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Review: VEI Volume I from Insight Comics

Sword & Sorcery offers a vast canvas of possibilities and it shines when there is a specific tale to tell as is the case with the new graphic novel series, VEI, written and drawn by Karl Johnsson with Sara Bergmark Elfgren as co-creator. It has proven to be a huge hit in Sweden and it is now available in English by Insight Comics.

Vei is our main character, a young woman with enough energy and drive to take on an army of giants. And Vei will need every ounce of strength she has in order to survive her quest which it so happens does involve giants. Vei has been at the mercy of god giants all her life but she has always kept her faith even when a god flings her into the ocean and leaves her to fend for herself. This only reinforces her sense of purpose as she must now return to her homeland of Jotunheim. But that is only the beginning of her journey as she finds herself caught in the Meistarileikir, a bloody game between the humans, the giants, and the gods of Asgard.

Originally serialized in Utopia, a Swedish anthology magazine similar to Heavy Metal, it is easy to see how VEI sparked a loyal following. Artist-writer Karl Johnsson and co-author Sara Bergmark Elfgren have brought to life something truly fun and original. Karl Johnsson is an illustrator and cartoonist who works in children’s books, games, movies and television. Sara Bergmark Elfgren is a writer and screenwriter best known for working with writer Mats Strandberg on the Engelsfors trilogy (The Circle, Fire, The Key). Together, Johnsson and Elfgren have created something very special and, thanks to Insight Comics, we have it all collected in an impressive hardcover edition.

This book is packed with action and information to process. You will become intimately familiar with the gods of Asgard in the same fun way as you do through Marvel Comics and then some. The secret to the success of pop culture icons like Game of Thrones is the right mix of action, characters, and wonderfully arcane bits of information. You too will look in awe as the rival gods approach byway of Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge. And you too will root for Vei as she attempts, against all odds, to secure a rightful claim to Midgard! Johnsson and Elfgren do a great job of making sure to keep all the facts straight. They even provide a section that goes over what created the great feud between Asgard and Jotunheim. And, by the way, Vei can’t resolve everything in just one book. This is only Volume One so savor it for now. This is, no doubt, Sword & Sorcery at its best.

VEI, Volume I, is a 144-page full color hardcover published by Insight Comics.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Insight Comics, Insight Editions

Interview: Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries

Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University

I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.

Butler Library at Columbia University

The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages.  The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.

Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery

The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content.  These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.”  Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.

Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.

We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.

The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.

Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia. 

KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.

Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?

I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.

Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?

What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.

I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.

Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!

Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.

Absolutely.

What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?

The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.

Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer.  However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?

Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of  other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two.  Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.

I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics. 

I agree.

While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.

But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.

That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.

You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.

Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.

Yes! I love gray!

What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?

That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings  takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.

Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.

Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.

We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels? 

I think there’s still a lot of room to grow.  There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.

We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.

You’re very welcome, Henry.

That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Columbia University, Comics, Education, graphic novels, Karen Green, Libraries

Guest Review: ‘The Book of Weirdo’

The Book of Weirdo. Edited by Jon B. Cooke. San Francisco: Last Gasp Books, 2019. 288pp, $39.95.

An Ultimate Crumb or was it Editor Crumb?

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

There are many things strange, altogether strange, about this oversized volume. But they are things that Crumb-watchers and devotees of the short but tangled history of the Underground Comix will appreciate and even revere, if “revere”is an accurate and acceptable word.  The Book of Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Books, opens a door wide for rethinking comics and comix history.

The trajectory of the rise—but even more, the fall—of the wildly experimental genre continues to rouse debate, not to mention a lot of quiet grousing among former participants, artists, editors and publishers alike.  By 1973, when Underground Comix, had barely begun, a widespread legal assault on Head Shops threatened to eliminate the customer base. Censorship somehow avoided, comix moved on to the next obstacles that may best be seen as inscribed in the historical moment.

The great social changes hoped for by the young generation did not take place and were not going to take place in the short run, at least. The comic artists, very much part of their time,  joints to long hair, inevitably felt the effects. Working for practically nothing, although owning their own art, many began to wonder whether comix were a career or a dead end. Could the comix movement transform itself into a viable living?

