill’s script. It’s a highly economical and functional style, clear and crisp. You don’t need any additional flourishes for a book like this. You are better served to stay concise and practical.
Page excerpt from Teddy
Given that this is coming from a one-man show, we have TR addressing a theater. He is now a former president there to review his life and times and comment on the news of the day. It is July of 1918, Woodrow Wilson is in the White House, and World War I is still raging. TR has received word that his son Quentin’s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. Ask any playwright or dedicated theater-goer and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done on the stage. It is as limitless as one’s imagination. Ask any cartoonist or comics fan and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done in a graphic novel. So, given that this book is a byproduct of the theater and of comics, you say can you’re getting the best of both worlds. Comics, by its very nature, is a creature of concise language, so you get a steady roll out of time and place, which is most fitting for a book focusing on history. And you also get the nicely composed scenes needed to tell a personal story as this is as much biography as history.
Page excerpt from Teddy
Teddy Roosevelt, creator of the modern American presidency and the bully pulpit, is a source of endless fascination. No one book will tell the whole story and that only seems right for such a larger-than-life character as TR. Theodore Roosevelt himself wrote nearly 50 books, from lengthy accounts on The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882; to four volumes on The Winning of the West, published in 1896; to his final book, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children, published in 1919. So, how about a “picture book,” as he might have called it, about his life and times, based on a stage production, published in 2021? Well, Teddy would probably find that very agreeable and give it a hearty, “Bully!”
There are a lot of kids in my neighborhood. And some are more outspoken. The other day, one said it all. The little tike had just learned to ride his bike. And, with glee, he announced to his parents: “SO LONG, SUCKERS!” The parents thought that was hilarious. But was it, really? Where did he pick that up and why did he think it was okay to say that? I guess some things are just meant not to overanalyze. However, you adopt that kind of thinking and it’s a slippery slope. You can connect it all the way up to Republicans who choose to abandon reason and integrity and follow the wrong leader off a cliff. Anyway, there’s some background that led to my drawing this cartoon.
It’s always a pleasure to get to do some shop talk with a fellow creative. Here is an interview with Kibla Ahmed, a comic artist, collector, and pop culture reviewer. I happen to have stumbled upon an online workshop that Kibla did recently from his London studio. It seemed to me a great opportunity to support a promising emerging artist. Perhaps the fact that this workshop was going on in London sealed the deal for me. For regular followers of my blog, you know how much fun Jennifer and I had on our visit to London in 2019. One of our favorite spots in London was Orbital Comics!
Illustration by Kibla Ahmet
I did my best to contact as many creative folks as possible and I did get to set up and follow through on some great interviews while I was in Europe. Well, since returning to Seattle, that trip left me wanting to seek out any opportunity to do more interviews across the pond. I did one recently with Sayra Begum. And now I present to you another UK talent, Kibla Ahmed.
The artist takes a coffee break.
It turns out that Kibla and I share quite a lot of common ground. We love comics, that’s a given. And we’re both determined to follow our own creative path. Plus we definitley have a similar interest in time travel. We both have our own ideas on how to pursue that theme in our creative work. Iconic time travel movies like Intersellar and Back to the Future, of course, resonate with us on a deep level. But, I have to say, Kibla has got me beat since his marriage ceremony included a bonafide DeLorean! Now, that’s dedication. I hope you enjoy our shop talk. We cover a little of everything and Kibla has lots to share about the creative process.
Be sure to visit Kibla Ahmed at his art site right here.
I just thought I’d share a bit on the process of making comics and illustrations, or just art in general. Right now, what’s important is establishing a certain vibe. Annie is the studios and adventurous type. She will greet someone with a question, trying to quickly gauge a person’s goals and motivations.
Manifesto Items #10. by David Lasky. self-published. Seattle, 2020. 60pp. $10.
When I find a worthy subject, I’ll add a dash or two of me into the mix. In this case, I present to you an ongoing series by cartoonist David Lasky. What I like about it is that I see some of my own passions. I guess, off and on, I’ve been following Lasky’s work for over twenty years. He’s a dedicated guy and he’s created some wonderful moments in comics through his various comic books and mini-comics. Where Lasky has trodded, so have I. The indie landscape is a very rocky road where you keep on truckin’ and, maybe with a little help from your friends, see what you can get.
