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PULP POWER: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe review

Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe. Neil McGinness. Abrams. New York. 2022. Fully illustrated, hardcover. 352pp. $58.50

Walter Gibson was the writer behind the masked hero, The Shadow. Writing under the pen name, Maxwell Grant, he developed a character that seemed to emerge on its own, out of the confluence of pop culture media, circa 1930: pulp fiction and radio. The character was a strange mix of mystery and daring, part of something bigger, and a sign of things to come. The strangeness begins with the eerie voice warning that it sees all: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” followed by a shrill cackle. Such an otherworldly introduction to adventure was like mana from heaven for the millions of beleaguered radio listeners across the country confronting the dire reality of the Great Depression. Stranger still, at that point, there was only the weird voice to introduce the mystery hour–but the voice had become the star! Overnight, people wanted more. Who is The Shadow? Where do I get The Shadow magazine? This would lead to perhaps the greatest scramble ever to flesh out a popular character that did not yet exist!

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow went on to become the leading product of the famous Fiction Factory, founded by Francis Street, a bookkeeper, and Francis Smith, an aspiring writer in the 1850s. Street and Smith bought the New York Dispatch, a newspaper focused on news, and turned it into the New York Weekly (1858–1910), a newspaper focused on fiction, the foundation of what was to become the Street and Smith publishing empire. It was when this publishing house decided to step into creating radio shows that The Shadow emerged out of the ether. Pulp Power covers this phenomenal enterprise providing the reader with an in depth look at the origins of America’s first pop culture icons: The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Justice Inc., the trailblazers that would inspire Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, even the whole ball of wax at Marvel and DC Comics. Thanks to this generously illustrated book, with engaging writing by Neil McGinness, the original glory days of American pop culture come to life for the reader in this unique collection showcasing dazzling covers from pulp fiction, comics and movies, along with assorted ephemera.

The Shadow magazine

Getting back to The Shadow, if there is just one character to represent the exuberant creative force at play in the early years, it has got to be this strange, yet beloved, fellow. It’s fascinating to consider how much this character is so much of its time, and defies being easily bounced around various media until it finally settles into what works. Ultimately, a lot is working; it’s just a matter of doing justice to the material. You won’t be seeing a major motion picture anytime soon, until maybe you do. What you can count on is The Shadow thriving in prose and in audio. Perhaps that’s simply because The Shadow is so much a creature of the night, a mysterious force not to be observed too closely. He also has his specificity. He’s a New Yorker, and don’t you forget it. Thankfully, Neil McGinness does take a close look for the sake of better understanding the attraction. Essentially, it comes down to quality storytelling, which can’t be faked; it involves so many factors coming into place; and runs best with one determined author.

The Shadow comics

The Shadow’s original author, Walter Gibson, followed a tried and true formula, a five-point plan that never failed: a main crime; a problem arising from the main crime; a secondary crime that serves to complicate matters; an attempted third crime to thwart the investigation which is foiled by the hero; and the climax which reveals the villain, the trick, the true nature of the crime. It is a ticket to endless variations and served Gibson well as he went on to write nearly 300 Shadow novels. Not only that, Gibson was sensitive to literary refinements. In fact, The Shadow is closely based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a hero but a dark hero. A crime fighter as grim and merciless as the worst criminal. This is a complicated character shrouded under layer upon layer of ambiguity. . .while, at the same time, just a fun thrill.

Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue, 1945

The Shadow radio show ran for 17 years, from 1937 to 1954. Orson Welles, then only 22 years-old, served as the first voice of the character in 1937. Welles was quite busy with his own Mercury Theater and would do the show with no rehearsals. He just did it and he proved to be one of the best of the actors to take on the role. This was around the time that Welles was at his hottest: a year later, he would make history with his War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. It’s a nice touch to see included here in this book a photo of Welles at the height of his success, a portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue in 1945. It’s a masterwork of a photograph, complete with all of Penn’s still life magic–and a fitting companion piece to the magic and mystery that is The Shadow.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, pop culture, Pulp Fiction, The Shadow

Comics: David’s Dad’s Movie by Doogie Horner

The comics in the spotlight this time around are by Doogie Horner, a great illustrator who I first took notice of for his book cover design (illustration by Jeremy Enecio) to the madcap fictional adventures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Hope Never Dies.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

It was shortly after spotting that book that I noticed another one with Horner credited for both illustration and design, a comedy mashup of Jane Austen and zombies! Maybe you’ve seen both of these iconic covers.