Denis Kitchen had one idea, taking the commercial route with Marvel as publisher of Comix Book, which both paid artists better  but also owned what they drew for that issue of the magazine. A sell out or a practical step toward stability? The question went unanswered because the project folded after 5 issues, unable to achieve stability in the mainstream newsstand market. Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman had a different and more traditionally aesthetic notion, a quarterly Arcade magazine published by Print Mint. A truly beautiful magazine, perhaps the best that the genre ever produced, it also failed, in a counter-culture market where readers were not accustomed to comix appearing on a punctual quarterly schedule rather than the more customary sporadic, lackadaisical pace.

 

What dramatic step might be next? That was the burning question for many artists and would-be editors, as the movement began to lose its momentum. But it was not the only thought, especially for many who simply continued under deteriorating circumstances.  The otherwise persuasive argument offered by Patrick Rosenkranz that Underground Comix was doomed as a genre by 1975, may be true, but it also minimizes the reality that much high quality work appeared during the later half of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.

The series of Anarchy Comix, also  Wimmen’s Comix and some dozens new entries of various kinds, lay ahead.  Kitchen actually expanded his line of comics with Kitchen Sink, relocated to Princeton, Wisconsin, and among his titles, Gay Comix is a particular stand-out in anyone’s memory of the field changing and growing in content even as it shrunk in size. It was, indeed, shifting toward the more uncertain market of the ill-defined “Alternative Comics.”  Also consider that the “classic” strips of the 1920s and 1930s, reprinted in Arcade foreshadowed Kitchen’s own reprinting of past masterworks by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and others. Not to mention The Comics Journal, soon emerging as something like the trade publication of the field.

RAW and Weirdo would serve as markers in any narrative of an evolving comic art in the US, en route to the recognition of comics as art, the museum exhibits, award ceremonies, and even the Superhero-swollen ComiCons to follow.

It would be a mistake to avoid entirely what the historians used to call “geographical determinism.”  Comics, comic books, had always been centered in Greater New York, never mind some printing locations as far as Racine, Wisconsin. Underground Comix emanated from the Bay Area and had the region’s sensibility stamped upon them, never mind some smaller regional operations. Giving up on Arcade, Art Spiegelman moved Back East. RAW  not only emanated from New York but pointed back to New York, in the old literary adage that, culturally speaking, North America is half in the sunshine and half in the shade….that is, everywhere west of the Hudson River.

Much to the credit of co-editor Francois Mouly, RAW encompassed global comic trends, but not only that. Ben Katchor, one of the freshest of the new artists to appear in these pages—himself from a Left Yiddish family background—was to comment later that RAW had shrewdly marketed itself as a lost branch of European art and literature. This would prove decisive in uplifting the genre toward acceptance as an art form, in New York above all.

By vivid contrast. Weirdo was very, very California, published by the Crumbs in Winters, an extended outpost of the Bay Area. The idea of the “outsider,” if already well established in the art world, here unapologetically reached an extreme.

The Book of Weirdo  testifies to the vanishing California sensibility as it pays homage to  that unique publication in a nonacademic and unpretentious manner that often eludes the burgeoning field of comic art studies at large. Jon B. Cooke is at once a comic fan, editor of an ongoing comics “pro” fanzine (Comic Book Creator), and a gifted writer and designer. He follows, in this work, the tradition of a couple dozen authors,  also non-academics in background, who have done admirable work on such subjects as EC Comics and their great artists or writer-artists as Wally Wood,Will Elder and Bernard Krigstein.

That said, The Book of Weirdo is a most unusual work of devotion. Rather than a straightforward narration, it offers extended commentaries by dozens of Weirdo contributors, and several essays—the longest of them unsigned but evidently the work of the editor himself.  This is, by intent, a collective project, with Cooke seeking to impose a light hand even if the creation owes to his extraordinarily careful attention to all aspects of the subject.

How much was Weirdo a response to the publication (and phenomenon) of RAW, moving comic art “uptown” toward new and for many, uncomfortable realms of sophistication? This is a question unsettled, destined to be unsettled, among comics historians, not to mention the editors and artists themselves.

What else was weird about Weirdo?  As Crumb himself wrote in the first issue, the new effort marked “another new magazine, another MAD imitation, another small time commercial feature with high hopes, obviously doomed to fail.” This is a reference to the number of MAD knock-offs that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s, in some cases lasting decades after Mad Comics turned into Mad Magazine in 1955.  Several of them even boasted former Mad artists. They were generally, if not without exceptions, dreadful by any reasonable standard, or perhaps just by the high standard of Mad.

