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Review: ‘The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz’

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.

Plastic People

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.

The Phantom Zone comic strip

Amatl Comix is an ongoing series that compiles the best in Latinx comics presented by San Diego State University Press.

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Review: ‘The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski’ by Noah Van Sciver 

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.

Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.

Fante dreams big.

I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.

Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with s perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.

A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.

Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing.  More importantly, he  has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.

While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.

Unlucky in love.

Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers. In the end, we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.

Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.

Long live bohemians, great and small.

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The Gaming Industry Has Its Own #MeToo Movement

Image: Ubisoft

The Gaming Industry has its own #MeToo movement. Reports and allegations against men in gaming have become more prevalent over the last two weeks. While this type of harassment,  misconduct, and twisted culture is not news for many in various industries, including the comics industry, a perfect storm of facts have emerged. The leading gaming site, Kotaku, part of G/O Media, is leading the investigation into some of these claims. Amid all these allegations, one company is right in the thick of the firestorm: Ubisoft.

“The past two weeks have been filled with accounts, some anonymous, some with names attached, as people, mostly women, take the risk of speaking out on social media about harassment, abuse, and assault, mostly against men in gaming. And while abuse allegations have rocked Twitch and other corners of the gaming world, no one company has seen as many reports leveled by and against its own people as Ubisoft, the multinational video game publisher behind Assassin’s CreedFar Cry, and Rainbow Six Siege.

In an interview with Kotaku, the woman who says one of Ubisoft’s co-founders, Maxime Béland, “jokingly” put his hands around her neck at a party shared not just an account of a disturbing incident but of a structure and culture that she said made her hesitate to report it. “You’re conditioned to feel like you’re lucky to be there,” she said of her time at Ubisoft”… continue reading article, here.

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Comics Picks: BRAVE NEW WORLDS in Philadelphia

BRAVE NEW WORLDS, your local comics shop in Philadelphia, has reopened, following all COVID-19 protocols, as of June 5th. At Comics Grinder, we salute all of the amazing local comics shops keeping it real. Henry Chamberlain, your host and fearless leader, has taken it upon himself to ask this basic question: “What do you recommend these days, especially with Covid in mind?” Of course, folks can get creative and take the opportunity to answer that however they choose. It’s understood that it can depend upon who you ask and when you ask. Here is what BRAVE NEW WORLDS has to say:

Once & Future by Keiron Gillen and Dan Mora

Recently we’ve been really enjoying “Once & Future” by Keiron Gillen and Dan Mora, “Something is Killing the Children” by James TynionIV and Werther Dell’Edera “Wonder Woman Dead Earth” by Daniel Warren Johnson Jeff Lemire and Kevin Walta’s “Sentient” from TKO “Strange Adventures” by Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Evan Shaner,….

Low, Low, Woods by Carmen Maria Machadoand Dani

Low, Low, Woods by Carmen Maria Machadoand Dani, Thor by Donny Cates and Nic Klein,…

Silver Surfer Black by Donny Cates and Tradd Moore

Silver Surfer Black by Donny Cates and Tradd Moore, Doomsday Clock vols 1 & 2 by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank,…

House Of X/Powers Of X (Hardcover)

House of X/Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, and R. B. Silva,  Hellboy Omnibus by Mike Mignola et al, Box Brown’s titles. Anything Junji Ito.
BRAVE NEW WORLDS carry a wide variety of comics, game cards, graphic novels, children’s books, Gundam model kits, action figures, Hot Toys figures, Sideshow statues, back issues, t-shirts, posters, board/card games, and many collecting supplies. BRAVD NEW WORLDS have been selling comics, games and toys in the Philadelphia area (Philly and Willow Grove) for over 30 years!

Brave New Worlds, Philadelphia

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Review: Jack the Radio: Creatures Anthology

Jack the Radio: Creatures

Jack The Radio: Creatures is a comic that you’ll definitely want to take to heart during these challenging times. It’s coming to you by George Hage, his band, Jack the Radio, and songs that have inspired comics and pinups from 30 of the top illustrators and colorists from around the world. The book is published by A Wave Blue World and is based on the band Jack The Radio‘s new album Creatures. It was written by singer/guitarist, George Hage and features cover art from Matthew Allison and interior art from Tommy Lee Edwards, Khoi Pham, Aaron Conley, Jorge Corona, Alexis Ziritt, Núria Tamarit and many more. Among the many notable things you’ll find in this comic is something that you may not notice. Our main character could literally be anyone. Basically, Jack (or Jackie?) the Radio is a skeleton, with no overt reference to race, gender, creed, color, or anything else. So, yeah, let’s embrace this uncanny character, just trying to survive, much like you or me.

