With great being a relative term and considering all the cliffhanger sequences so expertly crafted by James Patterson (let’s not fool ourselves that Bill is now a master at hardboiled airport thrillers), The President is Missing could quite possibly make for a decent comic book adaptation. The trouble is: are there any takers? All things considered, and there is a hell of a lot to consider, taken as a curious entertainment, the book did its job on me and I read it to the very end. As for passages that I can tell right away were written by Bill, I hit pay dirt at the very beginning (the president names his enemies and his virtues) and at the very end (the president names his enemies and his virtues). And the President Duncan character is so heavily influenced by Bill that he is clearly his alter ego. Tucked within all that is a pretty good spy thriller of sorts. Everything has been simplified to the point where it lends itself well to the demands for brevity and action in your typical comic book.
So, would you really want to read this? Could you even stomach it? A lot depends upon your politics, or more to the point, your opinion of Bill’s character. There are those living in a bubble who chalk up Bill’s abuse of women as simply the missteps of a cad. Everyone in this rarefied group, by the way, still uses the word, “cad” in casual conversation. I recall one talking head referring to Bill as a man of “enormous appetites.” This was all well before #MeToo but there are still plenty of Friends of Bill who simply are not up to calling him out and never will be. Bill is protected by much of the media as one who is too big to fail. Just read the review of this book in The New York Times. Nicolle Wallace, of MSNBC, serves up a fair and upbeat review. That could be a way to balance out the gotcha moment sprung on Bill on the TODAY Show on NBC.
That TODAY Show moment is now part of the experience of reading this novel. It can’t be any other way and that’s a good thing. Maybe Bill could have dodged a bullet if he’d had more presence of mind in that already highly calculated noggin of his. Why did he have a meltdown when NBC’s Craig Melvin asked him about Monica Lewinsky? At least Melvin did not directly refer to Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick or Kathleen Willey. Just the mere mention of Monica was enough. In the dust up that ensued, Melvin focused upon the idea that Bill really should personally apologize to her. Hell no, was Bill’s response. Hadn’t he suffered enough? Those legal bills to defend himself don’t pay themselves. Bill had clearly gone off the rails with his self-destructive response. What a contrast to a novel that depicts a president with razor-sharp dedication to the job. President Duncan is the president that Bill can only wish he could have been.
Hey, let’s do a book!
The novel’s President Duncan is a dashing war hero who, by all counts, is God’s gift to America. He is flawless expect for one thing: he’s just too darn honest and brave! Almost single-handedly, this Prez literally saves his country from the mother of all cyberattacks, one that is so dastardly that it could toss America into the Dark Ages. Dare I say, this is one heck of a superhero-like president.
For her New York Times review, Nicolle Wallace dusted off a handy quote just screaming to be inserted. This is the one by Tom Wolfe that goes: “The problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible.” How often has that old chestnut been used in genteel conversation? But it does make sense here. I can well imagine James Patterson coming to a screeching halt at his typewriter. For some reason, I see him as using a typewriter. And so he calls up Bill to ask him if North Korea is as bad as he’s heard. This, of course, was well before Trump fixed everything up. So, Bill goes over and asks Hillary and they begin to fight over competing interpretations. Bill says he’ll have to call him back. Anyway, Bill, or Richard Clarke, would eventually make “plausible” whatever hiccups occurred in the narrative.
But there’s this one particular moment that occurs right in the Oval Office of all places that may defy plausibility. This highly-twisted plot features Nina, a young woman who creates the computer virus that threatens America, if not the whole world. Again, I can well imagine James Patterson working himself up into a fit of frustration over this. Finally, he calls up Bill with his perplexing question. Bill ponders it for a long while and then replies, “You know, James, I do believe that it is quite possible for a young woman to find a way to discretely enter the Oval Office and be alone with the President of the United States.” The great James Patterson lets that sink in but has to add: “Alright, Bill, but I just have a feeling that someone will take issue with that. Heck, it might even happen on the TODAY Show!”
We can all use a laugh and cartoonist John Atkinson has a unique way to provide that for you with his new book, “Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read but Probably Didn’t.” This would make a great gift for Father’s Day or just about any occasion. Atkinson is known for his comic strip, “Wrong Hands,” where he distills things down to their hilarious essence. You have probably read his funnies in Time Magazine. Well, he takes no prisoners as he distills over a hundred works of literature down to a few mere words! Very funny stuff.
“The world of the one panel comics gag shares a lot in common with the world of stand-up comedy. Either the joke works or it doesn’t. Welcome to Wrong Hands, the world of John Atkinson, where jokes make impacts.” I said that as part of my introduction to an interview I did with John Atkinson five years ago. That was long before his gig with Time Magazine. I just happened to enjoy his ongoing work that all began, and continues to take place, on a blog at WordPress. I love that Atkinson keeps it all simple and real, down to maintaining his no frills free blog just like so many of us out here in the blogosphere.
