Whatever you do, don’t make waves unless you’re okay getting wet. And keep the aspidistra flying! What on earth am I talking about? Well, here’s a comic with some rather puffed up characters, at some afternoon tea party, chattering away about some nonsense. I don’t begrudge them their good fun one bit as they provide some light entertainment. Enough said.
Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy. Bill Griffith. Abrams. New York. 272 pp. $24.99
Bill Griffith Talks About Nancy Comics: THREE ROCKS Help Explain it All
It goes without saying that Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy is a highly influential comic strip. It is beyond iconic. That is the starting point. Bill Griffith, known for his own legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead, runs with one of comics scholars favorite subjects and reaches great heights with his new graphic novel, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy (Abrams, available as of 29 August 2023). Mr. Griffith doesn’t have to come out and say he was “influenced” by Nancy. I can see how Nancy makes it way into Zippy in subtle and uncanny ways. One thing to keep in mind about Bill Griffith is that he came into cartooning through the back door of fine art painting and is more ready to speak about artistic influence via painting masters like Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. However, at the end of the day, it’s Bill Griffith who is uniquely qualified to talk about the often misunderstood Nancy phenomenon.
The curious case of Aunt Fritzi.
Griffith chatted with me about how his Zippy character is a surreal entity operating in the real world. If Zippy were frolicking in his own surreal world, that would be too much of a good thing. “The two would cancel each other out!” Griffith is quick to point out. But I’ll come back to that. The point is that Bill Griffith knows his stuff and he was compelled to set the record straight on one of the most celebrated, and enigmatic, cartoonists to grace the page.
Bill Griffith and me.
I was in New York and arranged to meet with Bill Griffith to discuss his new book. I took a train to Connecticut, reading an advance copy of Bill’s new book, and then, just as a ferocious summer rain had struck, I was picked up from the station by the master cartoonist himself. Conversation was easy and relaxed. Something led to talk about life in downtown New York. I mentioned the concrete steps to an Airbnb that were more painful to climb that one might expect. Bill readily agreed and it reminded him of concrete steps he had to confront himself. At one point, Bill talked about his wife, the cartoonist Diane Noomin, who passed away about one year ago. Bill created a comic book in her honor, The Buildings Are Barking. I was there to focus on the Bushmiller book. After what seemed like endless winding roads, with torrential rain casting foreboding shadows, we reached the studio which looked to me like a idyllic cottage out of Lord of the Rings.
The paper airplane incident.
From my hotel window back in Manhattan, I had a glorious view of the Empire State Building with the Chrysler Building in the background. I couldn’t help but think of the many vivid scenes in Three Rocks that depict moments in Ernie Bushmiller’s career, like the time he rented office space in the Chrysler Building with some other cartoonists. The guys were throwing paper airplanes out the window and one of them actually managed to hit a police officer, over a thousand feet below, who promptly unfolded the plane to discover the owner of the stationary. What could have been an awkward situation was quickly resolved after the cartoonists created cartoons for the awestruck officer. It is these moments that are the book’s lifeblood: cartoonists as superstars strutting about and giving the public what they want.
“Life is a messy affair. Very little of it is under our control. But not for Ernie Bushmiller. All he needed was a fence, a tree, a sidewalk . . . and three rocks.”
— from the Preface to Three Rocks by Bill Griffith
The origins of THREE ROCKS.
Ernie Bushmiller not only gave the public what they wanted but, like George Herriman and Winsor McCay, elevated the medium, taking it in new directions. Did Bushmiller always know where he was going as he blazed new trails? Maybe and maybe not: at least, it is certain, Bushmiller knew he was onto something. It was during our interview that Bill laid out in one observation much of what is going on in this book. It was during a visit to a Bushmiller comic art show at the Cartoon Art Museum in Rye Brook, New York, in 1990. This was a museum run by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker. “It was in Rye Brook that I saw a sculptural display of the Three Rocks, perfectly hemispherical, and made out of fiberglass looking like they just came out of a Nancy strip. They were plopped onto a perfect square of Astro Turf, and all under glass. I lusted after them. The idea that the Three Rocks had this totemic power never left me. Following this visit, I did many Zippy strips in which Zippy encounters and speaks with the Three Rocks. So, I’d say this experience planted the idea of a book devoted to Ernie Bushmiller in my fevered brain, to await further inspiration a few decades later.”
A Zippy the Pinhead comic strip on The Three Rocks.
Griffith goes on to share that, like many kids, he was devoted to comics. “I did read the Sunday newspaper Nancy page as a 5-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, not so much for the characters or the gags, but because the lettering was so easy to read–and didn’t contain any punctuation. You could say Nancy helped me to learn how to read.” And here we go deeper. Nancy was all about “reading.” Once it fully blossomed, it was not just a comic strip. Ultimately, Nancy is a comic strip about comic strips. If that concept seems too contemporary for something dating back to 1922, this graphic novel clears all of that up. The notion that something is “meta” is not exactly new; nor is something being “surreal” a new idea. At the time, what Bushmiller developed with Nancy was revolutionary and, as fans will tell you, at its best, it is timeless and golden. Nancy was, and still is, the gold standard in comics.