This Might Hurt a Bit

But it hardly ends there for Doogie Horner. Along with an impressive creative portfolio of graphic design, illustration and comics, he is also an author and a stand-up comedian. The great thing about whatever Doogie Horner does is that he’s very dedicated. His young adult novel has been well received, This Might Hurt a Bit. And you’ll just have to see for yourself how he tamed a hostile crowd when he was a contestant on America’s Got Talent!

Alright then, I’m very happy to bring to your attention this comic, a sweet story of a boy trying to connect with his dad. Or maybe it has more to do with the kid’s curiosity getting the better of him and his forcing his way into seeing a movie he was told would be too scary for him at his age. Yeah, that’s definitely a big part of the story. Spoiler alert, the movie was scary but not too scary. It depends upon how scary you think The Terminator is for a kid around five years-old. Okay, definitely parental supervision is in order.

The point is that this comic manages to do a lot of things right. It’s funny and engaging for any age. But, most importantly, it flows very well. This is a gentle narrative, told by a child, while maintaining a hip and upbeat sense of humor. The drawing style has a child-like, as well as elegant, simplicity.

So, this is an easygoing look and feel–and that’s actually not easy to do. It takes time to get that natural vibe going. Just ask Doogie Horner. He made it look easy to win over a hostile audience, something easier said and done, but he knows what he needs to know. Part of it is dedication to craft; part of it is learning from past mistakes; and part of it is simply not taking no for an answer. I get a sense of that spirit in this father and son story. Check it out, along with a bunch of other wonderful comics on Doogie Horner’s website.

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Interview: Comics Artist Brandon Lehmann

Comics artist Brandon Lehmann

First off, I invite you to read the review I wrote for The Comics Journal to the book in question, G-G-G Ghost Stories. That will add to the enjoyment of the following interview with the creator.

There are details in Brandon Lehmann‘s comics that will come back and reveal themselves upon another reading. Look closely and you’ll see, tucked away amid the backdrop of a mega-bookstore, copies of Brandon Lehmann’s new book, the recently released, G-G-G Ghost Storiesin the panels to his story, “The Werewolf Expert.” Another reading will reveal a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capicorn, in the hand of a child, a secondary player in this finely-crafted farce. The key idea here is the subject of creating such a thing as a “finely-crafted farce,” and why quality will win out in the end. Lehmann’s sense of humor is an absurdist and existential sensibility. Lehmann has been making comics for about fifteen years featuring observational and satirical work. In this new book, he focuses in on playful use of horror tropes. For this interview, we met at Seattle’s Smith Tower, a favorite haunt of erudite cartoonists and, of course, ghosts. We begin this conversation just as I sit down to join Brandon. I notice pot stickers have already been ordered. (We staged a bit of a humorous intro. You’ll see what I mean if you view the video.)

Hey, Brandon, well, I see you’ve started without me, as usual. Nice to run into you this way.

I just hang out up here in Smith Tower and read my own comics.

G-G-G Ghost Stories by Brandon Lehmann

So, what have we here (picking up a copy of Brandon’s book). Is the proper pronunciation just as it reads, G-G-G Ghost Stories?

When I named it, I was hoping for some awkward interactions at the sales counter. “I’ll take, G-G-G Ghost Stories, please.”

That would be a Scooby-Doo influence, right?

Yeah.

Interesting that we’d find ourselves in Smith Tower since, as everyone knows, this place is haunted.

Yeah, we saw a couple of ghosts on the way in. I was like, “Ahhh, it’s a g-g-g ghost.”

Page excerpt from “The Lfyt”

I think of a lot of your work, like the “The Lfyt,” as being mini-masterpieces. Do you sometimes think in those terms, “I’m going to create something that’s so spot on that everything works perfectly.” Does that make sense to say that?

Yeah, I always feel that when you’re working on a book, especially, you can get into this mode where everything you do just works. And then, when you finish a book, I have this period where I just struggle and I can’t seem to draw anything. But when I’m making a book, I can set a schedule, everything works on the first try for some reason. If that makes sense.

Page excerpt from “The Werewolf Expert” story from G-G-G Ghost Stories

It does make sense. I’m a certified cartoonist myself, as you know. Now, tell us about “The Werewolf Expert,” the longest work in the book.

There’s a trope in horror movies and TV shows where someone needs to seek an expert on the occult and it’s always someone who it doesn’t make sense would be an expert. Like, you’ll have this guy who works at the bowling alley as a mechanic and, for some reason, he’s a vampire expert. In “The Werewolf Expert,” someone consults a Barnes & Noble bookstore employee, and it’s the employee’s first day. And they shouldn’t know anything about werewolf lore but part of the B&N orientation training is that they teach all about werewolf lore. That employee knows a lot but eventually he consults his supervisor and she knows even more about werewolves to a ridiculous degree. So, it just keeps building on that premise.