There is a lot going on in Atkinson’s deceptively simple cartoons. There’s the joke, which can unpack in your mind on a deeper level. And there’s the pared-down art, free of ego-centric expressive lines. You end up with a very zen experience. Atkinson has a lot he wants to say in his work and the magic is in how he achieves the maximum impact with as little as possible. So, it makes total sense for Atkinson to tackle some of the most celebrated books–with hilarious results.
I highly recommend that you pick yourself up a copy. It’s a fun book that you’ll want to come back to. The little hardcover book has a nice look and feel to it. But, by all means, enjoy it on your phone too, especially since Atkinson’s format fits perfectly on any screen.
“Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read but Probably Didn’t” is a 157-page full color hardcover, published by HarperCollins.
This week we will look at the new line of original comics coming from the Insight Editions imprint, Insight Comics. I have been meaning to get to some of these titles and I’ve hesitated since I really wanted to process them and have something worthwhile to say! Well, enough waiting. In fact, I interviewed Nilah Magruder a few months back at Emerald City Comic Con and so I’m overdue. The first comic to kick off this new line of comics is “M.F.K.” by Nilah Magruder. Now, you may wonder what M.F.K. stands for but that will remain a mystery. It’s quite fitting considering this is one of the most unusual and mysterious comics I’ve ever read.
A small in humble village is the jumping off point for an epic adventure.
I swear, more and more of us are collectively going to look at comics as this most stimulating alternative form of entertainment. I know that sounds stupid to say that, especially if you already appreciate comics at a higher level. I guess I mean that it seems that the vast majority are still okay with comics serving a more basic service, simply acting as a simple vehicle for action and entertainment. When people like myself lecture about how it can be so much more than that we are referring to quite a colossal amount of comics that somehow manage to keep a relatively low profile. Does that make sense? There are a lot of, say, niche comics out there but, with each passing year, the audience grows, is more accepting, and remembers specific titles and creators. Just look at how long it has taken for names like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to pretty much enter the mainstream. Okay, I know, I am digressing down a deep rabbit hole here. I just say this because I’m excited to see such a quirky and remarkable comic as M.F.K. getting a lot of love and respect.
It all begins with a sandstorm!
People often compare comics to movies. And prose novels. Sometimes paintings. And I would definitely have to add music. I think I found myself processing M.F.K. best as a stimulating and unpredictable piece of music. Sure, there is a narrative to follow but, as is the case with a lot of more eccentric work, the narrative is almost besides the point. Not totally but to some extent. There are a lot of atmospherics going on in this comic, okay? Amazing sandstorms and we begin with some strange scene involving a struggle to collect and process the sand. I really do not understand what the characters are doing with all this sand–but that’s okay. So, you see, in that respect, it’s like music. I am experiencing beautiful and intriguing interludes. But, again, that’s not to say there isn’t a compelling story going on because there is.
Abbie, the outsider.
Abbie is a tough kid. We don’t get her story right away but, basically, she’s this young woman with a Wookie-like bird. Abbie is carrying a urn with her mother’s remains. Her goal is to find a proper place for the ashes. But then things happen. Abbie is worn down. Her bird, or moa, is worn down. And there’s all this sand swirling around. Next thing you know, Jaime, a young man, becomes entangled in a fight with Abbie that leads to Abbie and the moa both being stabbed by Jaime. This leads to Abbie being taken in by Jaime’s family who tend to her wounds although reluctantly since she’s an outsider. A lot more stuff goes on, including a much better understanding of who or what Abbie really is, and we come full circle in this first installment with Abbie back on the road with her urn. But she no longer has a moa. Now she has Jaime as a sidekick.
You can imagine all the music coming from this comic, can’t you? I’m sure you can. Nilah Magruder has written and drawn some sort of epic opera in the form of a quirky, funny, and most engaging work of comics. The first book in the M.F.K. saga is now out. For more details, visit Insight Comics right here.
Okay, I’m feeling lucky. I think you guys are liking this and so I will post yet another chapter in less than a week! My goal is to entertain you. If you keep reading, I think you’ll get hooked as you learn more about our hero, Fernando, and his misadventures. Consider purchasing a Kindle edition (at the nice price of only $2.99) and leaving a review at Amazon. Just go right here.
Fernando had this recurring dream of floating away in a big beautiful balloon. Just like that famous pop song from the Sixties, “Up Up and Away,” by The 5th Dimension. It came out in 1967, the Summer of Love. “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?” is how it began. What a glorious poppy sound full of bubblegum optimism! It made no sense but it felt so right. “Up Up and Away—for we can fly!” Fernando would have been all of twelve years-old, an innocent little bright-eyed boy ready for Jupiter to align with Mars. This was, as everyone knew, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
What stuck with Fernando about the Age of Aquarius was reincarnation. It was believed by many that the Second Coming, the Reincarnation of Jesus Christ, was aligned with the passing of the Age of Pisces giving way to the Age of Aquarius. Each age being over 2,000 years, Pisces represents the great age of travel on water; and Aquarius represents the great emerging age of travel in air, and in space. The Jet Age and the Space Age! What an incredible time to be alive! If there was to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, then surely there was to be a reincarnation of Dale Carnegie! Anything was possible. It was both a time of fanciful hot air balloons and the most sophisticated rocket science.
