Some events take on a life of their own and so it is with Short Run, the annual comic arts festival in Seattle. No matter who is in charge, what keeps this gathering alive is a core group of young people who have faith in comics and zines. No matter who is found to be a star attraction, no matter what the list of new titles known by the experts, it is the rush of young people seeking to connect with art and the zeitgeist who give this annual gathering its energy.
Special Guest Marc Bell
That said, much is put into organizing this event, lots of love and care. There are numerous workshops to enjoy. And this year’s special guest is renowned Canadian cartoonist Marc Bell, known as much for his comics and zines as his paintings. Many cities have at least one sort of arts festival such as this and Short Run is part of the Seattle landscape. It’s a combination of the aspirations of the show’s organizers and the zeal of its audience, the will of the people, that makes this possible year after year. If you are in Seattle, and especially if comic arts festivals are new to you, do make sure to pay a visit to Seattle Center, Saturday, Nov. 9th, 2019, 11 am-6 pm.
Francis Bacon was certainly on my radar during my time in art school. Just as I was completing my formal training at the University of Houston, I was aware of Bacon’s continued presence and activity. And then he died. I earned my BFA the year he passed away, 1992. Yes, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was acknowledged as a heroic figure, a painter in the great tradition of towering romantic and angst-ridden artists. But what were we as art students doing with that information? What were our professors sharing with us about him? I mostly recall the awful jokes that he was Bacon the contemporary artist and not Bacon the great philosopher. So, in a nutshell, we didn’t do much of anything with Bacon looming in the background. Maybe I did more than most. I know a lot of students were lost in their own uneducated and overindulgent worlds or absorbed with the hotshots of the recent era as we understood it, people like Francisco Clemente, David Salle, even Julian Schnabel, especially Schnabel since he’d gone to UH for a short time. And, of course, there was no internet as we know it today and, in hindsight, I damn well could have used it back then!
Second Version of Painting from 1946, Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
After 1992, life’s circumstances gave me a bit of a bum’s rush from school and out the door. I’ve been cartwheeling ever since. Not to digress too much, but I’ve come out on top in a number of ways such as having the opportunity to gaze upon this dazzling show of Francis Bacon paintings at the Pompidou Centre! From the little I could glean from glossy art magazines, art history books and a few lectures, I was aware of Bacon’s raw and tortured energy. He was a rough cut fellow, is how I would casually put it if I was attempting to introduce him to someone unfamiliar with him and his work. Bacon’s career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the next two pivotal decades. Many an art student was familiar with Bacon’s landmark painting of the screaming pope, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. What did it mean? Where did it come from? We mostly chalked it up as subversive. That much we knew for sure and we loved it.
Gathering among Bacon.
That brings us to this current show at the Pompidou Centre. Jennifer and I had managed to arrive just in time to settle into it with little else than an introductory pamphlet. So, there was some adjusting to do as we both gorged upon Bacon. We were certainly not alone. There was a nervy energy running throughout the crowd of people. The show had recently opened for its run of 11 September 2019 to 20 January 2020. They had all come to see Bacon! But what did it mean to them? They knew his name and they knew about the famous work and the raw energy. There was that and there was a theme attached to the show–but gathering up so many Bacons in one space was more than enough, theme or no theme. It wasn’t until I’d made the turn into another room that I sniffed out the curator’s ardor for organizing, labeling, categorizing and zealous need to impose their ownership upon another’s work. After all, Francis Bacon was first and foremost a painter. He was self-taught. He, unlike countless academics and so-called scholars, got dirty and actually did things. This is not to say that a finely-articulated analysis is not welcome from time to time but it is often best to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, the idea for the show is to tie Bacon’s choice of reading with his painting. That’s why this show has rooms where all you have is a book on display and an audio of someone reading.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, after Ingres, 1983.
It does make sense to link Bacon to his reading habits given the fact he was such an avid reader. He loved books. They came naturally to him as they did for many a young rebel of his time. There are a number of choices on display in this show that would have been catnip for many a young artist back then and even today. At least, one hopes young artists haven’t changed so much now that they are, on the whole, bypassing gorging upon the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jean Racine, Balzac, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Proust and many others. Well, that is the formal tent under which all these Bacons have been arranged. Process that however you like.
