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Review: BLOOD AND DRUGS by Lance Ward

It’s basically come down to blood and drugs.

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

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

Down and out.

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

Triumph over adversity.

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

Blood and Drugs is published by Birdcage Bottom Books.

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

Small Press Expo executive director Warren Bernard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there an entry fee that goes with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I do.

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

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

Warren: (Laughs).

Pick one. You can only pick one.

I can only pick one, fuck.

You can pick two.

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

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

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

I’m going to bifurcate this for a second.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

It’s going to take some time.

Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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Lulu.com Relaunches New Site with Broad Range of Options

Lulu.com Supports Indie Authors!

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

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

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

Authors

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

CREATE YOUR BOOK

Educators

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

CREATE YOUR BOOK

Artists

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

CREATE YOUR BOOK

Nonprofits

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

CREATE YOUR BOOK

 

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Review: MITCHUM by Blutch

MITCHUM by Blutch

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

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

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

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

Beautiful, raw and unbridled Blutch!

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

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

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

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

A dazzling work by an uninhibited artist.

Mitchum is available through New York Review Comics.

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Interview: Steven Appleby and DRAGMAN

Dragman: Enough with the Secrets!

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

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

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

Dragman by Steven Appleby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Appleby, 2019

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Loomus comic strip.

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

Thank you for mentioning that.

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

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

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

Page from Dragman. Captain Star poster in the background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, absolutely.

That would be great.

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

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

Humans and Nature coexisting with Disruption

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

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Review: DRAGMAN by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby

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

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

Dragman on the case!

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

Clark Kent, meet August Crimp.

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

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

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Review: SPIT THREE TIMES by Davide Reviati

Spit Three Times by Davide Reviati

Spit Three Times by Davide Reviati. Seven Stories Press, New York, 2020. $28.95.

In the Age of Covid, add this to your #StayAtHome reading list: a sprawling graphic novel in the grand tradition by a romantic Italian artist-writer, a true auteur-cartoonist, Davide Reviati. He’s one of those bulls in a china shop who is not afraid to break any so-called “rules” to storytelling. The more cloistered set might find his work a bit confounding but, no, this is authentic and passionate work. I like to call this kind of intimate and uninhibited linking of word and image, “letting the sketchbook come to life!” That’s exactly what is happening. The story, ostensibly, is about a bunch of local rough-cut teens in a rural Italian village who lock horns one doomed summer with a band of Roma gypsies. It takes a long time for anything to happen and it feels like really nothing is happening. This, of course, allows plenty of room for anything to happen during this nearly 600-page work!

Raw rage on the page.

Guido, a pint-sized punk, is supposed to emerge as our lead character but he seems to get pushed back down by the rest of the ensemble. Another tough local teen, Grisu, with his lustrous mane of hair, perpetually steals the show. Then, among the Roma gypsies, there’s crazy Loretta and even crazier Gyppo. Reviati is merciless in his depictions of both the locals and the Roma pariahs. No one is spared; no one is particularly likable in this gritty tale and therein lies the challenge for the reader to see what to make of things. Reviati does not claim to have any easy answers and is more trusting of any hard-working local mechanic than most academics whom he finds to consume mountains of books but not even shit out one letter of insight. There’s certainly much truth in that observation.

A reverie of masterful drawings full of whimsy and compelling metaphor.

Jamie Richards provides a brilliant translation to Reviati’s first book available in English. All the quirky dialogue and posturing appears to have been saved intact. Richards’s translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, Serena Vitale’s interviews with Viktor Shklovsky, Shklovsky: Witness to an Era, and Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua.

Born in Ravenna (Italy) in 1966, Davide Reviati leads a double career of illustrator and cartoonist in publishing and the press (Il Manifesto, La Stampa, L’Unità), while collaborating in the screenwriting of movies. Morti di sonno, his graphic novel published in Italian by Coconino Press in 2009, was awarded the best album prize at the 2010 Napoli Comic Con. The French edition (published by Casterman) won the award for the best book in translation in 2011.

Spit Three Times is best described as a languorous graphic novel but in a most offbeat and delicious way! Reviati, by allowing himself a large canvas, gives his characters all the room they need to bare their souls. In fact, there is quite an intriguing sequence with the local boys all dreamily lounging about naked, letting it all hang out, without a care in the world, uninhibited and unbridled. Perhaps one will only add a cowboy hat to his attire as he gets a beer. Maybe another will decide to literally piss on his friend as a prank. And then, just as impulsively, they all jump in for a dip in the lake. They all laugh for no reason. The scene gently dissolves as Reviatti adds the grace note observation that, “at twenty, you’ll laugh at anything; at forty, we only laugh in scorn.” That’s the sort of world-weary wisdom found here that charms every page.

Spit Three Times is available as of April 28, 2020. For more details, visit Seven Stories Press right here.

