Follow the link and you can see all the nominees for this year’s Small Press Expo, along with links to purchase. I believe this is the first time that links have been provided for direct purchase! Scroll below for a list of this year’s winners.
– Outstanding Comic: “I See A Knight” by Xulia Vicente (Shortbox). Since childhood, Olivia has been able to see a headless knight invisible to everyone else- is it an omen, a ghost, or something much more real?
Good Boy! magazine
– Outstanding Anthology: “Good Boy Magazine” #1, edited by Michael Sweater and Benji Nate (Silver Sprocket). This 112-page collection features the tagline “Read comics or go to hell.” That says it all!
– Outstanding Artist:Reimena Yee for “Alexander, The Servant, & The Water of Life,” a retelling of the life/legend of Alexander the Great. Yee is also the creator of numerous other comics, including the Eisner & McDuffie-nominated “The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya,” “Séance Tea Party,” and the upcoming “My Aunt is a Monster.”
– Outstanding Collection: “Mr. Boop” by Alec Robbins (Silver Sprocket). This is the complete collection of the absurdist and romantic tale of author Alec Robbins being in love with his wife Betty Boop, the 1930s cartoon superstar, presented in a beautiful, deluxe package.
No One Else
– Outstanding Graphic Novel: “No One Else” by R. Kikuo Johnson (Fantagraphics). Johnson’s long-awaited second graphic novel follows Charlene, Brandon, and Robbie as they learn to navigate life day to day with their plans, fears, and desires after a death throws their life into turmoil.
Pee Pee Poo Poo #69
– Outstanding Minicomic: “Pee Pee Poo Poo” #69 by Caroline Cash (self-published). A throwback to ’60s underground comics with a zesty title to boot.
Ride or Die
– Outstanding Online Comic: “Ride or Die” by Mars Heyward features demon cars, street racing, fumbling romance and revenge, and is described as “Christine meets Ghost Rider meets Fast and Furious but gayer!”
The Many Deaths of Laila Starr
– Outstanding Series:“The Many Deaths of Laila Starr” by Ram V & Filipe Andrade with Inês Amaro and AndWorld Design (BOOM! Studios), a five-issue mini-series exploring the fine line between living and dying through the lens of magical realism.
The Lover of Everyone in the World
– Outstanding Story: ‘The Lover of Everyone in the World’ by Beatrix Urkowitz (Parsifal Press). Originally drawn for Popula, ‘The Lover’ joins three other stories about being loved by everyone, and no one, in Urkowitz’s first graphic novella of the same name. The collection was possible thanks to a generous grant from Koyama Provides.
Djeliya by Juni Ba
– Promising New Talent:Juni Ba. A cartoonist from Senegal and France, Ba’s recent work includes the anthology series “Monkey Meat” (Image Comics) and “Djeliya” (TKO Studios), which tells the tale of Prince Mansour and his royal storyteller Awa, as they journey to reach the mysterious Wizard Soumaoro, who guards a fearsome power that he once used to destroy the world.
Krazy Kat’s Ignatz, namesake for the SPX Ignatz Award
Small Press Expo returns next year during the weekend of September 9 and 10, 2023.
ANGELS by Hurricane Nancy. Color by Henry Chamberlain.
Hurricane Nancy offers us a meditation on the angels in our lives. I asked Nancy what she meant and she said: “There are wonderful people in life who help and encourage, when one is down. They love to see one creating and expanding their ideas and viewpoints. I call these dear people ANGELS.”
Noah Van Sciver is one of our great cartoonists. He’s been at his drawing table for as long as he can remember–and that has resulted in some very impressive work. It takes a lot to gain any traction in the world of comics and illustration. Van Sciver is one of the brave and persistent souls.
It is my pleasure to share this interview with Noah Van Sciver. We chat about his two new books, Joseph Smith and the Mormons (see Comics Grinder review here) and As a Cartoonist (see Comics Grinder review here). I think some applause and cheers are in order every chance we can get. Along the way, we end up talking about a great deal of Van Sciver’s career as a cartoonist. A lot of dots get connected. So, I hope you’ll tune in and feel free to leave a comment or like over at ye ole YouTubes.