Walking towards Bacon.
One thing that struck me about this show is how it feels like it is stretching past its own time, as if it is still pulsating, still preening upon the gallery wall space and not ready to succumb to a timeless role as a museum artifact. I mean, the work still feels “contemporary” to me. While I was an art student, we had to suffer through all the prattle from critics and tastemakers over whether or not figurative painting was dead or not. To think we were getting this kind of talk even as we’d been experiencing a bunch of interesting “new” approaches to figurative work by the likes of Eric Fischl and Jonathan Borofsky. Finally, fast forward to today, the big secret is that figurative painting will never die. It’s just too vital, too primal, too essential. I guess, seeing this show takes me back to sometime before Bacon’s death, a world where there was a Francis Bacon still making new paintings and even making definitive versions of previous work. That is what this show is about: Bacon’s last two decades of his career (from 1971 to 1992). I can feel that artist raging and creating, knowing time was running out. So, ultimately, this show is more than about books and painting. This show is about an artist taking what he’s learned about painting and setting forth with his final explorations.
Bacon was always raging and rebelling, seeking a way to be the next Picasso. He was being himself when it was against the law in England to engage in homosexual acts. It wasn’t until 1967 that sex between two adult men (21 years-old) was decriminalized in the UK. What’s a “British artist” like Bacon to do? Well, that’s easy enough, go where you are welcome: Paris, the city that is open and fluid, revels in bohemian excess, and welcomes sex in all its many flavors. It was at the Grand Palais show at the Pompidou Centre in 1971 that Bacon delivered a landmark show that earned him critical praise, and raised him to the rank of a Picasso. And the show was more about love and sex than books. You can add a variety of erudite references but, at some point, you need to acknowledge the human being writhing upon a toilet! The Grand Palais show revolved around Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who killed himself the day before the opening. As Jonathan Jones describes in a wonderful piece in The Guardian, it was Bacon’s muse, in the form of Dyer, who made the show what it was and, with his suicide, nearly brought it all tumbling down. The new show at the Pompidou Centre, interestingly enough, covers the time after the celebrated Grand Palais show of 1971. Again, this has nothing to do with the connection of books to paintings, but it’s a nice theme to wrap around a body of work that defies the curator’s nimble touch.
If you enjoy experimental art, then do check out the new graphic novel by Frank Santoro. This is a work that will transport you to an immersive mindscape where Mr. Santoro tracks memories and explores family history. It is a refreshing approach to the comics medium that plays with elements like text and panels, shifts them, redirects them, and presents them in unexpected ways within a finely-tuned structure. Pittsburgh, a New York Review Comic published by New York Review of Books, brings together a lifetime of storytelling. This is one of the notable titles debuting at this year’s Small Press Expo this weekend, September 14-15, in Bethesda, Maryland.
One card taped to another card and then another.
Frank Santoro is a well-respected and celebrated independent cartoonist and trailblazer. If you are looking for a new way of looking at the comics medium, then consider taking his comics course. Frank Santoro’s work has been exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and the Fumetto comics festival in Switzerland. He is the author of Storeyville and Pompeii. He has collaborated with Ben Jones, Dash Shaw, Frank Kozik, and others. Santoro lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which brings us to his latest work. In Pittsburgh, the reader is introduced to life in the Rust Belt, that region of the country known as the manufacturing hub, the area famously known as the demographic which Hillary Clinton neglected to win over enough votes. It’s a tough working class landscape. Santoro shares that region with you: his growing up, his family, and especially the doomed relationship between his father and mother.
It’s all about the process.
