Matt MacFarland is a talented artist who makes some very intriguing comics. In this conversation, we discuss Matt’s latest work, a book focusing on his father, MoreSeasons of Gary, published by Zines and Things. You can read my review of it here. And we also discuss his series, Dark Pants, and get a sneak peek at the next, and perhaps final, issue to that series.
MORE SEASONS OF GARY
There is quite a lot going on in Matt’s work with its explorations of relationships and social commentary. More Seasons of Gary is a great jumping off point if you’re new to Matt’s work. It is a little master course in how to tell family stories. With a light and balanced approach, MacFarland addresses the issue of alcohol addiction that his father struggled with. Bittersweet remembrances provide a complex and fair portrait.
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE
Scenes from a Marriage is another of Matt’s projects and this one is just as offbeat and subversive as the best of MacFarland’s humor although it might look more like a conventional family comic strip at first glance. There’s definitely an elegant air of mischief. You can find some samples of it on Matt’s Instagram.
Dark Pants is where it all began. You can read one of my reviews covering the first two issues here. This is a series of cautionary tales about a supernatural pair of skinny black jeans that take over whoever ends up wearing the pair. Whoever wears the jeans is empowered to seek out their darkest desires. It is an excellent example of the artist-cartoonist aspiring to the highest levels of his craft. I look forward to more of this kind of this quirky and engaging work.
This is a really fun interview and I’m so glad I got a chance to catch up with Matt, a dedicated artist without a doubt. We even discuss the legacy of R. Crumb! Be sure to visit Matt here. And seek out More Seasons of Gary, published by Zines and Things.
Matt MacFarland displays a disarming charm in how he presents himself, his family, and his father in particular in his latest book. This is a little comics memoir in the tradition of auto-bio alt-comics: a self-portrait of the cartoonist, warts-and-all.
It’s interesting to note that this story is told in segments, four panels per page, comic strip-sytle. MacFarland uses the comic strip format in order to contain the narrative. What I mean is that this isn’t a collection of previously serialized work. I see part of it on Matt’s Instagram but not as being posted in a deliberate way like a webcomic. He takes a more casual approach which I really dig. In fact, a lot of what he’s posting right now are pages from his Scenes from a Marriage series which is hilarious. Matt has found a method to keep things fresh and concise by using the comic strip format to tell his story. He’s also taking advantage of the fact that we’re so used to reading page after page of comic strips that have been collected to tell a bigger story. Matt’s new book features his father, told in a series of comic strip moments. This format echoes Art Spiegelman’s own recollections of his father albeit on a small compact scale. Matt has narrowed down the stage to the most essential: fleeting moments, heavy with meaning, tied together by the seasons. What emerges is a portrait of the artist’s father, a complicated guy, both difficult and lovable.
By keeping to this comic strip format, MacFarland provides us little windows into his father’s soul, one self-contained little story per page. MacFarland has a lean and crisp way of drawing and storytelling. This series of four-panel comic strips grows on you as one detail is revealed and builds upon the next. We begin with the fall. The first two strips set the tone depicting Matt’s father, Gary, as a less than sensitive guy, with an offbeat sense of humor. The opener shows Gary as a young boy obsessed with creating monster masks. The one after that has Gary describing a horror movie he especially liked to 6-year-old Matt. After Matt screams that he wants to see it, Gary shows him a particularly disturbing scene from it on tape that leaves little Matt in tears.
Truth be told, Gary is hardly a bad guy and Matt doesn’t pick him apart. He’s not digging for dirt but for understanding about his father–and his own life. As we progress, we come to find out that Gary is an alcoholic but that is only part of his story and it doesn’t derail the narrative as one might expect. Mixing up the chronology of events also helps in letting details emerge in a less than obvious way. In a natural course of presenting anecdotes, the reader gets to see Gary interact with an array of people and circumstances. MacFarland manages to navigate a series of challenging periods: the divorce of his parents; the start of his own family; and the death of his father. I especially like a moment Matt has crafted where he’s hiding in a bedroom crying over the news of his father’s death while also calculating in his mind when the dinner guest will finally leave. Of course, when he returns to the kitchen, she’s still seated at the dinner table. That’s classic Matt MacFarland, with a dash of dry and dark humor.
Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.
Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor
To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.
Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.
He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.
Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.
They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.
RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.
But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book, contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.
Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,
The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.