Pursuit of perfection, of pure comics.
Griffith takes the reader on a magical mystery tour, beautifully juggling the need to entertain with the need to explain. Essentially, Griffith’s book is a work of comics about another work of comics that is about comics. A seemingly perfect cerebral cul-de-sac worthy of the best rants from Zippy the Pinhead. Ah, but there is plenty of method to this madness–that’s the whole point. This is the story of an exceptionally ambitious cartoonist who kept paring down and refining to the point where he basically reached the essence of comics. In later years, this pursuit of perfection would drive his assistants to the brink. That’s what is going on here. Nancy became the perfect model for what can be done in the comics medium. And all that follows refers back to Nancy.
Nancy collides with the real world.
Nancy comic strip, early 1960s.
Griffith begins with a process to demystify, to reveal the nuts and bolts of the cartoonist’s trade, and the never-ending challenge to connect with the reader. “When someone goes to a museum to see a Picasso and they don’t understand it, they don’t blame the painter. But when they don’t understand a comic strip, they do blame the cartoonist because people feel it’s the job of the cartoonist to make it an easy delivery. Zippy never did that. I always asked my readers to meet me halfway. Bushmiller is a great example of someone whose career follows the whole phenomena of comics in America. When he took over the Fritzi comic strip in 1925, he was 19 years-old. There had been 25 years of comics before that. But the cartoonists that were in the bullpen, acting as Ernie’s mentors at The New York World, they went back to the early 1900s.
Young Ernie learns his trade at the New York World, circa 1919.
There’s a scene in my book with Ernie, circa 1919, who is a copy boy and is eager to learn. One cartoonist befriends him and gives him the task of erasing his pencil marks. It’s a symbolic moment that I depict. He quickly picked up his skills. Very quickly, he began to take on more responsibilities like blacking in areas and even lettering. He learned by doing. Once he got past the gatekeeper at the newspaper, he started to advance. The ideas for the comic strips, that had to come from within him. All I can figure out is that, and I see it in my own students, is that some people speak the language of comics and some don’t. The ones that do speak the language, that’s because they like reading and like looking at comics from an early age. They become fluent in it, even if they can’t quite yet articulate a complex version of it–but they have the vocabulary and the structure because they’ve absorbed it from reading a lot of comics.”
Ernie Bushmiller and Reginald Marsh.
Ultimately, Griffith returns to the process to remystify, such is the power of art and of comics at its best. Imagine three artists lined up for comparison: Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and Ernie Bushmiller. Griffith makes the case for including Bushmiller along with two of America’s greatest painters. The connection is the New York art world, the circles involved with learning how to draw and such things. Bushmiller went to the same art school attended by Hopper and so he absorbed similar sensibilities. In fact, Bushmiller and Marsh shared some time together as they both drew from life at burlesque shows. Griffith points out that the Sunday full pages devoted to Nancy had some extra space at the top, just in case the newspaper needed it, and it was here that Bushmiller would include pure art, little vignettes of Nancy, and it held that same charge of stillness that Griffith enjoyed in Hopper paintings.
The stillness of Hopper.
Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, as a surrealist entity, is plenty of wacky fun. However, as Art Spiegelman pointed out to Griffith early in the development of Zippy, the idea of being in an elevator with Zippy was disturbing at best let alone for any longer duration. Zippy‘s zany humor needed a foil, which led to Griffith bringing in a new character, Griffy, an alter ego, who could act as a straight man and corral all the chaos. Zippy and Griffy would become a team, like the comedy act of Abbot and Costello. It is these sort of artistic choices that ultimately led to the world of Zippy just as a similar process of artistic choices ultimately led to the world of Nancy. It is all these choices, involving paring down elements and refining text, that leads to the best work. If for no other reason, Three Rocks is a must-read as a fun textbook on the art of comics. Lucky for readers, it is that and more: a rollicking behind-the-scenes journey into the creative spirit; and a way to get some answers to the meaning of life.
My interview with Bill Griffith is now one of my most cherished experiences coming from my comics journalism. It was delightful and magical. We chatted and then I began to record and finally I did some video. So, this video is brief but brings home a lot of what led to this very special book. In the end, any creative work worth its salt comes back to the creator. Griffith found a way, or discovered a process, that invited him to have Nancy refer back to everything.
Belle Époque meets Airbnb. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris
Airbnb, known for its unique vacation rentals, has a special limited time offer: you can book a stay in a hidden room inside the Paris landmark Moulin Rouge windmill, which dates back to 1889. All for the price of only a dollar. Booking begins on May 17th for three individual one-night stays for two guests on June 13, 20 and 27. The actual room has never served a specific purpose but harkens back to its orgins during the Belle Époque era, the late 19th century, that romantic and decadent period prior to World War I. Working off that bit of info, I was in the mood to create a scenario. There is no punchline here, just a whimsical little piece. This news item proved to be an excellent drawing prompt! I have a good bit of intimate knowledge of old buildings, plus I love history, and romance, so a perfect fit for me.