Fernando’s father had built a hot air balloon in the final years leading up to his disappearance. It was meant to promote his musical act. Over the years, relatives mailed that same hot air balloon to Fernando in various parts. The guards never bothered to ask about it. They even helped Fernando find a few missing parts on eBay.
Fernando grew up in an era full of turmoil but also great optimism, one that could sustain groovy dreams for many years, even decades. The image of a miraculous hot air balloon persisted in Fernando’s mind day and night. A most magical balloon would be his means of escape!
Honestly, I don’t see why I shouldn’t spring another chapter on you ahead of schedule if you’re ready. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, well, I just can’t see why that should be. I am dying to know what you think. And I’m even thinking of knocking the price down on the Kindle edition if I’m talked into it. Anyway, enough of that for now.
Remember, all you really need to know is that our hero, Fernando, is a rogue immigrant from Cuba. He means well and, in fact, he has a pretty darn important purpose in life!
Manuel and Paloma did have a son. However, their good fortune would not last. In 1959, Castro took control. Artists, intellectuals, and activists were all in danger. And, as the years passed, Castro and his regime would pluck out dissenters. One day, in 1967, Manuel was plucked and never seen again. And, when Fernando came of age, in the prime of his life, in 1977, he too was thrown into a prison cell. It was now 2017 and Manuel Rivera’s son, so full of promise and supposedly with a special purpose, had been languishing in a Cuban prison for the better part of his life. This is where our story of Fernando begins.
So many years locked away. Oh, the horror. Fernando, if he ever dared to dream, had lost much of his youthful spark, almost forgetting how to dream. If he had ever known his true calling, it had been buried deep inside him, beyond reach. Perhaps his father had only hinted at what lay ahead in Fernando’s future. But, for now, he was not much better off than a dog. And what could he possibly do now at this point in his life? Was he already too old? Were his best days behind him? Had he ever had better days? Still, like a dog, he had a strong survival instinct fully intact—and he had not completely given up. In fact, he remained a crafty little devil.
Fernando had been plotting his escape for years. Unlike many prisoners, Fernando valiantly did all he could to hold on to his soul. He had seen what had happened to many of his fellow Cubans. Many of them blamed themselves for getting locked away in prison. Somehow, there was a peculiar mindset that believed in Castro and that, no matter what he did, Castro had a very good reason for it! This was the control that an authoritarian had over his people. It exists to this very day and not only in Cuba but around the world, even in the United States of America. Hard to believe—but true. Fernando had enough to worry about just being in prison but he knew that Castro was wrong and that others like him were also just as wrong.
Fernando’s father, before he disappeared forever, had told his son that he was the reincarnation of Dale Carnegie, the world-renown motivational speaker. But what did that really mean? So many years later, was that supposed to be accepted at face value or was it just a metaphor, a symbol of hope? Fernando stirred at night trying to understand what it meant and what was to happen to him. Did he have any hope left? What helped him out a lot was the fact he had become a fixture in the prison system. He had been around for so long that he could pretty much come and go as he pleased—at least that is what he thought.
Sometimes, Fernando was locked into his cell with great ceremony. Other times, it seemed that, if he wanted to, he could walk right out of the prison. It was a big game with the guards, he was sure. It went unspoken with little rhyme or reason. No one seemed to care much what Fernando did. The guards were an odd mix of utter incompetence and light thinkers with glimmers of philosophical insight. “Let him walk right out of here,” Fernando overheard one of them say, “and he will run right back to what he knows best, his dull but familiar prison routine!”
Finally, the day would come when Fernando would have the last laugh. Before it really became too late, he would escape and never return.
Jamey Bradbury’s “The Wild Inside” is a ferocious debut novel! It’s about the mysteries of young womanhood, Mother Nature, and just how far apart we humans are from animals. Our main character, Tracey Petrikoff, is sure she is not quite human and far more animal. Ms. Bradbury has had the great John Irving as a mentor and it shows. This is a novel by a hungry and driven writer.
Tracey Petrikoff is a monster of sorts–but not in any obvious way. Trace is the ultimate misfit teenager in this most unusual work. Bradbury has crafted a slow-burn thriller that invites the reader to join a family of dog breeders and racers in the backwoods of Alaska and, bit by bit, reveals touch after touch of strange. There is no doubt that Trace is strange. Bradbury does a masterful job of normalizing it. In a first-person narrative, the reader is charmed by, and at the mercy of, Trace’s version of events. In a matter-of-fact manner, Trace repeatedly shares with the reader her drinking the blood of animals. What could be more natural, right?
