I love creating comics out of the 24-Hour Comics challenge. This year, I went to New Orleans to create a work that pays tribute to the landmark comic strip, Krazy Kat, by George Herriman. You can buy the book that I created at the Comics Grinder store right here.
Sample pages from Krazy Kat 2020
One reason I was in New Orleans was to interview Michael Tisserand about his book, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White. If you’re new to the Krazy Kat comic strip (1913-1944), you may be surprised to discover just how relevant it is today. Krazy Kat is a gender-bending, race-bending whimsical creature who regularly challenges the status quo. Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. I couldn’t resist attempting to create a work in comics that placed Krazy Kat in our own very krazy times. While Krazy Kat did not directly comment on politics, I can only imagine that Herriman might have made an exception for the fantastical and larger-than-life personality that currently occupies the White House. No matter your politics, I believe I’ve captured a moment in time that we can all agree has been unusual.
Hotel Royal courtyard
So, New Orleans is a big deal for me. I have a strong family connection there and it’s great town, one of the great American cities. It is a place that beckons you with its alluring music, food, and hospitality. For this year’s 24-Hour Comics workout, my base of operations was Hotel Royal. I highly recommend it. The service was excellent, the room was spacious and nicely kept, and the location was just perfect. Royal Street places you right in the heart of the French Quarter. If you want to enjoy Jackson Square, you’re only a few blocks away. If you want to party on Bourbon Street, again, it’s very close. Of course, you really don’t have to venture far at all since Royal Street has quite a variety of boutiques, impressive art galleries, and amazing fine dining.
As I tend to end up doing with these 24-Hour Comics adventures, I present to you a short film that captures some of the process and some of the atmosphere during my efforts. Hope you like it. You’ll see that I mapped out my work in a series of storyboards. This became a set of blueprints for what was to evolve. I’ve been having fun with developing this work as well as with calling attention to it. Not too long into the process I decided to post photos of each panel from the book on Instagram. You can view that here. For high quality images all gathered together in a book, please visit the Comics Grinder store.
Sample for Krazy Kat painting series
It became clear to me that each panel could stand alone as a work all by itself so I worked on the assumption that I was not only creating a book but that prints and even more work, like separate paintings, would follow. Be sure to visit the Comics Grinder store as more work becomes available for sale.
Craig Frank’s new graphic novel, Cool Valley, published by Fahrenheit, provides an intimate look at childhood with a masterful command of the comics medium. Frank has a zeal for storytelling that is rooted in his background in animation and his overall passion for creative pursuits. In fact, the reader will see Frank’s first stir of interest in comics and drawing within the pages of his new book. I was completely won over by Frank’s debut graphic novel from a few years ago, the quirky and surreal, JFK: Secret Ops. Read my review here. This new book shares a similar live wire sensibility, set in a small town in Missouri in the 1970s, packed with an uncanny amount of vivid details.
Cool Valley by Craig Frank
There’s a bit of Huck Finn mixed in this series of vignettes interlaced together building up to a sobering existential assessment. Along the way, there are more than some touches of the supernatural too. Actually, it may have been helpful to bring the supernatural elements to the forefront due to their compelling thematic strength. What is intriguing, and deliciously spooky, is how Frank ultimately approached things by having all the scary stuff gradually emerge! So, it’s something of a toss up. You can start in with a story already with built-in expectations or you can surprise an audience with unexpected material. Going in, the reader does not know to expect anything about demons. That said, the reader quickly picks up from the first few pages that there’s a melancholy and strange tone brewing.
Cool Valley by Craig Frank
Demons aside, young Frank is jumping from one misadventure to the next. While talk of demons is only one aspect to this narrative, that eerie sense of dread is woven throughout, especially since it involves a series of tragic events that gradually, then suddenly, take over amid a narrative that includes both sorrow and joy. Frank does a wonderful job of presenting this tableau of light and dark, always wondering about meaning, always daring to express frustration with elusive answers. This is a mature work for all ages that thoroughly respects and rewards the reader. It’s a great work for young adults and older adults alike.
Cool Valley by Craig Frank
Craig Frank has taken a very original and idiosyncratic path with his comics–and that is where the most authentic comics come from. It’s great for a budding cartoonist to follow an influence and emulate his or her favorite artist. We can always have yet another cartoonist who echoes the cool vibe of Daniel Clowes. That’s a tall order and to be applauded when it works. However, it’s even better when you develop a style and vision all your own and that also takes time and dedication. And another thing, sometimes the next graphic novel is the one that catches on and lifts up the one that came before. I think Cool Valley is definitely a perfect entry point to Frank’s work. Then make your way over to his hilarious JFK: Secret Ops and then…well, we’ll just have to see what Craig Frank comes up with next!
