Matt MacFarland displays a disarming charm in how he presents himself, his family, and his father in particular in his latest book. This is a little comics memoir in the tradition of auto-bio alt-comics: a self-portrait of the cartoonist, warts-and-all.
It’s interesting to note that this story is told in segments, four panels per page, comic strip-sytle. MacFarland uses the comic strip format in order to contain the narrative. What I mean is that this isn’t a collection of previously serialized work. I see part of it on Matt’s Instagram but not as being posted in a deliberate way like a webcomic. He takes a more casual approach which I really dig. In fact, a lot of what he’s posting right now are pages from his Scenes from a Marriage series which is hilarious. Matt has found a method to keep things fresh and concise by using the comic strip format to tell his story. He’s also taking advantage of the fact that we’re so used to reading page after page of comic strips that have been collected to tell a bigger story. Matt’s new book features his father, told in a series of comic strip moments. This format echoes Art Spiegelman’s own recollections of his father albeit on a small compact scale. Matt has narrowed down the stage to the most essential: fleeting moments, heavy with meaning, tied together by the seasons. What emerges is a portrait of the artist’s father, a complicated guy, both difficult and lovable.
By keeping to this comic strip format, MacFarland provides us little windows into his father’s soul, one self-contained little story per page. MacFarland has a lean and crisp way of drawing and storytelling. This series of four-panel comic strips grows on you as one detail is revealed and builds upon the next. We begin with the fall. The first two strips set the tone depicting Matt’s father, Gary, as a less than sensitive guy, with an offbeat sense of humor. The opener shows Gary as a young boy obsessed with creating monster masks. The one after that has Gary describing a horror movie he especially liked to 6-year-old Matt. After Matt screams that he wants to see it, Gary shows him a particularly disturbing scene from it on tape that leaves little Matt in tears.
Truth be told, Gary is hardly a bad guy and Matt doesn’t pick him apart. He’s not digging for dirt but for understanding about his father–and his own life. As we progress, we come to find out that Gary is an alcoholic but that is only part of his story and it doesn’t derail the narrative as one might expect. Mixing up the chronology of events also helps in letting details emerge in a less than obvious way. In a natural course of presenting anecdotes, the reader gets to see Gary interact with an array of people and circumstances. MacFarland manages to navigate a series of challenging periods: the divorce of his parents; the start of his own family; and the death of his father. I especially like a moment Matt has crafted where he’s hiding in a bedroom crying over the news of his father’s death while also calculating in his mind when the dinner guest will finally leave. Of course, when he returns to the kitchen, she’s still seated at the dinner table. That’s classic Matt MacFarland, with a dash of dry and dark humor.
It was just a matter of time before I returned to the work of Peter Morey, which I had stumbled upon during a visit to Orbital Comics in London back in 2019. Even with a haul of comics to look over, I could quickly appreciate Morey’s distinctive and quirky work. Fast forward to the present, now I have three issues of Endswell compared to just the one a few years back. Reading over the first issue, and proceeding all the way through, I was treated to a fuller picture of this ongoing family saga. The first issue seems that much stronger now as it pulls together a number of dramatic bits all revolving around the misadventures of the granny of the clan, the matriarch in decline, who in recent years has brought in a suspicious character as her lover.
The family photo!
As with any sprawling comedy of manners, the first issue introduces the players and sets the tone. We begin with the main character of this loosely auto-biographical work, Peter Morey, as he relates to a therapist a series of events involving his grandmother. Things are a bit of a mess as it seems gran has reached a critical point where her well-being is a concern, not to mention her continued squandering of the family fortune for the sake of her vanity project. Plans must be made. Chickens are coming home to roost. Or, in this case, horses and dogs as gran runs an eccentric farm and kennel known as, Endswell. And then there’s Jim, the creepy ne’er-do-well she’s been living with. All of this is of concern to her now middle-aged children. And yet the worry has somehow spilled over onto Peter, part of the next generation. It’s not completely clear as to why Peter is so preoccupied by this drama other than it’s part of the neurotic goop that has overcome the whole family. Alright then, all very interesting family drama, as Chekhov would concur.