How do you best convey your observations and feelings about your family? In a documentary? In a novel? In an art installation? The possibilities are endless. What Frank Santoro has done is find a different path that combines aspects of various disciplines within one. This is a comic but not a comic that you are typically familiar with. This could be called a graphic novel or memoir but it also manages to be something more. At times, I felt as if some of the actions, dialogue, characters and settings in this book were shifting from one medium to the next. Very easily, I could imagine the whole book being turned into an art installation. Santoro’s method basically breaks down barriers and pares down to essentials. He likes to play with geometry and create backbones for his pages. The goal is for each element on the page to play off each other, each opposing page, and the entire work. He wants the process to show through so, if he makes a mistake, he’ll sort of leave it in and lightly cover it up so that you can still see it. In a sense, each page becomes animated with unexpected movement.
Every element falls into place and plays off each other.
The quotidian of life, the everyday moments that can blur into each other, that is what Santoro aims to capture and evoke. This is one of the things that the comics medium does best! It is akin to a tour de force cinema vertie experience with the camera being replaced by a sketchbook. Santoro is hardly alone in attempting this but what he does is distinctive. And he makes it look easy and, in a weird sense that actually takes years of experience to appreciate, it is. Whatever the case, it can’t look forced. It comes natural to Santoro as he edits, rearranges, and composes. He make various choices which include various ways of telling the story most efficiently while allowing things to breathe. He wants ambiguity but he also demands clarity. He keeps to a basic palette that, in the end, brings out all the color he could ever want. In the end, he presents something new and compelling. In this case, it is his coming to terms with having grown up in a dysfunctional family that ultimately breaks apart. Like any good documentarian and artist, Santoro picks up the pieces, examines them, and with heart and soul makes something out of them.
Comics, elevated to the art form that it is.
Pittsburgh is a 216-page full color hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019, published by New York Review of Books.
Over the years, I’ve done a number of process posts where either I just show you my work, or show you how I created it, whether visual or literary or whatever. Being an artist is not just one thing, right? Seems to me a good time to do a bit of a reintroduction here. I’m going to be looking over things I’ve done in the past, sharing new things, and gearing up for a number of new process posts going into the end of this year and into the next. We’re looking at everything. And this is while I’m still working my way to completing some current projects!
This leads me to a quick Top Ten list.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MOTIVATE YOU TO CREATE ART–or ANYTHING?
A deadline. If there is some kind of deadline, that always gets my attention.
Curiosity that develops into an obsession. You develop a passion! Who knew?
Feeling competitive. Okay, maybe not the best reason but, hey, a bit of gusto never hurt.
Breakthrough. You have figured something out. An epiphany. You are compelled to create!
Drop your inhibitions. You stop putting yourself down and clear away any doubts!
Need to impress. So, you’ve fallen in love and want to impress that someone special. Why not?
Others are looking up to you. What about that special someone in your life who already believes in you?
Courage. Maybe there’s nobody special at the moment to cheer you on but you find courage on your own!
Making up for lost time. Where did the time go? Seriously, where did it go? So, you hop into action.
You discover this feels good! The very act of creating is intoxicating. Now, you’re on your way!
Here I am drawing Grand Central Terminal.
What I’m getting at, for the purposes of this post, is that I want to do my best to get some good solid process features out soon. You know, “How-to” sort of stuff. I am constantly learning new things from various sources. I see a lot of fun and interesting “how-to” books and gurus out there. My conclusion: there’s always room for another person to share their work, tips and insights! I’m just that kind of person. I won’t promise what happens next here but I’ve got a nice track record of following through. Heck, I’ve done more posts right here on this blog than most people I know. So, yeah, I’m good for it. I just gave you a top ten list. Not bad, huh? We’ll do more. That I can promise.
New York Public Library
Anyway, with all that said, I’m thinking a lot of my activity here on this blog and elsewhere could add up to some sort of book that I could share with you that speaks to what I’m doing. It would be an initial step towards what I’m envisioning. It would be the first in a series of books that explores the passion of creating art and storytelling, a nice mix of work, tips, and insights. I’m always learning, always thinking. Also, I should add here that I’m gearing up for a big trip. It is something that has involved a bunch of behind-the-scenes planning with a little help from sponsors and friends. That will be revealed as we progress down this journey. Basically, what I hope will happen is that, at least, a number of successful travel and art blog posts will result. That’s the first step.
Dave Pressler in 2004 for a Halloween show at The Key Club, We Have Your Toys.