Blood is all too natural for Trace. She can’t be far from a “drink” for too long. Some things seem utterly unknowable by outsiders: like the heart of a young woman, and Mother Nature. Bradbury plays with how these two powerful forces are inextricably linked. Trace’s bond with nature, with the animal world, is total and complete. She must nurse from the blood of animals not only to feel alive but to remain alive. In one key scene, her need for blood is so great that, when she struggles to find some, she resorts to drinking her own menstrual blood. This cross between Judy Blume and Stephen King totally works within context.
Illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Bradbury provides a mesmerizing first-person narrative: very direct and urgent while completely down to earth. Bradbury keeps it all deceiving effortless and casual, doing away with any and all quotation marks. This has a funny way of further immersing the reader who follows along, for example, an observation by Trace that seamlessly dovetails to something her father is saying. A series of small moments steadily add up in this wonderfully structured novel. All the time, the reader is anticipating a big race–and the Iditarod is certainly no small event–but there are plenty of twists and turns, including a creepy and potentially dangerous stalker and an unlikely lover. What cannot help but keep the reader engaged is following the mind of Tracey Petrikoff, half-woman and half-animal, trapped for a time and waiting to be set free.
Bradbury mines the coming-of-age tropes with great success. In that special time of transition from childhood to adulthood, there is a lot of soul-searching and negotiating over what stays and what goes. What matters most in your life? And, by the way, did you realize it is your own life–and no one else’s but yours? Sometimes freedom is more important than anything else in the world–including the life you have always known just before everything changes.
“The Wild Inside,” by Jamey Bradbury is a 304-page hardcover, published by William Morrow, now available. For more details, visit William Morrow right here. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:
Mastering the “Uncomfortable Smile.” Who knew that was a thing. Apparently, it is a very big thing among cartoonist Sam Spina and his friends. Seriously, Spina is masterful at spinning gold from ephemera. It’s an art form that carries over to all kinds of storytelling. So, it makes total sense that Spina could transfer the skills he honed as a cartoonist and use them as a storyboard artist for Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show.” Spina has a golden touch which you can enjoy in his latest collection of diary comics, “Spinadoodles #8: Mooz Boosh,” available at Kilgore Books.
The whole page about uncomfortable smiles.
The whole page about uncomfortable smiles, entitled, “It’s My Sad Eyes,” is fun to read and indicative of what you’ll find here. Spina is recalling a moment from a trip to Arizona. The locale is mentioned simply to add a little flavor. The focus is on the interactions between friends. Spina uses a very casual approach which welcomes the reader. Everything feels like it is accessible and evoking an easy-going conversation. Nothing appears to be overworked. The characters are drawn, not in a slapdash manner as much as a slapdash style. That’s a huge difference. Less careful, less thoughtful, and less skilled cartoonists tend to lean too heavily upon an artistic sensibility that would embrace any mark on the page. In fact, any mark on a page is not golden. There are standards to this thing and cartoonists that create comics at the level of a six-year-old seeking praise from grandma are doing themselves a disservice. Just saying.
Diary comics actually have a long history, inextricably linked to independent comics. And it is John Porcellino’s ongoing zine, “King-Cat Comics and Stories” (May 1989 – present), that casts quite a long shadow. I think there is room for everyone under the comics tent–and I know a lot of cartoonists are influenced by John P’s approach, be it the pared-down artwork, the spare compositions, right down to the self-deprecating humor–but it often does not quite work in other hands. The best one can do is to honor what he’s established and add to it. I think Sam Spina falls within the group of cartoonists that are not just coasting along but creating compelling work.
SPINADOODLES 8: MOOZ BOOSH
Sam Spina is having fun and he has taken the time to give his comics a distinctive charm and sparkle. His humor is not particularly satirical as much as it is in keeping with the slice-of-life tradition of much of alt-comics. Within alt-comics circles, authenticity is highly regarded although not always followed through in practice. Spina’s work has a refreshing honesty and irreverence that, at its best, can rise above anything trendy and cute and just be plain ole good storytelling.
Danilo Del Tufo is an illustrator in Quarto, Italy. I like his new comic, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic tale, “The Little Match-Seller.” You can purchase a copy at LuLu.com right here. And you can find more details right here.
A burning light of hope.
“The Little Match-Seller” or “The Little Match Girl” (Danish: Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne, meaning “The little girl with the matchsticks”) is a short story by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen. The story is about a dying child’s hopes and dreams, and was first published in 1845. Del Tufo does a thoughtful job of evoking the great pathos in this story. This is an excellent example of a wonderful calling card in the form of a comic to showcase an artist’s work. And, of course, it is also a fine comic in its own right.
King Trump Confronts American Presidents. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
If someone could use an employee manual, it would certainly be the current occupant to the highest post in the land. Jeremi Suri’s new book guides us through what has become of the American presidency, from its development to its inevitable decline. If Donald Trump were to read it, “The Impossible Presidency” would provide much food for thought.