From another angle, Weirdo was arguably closer to Humbug,  Kurtzman’s third effort after Mad and the slick but doomed Trump,  or his last magazine effort, HELP! Humbug and HELP! sought to combine comic pages with fiction, new art by youngsters—including, in HELP!, some of the soon outstanding u.g. comix artists. In the same magazine, “fumetti” or photo-caption combinations appeared, although in Weirdo’s fumettis, Crumb casted himself in the remake of the girlie magazines of the 1930s-40s with humorous shenanigans of dames and the men chasing them. What did this add up to?

Crumb had remarked (to me, in a 1977 interview in Cultural Correspondence) that “artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics….”  Adding, “there’s a charm in the ‘looseness’ of the culture of our generation, the lackadaisical approach…besides, our parents threw all the old traditions in the garbage can without a second thought and left us to root around for the remnants in the back alleys of the culture….”

That nicely sums up the aim, several years in advance, of the new venture. Even when the artists in RAW seemed to be slumming, or portrayed subjects in assorted outrageous ways, they were still….sophisticated. RAW could not be as raw as Weirdo was, even if it tried.

And there’s more. Recently, one of the most outstanding and cerebral artists—she now teaches at the University of Michigan—observed that the Weirdo artists and editors “were my tribe.”  Phoebe Gloekner’s comment makes sense in several different ways. Her work was exceptionally dark, with stories rooted in San Francisco’s post hippie cultural underground of drugs and male predation upon young girls, also of the rage felt by those who did not become part of the city’s notorious Good Life. Along with Dori Sedi, who died at an early age from a lung aliment while contributing steadily to Weirdo, Gloeckner may express best, in her comics there, the anxieties that suffused the magazine’s pages.

The stories of the artists, many of them hardly seen before or after Weirdo, are revealing, touching and plain strange, and in a way, the best argument for  the originality of the Book of Weirdo. Most were young or youngish, a large handful making their entry into the world of comics or moving further along the way. The list is an honor roll:  Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Robert Armstong, Terry Boyce, Daniel Clowes, Julie Docet, Drew Friedman, Carol Lay, Steve Lafler, Joe Matt, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Carol Tyler, Jim Woodring and Ivan Brunetti, and those are only the artists whose names I recognize!

But it is the occasional anecdote that stands out, for this reviewer. For instance:  at one point, Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb received  a curious offer to take over a talk-show slot at Fox’s entertainment network!  The whole thing was impossible: Pekar could no more quit his hospital job for a Manhattan gig that could be cancelled at any time than Aline could split her time between New York and Winters. Still, this small non-event points toward an outsiderness that might come inside. (Pekar himself was treated to the award-winning biopic, American Splendor, whose production in Cleveland really did force him to quit his job.) It came inside or rather, comics themselves came inside, with the Pulitzer Prize (and MOMA exhibit) for Art Spiegelman, with glowing if only occasional New York Times reviews for the likes of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and arguably with the success of superhero characters on the big screens. Comics had become a twenty-first century art form.

Readers of The Book of Weirdo will  surely want to discover their own favorite anecdotes, make their own sense of the barrage of details included here. I’m guessing they will be happy to do so.

Paul Buhle has edited more than a dozen nonfiction historical comics. He struggles to understand the 36 year gap between his first effort (Radical America Komiks, 1969, reprinted in 2019) and next (WOBBLIES!, 2005).

Special thanks to Jay Kinney and Ben Katchor for comments on this review.

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Filed under Comics, Denis Kitchen, Guest Column, Last Gasp, Last Gasp Books, Paul Buhle, Robert Crumb, Weirdo magazine

Review: ‘Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography’

All too often, we are susceptible to allowing ourselves to be cogs in a machine. The ever-expanding technological age has no mercy. It is up to the individual to avoid becoming one dimensional. These are ideas that we don’t necessarily think about enough while, at the same time, we find ourselves confronting them on a daily basis. If you’ve fancied becoming more in tune with philosophical discourse, and would really appreciate a way in that is highly relevant and accessible, then turn your attention to the new graphic novel, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, by author/illustrator, Nick Thorkelson, published by City Lights.

