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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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Review: ‘All the Places in Between’

All the Places in Between

All the Places in Between. John Cei Douglas. Liminal 11. 2021. 120pp. $14.95

John Cei Douglas has a nice light whimsical style that serves him well with themes of mental health and relationships that he explores in picture books, comics and editorial pieces. In his latest book, All the Places in Between, he brings together all he knows to create quite a wondrous work. An “auteur cartoonist” is your best definition of this unique hybrid of artist-writer. And it is best to let that creative run wild and pursue their vision. While I was in London, my first stop was the House of Illustration where I gazed upon the works of such visionaries as Posy Simmonds. Her work follows a more traditional comic strip format but nonetheless is uniquely her own. Douglas has all the great vision and skill at his disposal and I absolutely look forward to seeing more of his work.

Douglas published a first collection of stories in conjunction with Great Beast Comics and completed his MA in Illustration from the prestigious University of the Arts London in 2013. This long form work of comics is wordless and the narrative is open to interpretation. It is not so much a story, per se, as a visual essay on the struggles one can face in processing reality and expressing one’s own reality. You are more following a feeling, a dream, than a storyline. Notice the simple set of lines separating the “panels,” as opposed to framing each moment within its own individual square as you usually find in mainstream comic books. It’s a relatively minor consideration but it could be a sticking point with some publishers who feel obligated to keeping to a set pattern. All it does is hem in the artist.

Douglas has a very light and graceful style that is endearing and inviting. Essentially, this narrative of sorts involves two girls. We never learn their names or much of anything about their background. They might be living in two separate worlds–or they might live right next door to each other. The blonde character appears to be pulled into the world of the brunette character. And this new place, seems to be, or feels like it is, set in some post-Apocalypse dystopian nightmare.

The characters find each other, become splendid companions, then they lose each other and ultimately find their own unique paths. It’s a weird and offbeat journey filled with a lyrical and haunting quality. In the end, it’s more about the journey, finding your way, and keeping your feet steadily upon the ground meeting challenges along the way.

Douglas’s work will intrigue and lift the reader’s spirits. His spare and clean line work is deceptively simple. As I have pointed out, Douglas forgoes the traditional panels you often find in comics in favor of basic dividing lines. Douglas strives to pare down. In general, comics is about paring down. It is a sensibility that you find among the best work in the comics medium whether indie/art house or more traditional comics. And in Douglas’s case, overall, it is this simplicity that affords his work with a more zen-like vibe that transports the reader. If you enjoy those quirky cartoonists, like Quentin Blake or Jean-Jacques Sempé,  who always manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat when you least expect it, then you’ll certainly enjoy the work of John Cei Douglas.

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Review: ‘Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel’ by Christopher Sperandio

Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel

Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel. Christopher Sperandio. Argle Bargle Books. 2020. 96pp. $21.99

Artist Christopher Sperandio is onto something. As he related to us in a recent interview, it dawned on him what he could do with public domain comics and it just killed him that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. As reviewed here at Comics Grinder, the latest book in this series is Greenie Josephinie. We are going to go back just a bit and focus on the title that kicked it all off last year, Pinko Joe.

Enter a man in a bright pink suit.

Due to the pandemic, I think this series, like so many titles, is still getting on reader’s radars. But this is not a problem in the long run. There’s an eerie timeless quality to this multi-layered work that defies easy categorization. The source material is from the past (shifted and unmoored) in the service of subverting various issues from the present and let loose upon an uncertain and distant future. We see testament to the beauty of this process  from the very opening page, filled with disparate images (featuring a guy in a bright pink suit that David Bowie would have been pleased to wear) from some long forgotten past, images that are being propelled into a loopy present and future. Enter a man in a bright pink suit, nicknamed, “Pinko Joe,” by the merciless right-wing media.

“Capitalism is always evaluated against dreams! Utopia is a dream! It doesn’t exist!”

My theory is that every comics genre gives off a certain vibe, even if the excerpt you are viewing is totally out of context and you can barely figure out what is going on. That is part of the beauty behind what Sperandio is up to since his source material runs the gamut of genres: crime, romance, science fiction and horror. Then you lay on top of that the subversive adventures of Pinko Joe, a down-on-his-luck wage slave/activist from another planet! It becomes a battle royale between the socialists led by Pinko Joe and the uber-capitalist gangsters in an alternate reality where Eisenhower is at the helm of a third term and the rise of the very military-industrial complex he warned about–and which he can dismantle with a little help from his friends!