Suri’s prose has an inviting conversational tone that lifts the reader up. His main argument is that, after a long period of expansion, the job is now collapsing in upon itself. For the first part of the book, we read about the presidents who transformed the office: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts. The second part of the book follows the fall: JFK and LBJ; Reagan; Clinton and Obama. FDR was the last president to fundamentally remake the job and save the country, and the world, in the process. No one else is going to top that. Furthermore, the job has become so complex that no one person, according to Suri, can ever hope to juggle all the responsibility. Spoiler alert: Suri advocates for a two-person job with a president and a prime minister. Of course, we’ve already established a partnership between president and vice-president since Carter. But that may not be enough.
It is Donald Trump who so neatly underscores Suri’s thesis about the decline of the job that he cannot help but cast a long shadow over the whole book. Suri uses contemporary politico lingo currently associated with Trump. Suri describes past presidents as responding to their “base” and “doubling down” on important issues. More to the point, Suri provides numerous highly relevant examples of how presidents have appealed to the male white voter. This is a fact that each president has wrestled with from the very beginning.
THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY by Jeremi Suri
In a work full of evocative and highly informative passages, what Suri does with FDR stands out. Suri weaves a series of recollections by Saul Bellow as a Depression era youth who is galvanized by the reassurances of FDR, the man on the radio, with the funny posh accent, that everyone intently listened to. In the case of FDR, his word was as good as gold. When FDR ordered an increase in the money supply, he answered any criticism over its legitimacy by stating, “How do I know that’s any good? The fact that I think it is, makes it good.” As Suri points out, that kind of common sense meant everything to a struggling boy like Saul Bellow. It was real words backed up by real action.
In a very accessible and compelling style, Suri guides the reader in distinguishing the most consequential American presidents. In this excerpt, you get a taste of Suri’s writing as he compares Lincoln to FDR:
“If Lincoln was the nineteenth-century president, Roosevelt was the twentieth-century American leader.
Lincoln’s presidency anticipated Roosevelt’s. The latter had to contend with the collapse of the American (and world) economy, but they both spent much of their presidencies at war. In retrospect, Roosevelt’s ability to respond creatively to the Great Depression and echo Lincoln’s war performance is truly exceptional. No other president faced the same range of existential challenges. As a consequence, no other president had so many opportunities to change the basic structure of American society, and vast sections of the modern world. Roosevelt turned the darkest of times into the brightest of new hopes. He was not only the first welfare president, but, by 1944, the first global president, influencing more parts of the world than any previous American executive. He pioneered the New Deal and then globalized its reach.”
No less heroic is the way that JFK navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. In sharp contrast to FDR’s time, Suri points out, the job of president had become so compartmentalized that, even at the height of the crisis, JFK was hamstrung with a schedule crammed with activities of little to no real significance. The office had taken on such a life of its own that it was assumed the president would simply pick how his advisors wanted to strike at Cuba not whether to discuss other options. Of course, we know JFK found another option. But, in the case of Vietnam, the system forced his hand. For LBJ, it was more of the same: another president distracted as well as compelled to great action.
Suri states that gradual and incremental progress is the new template fashioned by Clinton and Obama. But, Suri goes on to say, a sense for bold action must not be lost. For Clinton, it was not responding to the genocide in Rwanda. For Obama, it was not responding to ISIS as the threat emerged. In both cases, each president was conscious of the risk of overextending and held back when they should have acted. As for Trump, Suri seems to see him as more of a warning that we’ve hit rock bottom and now we must plan for what lies ahead. This is an essential book for putting our current state of affairs into proper historical context.
How Much More of King Trump? Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
The focus of this book is to show how the modern American presidency has evolved into a colossal apparatus. In turn, the role of a modern American president has become virtually unmanageable, too demanding for just one person. Or has it–or is that the crucial problem? To be sure, it is a problem but solving it won’t resolve other government dysfunction. Suri does not delve into what his proposed solution would gain. A team of president and prime minister, as he suggests, would still be at the mercy of a corrupt and compromised Congress. But one step at a time. A post-Trump America, in and of itself, will be a step in the right direction. More and more Americans, even loyal Trump supporters, are coming to see that something is fundamentally wrong with our current chief executive, his election, his entire administration. One American president who Suri does not cover is President Jimmy Carter. Here is a president who valued integrity and did quite a lot of good while in office. Look it up and you’ll see. This book is just the type that inspires you to keep looking up in more ways than one.
“The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office” is a 368-page hardcover published by Basic Books. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:
Hillary Chute is a well-regarded authority on comics, the author of a number of impressive titles, including her latest work, “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” published by HarperCollins. Manohla Dargis, one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, recently wrote a review giving the book high praise. Ms. Chute is a professor at Northeastern University and the associate editor of “MetaMaus,” the companion book to Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel, “Maus.” The centerpiece of “MetaMaus” is an interview of Spiegelman conducted by Chute.