Here is a book trailer for Cool Valley:
And here is a panel discussing the relationship between comics and animation at SPX this year that includes Craig Frank:
Gahan Wilson was, in many respects, the ideal cartoonist for distinctive, wild and funny cartoons in the leading magazines of the day, National Lampoon, Playboy, and The New Yorker. I just got news of his passing. I had donated to a GoFundMe campaign for his care and received updates from his son, Paul Winters. The announcement begins: “The world has lost a legend. One of the very best cartoonists to ever pick up a pen and paper has passed on. He went peacefully – surrounded by those who loved him. ” Since I do my best to travel in various relevant circles, I did end up having the pleasure of meeting Gahan Wilson. I was in that famous green room that The New Yorker kept as a holding pen for cartoonists awaiting to see the legendary cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, back when The New Yorker was located in rather cramped, but thoroughly charming, offices in Times Square. So, I kept putting off going in to see Bob since I wanted to soak up the atmosphere. I got a chance to chat a bit with old-timers and new emerging talent. As an artist-writer-cartoonist, I was there with a legitimate batch of cartoons but I was mostly there just to be there since a visit to New York wasn’t something I did regularly. Anyway, there was Gahan Wilson. He was quietly seated on one of the big sofas. This was circa 2005. Gahan smiled and asked to see my cartoons. He nodded and picked out the ones he liked. “Good luck, kid,” he said. It was shortly after those words of encouragement that another cartoonist suggested I should go in before I missed my chance. For some reason, there was no list. You just went in. Very informal. So, I went in and Bob was Bob. In other words, he batted me around like a piñata. Before I knew it, I was done. In the end, Bob offered words of encouragement too. After that, I took one last look over to the green room. Gahan was there, smiling, very quiet, observing as a good cartoonist does, probably thinking up his next deliciously diabolical and weird cartoon. Oh, I had signed a waiver when I had first arrived. Apparently, I had picked the day that a documentary on Gahan Wilson was being filmed. It was released in 2013, Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. And, if you happen to see it, you’ll see me in Bob’s office getting a thrashing, all in good fun, but a thrashing none the less. Funny thing is that I didn’t mind it at all, which is what a good cartoonist does. And how can one complain when in the presence of such greats as Bob Mankoff and Gahan Wilson? You just don’t. You’re grateful for the moment in this fleeting life. Rest in peace, Gahan.
While they stock all kinds of comics, Orbital Comics in London has quite an impressive collection of small press comics. Will Humberstone, Orbital Comics indie comics expert, assisted me in tracking down some of the store’s best titles currently in stock. I include here all the titles that he suggested. While I was in the store, I was impressed with a very tidy and organized shop. I found an upbeat environment with first-rate customer service. By all means, while in London, do make sure to visit Orbital Comics! I begin with some photos of the shop. This includes staff members who worked on some of the titles reviewed here: Ryan Jenkyns on Forged #1, and Valentina Sannais on Starfall #1.
Ryan Jenkyns and Valentina Sannais
Small Press Reviews
Forged #1 by Michael Eckett and Ryan Jenkyns
Forged #1, written by Michael Eckett and illustrated by Ryan Jenkyns, is a sweet all-ages ongoing series that proves to be a rather nice showcase of talent. I can see big things ahead for this series mostly geared toward younger readers. A boy off on big adventures! Stay tuned.
Starfall #1 by Adam Blackhat and Valentina Sannais
Starfall #1, written by Adam Blackhat and illustrated by Valentina Sannais, is an action adventure story with quite a lot to unpack. It seems that we are picking up the story right in the middle of momentous events with characters dealing with a lot of issues. Oh, and they also happen to have superpowers! Much to enjoy here and we’re only getting started. Visit the webcomic here.