The wild and droll world of Pinko Joe!

The narrative to this graphic novel is broken up into episodic chunks just as you find in a comic book. While this is definitely a very different kind of graphic novel, and will definitely appeal to a certain discerning reader, the droll political humor is really funny and has broad appeal. Think of the audience for The Daily Show or for Real Time with Bill Maher. Let’s break down a random full page. Based upon the list of sources at the back of the book, this is probably originally a page from a comic book, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, published by Ace Magazines, October 1950. On the page, a dapper young man appears to defend a wealthy family from thugs. In the Sperandio treatment, it is Pinko Joe who is defending a father and daughter business from capitalist gangsters. The dialogue is fun and irreverent. Panel 2 makes a nice stand-alone as Pinko Joe knocks out one of the “fascists.”

“Knuckles for you, fascist!”

There’s a pure vision to what Sperandio is doing and I’m sure it will guide him onwards. Many an artist has come before with a tribute or a revisiting of past art. This tribute and revisiting by Sperandio, a manipulation of comics, and a comic all its own, is something Andy Warhol would have applauded. Maybe Warhol would never have ventured in such a direction himself or maybe he might have hired Sperandio to join him. My guess is that Sperandio would say thanks, but no thanks.

Find PINKO JOE and  GREENIE JOSEPHENIE, along with other fine books, at Argle Bargle Books!

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Review: ‘Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson’

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. Art and text by Sharon Rudahl. Edited by Paul Buhle & Lawrence Ware. Rutgers University Press. 2020. 142pp. $19.95

There once was a time when it would have been as common to find a framed print of Paul Robeson (1898- 1976) as it would have been to find one of Bob Dylan. Paul Robeson became ingrained in the public mind from his landmark performances in such classics as 1933’s The Emperor Jones, and 1936’s Showboat. Robeson went on to become a popular champion of progressive ideals stemming from his scholarship and activism. With the same spirit as a powerful painter or incisive novelist, an industrious cartoonist like Sharon Rudahl (Wimmen’s Comix, A Dangerous Woman) can transport, enlighten and entertain. So is the case with Rudahl’s graphic novel adaptation of the life and times of Paul Robeson.

Onward to England.

Sharon Rudahl’s comics narrative provides the kind of compelling content that goes a long way to helping the reader process this multi-layered narrative. Images and concise passages of text are highlighted in subtle and direct ways by Rudahl, all the better to be suitable for lingering upon by the reader. It is a long and compelling journey for Paul Robeson, already a promising star during his time as a student at Rutgers University. Robeson was a major figure in the rise of anti-colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, and a tireless campaigner for internationalism, peace, and human rights. Later in life, he embraced the civil rights and anti-war movements with the hope that new generations would attain his ideals of a peaceful and abundant world. This graphic novel is published in conjunction with Rutgers University’s centennial commemoration of Robeson’s 1919 graduation from the university.⁠

Ancestors denied justice.

The story of Paul Robeson begins by looking back a few generations. This graphic novel begins in North Carolina in 1828. We steadily progress to 1901 and the struggles of Rev. William Robeson, at odds with Princeton University for daring to “rise above his station” and for actually speaking out about lynchings. He is chastised for “stirring up trouble between the races” and fired from his post at Witherspoon Presbyterian. The reverend’s firing was finally triggered by his repeated requests for Princeton to admit his son, Bill. It’s interesting to note how Rudahl cuts into the space to cleanly highlight various pieces of text. The Princeton committee members tower over Rev. Robeson and he is trapped by a series of hateful statements. But the tide would indeed change.

The Emperor Jones leads to iconic status.

What really strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how organic it is and how her free-flowing approach totally supports the narrative. I have a number of theories about comics and one essential one is that auteur cartoonists need to have the freedom to pursue their vision. Some cartoonists have a signature style and others have their own particular approach. Both style and approach are very closely aligned. For instance, an artist like Milton Caniff has a very distinctive look. Maybe it’s a marriage of style and approach. It’s a balancing act. In general, an artist-cartoonist in pursuit of art does not want a signature style to rule over them. It’s better to have a robust set of options in your tool kit and so you follow your own particular approach–and that’s what I see coming from Rudahl, a pure artist doing her own thing.