Morey does a fine job of giving a comedic shape to various family source material. In the end, we’ve got a nicely purring machine that sees us into the next couple of issues: one dedicated to the dogs at Endswell; and one dedicated to grandpa, which finds the clan reminiscing on the day of the grand old man’s funeral. So, all in all, this family comedy provides a neat platform upon which Morey can give the reader a bit of his take on the human condition. Morey’s droll sense of humor permeates his drawing style, which has an uncanny distant and ironic quality to it. The characters and settings, much like the narrative, are pared down to a mysterious enigma. Simple shapes and phrases leave much hidden, revealing only what’s needed and leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
A poignant moment for Lady Foxhound.
Now, let’s move past Morey’s family saga to something more whimsical. This is more of Peter Morey’s droll humor but this time it’s animals–and not just any animals, these are power animals out to save the world. Animal Spirits is a deliciously over-the-top mash-up tribute to martial arts and violent manga, I would think. Actually, there’s only a few dollops of blood spilled, all things considered but you need to be mindful of the kiddos reading this, right? Morey’s light and lean line is nicely set off by his bold choice of colors. If you enjoy a cheeky adventure and root for animal rights, then this is for you.
This is a review about two outstanding comics. But it is first of all a review of a new comics publisher. A veteran of the book trade, founder and publisher Liz Frances, jumped into the fast-changing world of GNs a few years ago, after a considerable career in the publishing industry. She has explained to interviewers that she wants to create books that count, that have both passion and social value. Certainly so, but I see these two books rather differently. Not that I doubt her explanation for a minute. What I think I perceive is a glimpse at a new generation of comic artists and their art.
Neither of these books is particularly close to traditional comics styles, the kind that my older sisters lovingly employed, when I was six, to teach me how to read. I remember more or less precisely that moment in my life. Looking back from a distance of about seventy years, I can easily grasp the big change. Comics are now certain to be “read” in very different ways, sometimes on devices that do not look or act like printed books, although the books on review here are printed. The real change, however, reflects how artists themselves learn and come to see themselves. As Parsons comics teacher and comic artist Ben Katchor reflected in an interview book, a few years ago, the internal logic of the young artist is no longer the world of the drawing board nor any other fixed spot.
Crash Course author/artist Woodrow Phoenix, a British citizen, whose parents emigrated from Guyana, where the CIA overthrew a leftwing government in 1960 and perhaps arranged for the assassination of the rebellious Walter Rodney in 1980, is a very radical person in his own way. He delivers a powerful message to the heads of readers, certainly to mine, in pounding page after page.
Page from CRASH COURSE
How does he do it? Because he explores in words and expressionist-like drawings the things we know, but do not want to think very much about our cars and our driving. Despite being a key form of death and injury around the world, not even to speak of vast environmental damage, driving has dug itself into our brains. Even if we spend maximum time (as I do) either biking or walking, for most of us, the car is always there. It gets us to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment, or to “get out of the city” for a while to visit friends and relatives. Not to mention moving distances for major changes in our lives and work. All these could certainly be done without cars. Given contemporary arrangements, only with real difficulty.
But there’s far, far more to it, and at the psychological core, cars have been ingeniously devised and stylized to make up for the insecurities and shortcomings of our individual lives. “Individual” is key here, as he explains, because each driver lives within a second skin, competing with others in the same circumstances for safety, speed, and psychological reinforcement. Merely reciting the names of models recalls the vicarious excitement, exoticism, and terribly real speed, made all the more attractive because the depictions in every media never show anyone in the real, constant traffic jam. In every hour of an average commute, twenty minutes is spent locked in very boring lines, rousing the desire to get ahead of every competing car and to cut corners by going ten or twenty miles per hour over the law or passing in the breakdown line.
All this, as Phoenix makes so vivid, is dramatized by the sheer eeriness of a vast but empty parking lot. And just as vividly by the violent use of cars to run down political demonstrators, acts now apparently made non-punishable. Cars have created non-spaces across the world, at the same time that they have become weapons, in many ways the weapons of daily use.
From POWER BORN OF DREAMS
Power Born of Dreams begins in prison, an Israeli prison, and that is the most fundamental fact of this book. The second most fundamental is the artist’s technique: linocuts, recalling a past era when leftwing artists of the 1920s struggled to make a living outside of the magazine world. As the artist says, “I was unable to carve my name onto the walls of my prison cell.” So, he chooses a kind of carving, to carve the stories of imprisoned Palestinians, on paper.