Barky and the Bootmaker by Jasmine Parker
Barky and the Bootmaker, by Jasmine Parker, raises the bar high as this is a professional illustrator so maybe it’s a little unfair for someone with finely-honed artistic chops to blast into the slower-paced world of indie comics–or is it? It’s debatable, I suppose, but I really truly favor those comics creators who do work hard at their craft, keep polishing it, and demand a high level of excellence in their work. And then you have to ask, When is a work too slick? Ah, now there’s the rub–when to know you’ve got just the right vibe in your comics! I guess you have to sniff it out. In this case, Ms. Parker does a fine job with a very silly story that will have the tikes rolling in the aisles.
The Blade of Arozone by J. Edward Scott
The Blade of Arozone, by J. Edward Scott, is one of those little books where maybe I’m just not connecting with it all the way even though I really want to. If you enjoy a bit of sword and sorcery, then this might work for you. I think the best thing going here is the artwork. There’s a lot of promise here. For such a short work, you need to wow your reader with something really tasty. Not too busy either. So, keep on truckin’ and really have fun. Maybe I’m not seeing quite enough fun in these opening pages while I do see that elsewhere from this artist online.
Stutter by Joe Stone
Stutter, by Joe Stone, almost lost me with the cover. But, once I leafed through it, I knew that here was a serious cartoonist that I would need to focus on and give him his due. I can see that care has been put into character development, composition and pacing. Yes, it is an autobiographical story about one man’s struggle with stuttering. It has a nice crisp clarity to it. The style is a confident clean line, a cartoony semi-realistic approach that a lot of cartoonists use today. Stone is among one of the better examples I’ve come across. It’s an impressive and sharp mini-comic.
Shivers in London, Part 1 by Niki S. Banados
Shivers in London, Part 1, by Niki S. Banados, is another all too brief work that leaves me wanting more. Again, lots of promise here just like in Mr. Scott’s The Blade of Arozone. The art does have a nice ethereal quality to it but I’d just have to see a lot more of it. If this is an opener meant to entice the reader, then I need more of a wow factor. That said, I’m intrigued and look forward to more.
Cat Disco by Rebecca K. Jones
Cat Disco, by Rebecca K. Jones, is a work that has come to the party prepared to rock out. Now, fair warning, Ms. Jones is a seasoned illustrator so she has a lot more toys to play with and a lot more experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun read or anyone interested in becoming a better cartoonist. This story is told with sly wit and great confidence. It’s not easy to pull off but this is the sort of work that can carry the reader away. It’s a story about a house cat who decides to take a walk on the wild side and see what the street cats do at night–and then it goes on to deliver! You too will believe that cats love to disco! Bravo!
Heads by Ed Stockham
Heads, by Ed Stockham, seemed at first glance to be one of those classic twee mini-comics that tries one’s patience. However, years of mini-comic reading have taught me to not rush to judgment. Now, the art is very simple and raw but there’s a confidence running throughout that won me over. I think Mr. Stockham’s work, based on this little book plus what I see on his website, has just the right combination of a good sense of timing, artistic sensibility, and joie de vivre.
Seller on the Threshold by Claude T.C.
Seller on the Threshold, by Claude T.C., is a masterful little work by someone who spends a lot of time drawing and loves it. I see here a wacky sense of humor and the creative discipline to back it up. Is this the work of an inspired amateur who works at a professional level? Or is this the work of a professional who works at the level of an inspired amateur? You see what I mean, don’t you?! It’s polished, but not so slick that the life has been sucked out of it. This is the good stuff.
Some Short Stories by Knifeson Yu
Some Short Stories, by Knifeson Yu, is a collection of light vignettes where very, very little happens. This is an all too brief wisp of a sampler. But I like the wee bits of teaser found here. Seems like the work of an animator who is happy to just dabble in comics for now. We shall see.
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays by Dan White
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays, by Dan White, is another impressive work by a professional illustrator. This is A-game work. The story is a lot of silly fun, reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes but very much its own thing. Cindy keeps seeing all sorts of amazing creatures and going off of all these larger-than-life adventures. Okay, maybe it’s a lot like Calvin Hobbes but it’s still very much its own thing! Five stars and lots of glitter!
Endswell by Peter Morey
Endswell, by Peter Morey, pay perhaps be the most ambitious work of the whole lot here in its own way. I mean, it has an ambiguous and quirky cover. You can only hazard a guess as to what it’s about. And, even once in, you don’t know for sure where it’s heading but you’re hooked. The opening pages have that ideal crisp and clear quality that is so crucial to bring the reader in. The characters are really saying things that are interesting and advancing the plot. You know the main character has got some problems and he’s taking part in some sort of therapy, whether he really wants to or not. All very intriguing. This gets an A-plus and whatever else I can say that is upbeat and supportive. Seriously, really good stuff!