Show Boat meets Black Power

You see what I’m saying with each and every example here. It’s like any given page could be turned into a painting. The potential to do that is there. So, with a cartoonist too caught up in just delivering a signature style, you can run into issues of it getting too repetitive and descending into, more or less, eye candy. But with an artist like Rudahl, you have someone who is genuinely invested in telling a story. It’s this kind of artist who will get into a zone, create a vision, that will resonate with the reader.

Paul Robeson, the activist.

The story of Paul Robeson is one of struggle and perseverance. Robeson was an exceptionally gifted, talented, and driven individual. And, despite that, he had to struggle to prove himself. Even after he had gained undisputed recognition and notoriety, he still had to overcome obstacles thrown his way. First, he overcame racial barriers. Later on, with a platform to voice his views, he could find himself at odds with the U.S. government. And, finally, with the passage of time, he had to overcome any distrust from a younger generation that might have seen him as somehow out of touch with current trends. It is fitting to have a visionary like Rudahl tell Robeson’s story. It is all the more fitting to have Robeson’s alma mater, Rutgers University, publish such a work. Also, it is worthwhile to mention that it is a university press that will most likely be most receptive to more artistic material like this than other publishers. That said, Sharon Rudahl, and editors Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, have all worked together to create a unique tribute to an All-American hero, Paul Robeson.

Singing at the Peace Arch, in Blaine, Washington, bordering the U.S. and Canada.

Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson is published by Rutgers University Press.

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Review: ‘Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching’

Elegy for Mary Turner

Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso Books. 2021. 80pp. $17.46

“In this particular historical moment when young Black people are engaged in a renewed struggle against state violence, Mary Turner’s story resonates. She insists that we #SayHerName too.”

The phrase, “Seeing is believing,” is apt when thinking about the killing of George Floyd. It echoes lynching in America, done in plain sight, the perpetrators confident there would be little to no consequences. But these heinous acts were seen nonetheless, witnessed and documented. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an artist and teacher, has created a visual testament to one of the most horrific of lynchings: on May 20, 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, 8 months pregnant, was brutally murdered, set on fire, her live baby pulled out and stomped to death. The mob then shot at Mary Turner’s corpse hundreds of time. Mary Turner was lynched because she dared to object to the lynching of her husband, Hayes, the day before.

A work like this achieves not only the goal of informing but also of haunting the reader. These images, not meant to shock but to testify, will stay with you. The full-color art and collage work names those who were killed, identifies the killers, and evokes the landscape in which the NAACP investigated the crimes when the state would not. In the big scheme, these lynchings occurred only yesterday. A book like this one brings home that fact.

Page excerpt from Elegy for Mary Turner

Williams chronicles all the events related to a series of lynchings which included Mary Turner. It all began as a quarrel between Hampton Smith, a plantation owner, and Sidney Johnson, a modern-day slave working indefinitely for Smith who had an ongoing scheme of paying off jail fines in return for indentured servitude. The quarrel became heated. Smith beat Johnson. Subsequently, Johnson returned and ended up shooting Smith and his wife. He killed Smith. And he nearly killed his wife. She was pregnant at the time. This incident triggered a lynching spree, between May 17 to 24, 1918, of any Blacks in the surrounding Brooks and Lowndes counties. This resulted in a mob killing 10 men, one woman, Mary Turner, and her baby.

C. Tyrone Forehand (great-grandnephew of Hayes and Mary Turner) provides a postscript. There you will find vivid chilling details like this:

“Rufus Morrison was only ten years old when he was hiding in a cornfield along Ryalls Road in the town of Barney and witnessed Mary Turner’s execution. The memory of a frightened and bewildered woman was forever etched in his mind as he saw the mob tie a rope to her ankles and hoist her upside down from a tree. They taunted and jeered a terrified Mary as they began to roast her alive. One of the members of the mob took a swig of moonshine from a jug and spat it on her as another dared him to slit open her abdomen where her unborn child was oblivious to the fate which was about to befall it.”

The fact is that “seeing is believing” but it’s reading the facts that will give you an deeper picture.

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Review: ‘It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940–1980’

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

It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940–1980. edited by Dan Nadel, essays by Charles Johnson and Ronald Wimberly New York Review Comics. 2021. 200pp. $24.95

A woke joke from 1944.

Here’s a scene that looks like it could be a satire on woke sensibility: a white man is besides himself trying to convince a black woman that he’s not inherently racist. In fact, this is not recent at all but part of a comic strip from the 1940s. This is just one of the gems that you will find in a fascinating collection of comics by Black cartoonists. It’s Life As I See It is published in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, running from June 19 – October 3, 2021, and curated by Dan Nadel.