The lines are spare, the background black. Interrogation goes with confinement, and each reinforce the other. Israeli companies have made themselves world-famous with “crowd control” techniques, tried out mainly in the West Bank against Palestinians protesting the loss of their homes and their land. The artist’s road out of mental confinement is his art. He can see a tree outside and become a tree, for a moment. Then come back to his own reality behind bars.
He is, in real life, a citizen without a country. No Palestinian who lived in East Jerusalem can be allowed Israeli citizenship, not even marriage with an Israeli can make that happen. Leaving East Jerusalem can easily preclude returning, ever. And even remaining in your home means awaiting the dreaded moment when you will be driven out by a would-be Israeli settler insisting that not even a long family history in this spot, this house, entitles you to remain there.
A large part of the narrative is the deeply personal, deeply disturbing story of the artist himself. During the Second Intifada, he set himself on the task of drawing portraits of the dead, drawing the victim in the mortuary, then giving the portrait to the family the next day, at the funeral. A young boy, the brother of one of the victims, asks, “Can you make my portrait?” The artist says no, he only draws the dead, and this boy surely has a long life ahead of him, but learns days later that the boy, too, has become a martyr, trying to avenge his killing of his brother.
“They tore down the tree and destroyed the nest?” is his dialogue among two birds. “Imagine living without a home.” This leads, as it must, to an apparently tragic conclusion: the settlers slice up an imagined Palestinian homeland, in the geographical territory agreed to at Camp David, into slices smaller and smaller, divided from each other so that travel and work, not to mention emergency medical care, become almost impossible.
Things could change, at least theoretically. But a humane outcome could not alter the power of Mohammad Sabaaneh’s artistic descriptions, their capacity, we hope, to open hearts of readers everywhere.
Chickaloonies: Book 01 – First Frost. by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver. 80 Percent Studios. Seattle. 2021. 100pp. $25.00
Keeping cultures alive.
Welcome to Chickaloonies, the new Alaskan adventures by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, published by 80 Percent Studios. These are comics with roots going back to tribal stories handed down to the kids by the village elder. This all-ages tribal adventure follows two Alaskan Native kids as they set out on a quest to become world-famous storytellers. But not so fast. First, there are a lot of misadventures along the way. After all, these guys are gathering up material and so they’re living it as it makes it way into tales to tell.
Sasquatch E. Moji
Our main characters are an unlikely but lovable pair. Sasquatch E. Moji, age 13, is big and quiet, communicating only through symbols. Mister Yelly, age 12, is small and outspoken, often leaping into action before looking at the consequences. Between the two, they’re not exactly formidable but they make up for it with great spirit. And, when all else fails, they can always turn to their grandmother for advice. But that changes soon enough once these two are off on their long-term quest: to learn about other cultures; and to help spread the world about their own culture. Along the way, the boys will confront all sorts of monsters and villains but that just goes with the territory. Also, along the way, the reader will learn about Ahtna/Athabascan symbols, language and culture.
Drawn is a highly energetic style, any reader will be delighted and engaged right from the start. This first graphic novel in a series collects some really fun tall tales. These stories have their roots in the stories that Dimi Machera grew up with, first from his grandmother and then retold by his mother, who presented live events based on tribal stories to local schools and other gatherings. All along, during that first creative phase, Dimi was creating comics based on what he heard. And that would ultimately lead to this book, the first of an exciting series that shares the rich, Ahtna/Athabascan culture.
The power of storytelling!
Our story begins with the Chickaloon village trapped in perpetual darkness with everyone wondering if they will ever get some sunshine. That’s where our friends step in. Sasquatch E. Moji and Mister Yelly are going to give it all they’ve got to let the sunshine in–and it looks like they’ve got more than a good chance of doing that and a whole lot more. Chickaloonies is just the kind of storytelling we need today as we rise out of darkness and toward hope and understanding. The good-natured, and often zany, antics here will keep readers of any age entertained and inspired.
Studies in Comics, Vol 11, No 1. Intellect Books. 2021. Bristol, UK. 234pp.
The case for comics having a place beyond the local newsstand or comics shop has grown to the point where it is now no surprise to hear about the latest comics course being taught at a university. We’re now, more than ever, accepting of comics in its many forms and purposes, not the least of which is its role in education. Comics and Education is the theme of the latest issue of the scholarly journal, Studies in Comics. And there is much to cover as the journal lists itself: teaching and learning with published comics; case studies of education comics/comics as education; teaching and learning by creating comics; comics, literacy and emotional development; and public information comics. While such a listing may sound rather dry, there is much life to be found in the comics medium–and that’s the whole point. Comics can breathe a whole new life into a myriad of subjects.