Airbnb in Paris. Photo credit: Daniel Alexander Harris
You go with your first thoughts on something like this. Given that it’s set in Paris, I thought maybe going wordless would lose the language barrier–or very limited use of words. This led to stronger drawings with any word usage helping to emphasize the scene. My next thought was to focus on a Belle Époque theme and see where it would lead me. More often than not, it’s those quick sketches that sum it up best, at least for the moment. The biggest question of all was whether or not to follow through on an impulse to create something in the first place. I’m glad that I did!
Well, that was fun. Airbnb had a similar offer a few years back when they held a contest where winners were given a chance to sleep inside the glass pyramid of the Louvre. That said, I’m in the mood for some kind of travel adventure and Airbnb is looking very tempting, whether it’s Paris or something closer to home.
Here are details on this amazing Airbnb Moulin Rouge adventure:
Airbnb One-night stay at the Moulin Rouge
For the first time ever, guests will be able to stay inside the never-before-seen interior space of the iconic red windmill. The secret room has been transformed into a Belle Époque boudoir to transport guests back in time to the origins of the Moulin Rouge.
Booking opens at 7.00 PM CET on Tuesday, May 17th for three individual one-night stays for two guests on June 13, 20 and 27.
Situated in the heart of Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the French Cancan, a delightfully energetic dance popular in cabarets through the ages. Throughout its colorful history, the windmill – which was first constructed in 1889 as a nod to the site’s rural origins and reconstructed three decades later following a fire – was never opened to the public… until now. The newly transformed space transports guests back to the Belle Époque with:
– An opulent boudoir filled with exquisite art nouveau features including a miniature paper stage to immerse guests in the spirit of La Belle Époque.
– A dressing area in the room featuring glamorous accessories from the Belle Epoque, including vintage costumes, fragrant perfumes and effusive letters from admirers.
– A private rooftop terrace adorned with an ornate pagoda and garden furniture characteristic of the Belle Époque era – an ideal setting for an après show cocktail!
Grant Snider is an artist working in the grand American tradition of the comic strip. Many years ago, let’s say a whole century ago, if you asked someone what amused them, they would likely say the funnies in the newspaper as a first answer or very close to it. Today, that essential comic strip format, a neat and concise words ‘n’ picture presentation, remains as vibrant and relevant as ever. The general public today might not use the word, “funnies” or even “comic strip” but they consume it all the same and, more often than not, they recognize the concept right away. So, the past, present, and future of comics is as secure as a bug in a rug. Here to stay. Like jazz, it came into its own in America and retains a unique American tradition. One of today’s great practitioners is Grant Snider. His latest book is The Art of Living, published by Abrams, available now for pre-order, release date: April 5, 2022.
It is a great pleasure to chat with Grant. We got into a nice informal conversation and I believe we ended up covering a lot ground, particularly some interesting observations on the nature of comic strips. Is the ambitious cartoonist today thinking about pushing limits and breaking new ground? Grant looks at it more as working within a tradition. And that certainly makes sense. Contemporary cartoonists can definitely still add their own unique contribution. But they’re also part of something bigger. I set it up during our Zoom interview so that I could display any page from the new book and one page prompted Grant to mention that the snow scene was a homage to the great cartoonist Frank O. King (1883 – 1969), known for his comic strip, Gasoline Alley. That turned out to be a great example of what he was referring to, the continuous chain of progress.
So, I welcome you to check out the video interview. There’s some good shop talk and some fun insights into how the book came together. If you like the image above, we specifically focus upon it, part of a two-page meditation on the qualities of light.
As always, your comments, shares, and likes are very much appreciated. Let’s keep spreading the word about this little oasis for discussion on comics, culture and related issues.
The Art of Living: Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life. Grant Snider. Abrams. New York. 2022. 144pp. $18.99
Grant Snider creates comics that are often poetic and always engaging on some level. Going back to 2009, it has been Snider’s goal to create at least one full-page comic strip since he began posting to his site, Incidental Comics. Scroll around and you’ll see how his style has progressed. A perfect example of what he does now can be found by simply going to the latest post. The one below is the current post as of this writing and a new comic…
These quirky heart-felt comic strips have attracted a legion of devoted followers (over 100k followers to his Instagram) and have led to book collections. There is one book on creativity, The Shape of Ideas. And another book on literary matters, I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf. And now we have the new one, The Art of Living, due out on April 5, 2022, published by Abrams. Each of these books are pithy, witty and a joy to read.
I think it’s just beautiful to see how Snider has totally blossomed into the artist that he is today. Without a doubt, Snider has moved up to a level of excellence that can draw comparisons to any number of the all-time great cartoonists, including Charles Schulz. I take that statement seriously as I know that I risk stirring up all kinds of controversy and head-spinning wrath from a small but fierce faction of die-hard Schulz loyalists who won’t accept any comparisons to their god. It’s the same sort of sell-appointed expert thinking that is nutty and useless but I digress. Actually, this is relevant to mention given that, while a student, Snider won the Charles M. Schulz Award for college cartoonists. It came with a $10,000 prize and a trip to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. So there!