In this interview, I ask Ms. Chute if she would share with us some of the background behind “MetaMaus” as it is, in my view, inextricably linked to her new book, “Why Comics?” I note, in my interview, that there is even a moment in a comics introduction to “MetaMaus” where Spiegelman ends up naming the three key subjects he’s always asked about. First on the list, “Why Comics?” And so I pose that question in a series of questions about a book full of answers. And, ultimately, we find ourselves focusing on the auteur, the lone individual, creating a work of comics, just like any other artist. We are talking about comics as an art form.
WHY COMICS? by Hillary Chute
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: In your new book, “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” you share with the reader what you’ve learned about comics from your vantage point. You have interviewed a number of trailblazers. Let’s start with Art Spiegelman. Would you share with us a little bit about your background and how you came to work with him?
HILLARY CHUTE: Working with Art Spiegelman has been one of the most influential experiences of my life–certainly in terms of learning about comics. I was a graduate student getting a PhD in English at Rutgers University in New Jersey and I got very interested in “Maus.” It became a part of my dissertation. I wrote a dissertation on nonfiction comics that was inspired by “Maus” and had a long chapter on it. One of my students, as I was a graduate teaching assistant, was starting an online comics criticism magazine (Indy Magazine) and he asked me if I’d write something for it about “Maus.” I agreed and, lo and behold, Art Spiegelman read the piece, which was online and had an e-mail attached. He contacted me and invited me to a party at his house in New York City, where I was living.
Meeting Spiegelman was like winning the lottery as, at that point, I had spent years researching the Spiegelman archives, underground comics, and his more obscure works. The party was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Raw magazine. This was 2005. Raw started in 1980. So, at this party I met Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Kim Deitch. It was all the more like winning the lottery.
Quite the experience!
Yes, it was quite the experience! Suddenly, I was in a room with a number of people whose work I deeply admired and I never thought I’d have a chance to meet. After the party, Spiegelman and I kept in touch, we regularly talked about comics, and eventually he asked me to work with him on the book project, “MetaMaus,” which was published by Pantheon in 2011. He and I worked on the project together for over five years. So, we became quite close. The core of the book is an interview between Spiegelman and me. What we did, which was so much fun for me, was that we just talked for two years.
We recorded interviews for two years. He never wanted to know the questions in advance. He wanted to keep it conversational. So, I would prepare my questions, go over to his studio, and ask him questions. We would talk for hours and hours. We would then get transcriptions made of our conversations. I edited well over a thousand pages of transcripts into the 250 or so pages that are in “MetaMaus.”
That is just amazing. For me, transcribing just one interview can be a daunting task at times–but to do two years worth of interviews!
Thank God, I wasn’t doing the transcription, just the interviews!
I have started to reread “Maus” byway of just getting a copy of “MetaMaus.” I am really enjoying it. I had wanted to make clear, as you’ve just said, that you are the person conducting the interviews. That is the core of the book–as well as a whole lot of other wonderful things that go along with it too.
Right, there are visuals on every page that we picked out to help illustrate what we were talking about at the time.
Well, it’s genius. The concept is genius. Of course, I haven’t finished it as I’ve only just gotten it. But, what I’ve read so far is just wonderful.
It was a real privilege to be able to work with him on that. I’m so gratified that you’re finding it useful and interesting. It wasn’t like the thirteen years that he spent working on “Maus,” but we spent five to six long hard-working years on that book. One of the things that Art taught me, related to all aspects of producing something and that comes from his being a cartoonist, is the art of condensing–and the art of being economical. I think that’s why it took us so long because we generated the material for that book in a leisurely way-so that we could really be expansive–and then the task was to make it an economical object. He was a great model for that.
“MetaMaus” and “Why Comics” are very naturally intertwined. It was a treat for me to read the comics intro that Art Spiegelman does for “MetaMaus.” He says he’s determined to answer all the questions he keeps being asked. And he begins with, “Why Comics?” There’s the title to your book, right there!
It’s so funny. When Art and I were working on “MetaMaus,” I had in mind that he was, not consciously but on some level, structuring our book–which is “MetaMaus–after “Maus,” which is a series of expansive conversations that he had with his father over years. So, it seemed like a mirrored project. And then I realized recently, since it wasn’t at the top of my consciousness–if you can believe it–that the title of my book borrowed the title from one of the chapters from “MetaMaus,” which Art and I came up with together. So, it showed me how my book, in way, is a reflection of “MetaMaus.” So, it’s like a chain that keeps on going.
The concept of time in comics really gets me, which you discuss at length in your book. I have a quick quote from Art Spiegelman that I’ll bring up to the surface: “In their essence, comics are about time being made manifest spatially, in that you’ve got all these different chunks of time–each box being a different moment of time–and you see them all at once. As a result you’re always, in comics, being made aware of different times inhabiting the same space.” Would you talk a little bit about that?