The Swine of 117th Street

There have been a number of comics adaptations of subjects that would seem not to lend themselves to being broken down into the comics medium. However, the truth is that comics is uniquely equipped to take the complex and make it concise. In this case, Nick Thorkelson has crafted quite an engaging book based on the life and work of one of the great philosophers of the modern era, Herbert Marcuse. It is Marcuse who serves as a vehicle to hang a number of challenging and eternal questions dating back to Aristotle: What is our role in life? What are our expectations in life? What makes up a good and purposeful life? And once the questions are asked, who has the answers? Descartes? Marx? Heidegger? Marcuse?

The Reluctant Guru

We follow the young Marcuse as he goes from fighting in the First World War to finding his way among German intellectuals to developing his own philosophy with the help of mentors like Martin Heidegger. But, after Heidegger swears his allegiance to the Nazi Party, Marcuse moves on and, in 1933, finds his way to Columbia University in New York City. The Social Democratic Party, once the hope of a new Germany, had been forced aside by the Nazis Party which had made numerous false promises and had pushed its way into power. Fast forward to the present, we may ask ourselves: Are we headed into a similar abyss? Have we already entered a dark period with some parallels to Nazi Germany? In a very even-tempered way, Mr. Thorkelson is clearly suggesting that, yes, a cycle is repeating itself. But hope is not lost. A way out can be found in the soul-searching work of Herbert Marcuse. Basically, it is up to the individual to demand a better life. And, by and by, Herbert Marcuse found himself in the thick of the fight right alongside the student protests of the sixties.

History has a way of repeating itself.

Over time, Herbert Marcuse established himself as a leading voice within philosophical and activist circles. That voice can still be heard today and must be heard today. With a sense of great timing, Nick Thorkelson brings to the reader an essential and inspiring guide to one of our great thinkers. On each page, from one panel to the next, Mr. Thorkelson has condensed various bits of information into a seamless presentation that is easy on the eyes, both engaging and highly informative. The whole book is a delight as it is clearly organized and designed with a keen sense of style. Thorkelson’s cartoons are highly sophisticated and such a pleasure to behold in their own right. You can say that the artwork expresses the Marcuse joie de vivre quite fittingly.

Step by Step

Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia is a 128-page trade paperback in duotone, available now, published by City Lights.

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Filed under City Lights Publishers, Columbia University, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Herbert Marcuse, Nick Thorkelson, philosophy, politics

GoFundMe: Comic Book Artist Joyce Chin Recovering From a Stroke

Joyce Chin

Joyce Chin is a highly respected comic book artist who has suffered a setback. She was on her way to a comics convention in Chicago when she experienced a sub arachnoid hemmorage in the O’Hare airport terminal. A stroke. At the same time, she also fractured her ankle. You can imagine the pain and agony–and the hospital bills. Ms. Chin needless to say, did not attend C2E2. Instead, she spent nearly two weeks in the ICU ward of Presence Resurrection hospital in Chicago undergoing multiple procedures and diagnostic tests. Lucky for her, she is on her way to recovery but she has mounting medical bills to attend to. Visit the Joyce Chin GoFundMe and help in any way that you can.

Joyce Chin cover

Joyce Chin is a comic book penciler, inker, colorist, and cover artist. She has created content under the Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dynamite Comics, Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and IDW Publishing labels. A large portion of Chin’s work has been in creating comic book covers. Visit the Cartoonist Joyce Chin Recovering From a Stroke GoFundMe right here.

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Register Now for GRAPHIC HUMOR Course at Hugo House led by David Lasky and Greg Stump (Starts April 13, 2019)

Comics by David Lasky

Here are two cartoonists that need to be on your radar, David Lasky and Greg Stump. And, if you’re in Seattle, then you have an opportunity to take a very special comics course from them. This is an in depth look at “graphic humor,” as expressed by artists, writers, and cartoonists. “Graphic Humor” is a 6-week course at Hugo House: Saturdays from 1 to 3pm, starting April 13 – and is described in the Hugo House catalog:

“Two experienced, allegedly funny cartoonists will guide you through the process of creating a wide range of humorous comics, from New-Yorker-style gag cartoons to page-long stories, rants, and satire. We’ll examine work—from subtle to slapstick to surreal—of some of the medium’s funniest artists and writers en route to generating material for a class anthology comic book. While prior drawing/cartooning experience may be helpful for this class, it isn’t absolutely essential; however, be prepared to collaborate and share work.”