Graphic memoir is my speciality and I completely embrace the new graphic memoir, Spellbound, by Bishakh Som. What a wonderful book. It’s fun, inspiring and insightful in so many ways. This is the kind of work that I enjoy creating and the kind of work that gains my attention the most. This is work by an auteur cartoonist who welcomes the reader into an inner life, ultimately dropping the veil: engaging, revealing, and sharing. This is an intricate act of self-expression which the reader follows usually without any expectations on how it all turns out. What the cartoonist has to say and how the story is told becomes as important as anything else. In this case, Bishakh Som has a theme we’ve all been reading more and more about, issues of gender fluidity; and this story is inextricably linked to a personal journey, a celebration of the self and self-expression.
Anjali became a way of sorting through issues and showing the world one’s true self.
But before one stands before the world naked, a veil of sorts can help with the process. This is part of what I believe led Som to create an alter ego. As Som proceeded upon his transition from male to female, I can see where he found it a source of comfort and insight to have his female alter ego grace the page. Thus, Som created comics that feature the character of Anjali who became a way of sorting through issues but, even more important, a way of showing the world the true self.
“I’ve always been this way.”
Our story begins with Anjali quitting her job and setting off on a new adventure. This is much like Som’s own story of quitting a focused career in architecture in order to make room for a life in the graphic arts, specifically creating graphic novels. Anjali has embarked upon uncharted waters but doesn’t seem too phased. At first, the biggest challenge seems to be just keeping her cat, Ampersand, at bay. The artwork is very crisp and engaging and certainly meets the biggest demands placed upon comics: clarity and entertainment. Anjali is the perfect metaphor for the determined soul who will not be beaten down by challenging circumstances.
Anjali relaxing and having fun.
When Anjali stumbles upon a family photo album, this triggers countless memories which take her back to growing up in Ethiopia. Anjali’s parents were born in India, both of them intellectuals working for the UN. Over the course of Anjali’s first six years, she grew as fond of Ethiopian culture as she did of American pop culture. When revolution broke out, Anjali’s parents resettled in New York. This led to Anjali going to the United Nations International School and destined to a most urban and erudite life.
One generation gives way to the next.
Over the course of this graphic novel, the reader is immersed in Anjali’s journey: a life rich in exploration and searching, one that beautifully mirrors the life of Bishakh Som. It is a life we see from various vantage points, from the banal and quotidian to moments of insight and epiphany. For instance, Anjali must come to terms with her demanding and conservative parents. In the end, she is witness to their decline and, from that, she gains some wisdom. And she continues to grow with the help of some friends. For someone who prefers to avoid people, Anjali seems to find her best moments when she is around someone else. It is a lesson that Bishakh Som learned from well.
Spellbound is published by Street Noise Books. For more details, visit here.
Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht. 88 pages. TWG Press, 2019, paperback, $5.99.
With great insight and humor, Ray Hecht shares his life with the reader in his autobiographical graphic novel, Always Goodbye. This is an ambitious work as Hecht takes stock of his whole life thus far. Hecht sums up his life, year by year, and he’s up to the challenge. He’s definitely an interesting subject: an artist, filmmaker, journalist, and author. What he’s doing here is giving the reader a window into what he’s done all his life: traveling, observing, and creating art. Like the results of a conversation between good friends, this graphic novel provides many gifts.
The theme of the book is found in the title. While traveling can be enlightening and full of adventure, it often comes at a price. And, of course, all travel is not completely voluntary. A lot of the nuts and bolts of travel are not glamorous and bring in a whole lot of issues including the trauma of displacement.
No doubt, Ray Hecht is doing exciting work with comics, both as a creator as well as an instructor. And he certainly has a wonderful track record of prose novels, including South China Morning Blues and The Ghost of Lotus Mountain Brothel. Hecht is an artist down to his bones and I definitely relate to that. Hecht has harnessed a creative drive that’s led to compelling work. Anyone interested in the inner life of an artist will get a lot out of his latest book. If you enjoy a hearty work of autobiography, this will appeal to you. Hecht’s comics have got enough of that quirk factor that earns him a place within that fine tradition of auto-bio comics that includes such luminaries as John Porcellino, Tom Hart, and Lynda Barry.
Always Goodbye is published by TWG Press and available right here.
Just like “Ophelia,” in John Millais’s 1852 painting, submerging in the waters, so too 15-year-old Minnie Goetze floats and then descends the depths of her bathtub. We see her nude body sinking down the blue-green of her own misery only to resurface as a finely-drawn portrait by the same Minnie Goetze. Welcome to “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” based upon the book of the same title by cartoonist and writer Phoebe Gloeckner. This is Gloeckner’s fictionalized account of her sexual awakening, circa 1976, at the age of 15 at the hands of a 35-year-old man, the boyfriend of her mother. By all counts, this is a story of rape and incest. Through poetic license, the raw source material is transcended and another transformative story rises from the brackish waters from which it came. And it is up to audiences if they will accept such a journey.