“Getting Good,” artwork by Rich Tommaso

This is a fun and upbeat work. One fine example is “Trouble,” based on a song about perseverance. Hage’s script is complimented by art by Jorge Corona and color by Jean-Brancois Beaulieu. One of my favorites is a story about the down and out, “Getting Good,” artwork by the legendary Rich Tommaso. Each story has a quirky vibe and it all adds up to an impressive showcase of talent and a unique mashup of music and comics. There is much to enjoy and be inspired about here. If I did feel compelled to align our main character with a background, my own Mexican heritage is telling me, literally screaming at me, that Jack the Radio is part of Dio de los Muertos–but we can discuss that some other time. In fact, I’d be honored to draw up such a comic for Hage anytime. All in all, this is fun stuff.  This is a perfect all-ages comes and a welcome addition to your current comics reading.

Jack The Radio: Creatures is available as of June 24th and is also available on the band’s website, www.jacktheradio.com/store so do check it out!

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End of Teddy Roosevelt. Next, Columbus Circle?

From Alice in New York, updated text for 2020

There’s a moment in my graphic novel, Alice in New York, when my alter ego character questions how such an absurd statue could stand in America’s melting pot. At the time the story was set, in 1989, such statues were not only allowed to exist but were meant to be revered, although no one could say exactly why. Anyway, that now infamous statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with an African tribesman on one side and a Native American chief on the other is on its way out. I’d never noticed this but the darn thing only dated back to 1940. As anyone who knows their history can attest, Teddy Roosevelt was a good guy. He was a man of his time but he was also progressive in both word and deed. Look him up and you’ll find that he’s the real deal. But that statue showcases Teddy in the wrong light to put it mildly. The idea behind it has to do with Teddy being an avid explorer, not an enslaver. It would have fit into the less than woke 1940s. But Theodore Roosevelt, the actual human being, would have absolutely understood that this statue was a problem and it was time for it to go. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post:

As president, however, Roosevelt preached tolerance and encouraged equality. He famously broke bread with Booker T. Washington — the first president to dine with an African American in the White House. He cleaned up the Interior Department, ensured federal jobs for minorities and reconciled many land disputes with Native Americans. He promoted a brand of American nationalism that guaranteed civil liberties for all, regardless of personal identities.

From Alice in New York

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.” Okay, but now there’s the matter of an even more problematic statue and it’s a doozy. Mayor de Blasio, are you ready to take down the landmark statue of Christopher Columbus, the centerpiece to New York’s famed Columbus Circle?

From Alice in New York

In a statement released yesterday, Decolonize This Place said it welcomed the decision to remove the statue but noted that two of its demands to the city and the museum still remain unanswered: renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “transforming the museum’s racist exhibition spaces,” in addition to repatriating humans remains and sacred objects, and “taking on the work of reparations.” Yes, the fact remains that, if you take a tour of the exhibits inside the Museum of Natural History, you’ll find even more stark examples of racial insensitivity. And, again, any group asking to rename Columbus Day can definitely get behind a campaign to tear down Columbus Circle! A petition has started on change.org asking for the renaming of the circle and the removal of the statue “from public view,” but recent comments from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggest that neither the statue, nor the name of the circle, is going anywhere. Lastly, let me add that I appreciate and am sensitive to the problems with Columbus Circle and state as much in my recent illustrated novel, Max in America.

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Review: ‘American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason’ by Brett Dakin

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.

Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.

During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics,  would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.

But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned  only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.

A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim,  to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.

Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.

As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.

Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books  as faintly masturbatory).

Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941

Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.

But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.

Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a  lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.

Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua,  New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily  (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.

Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers:  Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.

A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.

Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

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Review: ‘The Necrophilic Landscape’ by Morgan Vogel

The Necrophilic Landscape by Morgan Vogel

The Necrophilic Landscape. by Tracy Auch (Morgan Vogel). 2dCloud. Minneapolis, MN, 2015, 32 pages, $12.