Robin Williams and Scarlett Johansson are among the stars who have flocked to the art of Dave Pressler. Do you like robots? Do you like monsters? There’s bound to be something to your liking from the multi-hyphenated artist. Indeed, Pressler excels as an illustrator, painter, sculptor and character designer. You can always find him at his website and, if you’re in Colorado, you can go view his latest show, The Right Tool for the Job: The Future of the Robot Industrial Revolution, at Telluride Arts HQ Gallery from August 30 to October 1, 2019.
Scarlett Johansson buys a Dave Pressler sculpture from Munky King in 2004.
In this interview, we chat about the process of making art, the loneliness of robots, and how anyone with a healthy determination can become the artist they’ve always wanted to be.
Dave Pressler at Telluride Arts HQ Gallery
Telluride Arts HQ Gallery
THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB
The Future of the Robot Industrial Revolution
EMMY AWARD-NOMINATED, MULTI-HYPHENATE ARTIST DAVE PRESSLER RETURNS TO TELLURIDE WITH NEW SHOW EXPLORING THE FUTURE OF ROBOTS AT WORK
Telluride Art Walk
Thursday, September 5, 2019 | 5-8 pm
August 30, 2019 – October 1, 2019
Telluride Arts HQ Gallery 135 W Pacific Ave, Telluride, CO 81435
The Telluride Arts District is proud to present the next solo exhibition of artist Dave Pressler, The Right Tool for the Job: The Future of the Robot Industrial Revolution. As the specter of automation and artificial intelligence continue to advance, slowly replacing more and more blue collar jobs, Pressler imagines a parallel universe in which his classic robot characters must show up for factory work the same way we begrudgingly did at the turn of the 20th century. The illustrator, painter, sculptor and character designer has already had a busy 2019, but this show once again breaks new ground for him as an artist: it will be the first time he’s exhibiting a new body of work comprised almost entirely of graphite on paper.
“We’re having another industrial revolution right now, but most people aren’t really talking about it,” explains Pressler. “There’s all this rhetoric about immigrants coming in and stealing blue collar jobs, but it’s not really true. It’s the same thing that happened in the 1800s, when local furniture-makers and garment makers were suddenly replaced by factories powered by steam and assembly-line workers. We’re seeing the same kind of job displacement that we did at the start of the 20th century, but this time it’s being driven by automation and AI.”
Pressler, a self-described blue collar artist, hails from a working class background in the southern suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in a factory town, he was always surrounded by people who made a living working with their hands. To this day, it informs how he sees his role in Hollywood and the low-brow, pop art worlds. Pressler originally moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s to pursue work as an actor, but in the 90s, he shifted dramatically toward production and character design. This work required the creativity of an artist, yes, but more importantly, it required the discipline to sit down and do it—to put in a hard day’s work and get ‘er done, not unlike a blue collar job. From there, his career path almost became traditional, seeing him rise through the ranks to become production designer on the Jim Henson Company’s B.R.A.T.S. of the Lost Nebula, followed by The Save-Ums and Team Smithereen. Eventually, he co-created the Emmy-nominated Robot and Monster for Nickelodeon, all while continuing to develop himself as an illustrator, painter and sculptor in the low-brow art market. All of his two decade plus career was explored recently in his retrospective museum exhibition, “Idea to Object,” at Lancaster Museum of Art.
The humorous but gritty worlds populated with robots and monsters that Pressler creates have always involved his characters begrudgingly fulfilling their duties, almost like holding up a robot-tinted mirror to the lives we have to live to make money and keep society going. For the first time ever, with this automation and AI-driven industrial revolution we’re currently witnessing, Pressler’s whimsical robot world is coming into its own and perhaps serving as an extension of reality. Pressler’s newest exhibition humorously goes behind the scenes of what the robots will have to deal with as we pass off more and more work to them.