Desperately seeking werewolf advice.

How would you describe your humor?

It’s absurdist and existentialist. There’s a lot of gags in the book that you can repeat with a similar premise. For the story we’re discussing, there’s a gag that I use a lot. The story is progressing from one point to another and then I’ll throw a wrench into it. And it will spin off in an insane degree. For instance, the bookstore customer seeking advice has a daughter named, Shawnda. He begins yelling at her, she’s off camera. Later, we see her and there’s more of this yelling. That sort of silly exchange is something I like to do in my work.

Panel excerpt from Brandon Lehmann’s Instagram.

There’s a beauty to your work. The humor is consistent. The art is consistent. You must go through a slew of experimentation before you hit upon what works, what’s on point.

The whole concept of the book is classic ghost stories. So, that’s the anchor. We’re dealing here with stories everyone is familiar with in one form or another. The story, “The Lfyt,” we were just talking about, is based upon a popular ghost story about picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a ghost. Another good example is “The Viper,” another popular children’s ghost story. The tension builds as he keeps calling and announcing when he’ll arrive. In my story, it turns out that “The Viper” is a guy with a thick German accent, who is just an innocent window wiper.

I didn’t know about that children’s ghost story. The actual one, not your satire!

Yeah, it’s real. There’s also one entitled, “Okiku,” based on a popular Japanese ghost story about a woman who was murdered because she refused to become a samurai’s mistress. She had been thrown down a well and, each night, she appears to seek her revenge. That was actually the basis for the Ringu movies. There’s the books. It was also on stage, as kabuki theater. So, yeah, I gather up all these ghost stories and given them my own spin.

Well, I’m sure this will intrigue readers. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Where is a good place to find your work?

One good place is my own site for Bad Publisher Books. You can also find me on my Instagram: @brandon.lehmann. And you can find it at various bookstores. In Seattle, there’s Fantagraphics Bookstore, Elliot Bay Bookstore and Push/Pull. Lots of places on the net, like Birdcage Bottom Books.

Thanks, Brandon!

Thank you, Henry!

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Filed under Comedy, Comics, Ghosts, Interviews, Seattle

GNARTOONS by James the Stanton review – Casual Surreal Comix

Gnartoons. by James the Stanton. Silver Sprocket.  San Francisco. 2022. 270pp. $29.99

I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.

Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.

Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.

The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”

It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.

Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.

One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, James the Stanton, Seattle

DIRTY PICTURES by Brian Doherty–a Look at the Origins of Comix

Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix. by Brian Doherty. Abrams Press. 2022. 448 pp. $30.

Comix! No, not just comics. Comix is the term we use to describe all the work created by independent comics creators (often auteur cartoonists doing both the writing and the drawing) dating back to the Sixties underground up to today. Brian Doherty has had a great time digging into the roots of, and connecting the dots to, this quirky offshoot of the comics medium. First off, I gotta say that Doherty is quite in tune with his subject and cuts to the chase. Perhaps the biggest question that comes up on this topic is What in the hell was R. Crumb thinking? Well, you won’t get far without an open mind on this. Doherty gets to the heart of the matter with a quote from 1972. A reporter for The New York Times asked what Crumb’s intention was in creating some of his most macabre and provocative work. Crumb answered, “I don’t know. I think I was just being a punk.” Then Doherty adds to that the fact that Crumb and his fellow cartoonists were all bucking a highly restrictive system of censorship. Nothing was allowed at the risk of offending anyone! If that sounds familiar, well, it won’t be lost on anyone reading this book. The point is, Crumb was indeed reacting to something, rebelling against something. Did he go too far? Or was it more one guy’s approach, along with a whole slew of other cartoonists, both men and women, with their own fiery takes on society? I think this whole book rests upon the assumption that a reader can walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, yes, there is a possibility of seriously looking at the most controversial facets of comix without retreating from it. One key aspect to understanding is to look at the motivation to rebel. As Doherty reminds us, the “x” in comix is there for a reason: to distinguish comix from mainstream comics, the all too often watered-down and lame opposition, particularly during the days of the Comics Code.

Once we get something of a handle on Crumb, the rest of comix is a piece of cake! Well, maybe not. But that’s basically the arc we’re following: the great warriors, led by Crumb, out to raise hell; then, the reaction to all this ruckus, which included anyone offended by the first wave of mayhem; ultimately, a long process of the original “filth” working its way through the rest of the culture; and finally, all the accounts settled and those left standing declared the champions: Crumb, Spiegelman, and so on. Doherty does an impressive job of maintaining the flow of events, logically moving from one place, one publisher, one movement, after another. For those old enough to remember some of this history, it rings very true. Doherty has written the kind of book that many of us knew was possible. It involves keeping an eye on the key players and examining their aspirations and actual activities. Again, it’s impossible to avoid both Crumb and Spiegelman, both very aware of the fact they had reputations to either maintain or enhance. And then, of course, you had all sorts of other activity brewing, not the least of which was the feminist contingent led by Trina Robbins and her crew at Wimmen’s Comix. Robbins and her women cartoonists were determined to fight fire with fire.