A sly riff on Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This scene is from the comic strip, Bungleton Green and The Mystic Commandos, from 1944, by Jay Jackson. As is the case with all the comics in this collection, Jackson’s comic is part subversive satire and part giving back to the Black community. And, like all the work found here, this is a comic strip that ran in a Black publication. All this work was mostly intended for a Black audience since it was shut out of any white publications at the time. So, at the very least, this is an example of necessity being the mother of invention. You go where you’re wanted. Getting back to this satirical Sci-Fi comic strip, the idea here is that Jackson took what he knew about science fiction and turned it on its head, particularly the John Carter from Mars pulp fiction saga going back to 1912, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In that story, a confederate soldier must confront red and green people from Mars. In Jackson’s twist, white people are at the bottom of the totem pole and must navigate life subjegated by the green Martians. It doesn’t seem right, does it? Like it’s out of some Sci-Fi nightmare!

From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson

Well, there’s more of that fine satire to be found here. I was especially struck by the gag cartoons by Charles Johnson. Again, we happen upon a piece that could just as easily be tweaking the woke generation but is, in fact, from another era. Would today’s youth be able to handle such a joke? In the gag, you have a Black couple sitting on a stoop, apparently making plans for the evening. One character asks, “Do you have a date for tomorrow’s riot?” It is droll humor indeed. It’s a joke, a jest, a way to relieve pressure.

You either cry–or you find a way to laugh.

Finally, one last example of the wicked humor that you find here. This one is by Tom Floyd. And I believe we have got us here a trifecta since, yet again, this cartoon is just as relevant today as it was in 1969. This gag cartoon depicts a Black man navigating his way through the white-collar workforce and the clumsy reaction from white co-workers. Yes, we’ve made progress–but we still have many more hills to climb. It is important to note that Floyd’s gag cartoons were collected into the book, Integration Is a Bitch!, published in 1969. And that title goes hand in hand with the collection of gag cartoons by Charles Johnson, Black Humor, published in 1970. Both these books were beloved by fans and provided inspiration for so many, including a whole new generation of Black cartoonists.
And there’s much more. The book features the work of Tom Floyd, Grass Green, Seitu Hayden, Jay Jackson, Charles Johnson, Yaoundé  Olu, Turtel Onli, Jackie Ormes, and Morrie Turner. It is a wonderful comprehensive collection. Dig deep and you’ll be absorbed by such work as Morrie Turner’s radical mixed-race strip Dinky Fellas or the Afrofuturist comics of Yaoundé Olu and Turtel Onli. I was very moved by the creative journey of Charles Johnson who, always drawing comics, went on to become a successful novelist, winning the National Book Award, and a professor at the University of Washington. If you are new to Johnson, I highly recommend reading Oxherding Tale. Growing up with dreams of becoming a professional cartoonist, Johnson convinced his father to let him take a two-year cartooning correspondence course taught by novelist and longtime Best Cartoons of the Year editor Lawrence Lariar. While fully aware it would be an uphill climb, Johnson had to overcome plenty of reasons to be discouraged such as The New Yorker being a virtually all-white publication with no intention, at the time, of bringing in Black cartoonists. You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. Johnson was compelled to keep on creating work. He chose to laugh. He succeeded many time over those who would do him harm. I’m fascinated by the fact that, in 1970, then only 22 years-old, Johnson hosted Charlie’s Pad, a how-to-draw show on PBS. It was based on the cartooning course he took from Lawrence Lariar, and inspired by Lariar’s own TV spots in the ’50s and ’60s where he would create a cartoon at the end of a news program. The seeds were sown. Johnson would indeed have the last laugh.

 

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT is published by New York Review Comics, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, June 19–October 3, 2021. Curated by Dan Nadel.

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The Tulsa Race Massacre in Comics: ‘Across the Tracks’

Across the Tracks

The Tulsa Race Massacre, taking place one hundred years ago today, is being discussed now more than ever in various media. One attempt to present this event in comics is Across the Tracks, a compact book that packs a lot of information. It is part of the imprint, Megascope, within ComicArts, published by Abrams. Megascope is a great way to showcase graphic novel projects that focus on people of color through the prism of speculative and nonfiction works.