As a Cartoonist. Noah Van Sciver. Fantagraphics. 2022. 104 pp. $19.99
One thing you need to get straight is that a bona fide cartoonist, in the truest sense of the word, is someone with a certain way of moving about in the world. I’m a cartoonist, so I should know. Just about every word I write is somehow connected to the fact that I’m one of those people. Word choice is everything. Well, maybe it’s more like every line of thought but it can get right down to the granular level. It’s absolutely a way of life, and that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is–and those among us who are part of this tribe, made up of so many groups and subgroups, understand that this unique ability to write and draw comes at a price. No one is born with this ability, although some people are definitely more predisposed to creating comics than others. Sorry, but it’s a skill that demands a number of factors to fall into place if you intend to reach a certain level of excellence. You don’t see a short person agonizing over the fact that they will never be an all-star basketball player. And, yes, I know about Spud Webb, but he’s the exception to the rule. Anyway, most people don’t give a hoot about whether or not they will ever create comics of any form, let alone win awards and accolades for their effort. This is the story about someone who really cares about all those things having to do with becoming a masterful cartoonist. We’re talking about Noah Van Sciver. And he’d be the first to tell you that being a cartoonist is no walk in the park–and yet, there isn’t anything he’d rather be more.
This book is about all the peculiar things about being a cartoonist. That’s really what it all boils down to. Being a cartoonist is peculiar. That, in and of itself, is a burden and yet it is also alluring. Essentially, it’s something special that envelopes the person seeking to master it. Just like any other creative endeavor, like starting up a band. Noah Van Sciver’s story is one of struggle, persistence, and ultimate accomplishment. This book, a collection of short works in comics, adds up to a portrait of the artist, perhaps his best set of portrait pieces to date. This is, you could say, an anthology all by one creator. In the world of indie comics, cartoonists are always scrambling to jump on board and join the latest collective effort, a way to promote each other and get one’s work out into the world. It’s all about getting people to read your work. A lot of Van Sciver’s auto-bio comics are about this ongoing pursuit of readers: courting them, wanting them, wondering where they are. For all the anti-social behavior that a cartoonist may engage in, at the end of the day, it’s all about the readers. Maybe the cartoonist isn’t exactly looking to spend too much time with any particular reader, but it’s nice to know that they’re still around.
Van Sciver wins over his readers without playing up to them. Far from it. In fact, he’s more than happy to speak the unvarnished truth byway of his social satire. He has a way of evoking authenticity. A real cartoonist, especially someone like Van Sciver who uses his own life for material, is always striving to be real and avoid any false notes. So, Van Sciver’s best work comes across as totally unfiltered. Of course, it’s a balance of artifice and reality. But a reader still ends up getting caught up in the moment as when Van Sciver is juggling an interview with a prominent reporter and his uncouth brother who has just crashed upon the scene. In this specific moment, a big event at an art museum featuring Van Sciver’s work, the hierarchy is easily hijacked. No sooner has Van Sciver begun to talk to the reporter than he’s put off by her obvious remarks. He even sympathizes with his train wreck of a sibling, if only for a moment.
In another more complex scene, Van Sciver is a visiting artist on campus and must find a way to tolerate those less fortunate but still quite annoying. A relatively young man, actually thirty and not so young, who loves to wear a top hat and read teen girl manga, is prime fodder for Van Sciver’s wrath. The guy in the top hat, it turns out, is easily triggered by what he sees as Van Sciver’s micro-agressions. Nevermind that Top Hat has a lot of arrested development to deal with. Now, Top Hat’s focus is to get Van Sciver into trouble by reporting him to a school administrator. There’s no winning for Van Sciver when he’s called in to explain himself. Later, he tries to turn the other cheek and be positive. But, ultimately, Van Sciver is right back to being underwhelmed by life on campus.
A wonderful companion piece to this collection is the 2018 graphic memoir, One Dirty Tree, looking back on a childhood with eight other siblings in a less than ideal situation. This is a closer look at a ramshackle upbringing: living in squalor, an abusive and irresponsible father who is a Mormon zealot, and a young man with a very uncertain future–a young life miraculously held together by dreams of some day becoming a famous cartoonist! By force of will and determination, Noah Van Sciver turned his dreams into a reality beginning with his series of collected comics, Blammo. That would lead to his early masterpiece, his first graphic novel, 2012’s The Hypo. And, most recently, 2022’s Joseph Smith and the Mormons. This new book, As a Cartoonist, comes full circle with a collection of short works that feature comics from Blammo, among other sources.