Archie vs. Orbital by Joe Jinks and Will Humberstone
Archie vs. Orbital, art by Joe Jinks and script by Will Humberstone, is a fun little book that pits the Archie gang against the Orbital Comics staff! This is lighthearted fun as you might expect. That said, it is far more involved than you might expect too! The pacing is spot on and it has a tasty factor about it. Archie and the gang are not very nice in this comic. Think horror, scary horror. I recommend you pick it up.
As you can read in my previous post, I am a big fan of Danny Gregory, his new book on creativity, and the online creative learning community of Sketchbook Skool. I believe Danny to be very sincere in his pursuit of making drawing in a sketchbook a “new normal” in anyone’s life. What he has to say is honest, direct, and spirited. So, with that in mind, I couldn’t resist doing an interview with him. I think you’ll enjoy it. I found Danny to be a delightful guest. I’ve done numerous interviews for well over a decade now, including best-selling novelists, award-winning screenwriters, and so on. Danny is someone who keeps reminding me to never forget that, at my core, I love being creative. We talk a lot about creativity in the interview and this “artist thing.” And, I have to admit, I don’t have a problem calling myself an artist because I am one. For Danny, he doesn’t care about labels as they can get in the way. I care about a label, especially as it applies to me. I guess I’m trying to say that I relate to what Danny is doing in my own way. Becoming an “artist” or maintaining being an artist is something that I’m proud of. Anyway, I’m sure that Danny has heard it all. In a nutshell, he’s the sort of person who doesn’t tolerate too much in the way of formality and wants you to go out and play! For goodness sake, go out and draw something already!
How to Draw Without Talent is the latest in Danny Gregory’s books on how to get into the creative habit. It is the first tie-in book with Sketchbook Skool that he co-founded with Koosje Koene. If this is all new to you, I know that you’re in for a big treat. Everyone can benefit from taking pencil to paper and drawing. And, if you are not a beginner but an established artist of one kind or another, Danny, Koosje, and the rest of SBS staff have an assortment of creative workouts that will entice you. It’s all about keeping one’s hand in game, right?
So, just click the video link and you can check out my interview with Danny Gregory. Upon listening to it a number of times as I put together the video, I found myself rediscovering all the care and charm to Danny’s approach. He’s a regular guy, no pretense about him, and he’d like to put a smile on your face byway of a sketchbook. Why not give it a try?
Visit Danny Gregory right here. Visit Sketchbook Skool right here. How to Draw Without Talent is published by North Light Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Danny Gregory portrait by Henry Chamberlain
I thought you might appreciate the above drawing my yours truly. I keep promising to add more of my own artwork to my posts. This is just a quick little portrait of Danny that I whipped up.
Do a web search and you’ll find numerous folks offering tips and inspiration on how to create art. Among your many options, you will find Danny Gregory. What sets him apart is a combination of amiable personality, common sense advice and guidance, and a certain tenacity that hooks you in. Danny Gregory is known for a number of inspirational books, including The Creative License and Art Before Breakfast. His latest book is How to Draw Without Talent, another useful and fun look at getting into an art habit. This title also happens to tie in with Sketchbook Skool, an educational and art community platform founded by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene. How to Draw Without Talent is published by North Light Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Don’t let criticism inhibit you.
This is a book made up of one simple bit of guidance built upon another bit and so on. Before you know it, you are immersed in a book that is intended to be highly accessible and motivational. The idea is to get folks who are interested in pursuing art to go ahead and make the leap. There are a number of approaches and there’s plenty of room for various books and methods. What is appealing about Danny’s way of doing things is that he opts for a very straightforward narrative. He’s a regular guy appealing to regular folks. And isn’t that the majority of us readers? Danny wants to knock down anything that might get in the way of someone new to art. He invites readers to join in and emphasizes that no prior knowledge is required. In fact, as the title suggests, no prior talent is required either! That’s a good solid message: Don’t worry, be happy, and dive in.