Lively Greenwood Avenue

This book is a prime example. Writer Alverne Ball and illustrator Stacey Robinson take the reader on a tour marked by tragedy but not without hope and inspiration. In fact, a good part of the narrative is devoted to the marvel that was the original Greenwood community of Tulsa, an all Black community known as The Negro Wall Street. In the span of 58 pages, the reader is provided with great insight into systemic racism as seen throughout American history. It is a straightforward approach that lets history speak for itself.

 

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Comics Artist John Paul Leon (1972-2021)

The Winter Men by Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon

John Paul Leon, an amazing artist in the comics industry with a highly distinctive style, has passed away. I got to know his writing partner, Brett Lewis, and that was such a treat. Brett, if you read this, please contact me. If you want to find out what John Paul Leon was all about, then just seek out THE WINTER MEN, one of the most dazzling and offbeat works of comics you will ever read: so quirky and inventive with its loving tribute to spy thriller tropes in a deliciously subversive way! This is all thanks to the creative team of Leon and Lewis. I love comics and I’m associated with comics on so many levels but it all comes down to the honest hard-working individuals who genuinely have something real and vital to bring to the table. John Paul Leon was such an individual. He is beloved within the industry and by the many fans who got to know his work.

John Paul Leon artwork for Static Shock

John Paul Leon, best known for his artwork for Static Shock and Earth X, gave us a highly energetic and gritty style all his own. Leon died on May 1, 2021, at the age of 49, after a long battle with cancer. The news came via Chris Conroy, a senior editor at DC Comics. He wrote: “It seems the news is out. Last night we lost John Paul Leon, one of the greatest draftsmen in the history of comics, the kind of artist that EVERY artist revered. Those who loved him had some warning, but not enough.” For the ultimate tribute to Leon, read this by Michael Davis, co-founder of Milestone Comics and co-creator of Static Shock.

May 5, 2021 by Tommy Lee Edwards, Organizer
Today was my first attempt at a full work-day since losing JP. Feels like I’ve lost a limb. My sounding board has gone silent. My rudder is broken & my boat’s full of holes. Glasses are fogged & it’s hard to read the map. Reading the lovely comments on this GoFundMe page is helping me stay the course, tho. Thank you.

A GoFundMe has been set up in support of a trust for John Paul Leon’s family. It is organized by Tommy Lee Edwards, John Paul’s studiomate.

Excerpt from Static Shock

Next, let me share with you a post from John Paul Leon’s dear friend and creative partner, Brett Lewis. You can find this and a lot of other goodies by visiting Brett at his Patreon. I only share this one particular post since it is so fitting at this time. This was originally posted back in August of 2020 and is a touching reminiscence of events prior to working on The Winter Men.

The Mail Man by Brett Lewis and John Paul Lewis

Years before Winter Men finally got set up at Vertigo, while we were still shopping it around, i found myself editing and writing a Karl Malone comic book adventure.

(He is a famous now-former basketball player for the Utah Jazz.)

I’ve never looked down on well-executed licensed books the way some do (especially then) and i didn’t want to hire or work with any hacks.

John Paul Leon is always at 100% commitment level and we’d been looking to do something long form for years. I’d also been encouraging him to ink his own work for years (an easier said than done leap in those days) and wanted to see him explore in comics the sort of line qualities& open to color linework he utilized beautifully in his private work & life drawing –where he explored his love of things like Alex Toth fully as well as the kind of gestural 60s-70s editorial illustration style we studied with Jack Potter at SVA. This seemed like a good time and place.

This seemed right.

Best selling comic in the history of Utah. And i did a press conference with the guy, Malone, which was fairly surreal.

The color printed too dark/oversaturated, but the original colors by my other college friend, and John’s hometown friend, Bernard Chang were lovely.

The character designs were by me and the great illustrator and designer Chris Jordon. Maybe i can find some of those.

Above are the only images from it i have at the moment. **

**

Was working on getting a PDF for you guys to enjoy the whole story and original colors, but by a confluence of events the old zip disk it was on has come to be missing in the effects of my friend who had been working on all my old computers and hard drives to rescue into accessibility some files of old projects when he died,

and due to quarantine i can’t go search where i need to go search for it. Yet.

Still hope.

I hope there remain many other small hopes where you are too.