In 1980, Woody Allen made Stardust Memories. He had already made two of his masterworks, Annie Hall and Manhattan, and he seemed to be at a crossroads: keep making funny movies or make more serious films. Perhaps there was a bit of a struggle. Just see Interiors. Anyway, a certain Woody Allen universe had been created and he was pretty much set and would go on to create a wonderful body of work. Van Sciver pays homage to that creative turning point in a moment in the book where he recreates Allen asking space aliens for advice. It’s a perfect opportunity for Van Sciver to insert himself and provide another take on the absurdity of it all.
Van Sciver is now at a point where he can look back and see significant milestones, including Fante Bukowski, which alone would thrill any cartoonist to call their own, and which Van Sciver can say confidently he brought into this world. Having recently become a father, Van Sciver honors his son, Remy, with a dedication and the final comic in the book. I think it’s safe to say that Noah Van Sciver is on the right path.
First off, I invite you to read the review I wrote for The Comics Journal to the book in question, G-G-G Ghost Stories. That will add to the enjoyment of the following interview with the creator.
There are details in Brandon Lehmann‘s comics that will come back and reveal themselves upon another reading. Look closely and you’ll see, tucked away amid the backdrop of a mega-bookstore, copies of Brandon Lehmann’s new book, the recently released,G-G-G Ghost Stories, in the panels to his story, “The Werewolf Expert.” Another reading will reveal a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capicorn, in the hand of a child, a secondary player in this finely-crafted farce. The key idea here is the subject of creating such a thing as a “finely-crafted farce,” and why quality will win out in the end. Lehmann’s sense of humor is an absurdist and existential sensibility. Lehmann has been making comics for about fifteen years featuring observational and satirical work. In this new book, he focuses in on playful use of horror tropes. For this interview, we met at Seattle’s Smith Tower, a favorite haunt of erudite cartoonists and, of course, ghosts. We begin this conversation just as I sit down to join Brandon. I notice pot stickers have already been ordered. (We staged a bit of a humorous intro. You’ll see what I mean if you view the video.)
Hey, Brandon, well, I see you’ve started without me, as usual. Nice to run into you this way.
I just hang out up here in Smith Tower and read my own comics.
G-G-G Ghost Stories by Brandon Lehmann
So, what have we here (picking up a copy of Brandon’s book). Is the proper pronunciation just as it reads, G-G-G Ghost Stories?
When I named it, I was hoping for some awkward interactions at the sales counter. “I’ll take, G-G-G Ghost Stories, please.”
That would be a Scooby-Doo influence, right?
Interesting that we’d find ourselves in Smith Tower since, as everyone knows, this place is haunted.
Yeah, we saw a couple of ghosts on the way in. I was like, “Ahhh, it’s a g-g-g ghost.”
Page excerpt from “The Lfyt”
I think of a lot of your work, like the “The Lfyt,” as being mini-masterpieces. Do you sometimes think in those terms, “I’m going to create something that’s so spot on that everything works perfectly.” Does that make sense to say that?
Yeah, I always feel that when you’re working on a book, especially, you can get into this mode where everything you do just works. And then, when you finish a book, I have this period where I just struggle and I can’t seem to draw anything. But when I’m making a book, I can set a schedule, everything works on the first try for some reason. If that makes sense.
Page excerpt from “The Werewolf Expert” story from G-G-G Ghost Stories
It does make sense. I’m a certified cartoonist myself, as you know. Now, tell us about “The Werewolf Expert,” the longest work in the book.
There’s a trope in horror movies and TV shows where someone needs to seek an expert on the occult and it’s always someone who it doesn’t make sense would be an expert. Like, you’ll have this guy who works at the bowling alley as a mechanic and, for some reason, he’s a vampire expert. In “The Werewolf Expert,” someone consults a Barnes & Noble bookstore employee, and it’s the employee’s first day. And they shouldn’t know anything about werewolf lore but part of the B&N orientation training is that they teach all about werewolf lore. That employee knows a lot but eventually he consults his supervisor and she knows even more about werewolves to a ridiculous degree. So, it just keeps building on that premise.
Desperately seeking werewolf advice.
How would you describe your humor?