What I’m trying to say is that Grant’s work has been around, it is appreciated and loved, has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, as well as The Best American Comics anthology series. It’s bona fide good stuff! There will always be snobs and elitists that one can never convince but we’re way past that here. That’s what I’m saying. And I feel very confident is saying that because the universal appeal to what Snider is doing rings very true to me. A fine example is the above two pages: a meditation on light. With relatively simple forms, muted flat colors, and clean crisp lines, the reader is transported to a zen daydream.
Considering the evolution of Snider’s work, from silly gags to a specific vision, I see an artist at work, someone steadily chipping away to what matters most; I also see a cartoonist mining for the very best work and pushing the limits of what is possible within the framework of the comic strip. Snider takes the comics medium very seriously and it shows. The ambition travels well on its way to the reader who gets to enjoy a smooth and pleasing experience. In essence, what Snider is doing is meeting all the aspirations of the best in comics in being compelling good fun, artful, and popular. Yes, popular. One can argue that it’s not enough for a work of comics to be a delightful work of distinguished art and yet remain completely obscure. Well, it can be enjoyed by a certain rarified audience, that’s true. But these same guardians of taste really don’t have a leg to stand on if they try to dismiss the popular works in contemporary comics. Again, a mild digression but worth stating, for sure!
In the end, it is the marvel of creation that Snider can enjoy over and over again–and his readers get it. I can tell you from my own comics-making that magic is definitely possible during the creative process, just as legitimate as in other art forms. What Snider does is go to the deep end of the pool and work his magic. Snider is a true storyteller; his art often, if not always, has a literary quality to it. What Snider ends up giving the reader is work that one can truly come back to and enjoy for multiple views/readings. Through the process, you end up with stuff that reverberates, is iconic, or is simply just the thing you need at that moment.
City Life, panel excerpt, by Tad Dorgan, circa 1921.
Look, I will be the first to admit that it might seem a bit morbid to invest too much time on cartoonists from a bygone era. For serious cartoonists, sure, it can be part of learning the craft. But is it really just nerdy excess? Well, no. The case can definitely be made that there are some very interesting stories to tell from the heyday of the comic strip, which reigned for much of the first half of the last century. These cartoonists have long since become ghosts and yet still attract interest. You can rest a lot of that interest on the lanky frame of Tad Dorgan, considered for a time to be a bona fide American celebrity cartoonist a hundred years ago.
Tad Dorgan (April 29, 1877 – May 2, 1929) is not a household name anymore but devoted specialized fans still exist and for good reason. The key is his quirky humor and his unusual use of language. He invented slang that we still use today and take for granted. For example, we might call someone a “dumbbell.” We still know what a “hard-boiled” crime novel is. Even the youngest amongst us might slip into ancient slang and say, “For crying out loud!” And, if you’re feeling stylish, you may observe some guy’s swagger as the posing by a “drugstore cowboy.”
Judge Rummy comic strip, by Tad Dorgan, (November 11, 1920).
Let’s take a closer look at a sample from Tad Dorgan’s comic strip, Judge Rummy (1910-1922), considered his most famous work in comics.
Judge Rummy, panel 1.
In the above first panel, we have two urban animal characters, apparently humanoid dogs in suits and hats. This is outside a courthouse. Of course, right next to sports and the crime beat, court proceedings have always been a reliable source for news and spectacle. One character is a friend to our main character, Judge Rummy. They speak in slang. There is some spare background drawing. Their attention is focused on some trouble up ahead. The judge thinks someone is about to “do the Dutch,” slang for committing suicide
Judge Rummy, panel 2.
Quick transition to the trouble, now in full view. More liberal use of slang or creative use of language. The judge’s one-word reaction: “Insipid!!” This new character seems to be in distress and might be on the verge of killing himself with poison but it’s none too clear if he’s really in danger.
Judge Rummy, panel 3.
In this magical state, anything is possible so the reader quickly accepts the narrative. The man in distress is just one quick step from becoming comic relief. He’s actually worried about having just gotten married.
Judge Rummy, panel 4.
Finally, all bets are off, and whatever absurd and surreal resolution is fair game. The man in distress begins to contemplate how easily he can slip from marriage to divorce. The judge and his friend do the classic sight gag: flip and down to the ground, feet firmly up in the air. Their collective response makes as much sense as anything else and actually has a very modern tone: “That wins the carving set,” referring to some typical media campaign in a newspaper or on the radio. Overall, the drawings are charming if not especially remarkable. This piece is clearly meant to be a quick read and appreciated for satisfying the public’s sense of humor of that era. Basically, a good day at the office for Dorgan. With the passage of time, the whole thing takes on an added eerie layer of beauty not necessarily ever intended by the cartoonist. Based upon my own lifelong experience as a cartoonist, my conclusion is that this piece was seen as a job strategically well done: good composition and pacing; funny and clever exchange between characters; the artwork serves its purpose. Tad Dorgan was most interested in being a humorist with his writing ending up being of prime importance. It’s a common situation for cartoonist-writers and it absolutely happens to this very day. With that in mind, Tad Dorgan’s quirky humor takes on a lot more relevance. While our inclination is to lump Dorgan in with musty old newspapers already on a steady path to extinction, his efficient use of art in the service of his sly humor can be seen as utterly cutting-edge! Just ask Matt Groening or Lynda Barry.