Comics by Greg Stump

Lasky and Stump aim to reveal a wide range of techniques and approaches to humor through a variety of prompts, forms, and experiments. The list of artists and writers covered in the course include Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Will Elder, Lynda Barry, Raymond Pettibon, Donald Barthelme, Kate Beaton, Saul Steinberg, Edward Gorey, Lisa Hanawalt, Jeffrey Brown, Ernie Bushmiller, Joe Brainard, David Shrigley, and many others. Students will work towards creating a comic book at the end of the sessions which everyone will contribute to and receive a copy. This is the first time Stump and Lasky have focued on humor for one of their courses. They look forward to engaging with their students.

For more details, visit Hugo House right here.

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Filed under Comics, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Hugo House, Humor, Seattle, writers, writing

Review: DARK PANTS #4

DARK PANTS #4

When I review comics, I look to see how that work is engaging with the medium: Is it the best possible comics? With the subgroup of alt-comics, I’m also asking myself: Is this the best use of the art form–just how artful is it? Matt MacFarland creates comics that rise to a high level as art. Just take a look at the latest issue of his ongoing humorous noir series, Dark Pants #4.

MacFarland has treated his series like an artist goes about creating a body of work, mindful of various components: theme, motif, overall sensibility. The recurring pattern here is a pair of sexy vintage black jeans. Anyone who wears them will need to confront their darkest desires and also be compelled to live them out. In Issue 4, we find a woman at odds with her life. Lisa is a realtor and sick of it. She has convinced herself that she can get out of her rut if she has an affair with Cal, her yoga instructor. Enter the dark pants.

We all live our lives in a series of narratives. Even the dullest day job can act as a backdrop for some sort of relatively compelling drama. Maybe the most interesting thing about some people at work is how they avoid work. Maybe the most interesting thing about how some people avoid life is the lengths they will go to avoid it like subjecting themselves to the most empty distractions like being pathetically immersed in hopelessly shallow TV shows. The big challenge for a MacFarland character is to try to avoid their own mediocrity and despair and not just add to it.

There is delicious despair on view with every brushstroke in every panel of MacFarland’s comics. The characters are already so beaten down that you root for them to simply not hurt themselves much more if possible, to just survive another day. Doesn’t that pretty much sum up what noir is all about? Dark characters doing dark things until their nihilism gets the better of them! Well, our main character, Lisa, is ready to roll the dice and damn the consequences.

And you’ll love the object of Lisa’s desire. Cal is an ultra-groovy dude, with long shaggy hair that he keeps in a “man bun.” He plays his role to perfection as he tempts Lisa to take a walk on the wild, or sort of wild, side. In fact, not wild at all but just another stupid distraction so stupid as to chill the bone.

Dark Pants #4 is available now. For more details, visit Matt MacFarland right here.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Matt MacFarland, Noir

Review: A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies 

Many of you may recall a webcomic recounting the horrible 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Except for a smattering of bare essentials, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen, lost everything in the fires. Mr. Fies chose to set his recollections down as soon as possible and posted them as a webcomic. His on-the-spot reportage struck a chord and it led San Francisco PBS TV station KQED to adapt A Fire Story into a five-minute animation, which was subsequently picked up by NPR. That animation went on to win an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, in 2019, that 18-page webcomic has been refined and transformed into a 154-page full color graphic novel, published by Abrams ComicArts, that includes an entire community of people.

Graphic novels, I can tell you from firsthand experience, are a glorious beast to tame with their myriad of details to tackle. So, it is quite remarkable and commendable that Fies stuck it out and built a full length graphic novel upon a small scale webcomic. The reader will immediately sense the urgency of a determined storyteller within these pages. Fies is not only telling his story but involving thousands upon thousands of individuals affected by this disaster. In honest words and pictures, Fies shares his loss: “I used to have five redwood trees in my front yard. I saw a refrigerator and the rough shape of a car I used to have in my garage. I didn’t recognize anything else. A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot  heap of dead, smoking ash.” And Fies shares the loss of others, like Dottie, an 81-year-old woman displaced from her mobile home: “My niece called me. She said, ‘Auntie, if you’re on any kind of medication, grab your medications and come up to my house.’ She didn’t say ‘fire,’ she just said, ‘Get up to my house.’ I could tell by the tone of her voice to listen to her.”