— Brett Lewis

John Paul Leon artwork for BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT

There’s an old link buried somewhere within the innards of this site that has by old review of The Winter Men. I will go ahead and post it all here as it is such a wonderful time capsule and just goes to show the excitement that comics can elicit. The Winter Men was part of the Wildstorm imprint (originally, it began as part of Vertigo) at DC Comics and stands as an amazing example of the artful and edgy stuff you can find at DC Comics when all the stars align themselves properly! Ah, this is a double feature as it also includes a review of another oldie but goodie, RED HERRING. This would be a great time to issue a special hardcover edition of The Winter Men. Let DC Comics know how you feel if this strikes a chord with you.

REVIEWS

Well, wet your whistle on this, pardner. This review was originally posted at Newsarama, November 18, 2009:

REVIEW: THE WINTER MEN

“The Winter Men” is a patchwork quilt of observations and red herrings that takes the spy thriller to new heights of eccentric fun. It’s one of those stories that starts out about being one thing and ends up embracing everything. Meet Kris Kalenov, the main character in “The Winter Men,” he is your guide into the underworld and beyond. It’s a new world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Kalenov is no longer a star player in a Soviet secret weapons program. He has become a Moscow cop, usually full of vodka and, at the start of this tale, is keeled over drunk on a sidewalk covered in snow.

I did not discover “The Winter Men” when it was a comic book but, considering its production delays, including its switchover from Vertigo to Wildstorm, it’s understandable that it somehow slipped by me. Luckily, I did not have to experience any long waits between issues and got to read this new collected trade in one sitting. This is a good read anytime and anywhere but I also see it as perfect inflight reading. Aren’t spy thrillers very popular in airport bookstores? I believe this to be so. It’s because you’re out of your element and open to adventure.

One big thing about “The Winter Men” is that it gets you way out of your element. It’s like “Goodfellas,” one of the best movies about gang life, all about wiseguys and getting whacked. “The Winter Men,” is all about Russia’s new Mafiya and its biznessmen and getting under the right roof. There’s also something akin to “Watchmen” going on in the background, a uber-man that was once the pride of Mother Russia, but it’s Kalenov and his rough and shady bunch, that will have you delight over this convoluted plot as you would in, say, an Elmore Leonard novel.

“The Winter Men” has a real attitude about it too. It promises the world, heroically keeps up with its ambition and, if it falters, shrugs like a good world-weary Russian. Kalenov, our drunk Moscow cop who once was so much more, would prefer to just live quietly and make do with his less than perfect marriage. But too much has happened in the past and it can’t be ignored. “We once filled the sky with heroes…but now they’ve fallen to earth…” That is an intriguing refrain that is looped throughout the book. Within the span of the first few pages: hints of the Soviet super-hero program, a woman is shot, a child is kidnapped and Kalenov is picked up from the snow and enlisted to solve the crime of the century, although he doesn’t know that yet.

All this reminds me of any number of very good television series that, from the narrative, the characters and the production value, are clearly a cut above. And these shows usually make big promises and it’s okay if they don’t deliver on all of them since it’s the world that the characters inhabit that’s most rewarding. I think of shows like, “Life on Mars,” at least the American version, or “Life” or “Dollhouse.” In fact, it’s interesting to consider if these shows would have done better in finding an audience if they were less about process and more about results but, then again, these shows are primarily about attitude. The promises they make, real or not, can be legitimate fuel for the story’s engine.

Another connection to “Watchmen,” I think, is the group of heroes that Kalenov originally belonged to. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the line-up is recalled by Kalenov in a regular loop throughout the book: Drost, the soldier; Nikki, the gangster; Nina, the bodyguard; Kalenov, the poet; for a total of four, or five, if you include The Siberian. There’s even a sepia toned photograph of the gang in much happier times: Nikki has just told a joke and it has The Siberian in stitches. Along with the irony, it’s those details, the atmosphere and texture that this book thrives on.

There are a couple of scenes that come to mind. And, like everything else here, the writer and artist team of Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon tackle it with gusto. One has Kalenov and Nikki creating a disturbance in a McDonald’s so that they can unbolt from the floor a plastic table and chairs console to take home. The employee desperately tries to convince an irate Kalenov that the mayonnaise does adhere to city regulations with “well above the forty percent fat requirement.” Another good one has Nikki in the middle of a full-on turf war with other soft drink vendors. Informing the mayhem and murder are quotes from a self-help best-seller like, “Lose Control to the Maximum.”

Perhaps your reading of “The Winter Men” will find it keeping to all its promises and even holding the answer to the meaning to life. God knows, it is certainly within its reach. If you find fault, some blame, maybe a good bit of it, can go to the fact the series was cut from a promised eight issues down to six. There are parts to the story that do appear truncated. And the ending does seem to come all too quickly. However, the fact remains that this comic is really about the quirk and it’s all there for you to enjoy.