The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz
The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz. By José Alaniz. San Diego: Amatl Comix, an SDSU Press imprint, 2020. 128 pp. $18.99.
The college newspaper has a long tradition as an incubator of exciting talent. The Daily Texan, at the University of Texas, is a prime example, home to such notable alumni as Berkeley Breathed, Chris Ware, and Shannon Wheeler. Jose Alaniz’s The Phantom Zone first appeared as a comic strip in UT’s Daily Texan in 1992-1993. Now, imagine a book that not only collects some of the best work Alaniz did at UT but also provides a look at later work, including comics and scholarship. That is what you’ll find in The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz.
The Phantom Zone, circa 1992
This book is a very special treat on many levels. For those of you interested in the process of creating comics, and storytelling in general, this book is invaluable. As for me, I’m compelled to share this with you for a number of reasons. First, I feel a great connection to Alaniz simply for the fact that we’re both Mexican-American. We’re also of the same vintage but, more than just being part of the Gen X crowd, I had my own comic strip, Danny, running in The Daily Cougar, at the University of Houston in the late-80s. In my case, one of my characters was ripped off by another cartoonist and appeared in The Houston Post for a while. And then life moved on. I’d always been heavy into liberal arts, ever mindful of an uncertain future, but always faithful to my art. I made the big move to Seattle in the early-90s seeking a receptive creative home base. And so did Alaniz! Fast forward all these many years, and Alaniz found himself befriended by many of the same cartoonists in the community I was a part of. Small world! I have to say all this because Alaniz speaks to these similar building blocks. It’s also a big world too because I’ve never met Alaniz. Now, I hope that can be corrected. This book has proven to be such an awesome introduction!
The Phantom Zone, circa 1998
If José Alaniz had never kept up with creating comics, he would still have much to be proud of and satisfied with. Today, Alaniz is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Mr. Alaniz is the author of Komiks: Comic Art in Russia as well as Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Both titles break new ground in comics scholarship from two very distinct approaches. Alaniz spent a good bit of time in Moscow and concluded that the Russian culture did not have much of any connection to comics so he investigated. Alaniz also found it intriguing how mainstream superhero comics explore issues of disability, death and dying and that led to him writing on that. Along the way, Alaniz probably missed creating comics on an ongoing basis. Once you’ve experienced the constant pace of creating a daily comic strip, at a significant level, it never leaves your system entirely. You have this compulsion to express yourself on a regular basis. The act of regularly creating comics gets under your skin. It is very intimate and intense. And it can metamorphosize into all sorts of other forms of self-expression: prose writing, including fiction and journalism, and engaging with other media as well. You are an exhibitionist, liable to walk around naked down the street if given half a chance. But the comics medium is a very specific thing and it has a way of calling back those who have participated at deep level just like a certain mistress may hold sway over a past lover.
Old Edinburg, Dead and Gone!
The Phantom Zone is an intriguing title for a comic strip. It seems to harken back to a good 0ld-fashioned adventure comic strips by such greats as Milton Caniff. Add to it the fact that Alaniz is playing with issues of youth, identity and culture, and it’s easy to try to draw some comparisons to the, by then, well established alternative comics scene of the time. Love and Rockets, the comic book series, and leading alt-comics title, by the Hernandez brothers: Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario, would undoubtedly have been known by Alaniz. It is asking a lot of any young person to try to live up to such giants as Milton Caniff and the Hernandez brothers but many an aspiring cartoonist is compelled to give it a go. Once you’re in the thick of doing a regular comic strip, all bets are off. An overriding worldview kicks in and guides the cartoonist. Comics can be a great equalizer since it cuts deep, ignores any fuzzy boundaries between high and low culture. Suddenly, Archie Comics and Popeye must be given their due, honored and respected. Academics traditionally would thumb their nose at the likes of Jughead and Brutus and dismiss these clowns as “drivel.” And, of course, they’d use such an arcane term to add to the sting. But a true cartoonist, someone actually writing and drawing in pursuit of something artful, they know the true value of such legendary characters. And so Alaniz bravely entered the fray. Soon, he had something brewing, riding upon the shoulders of too many other cartoonists to mention. It is fascinating to read the early college efforts and then compare that to later work revisiting the same characters.
From that experience, it was onward to further exploration in creating comics. Pivotal in this process, as Alaniz shares, is his taking part in monthly informal get-togethers with various cartoonists at a local Seattle cafe. Prior to the pandemic, each gathering was an opportunity for cartoonists to draw up comics that were then collected and printed into an ongoing anthology known as, Dune. I’ve often been invited but I never attended, mostly because it conflicted with my job. But I’ve had countless interactions with most of these cartoonists. As many of them can attest, I’ve been at the forefront of many comics events which they happily participated in. Some of the most notable cartoonists from this scene include: Max Clotfelter, Marc J. Palm, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Seth Goodkind, Jim Woodring, Eroyn Franklin and Megan Kelso. Again, I can’t stress enough how valuable this book can be to anyone interested in the comics medium. It all began for Alaniz with a youthful creative impulse and just look where it took him. Overall, The Phantom Zone comic strip does a decent job with carving out something in the auto-bio tradition. What is truly most compelling is the life that José Alaniz carved out for himself.