Fie’s artwork has a nice clean, crisp and spare quality to it which lines up well with the urgency of the narrative. Fies still prefers to draw by hand and that added human touch is apparent. The same can be said for the coloring, direct and resourceful with just the right amount of flourish. In fact, the coloring might be made with markers, or at least it has that look to it. So, you get the best of both worlds: hand-drawn ink on paper artwork married to digital components. When Fies chose to document this disaster in real time, he managed to cobble together a purchase of some basic art supplies and it worked out just fine. Someone told him that he must have been compelled to “bear witness” and that is exactly what Fies did in the best way he could, through comics. That need to bear witness is palpable on every page.

A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.

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Filed under Abrams ComicArts, Brian Fies, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Journalism

Book Review: IT OCCURS TO ME THAT I AM AMERICA: NEW STORIES AND ART

It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art

What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.

Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass

Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.

Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey

Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.

Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond

I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.

The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner

It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Filed under Anthologies, Art, Art books, Art Spiegelman, Artists, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Eric Orner, Fiction, Jonathan Santlofer, Mimi Pond, Protest, writers, writing

Review: ‘Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead’ by Bill Griffith

Friendly Freaks are Family.

Every art form has its dark, morose, and melancholic aspect. Comics, despite the ingrained comedy in its very name, is a truly dark art much of the time. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. What can you say when you’re feelin’ glum, chum? See ya in the funny papers! One of the best examples of the tragicomic in comics can be found in the work of legendary cartoonist Bill Griffith. Considering a lot of the surreal and loopy stuff that Griffith has depicted over the years, he always manages to not lay it on too thick, finding just the right balance. He is certainly just the right artist to tackle the life and times of one of the strangest and most celebrated of weary souls, Schlitzie the Pinhead. In Nobody’s Fool, published by Abrams, Mr. Griffith has achieved a crowning achievement in the comics medium.

Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead

There’s a unique experience that creators have, particularly writers of one form or another, that provides the loopy sensation of having your creation come to life. Yes, there’s is definitely something behind the idea of having your characters take on lives of their own. This notion comes to mind when contemplating Mr. Griffith’s journey with the inspiration for his legendary comic strip, the cool and sardonic Zippy The Pinhead. Where Zippy, the weirdo in a mumu, will forever be the epitome of deadpan irony, the actual source for Zippy is quite a different story. Schlitzie the Pinhead was quite literally a circus freak. In 1963, Griffith, a young struggling artist, caught a screening of the 1932 cult classic, Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, in which Schlitzie played a modest but memorable role. After viewing Schlitzie on screen, the imagery stuck in Griffith’s mind and quickly morphed into a comics avatar. All these years later, Griffith is able to reconcile the original Zippy with his own work and pay tribute to Schlitzie.

 

Zippy The Pinhead by Bill Griffith

 

The Many Names of Schlitzie The Pinhead

This is one of those remarkable graphic novels that truly takes your breathe away. It shares a space with the best that the comics medium has to offer. It’s a utterly original and distinctive work of art inextricably linked to one legendary talent. The detail and dedication involved to make this happen is comparable, say, to your favorite movie up for an Academy Award. Yes, it’s that big of a deal. The amounts of hours put in, all the little details, are staggering to think about. Griffith dug deep, doing his research and going back to interview as many individuals as he could find associated with the celebrated circus freak. And what did he find? Well, part of the charm of a book like this is simply the journey itself. Griffith is careful to modulate how much of himself he directly places into the narrative. But, in the end, he’s as much a key player as anyone else in the book. We find him connecting the dots along the way and, ultimately, we have a key sequence with him viewing and processing that infamous and misunderstood film, Freaks.

All it took was some red hots.

Griffith spares no expense, as it were, in fully depicting the life and times of Schlitzie the Pinhead. For a cartoonist who gave us, Zippy, an icon of irony, the irony must not be lost on Griffith for devoting so much time and effort to Schlitzie, a prime example of an utterly simple soul. When you dig deep into the life of Schlitzie, it breaks one’s heart to find such an overwhelming nothingness. Schlitize enjoyed, or tolerated, performing for big crowds. But, truth be told, he mostly enjoyed washing dishes and eating fried chicken. Ah, but in the hands of a masterful cartoonist, profound beauty can be found in the darkest of places.

Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is a 256-page hardcover published by Abrams ComicArts, to be released March 19, 2019. For more details, visit Abrams right here.

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Filed under Bill Griffith, Comics, Comix, Underground Comics, Underground Comix, Zippy the Pinhead