Phoebe Gloeckner took her reality of rape and incest and shaped it into fiction. And then writer-director Marielle Heller took that fiction and adapted it for her film. With a safe distance from the actual events and persons, an uninhibited and honest story is possible. It turns out that 15-year-old Minnie Goetze appears to be empowered by the sexual relationship with 35-year-old Monroe. It’s San Francisco in 1976, experimentation with sex and drugs is in the forefront. Minnie, ill-equipped to navigate through the loopy zeitgeist, finds herself lost and on a classic downward spiral: she has a threesome, drops acid and performs oral sex in a bar bathroom while pretending to be a prostitute. All this happens without any judgment placed upon her.
Okay, just go and read Phoebe Gloeckner’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
This is a complicated film. It is, after all, adapted from a complicated, and quite extraordinary, prose and comics hybrid. It can not be encouraged enough that, if the movie grabs your interest, then you must read the book. In a one-of-kind fictionalized memoir, Phoebe Gloeckner expresses her story in a way that you need to read to believe. In the end, her goal was to create a greater truth. The movie follows closely but, my its very nature, tells a story with a different tone and view. Gloeckner addresses these shifts from her work to the film in this insightful interview with the A.V. Club right here.
Bel Powley portrays Minnie with a wide-eyed broad innocence. In somewhat a similar sense, so does Kristen Wig as Minnie’s mother, Charlotte. And, in his own way, so does Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe, Minnie’s predatory Lothario. It’s the self-conscious attempt to evoke the act of reading Gloeckner’s unique work that can be problematic. Gloeckner’s narrative is prose followed by an illustration followed by comics and more prose and so on. The crux of the problem of translating Gloeckner’s vision into film is that it really is virtually impossible: you are really walking into a land mine when you mix comics, film, and address rape and incest. Parts of the film seem to read as too cartoony when, paradoxically, the same scene in Gloeckner’s comics does not read so much as “cartoony” as simply entering a different world, reading something within a different world. The film, even if it doesn’t intend to, seems to take its subject too lightly.
Not to sound too much like Marshall McLuhan, but when you read comics, you are reading and, when you see something evoking the feeling of reading comics, which happens often in this film, you are reading the content and the medium, and that can be very distracting. It can also be a wonderful combination of distraction and entertainment like the multi-layered tribute to the grand curmudgeon Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” If you have a lighter subject, you can get away with much more. But with the double whammy subjects of rape and incest, it raises the stakes so high as to be a virtually insurmountable challenge. With all that said, this is a very unique film. All I can is that I’m happy to find that this 15-year-old character is in the very capable hands of 23-year-old Bel Powley.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a film that will definitely challenge you. But, keep in mind, to best appreciate what this film is doing, read Phoebe Gloeckner’s book. A new revised edition, published by North Atlantic Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has just been released. You can find it at Amazon right here.
“How I Made the World,” is an intriguing title, don’t you think? It happens to be the title for a series of comics about Liz, a college student and writer who expresses herself in true epic glory, like any young person should. Now, this is most assuredly a SERIES, not a ONE-SHOT. There may have been a bit of confusion regarding this since the Diamond Previews catalog, the monthly bible for all comics retailers and regular comics buyers, has given the “one-shot” label to this series. Okay, now that we have that cleared up, here is an interview with the creators. It was a pleasure to get to chat for a bit with Liz and Randy.
How do we connect? We do it, or try to do it, in a variety a ways. It’s not always easy but it’s far better than its opposite, to disconnect. I aspire to connect with you. I make this preface because I am genuinely inspired by my latest subject for review, Joel Craig’s graphic memoir, WELCOME TO NURSING HELLo.
One of the great things that comics can do is to take you out of the obvious and transport you somewhere fresh and new. The mini-comic, “Second Banana,” by Tessa Brunton, is an excellent example of the true power of comics to uplift and be awesome. This is a look at what it feels like to be a “second banana,” and a whole bunch of other neat stuff. You see, Tessa’s older brother is something of a genius. At least, I’m assuming this is an auto-bio comic. Whatever case, here is a girl named Tessa and she is doing her best to find her way in life. She is the baby sibling. Rich, the eldest, has left the nest. This leaves Tessa and her older bro, Finn, who dazzles Tessa with his general knowledge, including bogus info about light bulbs and fabulous info about ghosts, monsters, and various other related strangeness. Yes, this is what comics does best. It lets you dream. Brunton has got the knack for tapping into that wonderworld.