“The Winter Men” collected trade releases on November 25.

Hope you enjoyed this installment of Comics Grinder and I welcome you back for more. You can always check in too at the Comics Grinder site.

And here’s another quirky title, very much up my alley, that I enjoyed from way back. This review was first published at Newsarama on August 12, 2009:

Wildstorm-Red-Herring

Best Shots Extra: WildStorm’s RED HERRING #1
by Henry ChamberlainDate: 12 August 2009 Time: 05:55 PM ET 0 0Reddit0Submit0

Red Herring #1
Writer: David Tischman
Pencils: Philip Bond
Inks: David Hahn
Color: Guy Major
Lettering: Rob Leigh
Published by DC Wildstorm

Reviewed by: Henry Chamberlain

In Stores Today, August 12, 2009

Well, it’s true, as David Tischman says in a recent Newsarama interview, Philip Bond knows how to draw sexy women. So does David Hahn. That’s how we lead into Wildstorm’s latest cool caper comic, Red Herring. A young woman in a lacy bra has just slipped into a pump while chatting on her cell phone. Her languorous pose is surrounded by little bits of intimate narration: “It’s been crazy-busy at the office and talking to your mother calms you down.” We proceed a few pages as Maggie MacGuffin tries to find the right outfit while keeping in mind, as the story title suggests, “Blue Makes Her Look Fat.”

With such a stylish beginning, we smoothly move through what is a top-notch sly and sexy story. One goal of this opener is to connect Maggie MacGuffin with male lead, the titular Red Herring. As characters, they could not be more different. They seem to only share the fact that their names represent literary dead ends, false clues in a mystery, but they prove to be very much alive. They are not meant for each other but that could be fun too.

I haven’t had quite as much fun with a comic since another Wildstorm series, Mysterius the Unfathomable. This is a totally different scene, the world of high rollers and espionage in Washington D. C., but it’s definitely got a similar ultra-cool and clever style. Where Mysterius was very good with details about magicians, Red Herring provides the right balance of insider dealing and conspiracy theorist satisfaction.

We already know that things are never quite as they seem so it makes perfect sense to spice up the ambiguity by having fate bring together a party girl with a conscience, Maggie MacGuffin, and an earnest gumshoe secret agent, Red Herring. Couldn’t make matters any worse, could do it? Well, maybe so. Did I mention there is a possible alien subplot and people are already trying to kill Red before he kills them? Yeah, things could get very messy.

This first issue is probably chock full of MacGuffins and red herrings. As for the details that add texture, they build up quite nicely. The narrator mocks Maggie as she struts her way to Capital Hill. “Compromise is the ESSENCE of politics. That’s what your AP History teacher said.” Maggie works down in the lower levels of Congress “where the offices are small and the salary’s even smaller. Two weeks barely pays for a good pair of shoes.” At first, we see Maggie filing away papers but then we come to find out this meek office worker is actually the lover of a high powered Congressman.

The tempo slows down for some procedural scenes with the no-nonsense Red Herring. So far, Red is proving to be a little too dry for his own good. But he has this thing about his glass eye and so he may prove to have some interesting issues. . Red is supposed to be about ten years older than Maggie and the plan, according to David Tischman, is to keep these two platonic. That could be a pity. Or maybe it’s a red herring.

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Filed under Brett Lewis, Comics, DC Comics, John Paul Lewis, Obituaries, Vertigo, Wildstorm

Review: ‘A Fire Story: Updated and Expanded Edition’

A Fire Story by Brian Fies

A Fire Story (Updated and Expanded Edition). Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 186pp, $18.99

As a creative, I’m one of these hybrids, a writer-artist. Many of my longtime followers already know that, right? Sometimes, I will receive a wonderful nugget of wisdom that can make life easier when working with issues of combining words and pictures. One outstanding example was from a conversation I had with cartoonist Brian Fies. He told me that he sort of learned the hard way that often the road to completing a graphic novel can be simplified considerably. He said that he found that the creation of elaborate drawings was not helping him. Often, the best route is to cut out the artfully rendered art and go with simple drawings. That interview was in March of 2019 in connection with the release of his book, A Fire Story. It is a fascinating book. You can read my review of it here and you can read my interview with Brian here. This is the story of the horrific 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Back then, Brian promptly created a quick on-the-spot work of comics reportage that went on to become a webcomic, and then an Emmy Award-winning work of animation–and ultimately, a graphic novel. Now, with two years of perspective, we have the definitive edition of that book.