Like any great art movement, comix is the story of the artists who led the way as well as of those to have taken up the mantle. What sustains the character and spirit of comix today harkens back to the highly charged independent streak of the original underground. You can’t have comix, or anything that resembles it, without a healthy embrace of the subversive, the experimental, and the guts to see through the most outrageous expression. It may offend. In fact, it definitely will offend and there will be consequences to pay. But, all in all, we’re far better off when an artist isn’t restricted or afraid to just be a punk, as Crumb summed it up. But art cannot remain in a vacuum or it will die. As Doherty points out, a new wave of artists brought in refinements. Most notably was a finer sense of the literary as demonstrated by Los Bros Hernandez and their ambitious Love and Rockets comics willing to take on richer and subtler literary aspirations. I’ve been a champion of the term, “alternative comics,” as I see it as a very valuable distinction. It’s nice to see Doherty using it here. He points out that pivotal break with the past as the underground ruckus rebellion gave way to a more cerebral alternative vibe. Indeed, it was to be a new and significant development to the still unfolding world of indie comics, a world that has given shape to the highly personal and strange creature we know today as the “graphic novel.” Sure, there are still diehard purists who claim to not understand what is meant by that term outside of being a brazen marketing tool. But people do know what a graphic novel is, or can be, just as they know what is meant by the term, “comix.” And that’s because, believe it not, people can really walk and chew gum at the same time. If they couldn’t, well, we’d really be in a lot more trouble. Doherty’s book is a very welcome addition to our understanding of comix, from its origins up to its current offshoots, offering common sense insight.

DIRTY PICTURES is available beginning June 14, 2022 and ready for pre-order. Visit Abrams Press.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Comix

J. Webster Sharp Comics Artist Interview

Portrait of the artist. Panel excerpt from Sea Widow.

J. Webster Sharp is a comics artist who pursues her vision with a singular dedication. In fact, Sharp opened an art gallery in Wales, to sell her own work, as none of the galleries in Wales were ready to take her. She opened the gallery in 2018, only months before the death of her husband. This last year or so has seen a tremendous output by Sharp, including a tribute to her husband, the book entitled, Sea Widow. Sharp was born in a town called Ripley, in Derbyshire. Since 2005, she has lived in Yorkshire, England. She now makes her living from the sales of her comics. If you read my review of Sharp’s work, then you’ll have a sense that this is the stuff of strange wonders. Sharp’s work can be deeply personal and utterly surreal, often at the same time. In this interview, Sharp shares about her process and provides a tour of her comics work.

Page excerpt from Fondant #1.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I would say that your work explores the psyche and takes various detours, often dark and intriguing. Is that a fair description? What would you say to that?

J. WEBSTER SHARP: That is a very fair description. A silent, noise-free world. How it feels to live inside your head all day. My head, anyway!

Please share with us how you got into art. How did you develop as an artist–and how did that evolve into comics? Do you consider yourself an artist first, or do you like to be called a comics artist?

I am a comics artist now. I’m actually content and happy and where I feel I should have been the whole time. But I have always been a maker, of paintings, sculpture, drawings. I made the mistake of going to university to do art. Which did not work out for me the way it has for others. I didn’t find myself amongst others like me; it just isolated me even more than I already was! I got an interview for the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I wanted to go there. I remember the interview panel laughing at my drawings.

Sea Widow page excerpt.

When did you begin to take your work seriously? I mean, when did you first publish your work? And how do you feel about your early efforts?

Probably since I was 13 was when I decided to be an artist. I wanted to be a portrait painter. But everything I do I think “this isn’t good enough, I must do better,” this isn’t good enough, across all mediums. Art was all I had, all I can do. I get a new idea before I even finish the current idea which makes me instantly think the current idea has failed. All my early work/uni work is about the problems I have with my identity. Trapped in situations, under pressure, under threat from my body. About 12 years ago I printed something, and I had great feedback, except from this one place. And I had so little confidence I stopped comics and went back to painting. And I kept that email for years and read it when I felt bad, because it was proof I was nothing and had no idea what I was doing. Which was just who I was back then, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, never spoke, I was pretty useless as a functioning person! I’m a completely different person now. I changed very fast and quite a bit, and that has had its problems.