Listen to the podcast interview by clicking the link below:
The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a monumental figure in contemporary art for a number of reasons. To say that Basquiat was at the right place at the right time is a great understatement. In his case, he seems to have been born to conquer the art world despite the drawbacks of starting out with zero connections and zero money. Personally, for me, I had filed away Basquiat in my mind many years ago and hadn’t looked back. I look back fondly, and return regularly, to a number of artists ranging from Edward Manet to R.B. Kitaj but not Basquiat…not until recently. I happen to have been in New York and got to see a spectacular Basquiat show. It then dawned on me that, the further away one is from New York, the less is known or understood about Basquiat. Like it or not, Basquiat is an obscure household name! Some people love him and some hate him and probably for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t sure if one graphic novel could help shed sufficient light on the subject but I decided to find out by reading Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi, published by Laurence King Publishing. This new English translation by Edward Fortes will be a welcome addition to anyone interested in better understanding one of the most celebrated and enigmatic of artists.
Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi
Paolo Parisi is in many ways an ideal artist to create a graphic novel about Basquiat. Parisi has proven himself to have the right temperament for the job. His previous graphic novels include a book on John Coltrane and one on Billie Holiday. As he puts it, his graphic novels all follow a common thread that includes “jazz, art, painting and process, rhythm, rigor, improvisation, and spontaneity.” Well, you can find all of that with Basquiat, an artist that jumped feet first into his art at an early age and never looked back, as if guided mostly by instinct and sheer will. His was an original and singular vision.
Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi
Within this biography, the reader will come away with a good sense of the trajectory of Basquiat’s art career, from his early forays into street art to his mugging for the camera on cable access to his navigating the highest levels of the New York art world. Parisi does a great service to Basquiat by generously quoting directly from him and from the people who knew him best. Much of this book is made up of quotes, transcriptions from letters, and just the right amount of carefully composed dramatization. The bold use of color in this graphic novel is supposed to evoke the same bold use of color that Basquiat used in his own paintings. Alas, we somehow don’t explore any of Basquiat’s actual paintings! Diego Cortez, the curator of the famous Times Square Show that helped to launch Basquiat is quoted: “Jean had something different. He reminded me of Cy Twombly and Franz Kline. He didn’t even know who Kline and Twombly were, but he had instinct, charm, and energy on his side.” There is plenty of instinct, charm, and energy on display in this book. And you can take it any way you like: for beginners, it’s a wonderful first step; for those familiar with Basquiat, it’s a great New York fable.
Basquiat: A Graphic Novel is a 128-page hardcover, in full color, published by Laurence King Publishing, English translation edition (May 14, 2019).
Ulli Lust is an artist who has created some of the most engaging work in comics. Her long form works include Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (2009), and her latest, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, both published in the US by Fantagraphics Books. These titles are wonderful testaments to the power of auto-bio graphic memoir. You can read my review of the latest title in the previous post. In this interview, I chat with Ulli Lust about her work and about being an artist. The transcript follows and you can also see the video by clicking the link below.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Do you find that creating comics is becoming easier for you?
ULLI LUST: It’s absolutely easier. After the first one hundred pages, you get into the flow of the book.
What do you think people in the United States might not understand about the great love for comics in France?
Maybe it’s not well known that the French comics readership is the second largest comics market in the world, after the Japanese. And the third largest is American. France is not a very large country and yet it is producing so many comics, I believe it is 5,000 per year, with all those readers, I don’t think that’s common knowledge. The French love comics.
Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
Please share about your writing process. For example, when you are working out a narrative, do you recite it in your head and then share it with friends, tell them the story and see what they think?
It actually is a very good technique to tell your story to other people because you get to know what points are interesting and which are not. The problem with my comics is that the stories are too complex to tell in a short from to a friend. I need all these pages to bring out a story’s details which sometimes are not very logical in itself. If I do tell a story to a friend, I mainly keep to the fun parts. I don’t talk about all the details that seem illogical. For example, with Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, I would talk at parties about the stories involving the Mafia but I could never really communicate the real impact of the whole trip because these stories aren’t simply funny.
Would you share about your drawing and comics production process. For example, how do you color your work?
The colors I do only on the computer. I care about the linework. It needs to be strong and fixed. The color is only a second layer. I want it to just be flat. The color doesn’t need to have character. So, the computer coloring is perfect.