That, to me, is one of the most powerful things about comics as a medium. I think Scott McCloud put it quite well in his book, “Understanding Comics,” which seems quite schematic to a lot of people but then there’s a moment in that book when he just says, “Time in comics is really weird.” I’ve always loved that moment in his book–because time in comics is really weird. One of the powerful things that a work like “Maus” shows is that range of formal experimentation that comics grammar has at its disposal–with panels, and gutters, and tiers–is incredibly effective for work that is about history, the movement of history, understanding history. The central premise of “Maus” is that the past isn’t really the past. The past is informing and clearly inhabiting the present. The fact that Spiegelman can make this so literal on the page–by collapsing moments of time in addition to just juxtaposing them–I think is incredibly powerful. Because it illustrates that history isn’t always linear and it isn’t always progressive. I think there’s something really incredible about what comics can do with time and space.
BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns
What do you suppose young people might not know about comics?
I think that some people who have grown up reading a lot of comics, like my students–who experience comics in so many ways–I think that they might not have thought about just how difficult and labor-intensive it is to create comics. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to tell stories about the careers of different important cartoonists in part to show the kind of labor that goes into comics. I mentioned before that “Maus” took thirteen years for Art Spiegelman to complete. Charles Burns took ten years to complete “Black Hole.” Alison Bechdel took seven years to complete “Fun Home.” I learned from working with Art that he did at least a dozen studies for each two-inch high panel in “Maus.” There’s just a huge archive of studies, outtakes, and draft pages. I think that comics can be so pleasurable and gratifying to read that sometimes students aren’t aware of just how much deliberation goes into every tiny flick of the pen.
I know this from my own experience–and my partner, Jennifer–we’re both cartoonists.
I’m preaching to the converted!
GHOST WORLD by Daniel Clowes
It’s very typical for a significant work of comes to take at least five years to complete. I wanted to focus on a portrait of today’s independent cartoonist. I don’t see any way around it–although there are some variations–the work has to all be done by hand to gain the most. You begin to farm out things–everything from the lettering to the borders–and, bit by bit, you lose something of the luster to the work.
I agree with you. I profile one creator, Harvey Pekar, who is an example of successful collaborative work. But I think you put it really well when you say that something is lost when you get too many hands working on the piece. In my thinking, and perhaps it comes from my background in literature and novels, is the intimacy of comics. I think it’s what you get from seeing one person’s vision: seeing the same hand that creates the images as well as the words. You get a real world-building happening on the page when it’s done by one person. I think there’s something unique about comics in that way. People sometimes call them auteurist comics, which I believe you touch upon in your review. When you think about it, the term “auteur” comes from film, the New Wave French cinema and people like Godard. But, even on a Godard film, there are many people working on that film whereas a cartoonist like Dan Clowes, it’s just him through and through, the whole thing. It’s really a purchase on a person’s aesthetic vision.
It’s whatever the cartoonist wants to bring to his work. There really wasn’t a place for me to go to just study comics back in the ’80s or ’90s. What I needed was to devour literature and fine art. I ended up majoring in painting. That’s what I needed–even if what I wanted to do was to go back and focus on comics.
That really resonates for me with many of the people who are profiled in “Why Comics?” Chris Ware went to art school, although he dropped out. Charles Burns majored in Printmaking because one could not major in Comics back then. Alison Bechdel applied to art school but didn’t get in. Justin Green went to art school. So did Aline Kominsky-Crumb. And Dan Clowes. There’s a sense among all these people that they knew all along that they wanted to be cartoonists–but they didn’t have that available to them as an option in art school in the ’80s and ’90s. So they did something approximate–like printmaking. Now, everything has shifted up to where you can get an accredited degree in Comics.
Would you touch upon Raw magazine since so much came out of that: not only Art Spiegelman but Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and so many others.
Raw magazine and Weirdo (edited by Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and then Aline Kominsky-Crumb) are in my thinking the two most important alternative publications of the ’80s and ’90s. Really cementing post-underground comics as important alternative culture. I think that Raw’s influence can’t be overstated. Raw set the tone for over thirty years. And the reason, I think, that they were able to do that is because they created that culture for themselves. That relates to my chapter on punk as well as others. When Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly set out to create Raw, they bought a two-thousand-pound secondhand printing press that they had to haul up to their fourth floor walkup in SoHo. It’s the home they still live in, although the printing press is now no longer in their living room.
They did it themselves and that meant complete artistic freedom. It was really a post-underground moment as they weren’t dealing with any editorial strictures, except their own. It also meant that they were trying to distinguish the work in Raw from underground comics by making a magazine with very high production values. It was a way to have people in the art world pay attention to something beautiful that they would want on their shelves…which is a slightly different aesthetic from newsprint and the ephemeral ethic of underground comics. They were taking the powerful do-it-yourself ethic of underground comics but taking it further with a high-end design sense.
“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware
I want to emphasize that each chapter in your book is a category and each is inter-related. So, for example, Chris Ware can figure prominently in more than one chapter. Would you speak to how your organized “Why Comics?”