Jade cover, 2021.

What can you tell us about Jade, and Her Schizophrenia, the book focusing on your sister?

I should have made it clearer on the inside cover, my sister wrote this story, and I drew it. It is true and about her psychosis back in February 2013. To draw her story I did so much research, too much I think, it made me so sad and guilty to think of what she went through. Goes through. How to draw what it’s like to have paranoid schizophrenia. That was hard, it was virtually impossible and this was as close as I could get it. My sister is fiercely intelligent. I hope she writes more about what has happened since so I can draw it.

Page excerpt from Jade.

Would you share something about your process? Do you first think of an image, per page, per panel? Or are you thinking of what will add up to a whole book?

Panel to panel. I love the not knowing, because whatever I think I might draw might change because of a news item I might see, or a new eccentric person I might find out about. Or if I see a moth! If I plan thumbnails and things, I am bored of it as soon as I start it because my brain says I have already done it. The mystery is gone, the puzzle solved already. I like working from collage too, collecting clippings to use in the future. I love collecting imagery, I always have, I have always remembered visuals since I was little. My comics work is sort of a continuation of my painting work, I love collage thanks to William Burroughs, cut-ups, I think it’s great. A process that mimics my thinking exactly. All I do is tell myself a page limit.

Sea Widow cover, 2021.

What can you tell us about Sea Widow?

Sea Widow is about when my husband died. I started drawing this in May 2021. I hadn’t done any drawing or anything since it happened in 2018 and I was going through all my boxes and photos and notebooks, and I put all these things together and went from there. I had to get it out, as much as I could, I had no outlet for anything. I thought in a funny way it might help someone maybe. It did help me to do this. So I quit my job and started to draw. He loved the way I drew.

Pretty cover, 2021.

What can you tell us about Pretty?

I didn’t dare stop once I started in case the drive and desire went away. I just started immediately on the next thing. The stand-alone stories are about enclosed worlds and dysfunctional families I feel.

Fondant #1 cover, 2021.

It looks like you’ve hit your stride with the ongoing series, Fondant? Would you care to share any thoughts?

Fondant, the name of an icing used in baking, something horribly sweet and if you have too much it makes you feel sick. Its automatic drawing. And it scares me sometimes. Invasion. Its all about fear, events and people and objects which can’t be controlled in silent environments. The fear of feeling, not knowing, unwanted thoughts and memories. Like wrapping your hand around a white hot object and you can’t let go. Bad sensations you sort of like.

Fondant #1 page excerpt.

There are so many subjects and themes that you work with. How would you describe your universe of interests?

Extensive and tiring. Never ending. I could research all day. I love it, adding to my creative inventory. I have old magazines from antique shows, old comics, new comics, old pornography, photo job lots, medical books, vet books, sewing books. Books on the paranormal. Film. Always so important to me, always. John Waters, Ingmar Bergman, Lynch. French new wave, Kenneth Anger. I watched Betty Blue recently, love Beatrice Dalle in that. And Cinema Paradiso. I love the films of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers right now.

I can not help but comment on your working with the theme of the foot. It is a subject that I believe will always harbor a sense of mystery. For some, it becomes a sort of taboo topic. For others, it takes on a keen focus. What can you tell us about your interest in this subject, given your wonderfully strange depictions of the human foot? It seems to me a gateway to better understanding you and your art.

I like to explore subjects that interest me, many of those subjects are sexual, fetishes and things, I think it’s the question why feet? that I am interested in. The psychology behind things. They are very vulnerable. Shoes are so strange. I have ballet pointe shoes. But I have never done ballet. They’re just great to look at and they’re heavy and shiny. I love heels, high heels. How they make a leg change shape. I’m very short.

Pretty page excerpt.

Any final thoughts? Do you have plans beyond the next year or so? More books? Any possible gallery shows? Please feel free to add anything that I may have missed.

To keep working and saying yes to as many opportunities that come my way. I would like to approach some people regarding publishing something, but that needs to be underway before I do, so I shall begin that in the next couple of weeks.

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The Projector and Elephant by Martin Vaughn-James review – A forerunner to Today’s Graphic Novel

Which came first, the Elephant or the Projector? It was the Elephant!

The Projector and Elephant. by Martin Vaughn-James. edited and designed by Seth. introduction by Jeet Heer. New York Review Comics. 2022. 212 pp. $49.95

Martin Vaughn-James (1943 – 2009) secured his place in the history of comics whether he realized it or not. Thanks to this recently released edition by New York Review Comics, that distinction is now more firmly in place. The work that Vaughn-James created, beginning in the early ’70s, amounted to an early form of the genre we now commonly understand as the graphic novel. But this type of art did not have an established community or market back when it was first released circa 1970-71. Underground comix existed but it was far from a sure thing as to where it was going. Add to that the fact that Vaughn-James was European which, in general, inclined him more towards art for art’s sake. New York Review Comics does a great service with this edition that collects two works, Elephant (1970) and The Projector (1971).