It’s an aesthetic choice. You don’t want to mess with shading and other effects. You want the color to serve a secondary function.
I like the old-fashioned printing of the early 20th century. The lithographs were very flat. The colors were very separated. The linework is very important but the shading effects are not important. I don’t think that is necessary for comics, at least not for the comics that I create. I really like the more raw drawings.
How I Tried to Be a Good Person
What can you tell us about the love triangle between the characters Ulli, Georg and Kim? What can you tell us about this problematic relationship?
I told this story about a problematic relationship because the problematic stories are always more interesting. I’m in a very happy 20-year relationship with this man (points over to her partner, the artist Kai Peiffer) and we don’t have any problematic stories to tell! I told the story of the triangle with Georg and Kim because I find it important to say that you don’t have to stick to a monogamous partnership. That has its own set of problems. Actually, I was surprised at how well that triangle relationship worked for a time and I wanted to show that. That it didn’t end well in the end is a pity. Maybe it makes for a richer story and brings in other social aspects. It was important to talk about domestic violence. I didn’t experience that a second time, only that one time.
Could you give us a taste of what it’s like leading a class in comics since you teach at the University of Hanover. What are the typical expectations of students?
I teach drawing, comics and storytelling. My students are mainly graphic designers, not illustrators. I do a lot of exercises to train their senses, curiosity and attitude as creators. I think the mindset is important as an artist. Whatever you do, a comic, a painting or a website, it all requires a certain mindset.
How might you compare the process of making comics with other forms of art? For example, with painting and comics, the process begins very loose and bit by bit you are refining.
I envy painters because they can create with their raw emotions and they don’t have to think so much. There are so many details to juggle with comics. I think it’s easier to do a big painting than it is to do a work in comics.
Do you have any observations on the art and comics scene? You always need to maintain a certain cool appearance as an artist even though that has nothing to do with how good an artist you are.
I feel at home in the art scene. I don’t feel at home in a more restricted environment. So, I don’t need to play it cool.
Who are some cartoonists right now that really wow you?
I like a lot of the American women who are creating comics and storytelling: Lauren Weinstein, Leela Corman, Keiler Roberts and Liana Finck. If I were to put together an anthology, I would include them as well as other cartoonists. I discover them through the internet. And they’re really great.
Any final thoughts? Anything else you might like to add?
For sure, there are plenty of things. Going back to teaching, I would tell students that want to go into comics that it isn’t instant success. It involves so much work. My students need to create a comic during the course but I don’t push them to continue on with it after the course is done. It has to be their own decision. They really have to want it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.
Be sure to take a look at the video interview by going to the link below:
How I Tried to Be a Good Person is a 368-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books.
Alay-Oop by William Gropper, introduction by James Sturm, published by New York Review Books, 209 pages, $24.95.
A growing interest in the origins of comic art—a subject that could direct the reader toward cave paintings but more logically offers twentieth century precursors—has prompted the return of long-forgotten names like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, and just as naturally, reprints of their work. These notables and others peaking before the Second World War favored wood-cuts over drawing on paper, and also favored an art form now known familiarly as the “wordless novel.” It’s a fascinating memory corner, full of biting social criticism, but so different from the famed agitational cartoons, or for that matter, mural art of the New Deal period, that any common ground is little understood. Reader, meet William Gropper.
We can say many useful things about Gropper the artist, but for our purposes, there is every reason to start with Alay-Oop. It is a simple tale of a trapeze artist so muscular that she may not be beautiful in any classic sense, but she is admirably limber, a skilled and daring performer. She is wooed by an older and rich, plump opera singer, with throngs of fans of his own. He takes her out (with her own acrobat-partner in tow), romances her and persuades her to marry. A few pages of her dreaming, heavily erotic in symbolism, shows us that she is willing, and her swain promises her the skies. Her rather handsome fellow acrobat is, then, left out in the cold. Soon, she has beloved children but a troubled marriage. She finds her way, she reaches her way through her acrobatic skills, to her own version of a happy ending. This is a memorable Strong Woman Story, and may (as the introduction suggests) reflect the strength of Gropper’s own real life mother character, when his father, an autodidact intellectual, let the family down.