Steven Appleby is, among his many accomplishments, the creator of the comic strip, Small Birds Singing, and the BBC radio series Normal Life. One of Britain’s best loved cartoonists, his Loomus and other comic strips have appeared in newspapers and magazines internationally, and he has written and illustrated numerous books. His new book, Dragman, brings together themes dating back to Appleby’s early work in the ’80s in his comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express.
From Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Loomus, in The Guardian
Indeed, Steven Appleby is a prominent cartoonist, illustrator and artist. Steven’s early career included creating cartoons for the legendary British humor magazine, Punch and a comic strip for the prestigious New Musical Express. This activity branched out in many directions, including many more comic strips, an animated series, a theater show, art shows, and many books, all the way to the new graphic novel, Dragman. Steven’s new book is about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes. As I point out in my review, this is a delightful tale about identity while also being a riveting thriller to boot. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview. A portion of the audio file is included at the end. During our conversation, we discuss process, a wonderful career, and the art of just being yourself.
Dragman by Steven Appleby
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s jump in and discuss Dragman. First, let’s discuss a bit the title and main character. It seems to me that Dragman begs the question as to who is Dragman and the actual idea of dressing in drag. At one point in the book, the main character, August Crimp, takes issue with being called a dragman. Could you talk about that?
STEVEN APPLEBY: The name Dragman comes from a comic strip I did for The Guardian. I was a transvestite in secret, this was around 2002, and so I was using that name. When I came around to creating the book, the name still had a nice ring to it. Drag is a different thing from trans. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was experiencing cross-dressing in secret, the term, drag, clearly referred to performance. In the book, August is labeled as drag by the press and he resists but it sticks.
Dragman is truly a graphic novel in every sense, in terms of playing with words and images. You even have some wonderful prose passages that link up the narrative. I could easily see you writing the whole book as prose. Could you talk about the process of putting the book together?
It was really hard as I’d never done a project like this that is so long. I was used to doing short comic strips. I wanted to have everything in it: I wanted it to be funny, serious, have the superhero parody, be a thriller and be true to my own trans experience. That was difficult to do. I love writing prose and maybe I’ll do a prose book in the future. It was a lovely way to have a different sort of atmosphere and also not reveal the character who is referred to in the prose, keep that a secret for later in the book. It took me around two years to write it and I was creating little scenes, as in a play, but then I needed to figure out how to draw all that. At one point, I had written 40 pages of material that didn’t fit into comics. So, in a sense, it seems a wasteful process. But I love graphic novels. I love both the visual and prose side of it.
Captain Star in Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express
Your career is so impressive. You’re quite prolific. You’ve found ways to connect your work with other media. You’ve found ways to sustain your vision. What can you tell us about Dragman as part of your body of work?
Take a look at the early work, Captain Star in New Musical Express, the character there was obsessed and repressed. There are dressing up scenes. The navigator of the starship, Boiling Hell, he’s obsessed with fish. So, I had them all have obsessions, like my dressing up obsession. It’s all in there but coded in a different way. Dragman is the whole thing coming out into the open. I’ve lived dressing in women’s clothes for the last twelve years now. This is me being honest in my life, especially to my children. I didn’t want them to discover I had this big secret that they never knew about. So, I came out twelves years ago for that reason. I had such a warm reception from people I worked with, like at The Guardian. With the book, I wanted to explore all of that, the life I’d lived in secret, when nobody knew; and the parallel of superheroes who have secret identities.
Linda McCarthy’s adaptation of Appleby’s comic strip, Small Birds Singing
Could you tell us a bit about your influences? Perhaps you could talk about your studying under Quentin Blake?
I moved to London to go to the Royal College of Art. Quentin Blake was the head of the Illustration Department and he was my tutor. I wasn’t so much influenced by him in terms of actual drawing style but very much in terms of work processes. How he uses a lightbox. I find that I still use that way of working now: very loose rough drawings that you then place on a lightbox and ink very loosely. Yeah, he’s great, really inspirational. We still see each other from time to time.
Is the artwork in Dragman all hand-done or also digital?
Mostly hand-done. It’s using that process that I just said. I do rough drawings and then ink them with an old-fashioned dip pen and India ink. Then I scan the art and print it out so that watercolor can be added. My ex, my wife Nicola, did the watercolor for me. She did it on a lightbox so that the line drawing and the watercolor are separate. I then would scan the watercolor and I manipulate the colors on the computer. I also addd skin tones, made colors richer, tweaked the colors and so on. The flashbacks scenes are all colored on the computer by me, a slightly muted, more monochromatic way. It’s really pretty traditional the way I’ve worked for years.
Steven Appleby, 2019
What can you share with us about growing up and discovering your creativity and who you wanted to be in the world?