Martin Vaughn-James. The artist in his element, such a very good place to be.

If you’re going to seek out retro comics, perhaps the best way is through a deluxe edition such as this. For sure, there is something very special about reading a vintage comic in its original state with it pages aged to perfection, with its own aura of being a thing from a certain place and time. But, with a finely curated work, you pick up an optimal viewing/reading experience plus whatever bells and whistles come along for the ride. In this case, we have the erudition of Jeet Heer (The Nation) and the design sense of master cartoonist Seth. According to Heer, he states that the work known as Elephant (published in 1970) was a dry run attempt towards the creation of the work, The Projector (1971). But was it? After having read both, I have to wonder if such a conclusion is imposing our current standards upon the efforts of  Vaughn-James. The methodology that is now commonly understood among indie cartoonists goes like this: first, you create a small scale version of your book in the format of a “chapbook” or “mini-comic” and then, if you’re up to it, you proceed with a full-on large scale version, an actual graphic novel. This path has become the golden path, the yellow brick road, to the closest thing cartoonists have to dreams of fame and fortune. That kind of game plan, that kind of strategizing, did not yet exist as a commonly understood model in the hippy dippy era that Martin Vaughn-James circulated in. I also say this because Elephant and The Projector appear to be two separate animals. In other words, there isn’t a coherent progression of ideas from one book to another. Both books are about the same page length. Both are ambitious. Anyway, I would certainly enjoy discussing this with Jeet Heer. And maybe we’ll do that at some point. We’re dealing with ghosts now. Martin Vaughn-James, throughout his life, created comics of one kind or another, most notably, Cages. It was a very cool life. He basically led the kind of life a man of his passions and interests would seek to live: he got to express himself in as many mediums as suited him. He painted. He drew. He wrote. And, along the way, he made something that involved working with sequential art which was decades away from being branded as the “graphic novel” genre.

Another day at the office.

From what I can tell, or intuit, is that Martin Vaughn-James (isn’t that a groovy name?) was a dude who enjoyed being left alone to pursue his art. He probably wasn’t someone who would have gone around in later years, wearing a beret, and touting his landmark work in comics over and over again, from one dinner party after another, gradually and steadily making inroads into academic circles, museums and galleries, until it became an undisputed well-known and widely celebrated fact that he was responsible for one of the earliest versions of the “graphic novel.” It takes a lot of energy and a certain careerist bent to do that, especially if the actual work might not fare so well on its own, and some people do it very well. And others don’t do it all or just not quite enough of it to where you’ve secured that everyone in the room is fully aware of who you are. For these artists, sometimes a bit of luck will come around to help secure a legacy. An academic will publish a paper. A publisher will publish a book. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if the work is the real deal and can indeed speak for itself once it gets an audience.

The pachyderm!

Martin Vaughn-James was in his late twenties, in full bloom as an artist, in the early ’70s. The work in this book reflects the efforts of someone who was exploding upon the artistic scene, with a subversive and irreverent sensibility. I think the two works included here defy any easy explanation or categorization. It looks to me that, once Vaughn-James began to play with the various options offered him by the comics medium, he was like a kid in a candy store who could not resist trying a little bit of everything. Both works are highly experimental, very influenced by Surrealism, and out to blow your mind! But can you blame a kid for wanting to do that? In this case, that was just the right thing to do! Now, so many years later, so many cycles through the culture later, we’re left with this strange work from a whole other time and place. And, wouldn’t you know it, Vaughn-James got it right. It still blows your mind. A quote I found from Vaughn-James fits perfectly with our own time: “We experience collectively approved emotions on a national scale. Any deviation is considered neurotic, insane or subversive.”

Horse and rider in freefall.

In both of these books, the plot takes a backseat to an artist expressing himself and his place in the world. But there are some devices at play. We do have a figure who functions as a protagonist or host or alter ego. The backgrounds, in fact, seem to have as much, if not more, to say than our hero, a perpetually grinning bald man in glasses who, from time to time, falls into one situation after another. Most compelling of all is the whole experimental nature of the two works and the striking images that result. The most stunning of them all is a horse, with its rider wrapped up in canvas, each falling from a skyscraper. Yeah, that alone, is definitely worth the price of admission. There are other significant moments and experiments to enjoy and ponder over too. As I say, I think Vaughn-James set things up to explore as much as possible. Along the way, he made a few dry stabs at satire and a few comments on society and art.