Some perspective sure can help.

Much can change, and much can drag on, after two years passing. But some perspective sure can help all the same. Life moves on. Life goes on. That is the sort of spirit evoked in this expanded edition that adds a nice coda: a look two years after the events in the original graphic novel.

Upon reflection, more details fall into place.

It’s interesting to see what Brian chose to include to round things out. It’s a neatly balanced addition of items: a new profile; a few more observations; and, yes, even a few deftly placed artistic touches. All in all, this is the definitive edition to a book that will stand the test of time as an excellent example of crisp and concise visual storytelling. Over the years, Comics Grinder has become an undisputed repository for an assortment of issues related to comics. We do venture off to other subjects but I’m glad I’ve stuck around and have been able to make my contribution to documenting the progress of the comics medium. And I believe there is so much more to be said and to be explored, specifically the power of comics to communicate, to process information, and to inform.

Just the right details complete the story.

Enough time has passed since the original release of A Fire Story that it has allowed Brian Fies time for wounds to heal and memories to be processed. Of course, certain things can trigger a person and it can feel like it all just happened moments ago. But the reality is that progress has been made. Enough progress to make it easier to contemplate the centuries old Japanese tradition of kintsugi: the art of celebrating something broken by applying gold to rejoin it so as to call attention to all the broken pieces that have somehow found a way to become whole again.

If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.

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Filed under Abrams ComicArts, Brian Fies, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews

Interview with Artist Christopher Sperandio

Christopher Sperandio in his office at Rice University.

Christopher Sperandio got on my radar many years ago with Modern Masters, a comic book about art that I picked up in an art museum. Subsequently, I recall stumbling upon another title, in a similar vein, put together by Sperandio and his artistic partner Simon Grennan, together known as the Kartoon Kings. This was many years before you really saw an inclusion of much of any comics in a museum setting. Well, that has changed in many ways. I wonder how much the casual observer, the infrequent museum-goer, notices. Whatever the case, the comics medium maintains its presence, stays on the public’s radar as something to take seriously. Sperandio, among other things, makes wonderful contributions that add to the comics art form, like his new book, Greenie Josephinie.

MODERN MASTERS, DC Comics, 2002.

Sperandio has come a long way from Modern Masters to Greenie Joesphinie. And that is basically the framework I put to use for our conversation. Below are some notes on Sperandio’s career. I sincerely hope you enjoy this interview. I do these in depth talks as much for myself as for my audience and, in the end, it is my goal that the results help instruct and inspire, and document a bit about the ever-expanding comics and art scene. For me, the processing and discussing of these topics is like manna from heaven. I hope this exploration resonates with you as well.

Greenie Josephinie by Christopher Sperandio

In addition to putting himself through graduate school working as a truck driver, Christopher Sperandio, half of the artist team of Grennan & Sperandio, has produced 22 comics books as artworks for museums in the US and Europe. Bridging the High/Low divide, these works include Modern Masters, a cross-over comic for the Museum of Modern Art and published by DC Comics. Other works include Life in Prison and the Invisible City, published by Fantagraphics Books. He has been written about extensively in newspaper and magazines, as well as in books on the subject of art.

Protest Art as Instagram Meme.

He has produced new collaborative and artworks in conjunction with museums and art centers in the US, Germany, Northern Ireland, Denmark, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, and France. Commissioning institutions include MoMA/PS1, the Public Art Fund, Creative Time, London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Two of the landmark art exhibitions that he participated in are listed among the fifty most influential exhibitions of contemporary art in the book, SHOWTIME.  Sperandio was also the Creator and Executive Producer of ARTSTAR, an internationally syndicated documentary television series about emerging contemporary artists filmed in New York, Chicago and Miami.

Sperandio is an Associate Professor of Drawing and Painting at Rice University in Houston TX, where he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop. CATS is a classroom, academic research resource and exhibition space dedicated to the study of Comics. Sperandio also turned a diesel bus into an off-the-grid mobile living space, but that makes him sound… idiosyncratic. For more information, please visit: cats.rice.edu

Just click the link above for the interview. And for more information and to purchase Pinko Joe, Greenie Josephinie, or other compelling titles, be sure to visit Argle Bargle Books.

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Filed under Comics, Interviews