I have to say that Chris Ware does get the most play since he’s the central figure in two chapters–which felt right to me. I’m an academic by training and I had published three academic books before this new book. The idea was to create a book for a wide audience, which I was keen to do since I think one of the most powerful things about comics is that they’re pitched for a wide audience. Without sacrificing sophistication, I wanted to really not make it boring. I thought that to just have a chronological evolution of comics would be too boring. It would be too academic. It didn’t seem exciting to me. So, I hit upon the idea of themes. Part of the reason I loved structuring the book around themes is that it allowed me to bring in a lot of different kinds of analysis. I could tell the story of a particular cartoonist but I could also sneak in some history of comics. It may not be delivered in a chronological way but I aimed to have coverage and the themes really allowed me to do that.
LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES #1, 2016
Let’s turn our attention to the cover art, an original “Love and Rockets” piece by Jaime Hernandez especially made for “Why Comics?” Do you think “Love and Rockets” is still a comic a lot of young people are not aware of or are they actually more aware of it than we may realize?
That’s a really interesting question. I’m so glad you asked about the cover. It makes all the hard work of creating a book worthwhile to have Jaime Hernandez do an original work of art for the cover. He asked me what I was thinking for the cover and I immediately said, “Women.” I think that is what Jaime Hernandez does best. He put four characters from “Love and Rockets” on the cover and I was elated. I think that people of my generation, in their 30s and 40s, absolutely adore “Love and Rockets.” It began in the ’80s. I started buying it in the mid to late ’90s and just fell in love with it. I hope that this book serves to introduce some younger readers to just how fascinating and also just how feminist “Love and Rockets” is. I think, especially in this time that these interesting, fleshed-out, complicated characters fill a gap. It is also important to note that, in 2016, Fantagraphics did a reboot to this comic in a slightly different format.
The cast of Fun Home: Beth Malone, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris, and Emily Skeggs, photographed in New York City. Photograph by Mark Seliger.
I am also compelled to talk about Alison Bechdel. Would you share some thoughts.
Alison and I co-taught a course at the University of Chicago in 2012 on comics and autobiography. It was called “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.” It was such a thrilling experience to be in the classroom with her for an entire term. We taught a mix of theory and practice course. Every day we’d have drawing exercises led by Alison and then every day we’d also talk about history and theory of autobiography and how comics comes into that.
I think it’s hard to adequately describe Alison Bechdel’s influence in comics on the 21st century and then also go back to the 20th century and her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” So, she’s just been a huge figure in the comics scene for decades. “Fun Home” was a breakout hit in 2006 and it really called people’s attention to comics, for a broad swath of the population–in a way that was almost unthinkable previously, outside of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and maybe Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan,” which came out in 2000. To have “Fun Home” named Book of the Year by Time magazine in 2006 was huge. It got written up in the Village Voice, where I wrote about it. It got write-ups everywhere, in People and Entertainment Weekly. Alison was already well established among the comics cognoscenti but, after “Fun Home,” she became a household name in the entire country and in Europe. It’s been translated into Chinese, among many other languages. It was a phenomenon on the scale of “Maus.” And then to have it become a Broadway musical and win a Tony Award for Best Musical–you can’t get more mainstream than Broadway! It just underlines that the book, as powerful as it is, had added resonance beyond the original content. “Fun Home” was a real inspiration for my book. I open the introduction with an epigraph from Alison Bechdel. She says, “Comics is like learning a new syntax, a new way of ordering ideas.” To me, I think that’s a beautiful description of what comics does.
PERSEPOLIS, the animated movie, 2007
I think we’re making a lot of progress. Most people can name at least three graphic novels: “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “Fun Home.”
“Persepolis” is similar to “Fun Home” in that it was adapted. In this case, to an animated movie. The “Persepolis” animated movie, which was co-directed by Marjane Satrapi, was France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film to the Academy Awards. That was really groundbreaking as animation had never been entered by France in the category. It didn’t win but it win at Cannes which was a phenomenon in itself.
What do you see in the future for comics?
It will just keep on growing. Now, bear with me, but I think that Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his music is actually a sign of the changing times in a way that shows us where comics is going to go. I think there’s so many rubrics now through which comics is understood and the fact that it is routinely and regularly being understood as literature–which isn’t to say a work that references literature–but the fact that it is being understood itself as literary, as complex and as sophisticated as people expect from a literary work, is helping all of us redefine what literature is. It means that comics is going to keep on being in all sorts of different spaces: in bookstores, in museums, passed around among kids, in comic book shops, in college classrooms, in grade school classrooms, in graduate classrooms, it’s everywhere. Comics journalism is a thriving area. You can now open up any top notch news venue and find a work of comics journalism. Joe Sacco published work on the Iraq War in Harpers. That was extraordinary to me. Harpers was a prime venue for artist-reporters during the American Civil War. There will no area where you won’t be able to find comics and that makes me happy.
Give it a few more years and the general public will be ready for a “Love and Rockets” movie.
Yes! That would be some movie. How are they going to condense all those years of the serial into one movie?
I know. Well, thank you, Hillary.
Thank you, Henry! It was an honor for me to have you review the book and to be on this podcast!
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