True Comics, 1941
But warming up to comics as an educational tool hasn’t been without its fits and starts as noted in the first article by Christopher Murray and Golnar Nabizadeh. Consider this early entry into educational comics: True Comics, from 1941, launched by The Parents’ Institute, publisher of the influential Parent’s Magazine. As to distance itself from the popular superhero, crime and adventure comics of the day, the cover boldly states: “Truth is stranger and a thousand times for thrilling than fiction!” That is a quote from the introduction by founder and publisher George J. Hecht, responding to a general misunderstanding of comics. For example, Sterling North, the Literary Editor of the Chicago Daily News, had recently attacked the comics industry on the basis that comics was, in his words, a “national disgrace” and a “poisonous mushroom growth.” And when comics did receive support from leading academics, as the authors of this article point out, it could be a mix of condescension and genuine interest:
“While the overall message is that comics are being utilized in many educational contexts, the use of the terms ‘invaded’ and ‘reduced’, and the suggestion that not even Sunday Schools are exempt, puts comics in a negative light. However, Zorbaugh and Gruenberg, along with Paul A. Witty (Professor of Education at Northwestern University), were among a handful of academics and educators exploring the psychological and educational aspects of the comics in the 1940s. In general, they presented the view that comics, far from being harmful, were a powerful way to engage children and especially reluctant readers.”
A selection of educational and information comics produced by Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS)/University of Dundee.
In fact, comics have proven many times over to be a powerful tool to process information. Anyone entering the world of comics, as a reader or as a creative, is setting foot upon an incredibly exciting journey. Another article among the eight full-length features here is one focusing on comics about healthcare and science, featuring Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS), by Damon Herd, Divya Jindal-Snape, Christopher Murray, and Megan Sinclair and it is really at the heart of what this journal is all about. For example, here is an excerpt on a comic about mental health and dealing with hate crimes that involved role-playing in order to unearth some solutions:
“The stories were fictional but they were drawn from their own real-life experiences of hate crime. This fictional aspect gave them space to ‘play the character’, creating a safe space to the discuss difficult subject matter (Jindal-Snape et al. 2011) by inhabiting the world of ‘the image of reality and the reality of the image’ (Boal 1995: 43). This was an educational and emotional experience for the rest of the team. For example, the Advocators insisted that the abusive language that had been directed against them was used in the comic. As they explained, ‘if we don’t show that it is a hate crime, then people reading might not know that it is’. Under the guidance of Advocating Together, the finished comic presented six hard-hitting stories that showcased the stark reality of the hateful (and criminal) experiences they suffer on a regular basis.”
Fibromyalgia and Us
This is a perfect example, of so many, that demonstrates the power of comics and the unexpected results that are possible both at the time of delivery and in the process of creating the work. In the case of a team-oriented event, this is known as a “comics jam” and, as this article explains, it is through this hands-on process that participants get to experience the comics medium as part of a creative team. It is an event that requires no prior art background and you can always partner with an artist as the project develops. The following is an excerpt representative of all the insights and goodwill derived from these team-oriented comics that led to a whole collection of healthcare and science comics, like Fibromyalgia and Us, from the University of Dundee:
“Fibromyalgia and Us (2017) was a project initiated by Divya Jindal-Snape (School of Education and Social Work), who has fibromyalgia and wanted to use the comics medium to inform the healthcare professionals and the public about this less-known and often-misunderstood ‘invisible’ condition that is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. The comic opens with an auto- biographical story by Jindal-Snape, with contributions by her family, and artwork by Ashling Larkin. This story highlights the impact of fibromyalgia on the individual as well as their family and friends. Her colleague Lynn Kelly also wrote a story about her own experiences and benefits of gentle exercise, with artwork provided by Letty Wilson; and there were stories by Judith Langlands-Scott, who detailed the trauma of being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia in a story with artwork by Zuzanna Dominiak. Judith’s son, Andrew Keiller, wrote a story that was drawn by Elliot Balson. This was an important addition as the general perception is that only women, or more commonly older women, have fibromyalgia. His story detailed his struggle with fibromyalgia while at school, where teach- ers and classmates were rarely understanding or sympathetic. Damon Herd and Letty Wilson drew stories based on the experiences of a doctor and a physiotherapist. This comic was launched at an event that received significant attention from both local, national and international press, and a digital version of the comic was subsequently downloaded over 13,000 times.”