When I learned about The Necrophilic Landscape, it struck me as something that I needed to become familiar with. As an indie cartoonist, I was saddened to learn about the death of Morgan Vogel, someone who was at the forefront of creating avant-garde comics. That’s not an easy thing to do well. Yes, anyone might try but few truly succeed. I had posted how Morgan Vogel reveled in using pen names. Vogel credits The Necrophilic Landscape with the pen name,  Tracy Auch. And then she goes one better and pretends to be the editor of her own work. Consider this brilliant literary prank which you can find quoted on the 2dCloud Instagram:
Why did you release The Necrophilic Landscape as you did, with the color removed and the title changed?
Morgan Vogel: “The Necrophilic Landscape” was composed in 2010 and then shelved after being rejected for a grant. At that time the author was influenced by gothic and genre literature such as Melmoth the Wanderer and The Devil’s Elixirs, or Edogawa Ranpo’s Detective Stories. In my personal work I try to avoid nostalgia in the use of these generic references to male authors. I was asked to edit “The Necrophilic Landscape” and turn it into something suitable for release. I chose to foregoround a theme that was only partially worked out in the original, that is– that the narrative takes place in an almost entirely male world. The most obstructive editorial decision I made was to remove a central passage which contained the original’s only depiction of sex or a female character. The printed version of the book is more disjointed as a result of this decision, but it seemed to me that the only explanation for the narrative’s total mystification of sexual reproduction could be that it takes place in a fantasy world that contains only men and male children. The change in title reflects my critical distance as an editor and was meant to refer to a concept employed by a feminist theorist I like of a male drive towards necrophilia (versus female ‘biophilia’). I believe the color was removed because scans of the original artwork were not available.”
Indeed, it’s good to have some background going in. Now, buckle up, this is going to be a deliciously bumpy ride. Okay. Comics can be many things. When someone casually picks up a comic and dismisses it for being, for example, “disjointed,” they are really missing out. To say a work is disjointed sounds impressive and authoritative. It’s the most used dis in academic circles and usually means the reader did not even bother to carefully read the work. Anyway, I just mention that because so much gets batted around by neurotic experts, insecure gatekeepers and pathetic tastemakers, jetsetters, and knee-jerkers. It’s an ugly world with a lot of ugly people. But a lot of good people too, no doubt, so let’s take a look at a little book that comes out smelling like a rose. I turn your delicate attention to The Necrophilic Landscape.

Page excerpt from The Necrophilic Landscape

Morgan Vogel’s  life was cut short at the age of 34. By all counts, Morgan Vogel was the real deal: a bright light of creativity with a genuine sense of humor. A lot of works in comics, whether mainstream or alternative, barely register as worthwhile. The trouble, as I say, centers around a disrespect for the comics medium by various guilty parties. But dig around, and you find this. The key thing here is a sharp and subversive mind at play. The drawing looks crude but, in fact, it has a power to it. Gary Panter comes to mind. The writing seems dense at first but it has a way of disarming you. What you’ve got is a surreal poetic nightmare.

What you have is a work that employs the same kind of energy you can find in, say, the best contemporary painting or experimental theater. The actual narrative is about an all-male world in which sexual reproduction doesn’t exist and the primary class division in society is between men and children. So, heavy stuff but also an intriguing framework to explode upon the page, to explore the body and soul. And, amid the dark, there is some wonderfully light humor as in a scene showing how the children manage to outwit the men by disguising themselves as adults. The solution is as easy as something out of an early comic strip. One kid stands on the shoulders of another kid and they cover each other up with a big overcoat. Voilà, instant adult.

If this were a movie, it might be unwatchable but, thankfully, it’s a comic. There simply are things you can do in comics that you can’t do anywhere else. Lots of depictions of body horror can be uniquely finessed within comics and so it goes here. Top it off with the sort of melancholy you’ll find in a good Russian novel, and you’re all set and ready to go right into a morbidly happy oblivion. This book gets all the stars I can give it. I guess that’s five, right?  Strange. Loopy. Totally radically authentic. Talked about in smart circles but hard to find unless you know where to look. Simply put, this is the Maltese Falcon of indie comics. Seek it out.

Page excerpt from The Necrophilic Landscape

I’ll leave you with a parting thought. What makes me a good guide into the world of Morgan Vogel? Well, you can take your pick amongst a number of good souls. As for me, I happen to be someone who paid the price of admission into the indie comics community. I’ve experienced it in all its many facets and, I can tell you, it all can amount to a good kick in the teeth or a most rewarding loopy detour depending upon how you look at it. Believe me, I have nothing to prove. I choose to look at it as a natural extension of what I do creatively and I understand it within a broader context of all sorts of artistic endeavors. I just think that Morgan and I would have gotten along.

For more details on The Necrophilic Landscape and an impressive assortment of cutting-edge comics, visit 2dCloud right here.

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The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: An Astute Cartoonist’s Prediction

Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921

UPDATE: The Trump rally in Tulsa is now scheduled for June 20. However, especially during this pandemic, the correct action would be not to hold a rally.

With Trump set for his rally in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, he and his henchmen continue to stoke the fires of racism. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Trump’s response to CNN on his rally coinciding with this date, well-known as a date to commemorate emancipation from slavery: “Uh, no, but I know exactly what you’re going to say. … Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said, adding, “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.” Add to this the fact that Tulsa was the site for the infamous race massacre of 1921.

Daisy Scott

 

Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921

Daisy Scott in the Tulsa Star. Caption: “Isn’t it time to start cleaning your own mess?

Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

Writer Michael Tisserand remembers Daisy Scott, a cartoonist who predicted the troubles ahead for Tulsa in 1921. This is from a social media post today:

“Among the many things that history has ignored about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is that the first regularly published Black female cartoonist was working at the Tulsa Star at the time, and she saw what was coming.