Paul Gauguin used to ask, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” These are the sort of big questions that pepper a lot of indie comics and done well a la Lasky. The Lasky universe is one that nibbles at a vast array of mystery and wonder and then finds a spot or two to feast upon and then dutifully report back to the hive. It’s a groovy gentle world of observations, hearty calls to action, and melancholic ruminations. Of course, we want to see more of this in comics but maybe some readers don’t even know what they’re missing until they stumble upon a Lasky gem. Well, with all that said, this latest Lasky work collects a bunch of quirky and offbeat content, as I’ve just suggested.
We begin with, well, it’s a little hard to say. It’s more like one little thing happens that leads to another slightly bigger little thing: a collage poem starts off with Bela Logosi and then gives way to a homage to comics and a tribute to the late great Tom Spurgeon; one exquisite corpse bends to another; tributes to cats lead to tributes to The Beatles; and, as we move along, some diehard fans might spot items that have appeared elsewhere like a page from an anthology about the US border patrol or comics from a workshop at Seattle’s Hugo House.
Walt Whitman a la Lasky
And then we’re hit with something special, like Lasky’s ode to Walt Whitman. Some of Lasky’s favorite, and best, work is literary adaption. For this collection, he provides a generous stretch of comics from Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
A saucer in search of a cup.
Taken in as a whole, the slow rhythm of alternating images, the searching quality of it all, disparate items, enigmatic and uncanny, it all adds up to a David Lasky experience. It’s like mashing up sleepy Garrison Keillor with a touch of sly David Lynch. Case in point: A Lasky comic that depicts someone looking amused upon seeing flying saucers but actually more disturbed when they beam up her cup of coffee. I suspect that Lasky was zoning into a stream-of-consciousness experiment–his mind zeroed in on saucers and couldn’t resist matching it up with a cup. I’ll have to ask David about it the next chance I get or he is more than welcome to leave an answer in the comments section. Your observations are also most welcome.
So, as I say, this is weird art for art’s sake, good ole fashioned unapologetically offbeat stuff. The humor is so dry that a slight wind could knock it over. But that’s what makes it so distinctive. That is what I am attracted to since my humor can veer off into very dry territory. Maybe David and I have that in common. We’re both rather sensitive souls I’ll have you know. Maybe it’s something in the Pacific Northwest air that we’ve been breathing into our lungs all of these overcast years. Something about it that compels a cartoonist to match a flying saucer with a cup of coffee.
I ask that you keep going on this journey with me. I have been carving this niche for years and I feel like I’ve got it at quite a cozy level with just the right content and pacing. That said, it’s time for another thoughtful interview. For my video interviews, I add here a few notes and observations. Traditional journalism, like hard news reportage, will take an interview and create a concise summation. Some magazines are known for their long sprawling interviews where everything is transcribed. Of course, we also have a long tradition of various talk show formats, some thoughtful and some that are so casual as to blur right in with a dance segment on Tik Tok. Hey, I have nothing against fun and entertainment and I’ll engage in that when it makes sense. But, for interviews, I take them seriously, prepare for them, take off my Joe Cool hat and don’t engage in any dancing. Although, in a metaphorical sense, a good interview is sort of like a dance. The person conducting the interview leads while the person who is the subject of the interview goes about picking up one cue after another and making something out of it.
A bus driver finds solace through the suspension of disbelief.
Anyway, I say all this because it’s particularly relevant to this interview. Essentially, this is an interview about interviews: how to conduct one, what it means, what you attempt to get out of it. I interviewed Julia Wald about her new book, The Suspension of Disbelief (review), an illustrated collection of interviews she conducted about life and work during Covid-19. In the course of the interview, we ended up talking about what it means when you’re working at a restaurant during a world-wide pandemic and suddenly it’s like all the lights are out and then, just as suddenly, you are out of a job, your source of income. We discuss who might have stepped in to help and who didn’t.
A disadvantaged man finds hope through knowledge.
And, finally, once an artistic and talented person is inspired to create a book about Covid-19, what responsibility, if any, does she have to the vulnerable people she has interviewed? Well, part of the answer goes back to the dance. If the dance partners have established a sense of trust, then there’s a very good chance that something worthwhile will result that everyone can be proud of. We focus in a bit on American journalist Studs Terkel (1912-2008), the icon of what came to be known as “literary journalism.” Terkel was most active from the 1950s to 1990s, creating his seminal collection of interviews, Working, in 1974. He was part of that old-fashioned gumshoe journalist/creative tradition: loyal to his readers and listeners, to his Chicago, and to the art and craft of journalism. Julia says that Terkel inspired her on her Covid-19 project and it shows and, ultimately, it demonstrates that she did right by all who she interviewed. Julia did it the right way, the old-fashioned way that involves hard work and integrity. It’s the best way. And it’s what inspires me to keep going on this journey.