A Hero’s Journey through Words and Pictures
Another process-oriented article comes from Zak Waipara, and his comics essay about setting up a new comics and animation curriculum at Auckland University of Technology. Comics and creativity go hand in hand and so why not use comics in order to better understand how to teach about the comics medium! In the above excerpt, Waipara quotes from Christopher Vgoler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “Magic is a good way to describe the synthesis between words and pictures.” Indeed, I believe he’s onto something!
One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale
Comics need not be mistrusted or misunderstood. We’ve come such a long way from the clumsy efforts to slap a portrait of Winston Churchill on the cover of a comic book and lecture to kids that truth is far better than fiction! We are more “sophisticated” general readers: less patient; more prone to criticize; less accepting of authority. The end result should be a good thing: We are better positioned today to question the content we digest. That brings us to the work of cartoonist Nathan Hale and the article about his work by Brianna Anderson. The book in question is generally intended for middle graders and Anderson explores the book’s benefit to this group. Anderson hits upon the author’s use of inserting himself into the work, a fairly common practice in comics, particularly indie comics; and how the author presents information, whether innovative, irreverent, or whatever it might be. Anderson concludes that the author has done a great job of opening up the subject for discussion but does take issue with some choices:
“However, the paratext also reinforces racist and sexist paradigms by displacing black and female voices to the comic’s supplemental endpapers, underwriting the comic’s well-intentioned attempts to educate readers about important voices excluded from white-centric narratives. Thus, while One Dead Spy demonstrates how historical fiction comics can provoke much-needed discussions about the inherent biases and erasures of dominant historical discourses, it also reveals the dangers of relegating opportunities for children to learn about marginalized perspectives in history to the literal margins.”
The difference between how True Comics was judged in 1941 and the way that One Dead Spy is judged in 2021 is as stark as night and day. All in all, that has to be a strong indication of progress being made. A cartoonist like Nathan Hale and an academic like Brianna Anderson can sit down and compare notes. One discussion leads to another. What’s important, as Anderson commends Hale for doing, is to question authority. Anderson claims that Hale is “relegating” already marginalized voices. However, that is a debatable point, just to be fair. The story of Crispus Attucks is certainly worthy of a book all its own. So, for Hale to include a small story about Attucks in a book about American spy Nathan Hale, is reasonable. For a book with a more decided focus on marginalized perspectives, Anderson may want to check out Hale’s book on the Haitian Revolution. That said, this is not to negate but to celebrate Anderson’s analysis. We now live in a time with no simple cookie-cutter answers but, instead, we welcome robust discussion.
Studies in Comics is an essential resource in the ongoing discussion of the comics medium. You will find a treasure trove of useful and insightful content from some of the best minds on the subject of comics as art and as a communication tool. Studies in Comics is published by Intellect Books. Visit them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.
Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor
To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.
Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.
He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.
Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.
They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.
RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.
But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book, contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.
Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,
The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.
A Fire Story (Updated and Expanded Edition). Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 186pp, $18.99
As a creative, I’m one of these hybrids, a writer-artist. Many of my longtime followers already know that, right? Sometimes, I will receive a wonderful nugget of wisdom that can make life easier when working with issues of combining words and pictures. One outstanding example was from a conversation I had with cartoonist Brian Fies. He told me that he sort of learned the hard way that often the road to completing a graphic novel can be simplified considerably. He said that he found that the creation of elaborate drawings was not helping him. Often, the best route is to cut out the artfully rendered art and go with simple drawings. That interview was in March of 2019 in connection with the release of his book, A Fire Story. It is a fascinating book. You can read my review of it here and you can read my interview with Brian here. This is the story of the horrific 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Back then, Brian promptly created a quick on-the-spot work of comics reportage that went on to become a webcomic, and then an Emmy Award-winning work of animation–and ultimately, a graphic novel. Now, with two years of perspective, we have the definitive edition of that book.
Some perspective sure can help.