A May-December romance. Will it last?
Now, back to the Gropper famous in his own milieu. Communists and Popular Front sympathizers, together numbering into the high hundreds of thousands from the mid-depression to the beginning of the Cold War, would recognize Gropper’s work in a minute. His famed and ferocious “Bank Night” drawing, with the fat capitalist landlord reaching into the slums for grotesque profits, alone memorably identifies both the artist’s skills and his temperament. Personal testimony: Recovering from a day at a pre-induction Army physical in 1966, I was driven by famed Yale University peacenik Staughton Lynd out to stay the night with a Jewish chicken farmer. There, on the kitchen wall, was a famed Gropper print, with ugly Senators, most likely Dixiecrats, at a US Congress hearing, yawning with unembarrassed tedium at the social crisis of the Depression. That was the first Gropper that I ever saw.
Alay-Oop evidently comes from a different place if definitely not a different artist. Gropper himself had actually attended a radical art school, with giants like Masses magazine artists like Stuart Davis and Dada /Surrealist avant-gardist Man Ray. Instructor Robert Henri personally escorted young Gropper to the 1913 Armory Show that introduced modernism to the backward US intelligentsia. The young man had the talent and connections to make it as an illustrator in a grand era for newspaper illustrators—but was bounced from a commercial staff job as too radical.
You could say that he found a place for himself, an eager audience intense if not commercially helpful, at the Liberator and New Masses, two beautiful magazines that attached themselves to “the New Russia” without quite being overwhelmed by politics. By the early years of the Depression, Gropper’s work was overwhelmingly agitational, with the Daily Worker its largest outlet. Alay-Oop may be the first suggestion that his heart belonged elsewhere, at least in part.
What inspired him to comic art? Belgian Frans Masereel was so famous in Europe that leading novelists wrote introductions to his classic woodcut works. Back in the US, Lynd Ward’s mordant God’s Man sold wildly, far beyond the art crowd that seemed the intended audience. Hugely popular funny pages artist Milt Gross published what some regard as the actual earliest comics novel, He Done Her Wrong (1930), a satire on the soap opera-like American adventure novel. Alay-Oop appeared in that same year, but can only be described as a genre of its own. If it has successors, they come generations later.
James Sturm, who wrote the Introduction to the volume under review but co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, suggests we are not likely to find out. In his style, Gropper was not austere like Masereel or Ward, nor satirical like Gross. He was aiming for something else, and that may be a reason why the book got lost so quickly and easily. Gropper himself moved toward a very different and unique high point of his artistic career: the opportunities opened by the New Deal. Muralist for the Works Progress Administration, popular book illustrator, artist of a folk-lore map of the USA (with little figures representing various traditions), Gropper the erstwhile revolutionary was “discovering America” in his own terms, and good at it. He had also become, for the moment, also a considerable painter, mostly of the social themes around him, and remembered from his impoverished youth.
Much of the remainder of Gropper’s life seems to have devoted rather less to leftwing causes, and rather more to painting, but also to making a living as an architectural artist, where he achieved a certain distinction. After the Second World War, with its artistic high points of sympathy for the Russians and anti-fascism generally, his opportunities but perhaps his political eagerness as well, were seriously restrained. His grandson is quoted in the introduction as saying that grandpa was not all that political—which is about what an old man would tell a kid in the 1950s. All this nevertheless suggests that Alay-Oop reaches out toward something elusive, but that is hardly a criticism of any artistic creation.
The book is certainly successful in itself, with a line of drawing, as Sturm suggests, so fresh and fluid that it looks like “the ink is still wet” (p.10). We also hear from his grandson that Gropper, drawn to vaudeville and the circus, admired performers as more honest and more fully human than politicians. Perhaps we need no further guide. Anyone can search through Google Images and admire the breadth of Gropper’s work. It would be good to have an anthology that gives us a sense of them.
Paul Buhle, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, has produced a dozen 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.
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.
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.
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.