It’s interesting that what Danny offers actually crosses over and will appeal to any background. You can be something of a seasoned artist and still get something out of what Danny has to offer. Much of what Danny is about is finding ways to keep your interest and engage you in a variety of exercises. If you like what you see in this book, then perhaps you’re ready to level up and take a Sketchbook Skool “kourse” where you follow along video instruction as well as have the opportunity to participate in the SkoolYard social network. The kourses are reasonably priced and you keep the videos to pursue at your own pace whenever you like or to complete right along with fellow students in real time. I’ve recently gotten involved with Sketchbook Skool and find its creative world to be quite useful and rewarding. That said, this new book proves to be an excellent place to start your own creative journey. You’ve got nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.
Easy to follow exercises.
How to Draw Without Talent is a 128-page trade paperback, in full color, available as of November 26, 2019, published by Penguin Random House.
Here is one more comic that I picked up at Short Run over the weekend. This title, Exit, by Miles MacDiarmid, got my attention because the creator chose to include Pres. William Howard Taft on the cover of his work just like I did for a book collection of my own work, A Night at the Sorrento and Other Stories. Taft! Taft! Taft! Was he a great American president? No, not great. But there’s something about him, right? Well, he figures in MacDiarmid’s comic in a similar way as it figures in mine, more of an absurd MacGuffin creature. So, a cartoonist with a offbeat and erudite sense of humor is a very good thing and so it goes with this book, Exit. I also see from MacDiarmid’s website that he does fine art. So do I. I think it’s an important distinction among cartoonists that I can relate to all too well. I think MacDiarmid is someone who loves to create work and is restless, always looking for something new to do. You can see that in this book. It’s just classic absurd fun, that’s really all you need to know. Seriously fun stuff!
Exit by Miles MacDiarmid
What goes on in Exit? How about What doesn’t go on in Exit? There’s a state of frenzy running throughout these pages where you fell anything is possible. You don’t get that with any work in comics. It’s hard to do and too many cartoonists sink down to something very predictable and easy. It is those rare artist-cartoonists who dig deeper and live and breathe their comics than have the potential to reach the level of, say, Simon Hanselmann. And that reminds me that I want to do a proper review of Simon’s latest book, even if it is rather late. I hope to do a proper interview with him too. We should both be dressed in drag for it too. And, no, I am NOT digressing. Simon’s work comes to mind because I see a similar energy in MacDiarmid’s work. The next big step would be to keep going, stay consistent, keep pushing and things will continue to come together as they already are!
Exit is published by the arts collective, Freak Comics. Everything there looks fresh and delicious so go check them out right here.
If you were looking for Marc Bell at Short Run, you were out of luck.
Marc Bell was designated as a special guest this year at Short Run Comix & Arts Festival in Seattle and he is, no doubt, a wonderful representative of the indie zeitgeist. The problem was that he was nowhere to be found. Literally, he wasn’t there. He didn’t show up. Always the comics journalist, I was able to track down the publisher of Neoglyphic Media and he was very helpful and nice to talk to. He explained that border crossings from Canada to the United States have become very problematic and it left Marc Bell one very concerned Canadian. He had to bow out. And that’s totally understandable. It’s a shame that the cancellation wasn’t announced on the Short Run website. But there is a nice interview with Bell you can read here. I was really looking forward to talking to Marc Bell but, who knows, maybe I’ll cross that scary border myself and meet up with him sometime. And let’s look forward to less problematic and politicized borders in the future, whenever that is. With that said, I’m going to share with you some items that you can find over at the Neoglyphic Media website: Worn Tuff Elbow #2 by Marc Bell; Boutique Mag #4; and The Assignment #1.
Worn Tuff Elbow #2 by Marc Bell
For the most diehard fans of Marc Bell, it has been 14 long years since his comic book, Worn Tuff Elbow #1. Now, the wait is over and Bell has returned to the comics page his characters, Shrimpy, Stroppy, Paul and his friends. As they say, this new issue turns out to have been worth the wait. From the very first page, all the way to the last, this is quite the surreal treat harking back to the best in early 20th century comic strips and underground comix from the sixties. It is Bell’s unique take, channeling a bit of Philip Guston along the way. And it’s all very clean and precise work. Imitators will be stymied since they always rush their work. Nope, this kind of art requires skill, integrity and determination. I should mention that this book is published by No World Books and distributed by Drawn & Quarterly. It happens to also be available thru Neoglyphic Media.
Boutique Mag #4
Okay, this next publication is co-published by No World Books and Neoglyphic Media. Great, hope that’s clear. This is Boutique Mag #4 and it features the work of Marc Bell. This one is a fun little book clocking in at 12 pages for $5, as opposed to the previous book with 36 pages for only $8. If you are a completist and enjoy little extras, then you may want to get the latest issue of Boutique Mag.