Much can change, and much can drag on, after two years passing. But some perspective sure can help all the same. Life moves on. Life goes on. That is the sort of spirit evoked in this expanded edition that adds a nice coda: a look two years after the events in the original graphic novel.
Upon reflection, more details fall into place.
It’s interesting to see what Brian chose to include to round things out. It’s a neatly balanced addition of items: a new profile; a few more observations; and, yes, even a few deftly placed artistic touches. All in all, this is the definitive edition to a book that will stand the test of time as an excellent example of crisp and concise visual storytelling. Over the years, Comics Grinder has become an undisputed repository for an assortment of issues related to comics. We do venture off to other subjects but I’m glad I’ve stuck around and have been able to make my contribution to documenting the progress of the comics medium. And I believe there is so much more to be said and to be explored, specifically the power of comics to communicate, to process information, and to inform.
Just the right details complete the story.
Enough time has passed since the original release of A Fire Story that it has allowed Brian Fies time for wounds to heal and memories to be processed. Of course, certain things can trigger a person and it can feel like it all just happened moments ago. But the reality is that progress has been made. Enough progress to make it easier to contemplate the centuries old Japanese tradition of kintsugi: the art of celebrating something broken by applying gold to rejoin it so as to call attention to all the broken pieces that have somehow found a way to become whole again.
If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.
Comics, just like any other media, are often recontextualized and there’s no stopping it, maybe especially for misbegotten comics, in the public domain, that have fallen into a vortex of utter obscurity. There are a lot of these misfits and misfires just gathering dust. But one’s man trash can be another man’s treasure, as the ole saying goes. And so it is in this case. Artist Christopher Sperandio saw an opportunity to create new and fun narratives from old washed-up comics trash–and the trashier, the better! Who knew what art might someday be created from such mediocre and exploitative work like women-in-prison comics! Inserting new text into old comics is not exactly new. You see it all the time on social media. But Sperandio is in it for an extended and robust thematic exploration. His latest book is out this month and it follows the adventures of a renegade activist-superhero, Greenie Josephinie, a continuation of the Pinko Joe saga. It also invites the reader to follow along upon a most offbeat path dotted with landmines of subversive humor.
Recontextualizing like mad!
It’s the droll humor of Christopher Sperandio that seems to guide readers as they navigate through the murky world of the realpolitik. Sorry, sonny, this ain’t no place for children or cry babies! Morality has gone out the window and corporate profits are king! It’s a clever concept of injecting new and funny text into tired old comics and I give Sperandio a lot of credit for seeing it through. I think a process like this can be taken for granted after the reader becomes familiar with it. I think what keeps it interesting is all the neatly inserted provocation. You are almost dared to keep reading. You don’t read this like a typical comic book but more as you would view a series of work in a gallery. This is not a comic book. This is culture jamming. You see that the joke is only part of the work. The act itself, the successful reworking of the “found art,” taking it from its original genre and transforming it into protest art is the aim. If the jokes are really all that funny, that is beside the point–and yet, the humor remains part of the glue that holds it all together. Funny how art can get so complicated!
The droll humor of Christopher Sperandio
In a world where capitalism has run amok, what else can one do but turn to superhero types who are true blue real patriots? Yeah, and so a hyper-convoluted story ensues. It is far more cerebral while, at the same time, far more silly than many genre comics out there. Although, mainstream comics publishers today can often prove to be quite artful and do a good job of keeping at bay any easy satirizing of their product.
You can just run with it.
Sperandio goes to the trouble of attempting to show respect for the creators of the public domain comics he has used as found art fodder by including their names. That’s a totally reasonable and honorable gesture. Real human beings did create the artwork in these shaggy dog comics of yesteryear. But I wonder how many of these creators who are still around are losing any sleep over the fate of these particular creations. Honestly, this is C-level journeyman work, just work-for-hire grunt work, not any better nor worse than typical clip art. Honest work to be sure but no one is trying to win any prestigious award from it.
A learning opportunity.
Found pop art, and the noble work of recontextualizing it, brings to mind the Pop Art masters, specifically Roy Lichtenstein, who carved out a very significant place for himself with his use of comic book motifs. What Lichtenstein did was hardly new and dates as far back as the first artist who chose to incorporate other art into his own. One prominent figure, and my favorite, perhaps the first to really succeed with it was Edouard Manet. A more recent example is Shepard Fairey. Both Lichtenstein and Fairey have wrongheadedly been slammed by critics for appropriating the work of others. Manet not so much, or not at all, since Manet is no longer as commonly known; most people don’t care, nor would it make any sense for them to care. The bottom line is that reworking art into another work of art is sound and legitimate. It all comes down to what the results are and knowing how to avoid the trap of “garbage in; garbage out,” which is certainly not the case with Sperandio.