I grew up in the north of England up near the border with Scotland, in a small village. We lived in a big old house, an old vicarage that my mum and dad had bought. It had leaky roofs and lowsome bedrooms. My mum and dad were in the ameuter dramatic society so they stored scenery in one of the out buildings. It was like a magical place growing up. When I was a little kid, I remember a room full of furniture and we’d go there to play. There were rooms that were never decorated and kept this old brown wallpaper from the ’20s. My mum drew comics in the ’30s in her school notebooks and that inspired me. We had New Yorker cartoons books with artists like Charles Addams and Ronald Searle. And I loved Dr. Suess as well. The artist who had a huge influence on me was Edward Goery. I discovered Gorey when I was in art school in the ’70s. It wasn’t so much the drawing style that influenced me as much as the way that Gorey put things together. The surreal ideas, the macabre, in his books. I had thought that I could only write and draw books for kids but Gorey showed me that you could really do anything. He liberated me.
Would you share with us a bit about being a professional cartoonist and maintaining a comic strip? I see there’s a recent collection of your Loomus comic strips in The Guardian.
I became a cartoonist kind of by accident, like many things that have happened in my life. It turned out to be perfect for me. I could write and draw as I wanted. I had this little space at the NME and I could do whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t go too crazy. At The Guardian, for example, where I was for 23 years, I think they only rejected two comic strips during the whole time I was there. I’ve always tried to do things that aren’t too topical but more just about life, what’s life all about, because I like it when you can return to the work like Edward Gorey–it’s not just a joke; it’s a comment on life. So, I’ve always tried to do that. And, I think a deadline focuses the mind. Mostly, it’s a good thing to have a deadline. There was a short period when I did a daily comic strip for a German newspaper while I also did my Guardian strip along with a few other things and that was like heading for a nervous breakdown, the amount of ideas I had to come up with. But I really did enjoy doing the comic strips. If I was still doing them, I wouldn’t have been able to do Dragman. It wouldn’t have been possible.
Excerpt from Loomus comic strip.
I know creating comic strips are quite time-consuming. I can recall my own comic strip work for my college paper. Among the many titles that readers can choose from, I highly recommend that folks check out a collection of your Loomus comic strips.
Thank you for mentioning that.
This is sort of a two-part question. What can you share with us about being trans and what can you tell young people about self-expression?
I would say that it’s something that’s been with me since my late teens, when it occurred to me that I could wear women’s clothes and having it be completely secret for 25 years. It was an engine that powered my work. In quite a lot of my comic strips and other work there are themes of secrets. I came across Philip K. Dick in my late teens. I loved his books because they have that constant theme that nothing is what it appears to be. That felt like my life that things weren’t what they appeared to be. In a funny way, when I started to come out to be siblings, family, and friends, and eventually work collegues, I kind of lost some of the mystical power of that secret that was an engine in my work. I found that very interesting.
I have two boys, who are now 24 and 22, and they are completely cool, as well as their friends, about me choosing to dress like this. I was so impressed how it didn’t phase them at all. They would be surprised if you ask them if it was difficult finding out and they’d say no. It was fine. I think, nowadays, it’s a very good time to not just to be trans but to be who you are. There are so many ways for people to be who they are. It seems to me to be a very good time.
Page from Dragman. Captain Star poster in the background.
It’s interesting to me to think about all the potential there is for everyone to veer off the status quo. For instance, a man can have his nails painted, crossing into a female-dominated domain. It seems like a small gesture but you are actually entering into a social exchange. If I were to get my nails painted, I’m engaging with the public–and that’s mostly about their curiosity.
I remember when my Captain Star character became a TV series back in the ’90s. I would paint my nails gold back then. And that would get commented on. One of the things that happens for me is that I use my name Steven and, when someone comes to the door, people will initially do a double take and then usually that opens up a conversation. I haven’t had a bad conversation yet. I agree with you that it’s something to deal with sometimes but it’s often in a positive way.
Share with us what lies ahead for you. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
This is such a weird time. I’m sure it is in Seattle. It is in London. I’ve been ill lately and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve had the virus or not because they’re not testing people in the UK all that much. I think something having to do with all this will probably go into my next project, but I don’t know at the moment what that will be. I’m in this strange little time when Dragman has come out and I’m starting to think about what will come out next. For me, that process is partly an intellectual thinking of ideas and partly an emotional instinctive reaction to things. So, somehow I’m going to decide what I’m doing next.
I wish you great health and thank you for doing this interview.
It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we’ll meet the next time you’re in London.
That would be great.
Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.
Howard Cruse, a pioneer in the LGBTQ cartooning movement and the author of Stuck Rubber Baby, an award-winning graphic novel about the intersection of race and sexuality in the South, died on Tuesday, November 26. He was 75. Howard was one of those essential artists who contributed work that touched, saved and transformed many lives. Thanks to his groundbreaking work as the founding editor of Gay Comix, which began in 1980, Howard Cruse was instrumental in getting underground comics — and later mainstream comics — to address LGBTQ issues. Take a look at the video below for a panel discussion with all the editors of Gay Comix:
A very informative obituary, compiled by Richard Goldstein and Jay Blotcher, follows, along with selected related images.