Into the land of milk and honey.

As for the differences between the two works, especially regarding an evolution from the first book to the second, if that’s the case, perhaps Vaughn-James may have shifted his gaze a little to a more formal approach. Who knows? The Projector has the black line art on brown paper, which gives everything a muted look, not to mention it making for a less crisp reading experience. At first, I wasn’t liking it but it grew on me. The centerpiece to The Projector is a two-page spread of a freeway during rush hour, jam packed with cars. To each side is an endless stream of advertising, consumer culture run amok. Accentuating that scene are colossal nude women overseeing the tableaux. The women, while having voluptuous bodies, each have grotesque faces. That appears to be a subversive act by Vaughn-James calling out the ugliness of using sex to sell products. In the end, a painter’s vision, in the service of comics. But I don’t think Vaughn-James was likely thinking that way. Again, he was a dude being an artist, letting those future chips fall where they may.

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Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner review – Tribute to a Liberal Giant

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99

Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.

Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.

For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.

Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.

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Justin Green (1945-2022) by Paul Buhle

Panel excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

The death of Justin Green, on Apr.23, leaves poorer the living memory of a revolution in comic book art and narrative. His self-revelation, in the 1972 comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, seems to have literally changed a field of perception of what comics could be or do. He drew frequently for the now nearly-forgotten genre of “underground comix” appearing during the 1970s-80s, most of the “comix’ actually anthologies with fellow artists including Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Sharon Rudahl among others. Comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen recalls that even comics giant Will Eisner was impressed to the point of being influenced by the story line of Binky Brown, and by the uniqueness of the artistic expression.

Page excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

Green grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, in a prosperous family, with a Jewish businessman father and a Catholic mother. In sending the boy to Catholic school, she inadvertantly opened the impressionable Justin to a series of intense, confused glimpses of faith, including sexual repression and the accompanying guilt. The lonely teenager and aspiring artist thus acquired the strangest possible inspiration. A few years later, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving after a Zen Moment of standing on his head in class, according to a story told to his friend and fellow artist Bill Griffith. Relocating to New York, Green joined a handful of other near-future underground greats  through strips in the pages of the East Village Other. The “undergrounds,” avidly rebellious and virtually untrammeled by censorship, had been born.

In 1969, Green became part of the diaspora from New York and other points to the Bay Area, gathering spot of the emerging comic art scene. Griffith recalls, “I like to think we were all a ‘band of brothers’ in those heady San Francisco Underground days, tilting at the windmills of the established comics we both loved and rebelled against.” Which is to say, Justin Green was soon prominent among the community of young and wildly prolific artists, his work appearing in a handful of the anthologies being produced more or less collectively and sold largely via “head shops” through the 1970s. In shunning the commercial comic book industry, they gave up a lot and lived cheaply, but gained complete, uncensored autonomy and the copyright on their own work. The most successful comix sold 100,000 or more….until the mini-industry collapsed along with the Counter-Culture.

Cover for Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

In a 1977 interview conducted by this writer, Green tried to explain the logic of the unique genre of artists. “One must consider,” he suggested, “the peculiarly American phenomenon that financed the creative endeavors of a couple dozen individuals whose visions took (and still take) the material form of pictures with words. That phenomenon is mass readership…the artist is under obligation to make his product coherent [and] visually striking—to opt for specific literal ideas instead of obscure personal motives (though granted. I am one of the worst offenders). Comics is simply not  the format for making great art. Essentially it is entertainment. There are elements of morbidity, aberration and personal indulgence (again, myself included) in the work of many underground cartoonists which will have the longterm effect of sealing the work off from the cultural mainstream.” A fair prediction, as it turned out.

The East Village Other, 1970

He went on to comment about his satires of literary classics in ARCADE, the brilliant but doomed (seven issues before collapse) anthological effort during the second half of the 1970s, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. “All of my ‘classics crucified’ pieces are intended to have a dialectical relationship with history from the shifting focus of the unworthy present. Now that the making of art is within the grasp of thousands of individuals, the false veneer of critical acclaim…must be removed. Unequivocal respect for the ‘classics’ prevents the reader from assimilating material on his own terms. I am trying to do with plot structure what [Harvey] Kurtzman and [Bill] Elder did in the early MADs [Mad Comics 1952-55] for the warbabies bombarded by media—to unmask the subliminal influences of television and especially advertising. In the same way, I try to pick up on those salient details within a great work of literature which will bring matters into a comical perspetive. It is my chosen responsibility to call into question—to see if perhaps there isn’t a little something worth laughing at.”

Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form by Hillary Chute

In an aside, he admitted, “Make no mistake about it, you have to be a bit of an egomaniac to showcase your fantasies to tens of thousands of people.” Hillary Chute’s acclaimed study, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016), more than suggested that Green, in Binky Brown, did much to inaugurate the “serious documentary mode for comics globally.”

This is no small matter. Green may be said to have crystalized the semi-autobiographical impulses already expressed famously in Robert Crumb’s stories, Crumb’s persona “Flakey Foont,” like other hapless males seeking meaning (and definitely eros) amidst the sexual revolution, cheap marijuana and cultural upheaval. Crumb’s own work of the 1970s-80s, in turn, connected personally with Harvey Pekar telling more straightforward stories from Pekar’s blue collar, Cleveland daily life. And thus to Joe Sacco, a collaborator of Pekar’s before his own rise to fame drawing the stories of his travels to troubled sections of the world. The syndicated strips of Lynda Barry’s troubled childhood, later Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home helped bring into being a large, still expanding genre of comic lives recounting youthful hopes and follies. Indeed, these may arguably be the chief mode for women’s large role in comics today, a sustained Bildingsroman in a new popular art form. Way back in 1972, Green collaborated with Spiegelman and others in the pages of Funny Aminals [sic], a genre-bending little anthology of animal stories anything but funny, including the very first published slice of Spiegelman’s Maus.

Funny Animals, 1972

In her analysis of comic art, Hillary Chute makes another key point about Justin Green’s hugely productive decade.  All the work of the u.g. comix artists reflected an engagement with the US invasion of Vietnam, directly or indirectly. She quotes Green as explaining that he, like so many (I could have said the rest of us), knew people who knew people—or actually had relatives—fighting and suffering, too often dying amidst the  brutal US invasion of Vietnam.  “I needed to wage my own war. And so I looked within…I didn’t want to present myself as a hero but rather as a specimen. So the comic form gives you a multifaceted way of doing that.”

This weighty point may, by itself, threaten to obscure the multiplicity of Green’s output, the radicalism but also the sheer joy of moments in his humor, amidst the intense personal confusion and angst of his work. The very, very funny stuff, deeply thought and reflexive, is as full of social satire as Bill Griffith’s own caste of characters later realized in his daily strips.

Show and Tell by Justin Green, 1973

To take a Justin Green case or two in point, “Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Featuring Sol Snake-Eyes, Jack Monterey and Gretel Hansel” (in ARCADE #5, 1975) reinvents the novel with a Jewish stand-up comic as the famed investigator of the maddened young egotist and a bimbo who snags Sol while the criminal goes off to the rock-pile. Meanwhile, “The Gates of Purgatory” (in ARCADE #7, 1976), revisits  Dante, with the “Music of the Sack Cloth Five” against a scene of comic horror, with free ginger beer and waterskiing on the Chicago River.

Arcade: The Comics Revue, 1976

The 1977 interview contains another theme crucial to the story of the underground artists’ saga: Green had a new baby in the house and had to find another way to make a living. A small handful of artists, including Griffith, Spiegelman, Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins and others, managed to get along while doing their work, sometimes, especially in later years, by teaching comics classes. Most uniquely, Green turned to sign painting, and some of the stories that he later drew about the quirks of the job are hilarious as well as revealing. Raised in prosperity, he found himself reduced to working class standards,  confessing that “I am continually broke, exhausted, under pressure.” He continued to draw the occasional story but his moment had passed. One is tempted to add that the comic artists lacked the way forward successfully found, for instance, by the equally rebellious and radical painter Philip Guston, whose sometimes comics-like retrospective now exhibits in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Sign Game comic strip by Justin Green, 1994

It is more than a footnote to relate that Green’s widow and fellow artist, Carol Tyler, eventually found a comics niche for herself with a realistic, semi-autobiographical series about her father, the veteran of the Second World War who could not relate, let alone deal psychologically, with the effects of the trauma in his own experiences. Thus, in a way, you could say that the circle, or a circle, has been completed after all, and with as much meaning for the twenty-first century as for the one left behind. The artist sees the world, looks inside himself or herself, and through creative expression, makes the best of an obviously bad and likely worsening situation. This is what an artist in any genre can do, but what no one expected the creators of “funny pages,” “funny animals” and “funny books” to seek, let alone accomplish.

Paul Buhle published Radical America Komiks (1969) and was described in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine as the “first serious critic of underground comix.”  He has edited more than a dozen nonfiction graphic novels.

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Sarah Firth interview – Eventually Everything Connects

EVENTUALLY EVERYTHING CONNECTS by Sarah Firth

Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”

Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.

So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.

Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.

Sarah Firth books.

You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.

THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth

Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.

I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!

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