The little handy handbook to making comics.
I applaud Sperandio’s efforts and sincerely would love to chat art with him over a coffee or beer. Christopher Sperandio is doing essential work out on the front lines of higher education. Be sure to check out Comics Making, also published by Argle Bargle, a little book that covers quite a lot including a short history of comics and notes on production. Also in the book, Sperandio provides a guided tour to all the fascinating activity related to his CATS program at Rice University. I wish that had been around when I was working on my own college paper comic strip. The fact is that “comics making” is essentially a solitary process–but the right level of support can prove to be invaluable. Sperandio is a very interesting artist who has pushed himself throughout his career resulting in such creative achievements as Cargo Space, his artist residency project on a bus that he started in 2012. Other notable recent projects include working with fellow Rice professor Brian Huberman to see through the completion of a documentary on cartoonist Jaxon, which premiered at the 2020 Angoulême comics festival.
It’s all in how you handle your found art!
So, Speranio’s process is one worth perpetuating: mining for gold, or diamonds, for as long as it makes sense to do so. Depending upon the right chemistry between “found image” and wry joke, all sorts of magic is possible. Sometimes the results may fall flat. But, ah, sometimes you end up with a real gem. It’s all in how you handle your found art!
Corporal Stiles, a rough and rowdy fella who is nobody’s fool.
The Tankies. writer: Garth Ennis. artist: Carlos Ezquerra. Dead Reckoning. 2021. 248pp. $24.95
All good writing provides a hook, a way into a story. War stories might seem challenging for unfamiliar readers since they might seem remote–but not if you have characters as alive as the action. Garth Ennis knows this well and it has resulted in numerous thrilling and engaging war stories. In the case of The Tankies, Ennis opens with a panorama of activity evoking the intensity and chaos during the Normandy invasion. After a good amount of blood spill, a leading figure emerges: Corporal Stiles. He’s a rough and rowdy fella who is nobody’s fool. Of course, some folks need convincing, like gunner Robinson who has Stiles pegged for a Geordie from New Castle. And what’s a “Geordie” supposed to be? Robinson is from the East End of London, a Cockney. And, as far as he’s concerned, Stiles is a lowly Geordie from the Tyneside area of North East England. Ah, the petty conflict amid the vast hell of conflict! And there you’ve got the bits and pieces that add up to a good hook!
Enter Corporal Stiles!
This collection of war stories features Stiles, who assumes the rank of sergeant throughout the rest of the book. And, of course, it’s the Tankies (nickname for the Royal Tank Regiment) that remain constant too. In the course of this series, Stiles leads his men from the battle for Normandy to the Nazi heartland; from the end of World War II to the killing fields of Korea. Did you ever read Sgt. Rock comics? Sgt. Rock was a DC Comics staple, created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. I think there’s a bit of that vibe here. Of course, Ennis is well steeped in all sorts of military comics from across the pond, namely, Battle Picture Weekly and War Picture Library. This has led to many fine war comics stories from Ennis with The Tankies as a prime example.
These stories will also appeal to you if you enjoy learning about world history. Ah, yes, through the marvel that is comics, you will quickly pick up numerous nuggets of insight all thanks to the tireless research done by Ennis. It is through the comics medium that you can absorb facts by the fistful. The Tankies provides the reader will a gripping narrative while all the time giving the reader a remarkable sense of time and place. The Brits, or “Tommy,” as the Germans mockingly called them, were at a major disadvantage with relatively inferior tanks compared to the sleek and virtually impenetrable Nazi counterparts. Within these pages, the reader will come to fully appreciate what an act of courage it was to climb into a relatively subpar Sherman or Churchill tank to do battle with such Nazi dragons as the Panther and the Tiger. It will send shivers down the spine. And it will have the reader rooting for Stiles and his men.
Boys will be boys.