Let me tell you, I’m not twiddling my thumbs over here either. If you want to know what I’m all about, I champion work just like this. I believe you can find this sort of spirit in a variety of comics, whether alternative or mainstream. The bottom line is you really need to want it, the sort of comics that move the medium forward, not backward. For some creators, it may come more naturally to them but it’s still a process: rough drafts, laying out, editing. For readers, well, you know quality work when you see it. Now, when you see work that makes you nauseous, you know it too and you should protest whenever possible. No more nauseous comics!
But getting back to what Tessa Brunton has accomplished thus far, I think you’ll find that this mini-comic is very promising. We begin the story with an off-kilter reference to “Little House on the Prairie” which sets the tone. Moving right along, we continue with creative use of panels that establish the pecking order of the characters. With a restrained and crisp line, Brunton goes about expressing the ups and downs of having a bright but domineering older brother. I especially like her panel/word balloon combinations!
The narrative is so heart-felt in this immersive comic. You too will feel the same great disappointment as Tessa did when Finn does a complete 180 on his love and support of monsters and ghosts and dismisses them all as a bunch of folklore. As Tessa puts it, “The world seemed so much smaller without the supernatural.” In the end, this story is bigger than Finn. This is a story about the end of childhood.
You’ll definitely want to get your hands on this exceptionally good mini-comic. It is a 16-pager and only $3. Visit Tessa Brunton here. And visit her store here.
Gabrielle Bell is one of the most consistently interesting cartoonists out there with a distinctive style and wit. Here is a brief interview with the creator of “Lucky.”
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I’m so pleased to be able to go and read your comics on your site, gabriellebell.com. I don’t regularly gravitate to webcomics. I know I can rely on yours to have an authentic voice and be thoughtfully constructed. I think that has something to do with the fact that you began with having your work in printed form. Do you think that’s true? Do you think you add another layer to your work since you’re not conditioned to think in terms of digital shortcuts?
GABRIELLE BELL: Thank you. I don’t know if that is true about printed comics or not. I do love comics best in print, hands down. But I also like the instantaneous connection with the reader the internet provides. I like not having to wait for and negotiate with publishers, printers, book sellers, editors, etc. It’s given me the chance to earn the reputation of that thoughtful construction and authentic voice. But I am glad to have my comics packaged in a book! I think any cartoonist ultimately wants that, web or no.
HC: Can you walk us through your process? Maybe you could take a recent post and describe how it came to be or describe your working methods.
GB: The hardest part is writing. It takes me ages and I am tortured by self-doubt. Then I use a lightbox to turn my scratchy, messy thumbnails into drawings, then I do that again. Then I fill in all the black splotches. Then I scan it and manipulate it a lot on photoshop. Then color it, then I read it over, then I throw it on the internet.
HC: You have conquered autobio comics, in a way, I think, by never being obvious and always keeping a certain level of mystery. People are left to wonder what is true and what is not and finally let all that go and enjoy the storytelling. Is this something you set out to do, if I’m right? At least I think I’m pretty right. If falls in line with the best writing.
GB: Thank you, that is nice to hear. I hope I can continue to live up to it! I didn’t set out to do that. I have a compulsion to do diary comics, it’s like some nervous tic. I try to stop sometimes, and then I start again. There’s something psychologically gratifying about it. But I don’t want to offend people with my self-indulgence, so I’ve tried to make it work so that other people could get something out of it too. And that is the pain of it.
HC: What’s a good Charlie Rose type question to ask you? Comics, ah yes, were you always attracted to comics? What is it about comics that suits your needs as an artist?
GB: I think most artists are attracted to comics. I’m always hearing of writers and artists giving a shout-out to some comics. I just finished “Just Kids,” by Patti Smith, and she talks about sitting in her room in the Chelsea Hotel for days reading Little Lulu comics. There’s something very special about comics that are still not really recognized, in spite of this “graphic novel” phenomenon. As for me, it suits me because my two favorite things are writing and drawing.
HC: Please tell us about your more recent mini comics. What can you tell us about your “Diary” mini comics and the latest one, “July Diary”?
GB: “July Diary” is a collection of 31 comics I did last year in July, when I did a page a day that month. There’s also some scrawley sketchy outtakes. I’m told it is my funniest work. The “Diary” mini comics are collections from my blog, “Lucky.”
HC: Feel free to give us a pitch for your new book, “The Voyeurs.”
GB: “The Voyeurs” is a collections of the “Diary” minis, plus a lot more stuff, and all in color. I am told it is a handsome volume.
HC: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
GB: I’m going to be going on tour, doing lots of slideshows, with some great cartoonists, which should be very entertaining. There’s an events page on my website. Please come out and see me perform my comics if I come to your town.