Stuck Rubber Baby, 25th anniversary edition, published by First Second Books
Pioneering Gay Cartoonist Howard Cruse Dies at 75
(WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS., Nov. 26) — Howard Cruse, a pioneer in the LGBTQ cartooning movement and the author of Stuck Rubber Baby, an award-winning graphic novel about the intersection of race and sexuality in the South, died on Tuesday, November 26. He was 75.
His husband of 40 years, Ed Sedarbaum, said that Cruse succumbed to complications from lymphoma at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, MA. Cruse, who lived in Williamstown, Ma., had been diagnosed in August.
Cruse’s masterwork, the bold graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, was published in 1995. It was based on Cruse’s interior struggles as a closeted gay man during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Widely translated, Stuck Rubber Baby has won numerous awards, including a critics prize at the Angoulême International Comics in France, the Harvey Award, Eisner Award and United Kingdom Comic Art Award for Best Graphic Album.
Stuck Rubber Baby will be reissued in a 25th anniversary edition by First Second Books in May 2020.
Howard Russell Cruse was born May 2, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, as the younger of two sons born to Clyde and Irma Cruse. The family moved to Springville when his father, a photojournalist, was ordained as a Methodist minister and assigned to Springville Methodist Church. Cruse’s creative talents were encouraged by both his parents. His first published work was a 1959 comic strip called “Calvin” in the St. Clair County Reporter. Young Cruse also had cartoon art published in the humor magazines Fooey and Sick. He was mentored through an ongoing correspondence with famed cartoonist Milton Caniff, the creator of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” newspaper comic strips. At age 16, Cruse was invited to visit Caniff in New York City.
Howard meets Milton Caniff in 1961 at Sardi’s in New York City
At Birmingham Southern College, Cruse became involved in the theatre program, designing sets and appearing In several productions. He wrote and directed his own play during his senior year. For the college literary magazine, Quad, Cruse satirized the conservative organization the John Birch Society. The controversial work appeared in print, but the faculty advisor insisted on running a full-page disclaimer.
After graduating from BSC in 1968, Cruse joined Birmingham’s WBMG-TV as art director and a puppeteer on “The Sergeant Jack Show.” He became romantically involved with a man, Don Higdon, for the first time. During this time, Cruse created “Tops & Button,” a cartoon panel about two squirrels, which ran daily in The Birmingham Post-Herald from 1970 to 1972. He also created the subtly subversive “Barefootz,” which debuted in the University of Alabama’s newspaper Crimson White. “Barefootz” would appear in several Birmingham-area publications during the decade, and later in underground comic books. In 1977 Cruse relocated to New York City to make cartooning his full-time profession. In 1979, he met Eddie Sedarbaum and they moved in together. The couple was married in 2004. Cruse’s career reached a personal and professional breakthrough in 1980 when he was founding editor of Gay Comix, an underground anthology for lesbian and gay cartoonists. Cruse’s own work, exploring his conflicted childhood and repressive Southern upbringing, appeared in these comic books.
Wendel comic strip
In an era before the formal passage of LGBT rights, these frank cartoon explorations of gay culture, politics, sex, and camp had a huge influence on young people in the closet. During the four years of his editorship, Cruse received letters of gratitude from readers all over the country, many who had considered suicide. During this period, Cruse did many pro bono illustrations to support fledgling LGBT organizations, as well as mentoring of young queer cartoonists. Cruse created a high-profile poster about gay male safe sex practices in 1985 for New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Cruse’s profile as a cartoonist grew with the debut of “Wendel,” a comic strip about a gay everyman, his lover, friends and family. It appeared in the national newsmagazine The Advocate from 1983 to 1989. He also contributed frequently to The Village Voice. Cruse and Sedarbaum became active in LGBT and AIDS grass-roots politics, joining the direct-action organizations ACT UP and Queer Nation. Cruse and Sedarbaum left New York City in 2003 and moved to Western Massachusetts, settling first in North Adams and then Williamstown.
Stonewall illustration for The Village Voice, circa early 1980s.
Cruse frequently appeared at comic book conventions over the decades, and was the guest of honor at academic and fan conferences, especially those addressing the subject of queer comic art. His final published comic work appeared this year in Northwest Press’s horror anthology “Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers.” Cruse was among LGBT cartoonists and illustrators appearing in the documentary “No Straight Lines,” scheduled for a 2020 release.
Stuck Rubber Baby
Cruse’s work has been collected in several books, among them, Barefootz Funnies (Kitchen Sink, 1975-79), Wendel (Gay Presses of New York, 1986), Dancin’ Nekkid with the Angels (St, Martin’s, Kitchen Sink, 1987) and Wendel on the Rebound (St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
In addition to his husband Ed Sedarbaum, Cruse is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter, and his brother, Allan Cruse.
Donations in his memory can be made to New York City’s LGBT Community Center, the Queers & Comics Conference, and Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County.
Memorial services, open to the public, will be held in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and New York City in the near future. Exact information will be posted on howardcruse.com/
Obituary compiled by Richard Goldstein and Jay Blotcher
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.