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Comics Artist Juan Giménez Dies from COVID-19 (1943-2020)

The Metabarons

COVID-19 claims another life, artist Juan Giménez, who was beloved by many fans of the fanciful, associated with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius. Juan Giménez is best known for his work with Alejandro Jodorowsky on The Metabarons starting in 1992. A press release follows:

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Howling Metal

Métal hurlant #57. The only collaboration between Moebius and Phillipe Druillet.

Comic books are perhaps the most popular sources of inspiration for moviemakers in this decade. Just think of all the movies of a highly variable quality that have been released since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started on its glorious assault on our pockets more than a decade ago. And it’s not only movies either. From broadcast channels to the most popular and accessible streaming services online are filled with content inspired by graphic novels and comic books – some of them are better (like Amazon’s acclaimed “The Boys” series), others, not so much.

The comics flocking to the screen these days have one thing in common: they are American. Of course, comic books are a typically American form of entertainment – this doesn’t mean, in turn, that they are unheard of in other parts of the world such as Birmingham in the UK. On the contrary.

France too is famous for its wines, cheese, and landmarks – and also, in some circles, for its comics. One of its most widely-known titles is “The Adventures of Asterix”, a series of bandes desinnées created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959. The stories revolve around Astérix, a mighty Gaul (and his oversized sidekick Obélix) and their adventures in defeating the Roman conquerors trying to overrun their village. This proves harder than it seems thanks to Getafix, the village druid, and his magic potion that gives the villagers superhuman strength. The two were the protagonists of countless comics, ten animated features, four live-action movies, not to mention the theme parks, the board games, and the first French satellite named after the mighty Gaul warrior.

There’s more to Francophonic comics than Asterix (and the Smurfs that were born in Belgium), more than the lighthearted fantasy stories above. The hallmark of the French comics’ golden age was a magazine called “Métal hurlant” (Howling Metal) created in December 1974.

Les Humanoïdes Associés

The United Humanoids (Les Humanoïdes Associés) consisted of comic artist Mœbius (Jean Giraud), Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, and Bernard Farkas, who acted as the financial director of the publication.

Les Humanoïdes Associés

Giraud was already an acclaimed cartoonist and writer at the time, having released several Western and science fiction and fantasy comics in the previous decades, Druillet won the European SF award for Comics in 1972 for his comic series Lone Sloane at the first Eurocon, and Dionnet was a long-time collaborator of the two, writing scripts for them at the comic magazine Pilote.

Métal hurlant

At first, the magazine was released quarterly – it had 68 pages (18 of them in color), and the first editions consisted entirely of works by the founders, Mœbius and Druillet. These early editions contained several Lone Sloane comics, and experimented with new formats and storytelling methods – they were, among others, home to Arzach, a silent warrior riding a pterodactyl-like creature through a desolate arid landscape. The “Arzach” comics have no dialogue, telling the stories through visuals alone. Later, many other artists published their works in the magazine, like Chilean-French artist and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, Enki Bilal, Francis Masse, Milo Manara, and many others.

Arzach by Mœbius

The content of the magazine was later expanded to include not only comics but articles about science fiction books and movies, later music and video game reviews. It remained true to its origins, though – it is considered one of the first examples of comic books for mature audiences, focusing on surreal, complex visuals, often cinematic graphics, and complex, experimental storytelling.

Métal hurlant has published 133 issues between 1974 and 1987, then for another brief run between 2002 and 2004, with 14 more.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal was the American version of the original French magazine – at first, it was the licensed translation of the original, later evolving into a publication featuring the works of North American artists like Stephen R. Bissette (Swamp Thing), Alex Ebel (Friday the 13th), Gray Morrow (Man-Thing, El Diablo), and Bernie Wrightson, the co-creator of Swamp Thing. The magazine published a blend of science fiction, dark fantasy, steampunk, and erotica, often explicit and ultra-violent, intended for a mature readership.

RanXerox by Tanino Liberatore

The magazine is still published today, albeit the ownership has changed – it is currently owned by David Boxenbaum, and Jeff Krelitz, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman serving as a publisher.

Heavy metal on the screen

Heavy Metal was adapted to the silver screen before it was cool thanks to director Gerald Potterton and producers Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel (who was also the publisher of the magazine at the time). The animated anthology contained several stories taken from the magazine as well as original stories in the same spirit – and it is as adult-oriented as its printed original. The overarching story revolves around the “Loc-Nar”, a sentient orb that describes itself as “the sum of all evil” traveling across the galaxy, causing harm wherever it can.

Heavy Metal

The stories in the magazine were also adapted to the small screen in a series called “Métal Hurlant Chronicles” but the English-language Franco-Belgian series, written and directed by Guillaume Lubrano, failed to live up to its name.

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