The Tulsa Star would be destroyed in the fires. Daisy Scott never worked as a cartoonist again. Yet she remained in Tulsa with her husband, Jack Scott, a boxer, and they would raise a family together.

During the fires, Jack Scott had risked his life to help stop a lynching. He, like others, would be baselessly indicted for murder; that charge would not be officially dropped until 2007.”

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Cartoonist Morgan Vogel (1986-2020)

Morgan Vogel

I’ve been carving a little niche of some kind for many years and sometimes wondering where it all will lead—but I do know. I just mean that, push comes to shove, I will occasionally feel obligated to account for my actions. From time to time, all of us indie creative types must ask, “Why are we all doing this?” Indeed. We do it because it’s rewarding in its own right. As we progress through life, I think a lot of us out there begin to think we’d better be a little more respectful of our own work/worth. Why not? It makes sense. That brings me to this post, a look at Morgan Vogel, a remarkable talent now gone all too soon.

Cover to The Necrophilic Landspace by Morgan (then Tracy Auch) published by 2dcloud, 2015

From time to time, I feel compelled to define/explain what I do and this blog is a very good place for that. What I want to share with you right now is a little moment in time, because that is mostly what this blog does, filter through, and grind out some truth. Today, I bring up to the surface a remembrance of a young artist who recently passed away. Morgan Vogel, a name many of you will not know. But she fits the bill for the type of curious creature I hold in high esteem. Morgan was a determined artist. To die at 34 is truly heartbreaking. She was only beginning. I want to direct your attention to a tribute posted by Austin English over at The Comics Journal. Austin English runs Domino Books, a fine online boutique of comics and zines and he’s quite an authority on the indie zine. Austin leads a moving tribute that gives me confidence that Morgan’s legacy is safe and won’t be forgotten. Here’s Austin’s introduction:

Morgan Vogel, a cartoonist known for her distinctively intelligent work, went missing on April 8th. She was found dead Sunday, May 24th, at age 34. While her body of published work was small, its effect on those who read it was immeasurable. Her comics in anthologies (she appeared in Weird Magazine, Smoke Signals, Suspect Device, Tusen Hjärtan Stark, But is it…Comic Aht? and more) were often the stand out piece of the volume in question. The Necrophilic Landscape, a solo masterpiece published by 2dcloud in 2015, is one of the most stunning works of comic art in the last decade. Her recent self published zines, Valle and Nightcore Energy, were beautifully drawn and upsetting to read, a divide that appears in so much of her art and became more pronounced over time. 

Morgan was a favorite cartoonist of mine and many others. Her work was, at once, cruel, funny, forgiving, un-affectionate and, most of all, incredibly perceptive. She often zeroed in on personas that people (in much of her work, artists specifically) constructed for themselves. She would at first offer a satire of these poses, but within a few panels, a more moving–and therefore devastating–portrait of the subject would be revealed. The maturity of her expression, the avoidance of an extreme of anger or acceptance but instead a complicated and upsetting synthesis of the two, was achieved with a precision that I rarely see in comics. Many of my favorite artists make work that, on a superficial level, seems confrontational, but at heart is urgently humane—Morgan’s work, to me, got at this better than most. When I wanted to start a magazine about comics, including Morgan’s work in whatever way possible was one of the highest priorities, because of the nature of her views on art. She wasn’t interested in style or gestures of sophistication, but instead on the true implications embedded within peoples art. In one remembrance below, a quote by Morgan is repeated: “I  cant think of any other way to love except through artwork or some other medium that is public, loving everybody is easy, when you have an actual commitment to a thing or to somebody then it gets more complicated than I can handle.” A belief in the power of art often gets a lot of lip service, but for many artists of consequence, it is a real and specific thing. Morgan, I believe, was one of those artists. 

Morgan’s work was well known to her peers and to many readers, but because she worked under so many pseudonyms (I originally knew her as Caroline Bren, then as Tracy Auch, later as Hennessy, and finally as Morgan or Morgan Vogel), the entirety of her output remains a tangle. I think this is, in part, how she wanted it. But I also know that she was an avid reader of this website and focused much of her thinking on cartoonists and cartooning history. There are no doubt people reading this with feelings about the form that mirror Morgan’s. In spite of her resistance to clarifying her body of work, attention and discussion of it seem important to fulfilling the belief she had in the medium. I think Morgan’s high standards for cartooning were often met most precisely by her own art. It’s hard for me to imagine an artistic achievement equal to that. 

Pages from The Necrophilic Landspace

The Necrophilic Landspace is 32 pages, 7.75 x 9.25 inches, 1 color risograph, $12, available at 2dcloud.

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Filed under Comics, Indie, Obituaries, Zines