The Assignment #1 by Stathis Tsemberlidis
Finally, there’s The Assignment #1, which is published by Decadence Comics. This is 28 pages for $12. It is by Stathis Tsemberlidis, a cartoonist based out of London. It is well worth the relatively high price point. That’s just how it is with indie publications that seem to be in it more for the art than for anything else. The price for such a publication simply needs to be bumped up to help make up for the costs involved. I’m very pleased with it. I wish I could have interviewed Tsemberlidis while I was recently in London. Perhaps next time. It makes me think of what David Bowie, during his Major Tom phase, might have done if he created comics. This book is distributed by Neoglyphic Media.
Alright, well that’s it. I need to get a bunch of reviews, and other goodies, including a British indie comics roundup, out the door before the end of the year so I hate to cut this one short but I must. You can expect another post really soon. In fact, there’s so much really yummy stuff that I could potentially present to you that, no matter what I do, stuff is going to inevitably spill over into next year–but so it goes. And you are welcome to reach out, comment and support my efforts however you can. Next year will see a lot more of the same quality content while also shifting towards balancing out what I’m doing behind the scenes, showing you more original artwork and just getting on with various projects. Well, there’s always tracking down Marc Bell. Yeah, that would be quite a fun and intriguing project all to itself, don’t you think?
Be sure to keep up with Short Run as they do all sorts of fun and interesting things during the year.
Ian Wright is a true artist. If you are not familiar with his work, just one look, and you’ll be hooked. His love for his subject matter and his working methods brings you in and won’t let go. I had the great privilege to spend some time with Mr. Wright during a chat in his studio. Jennifer and I consider it a highlight of our recent European tour. Ian is quite the host, very open and generous with explaining and sharing his work. From beads, or badges, or torn paper, to name just a few potential sources, Ian Wright creates portraits like you’ve never seen before. Click the link below to see my short film on this very special art studio visit while we were in London.
John Lennon portrait by Ian Wright
The visit began with a spark of energy and it just continued to blossom. Bit by bit, I got to know Ian Wright, from his early work up to the present. He always wanted to be a commercial artist. He got his big break not long after college doing weekly portraits for the popular British music magazine, New Musical Express (NME) and that allowed him an audience and an opportunity to hone his skills. Wright interned at the prestigious NTA Studios, similar to Push Pin in New York. NTA was run by George Hardie, Bob Lawrie, Bush Hollyhead, and Malcolm Harrison. They were illustrator-graphic designers and the connection to that work led Wright to study graphic design. Later, Wright shared a studio with Neville Brody and, at that point, Wright was working at NME. The 1980s was a great time to play and learn about various ways of working. It was a matter of endless practice.
T.I.: Paper Trail album cover by Ian Wright
As a young artist developing his style, Wright discovered that his ideas were linked to his choice of materials. It was when he pushed himself that he found himself creating his most compelling work. Early on, during his time at NME, he had a breakthrough when he used salt to represent lines of cocaine for a portrait of Grandmaster Flash. Around the same time, Wright was pushing the boundaries of what you could do with an office copy machine. For instance, imagine what you might accomplish if you manipulate the rollers? Or what might happen if you manipulate an image on the screen? Wright found out. One project has brought him back to such analog experiments. He created an album cover for the band Madness in its heyday and was recently approached by the band for a poster for a new show next month.
Madness at The Roundhouse
We began with a portrait of the wrestling legend Giant Haystacks and went on from there. Wright talked about various other portraits, like the one he did of the hip hop artist T.I. for an album cover. Wright subverted the notion of glamour and gloss in hip hop and used humble recycled paper. Another example was an amazing work-in-progress of a portrait of D.H. Lawrence made out of pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Another great work was a portrait of singer Albert Ayler which is included in the recent 100th issue of the magazine, Straight No Chaser. I asked Wright if it was more challenging to depict someone unknown or someone famous and that got him thinking over it. He brought out a dazzling portrait of David Bowie that he did for The Atlantic made out of pins. He pointed out that, without that flash across his face, it might not read as Bowie. Some famous faces are so ingrained into our psyche that we have trouble recognizing them without their usual posturing. Whatever the case, Wright has managed with each of his portraits to not only capture a likeness but to evoke something soulful from the subject as well as from himself.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.