A good war story, just like a good Western, is dependent upon a sense of authenticity and flesh and blood characters you can believe in. Without a doubt, Ennis delivers on both counts. Couple this stirring narrative with the exquisite art by Carlos Ezquerra (1947–2018) and you have an all-out winning combination of amazing storytelling. War comics, in general, are beloved by fans not only for their grit but just as equally for their humanity. Ezquerra literally puts a face to the action. If you are new to the genre or a seasoned aficionado, you find there is much to love in this collection. You will gain a better sense for World War II and the Korean War as well as the old adage that “war is hell.” So, take the journey with Stiles and his honorable men.
War comics at their best.
Be sure to visit Dead Reckoning, publisher of The Tankies as well as other Garth Ennis titles: The Stringbags and The Night Witches. All three of these titles add up to an outstanding showcase of war comics by Garth Ennis. As any comics and pop culture fan already knows, Garth Ennis is known for such titles as Preacher and The Boys. Well, it will delight fans of these titles to dig deeper, if they haven’t gotten the chance already, and learn the sort of history that you probably were not exposed to in high school and maybe not even in college. As for The Night Witches, this is an in-depth exploration of World War II from the Russian perspective and the view from the female Russian aviator at that! Also featuring bi-planes is the gripping story of The Stingbags. You will find out how antique planes do battle in a new generation’s war. This is war comics at its best.
The Stringer. written by Ted Rall. art by Pablo Callejo. NBM Plublishing. 2021. 152 pp, $24.99
Ted Rall has certainly done his homework, and then some, with his latest graphic novel, The Stringer, published by NBM: the story of a gritty hard-working newsman who turns to the dark side. Many general observers recognize the name of Ted Rall and recall him for his audacious muckraking political cartoons. What you may not be familiar with is Rall’s own experience in the field as an independent war correspondent. Check out these titles, also published by NBM: To Afghanistan and Back, from 2003, and Silk Road to Ruin, from 2014. Rall has twice won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So, when someone with the stature of Rall writes a satirical graphic novel, it’s going to be a page-turner.
D-Day: remembering honest war reporting on the front lines.
This is not the first time that Rall has teamed up with Pablo Callejo doing the artwork. Check out the bohemian memoir, The Year of Loving Dangerously, from 2009. Between Rall’s rollicking narrative and Pablo Callejo’s spare and measured style, the reader gets an immersive and truly engaging story. Rall is an idealist at heart with a passionate drive to seek the truth. This graphic novel, at its core, has an overwhelming nihilistic force at play. Rall navigates the narrative through a variety of high and low points. Like Walter White, in Breaking Bad, this is a character study about an essentially good man, in the family business of revering the Truth, only to find himself later in life striking a devil’s bargain that becomes more complicated as he must continue to feed the beast.
At the twilight of when we could still believe.
This graphic novel gets its title from what has been known in journalism as “stringers,” the cub reporters sent out into the field to gather up facts and quotes that they phone back to reporters in the newsroom to turn into final stories. The reader follows young Mark Scribner as a boy reporter dutifully being a stringer. As the narrative unfolds, Scribner must face the fact he’s been sort of spinning his wheels, not much more than a glorified stringer for decades. What he does next lifts us off into a full-bodied story: full of intrigue, like the murky zone between Ukraine and Moldova; and finely-etched drama, focusing on Scribner’s personal journey.
“More people follow Twitter than read The New York Times and every other newspaper combined.”
Ted Rall has always had a zealous approach, compelled to speak truth to power. The story of newsman Mark Scribner is a metaphor for what has happened to media in the last forty some years. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to all of us: distracted, disrupted, disconnected. Print media has been on the decline for generations, much longer than we may care to admit. The internet and social media gobble up our time; slice and dice our information. The role of the professional gumshoe reporter has been virtually squeezed out of existence. So, when we now demand those voices “speaking truth to power,” we often simply resort to gorging on opinions we feel most comfortable with, often originating from corporations more than happy to keep us stoned on infotainment.
All bets are off.
Alright then, someone like Mark Scribner can’t afford to be the good guy anymore. Scribner is a highly-trained media animal. If he can no longer play by the rules, then he knows of ways to manipulate and exploit news and world events–and become wealthy and famous in the bargain. It all adds up to a delicious read. This is a story fueled by zeal and tempered by two seasoned storytellers. Ted Rall’s writing and Pablo Callejo’s art brilliantly provide the reader with a brash and authentic political thriller. Highly recommended. Seek this out.