It’s absurdist and existentialist. There’s a lot of gags in the book that you can repeat with a similar premise. For the story we’re discussing, there’s a gag that I use a lot. The story is progressing from one point to another and then I’ll throw a wrench into it. And it will spin off in an insane degree. For instance, the bookstore customer seeking advice has a daughter named, Shawnda. He begins yelling at her, she’s off camera. Later, we see her and there’s more of this yelling. That sort of silly exchange is something I like to do in my work.
Panel excerpt from Brandon Lehmann’s Instagram.
There’s a beauty to your work. The humor is consistent. The art is consistent. You must go through a slew of experimentation before you hit upon what works, what’s on point.
The whole concept of the book is classic ghost stories. So, that’s the anchor. We’re dealing here with stories everyone is familiar with in one form or another. The story, “The Lfyt,” we were just talking about, is based upon a popular ghost story about picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a ghost. Another good example is “The Viper,” another popular children’s ghost story. The tension builds as he keeps calling and announcing when he’ll arrive. In my story, it turns out that “The Viper” is a guy with a thick German accent, who is just an innocent window wiper.
I didn’t know about that children’s ghost story. The actual one, not your satire!
Yeah, it’s real. There’s also one entitled, “Okiku,” based on a popular Japanese ghost story about a woman who was murdered because she refused to become a samurai’s mistress. She had been thrown down a well and, each night, she appears to seek her revenge. That was actually the basis for the Ringu movies. There’s the books. It was also on stage, as kabuki theater. So, yeah, I gather up all these ghost stories and given them my own spin.
Well, I’m sure this will intrigue readers. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Where is a good place to find your work?
I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.
Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.
Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.
The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”
It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.
Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.
One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.
Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix. by Brian Doherty. Abrams Press. 2022. 448 pp. $30.
Comix! No, not just comics. Comix is the term we use to describe all the work created by independent comics creators (often auteur cartoonists doing both the writing and the drawing) dating back to the Sixties underground up to today. Brian Doherty has had a great time digging into the roots of, and connecting the dots to, this quirky offshoot of the comics medium. First off, I gotta say that Doherty is quite in tune with his subject and cuts to the chase. Perhaps the biggest question that comes up on this topic is What in the hell was R. Crumb thinking? Well, you won’t get far without an open mind on this. Doherty gets to the heart of the matter with a quote from 1972. A reporter for The New York Times asked what Crumb’s intention was in creating some of his most macabre and provocative work. Crumb answered, “I don’t know. I think I was just being a punk.” Then Doherty adds to that the fact that Crumb and his fellow cartoonists were all bucking a highly restrictive system of censorship. Nothing was allowed at the risk of offending anyone! If that sounds familiar, well, it won’t be lost on anyone reading this book. The point is, Crumb was indeed reacting to something, rebelling against something. Did he go too far? Or was it more one guy’s approach, along with a whole slew of other cartoonists, both men and women, with their own fiery takes on society? I think this whole book rests upon the assumption that a reader can walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, yes, there is a possibility of seriously looking at the most controversial facets of comix without retreating from it. One key aspect to understanding is to look at the motivation to rebel. As Doherty reminds us, the “x” in comix is there for a reason: to distinguish comix from mainstream comics, the all too often watered-down and lame opposition, particularly during the days of the Comics Code.
Once we get something of a handle on Crumb, the rest of comix is a piece of cake! Well, maybe not. But that’s basically the arc we’re following: the great warriors, led by Crumb, out to raise hell; then, the reaction to all this ruckus, which included anyone offended by the first wave of mayhem; ultimately, a long process of the original “filth” working its way through the rest of the culture; and finally, all the accounts settled and those left standing declared the champions: Crumb, Spiegelman, and so on. Doherty does an impressive job of maintaining the flow of events, logically moving from one place, one publisher, one movement, after another. For those old enough to remember some of this history, it rings very true. Doherty has written the kind of book that many of us knew was possible. It involves keeping an eye on the key players and examining their aspirations and actual activities. Again, it’s impossible to avoid both Crumb and Spiegelman, both very aware of the fact they had reputations to either maintain or enhance. And then, of course, you had all sorts of other activity brewing, not the least of which was the feminist contingent led by Trina Robbins and her crew at Wimmen’s Comix. Robbins and her women cartoonists were determined to fight fire with fire.
Like any great art movement, comix is the story of the artists who led the way as well as of those to have taken up the mantle. What sustains the character and spirit of comix today harkens back to the highly charged independent streak of the original underground. You can’t have comix, or anything that resembles it, without a healthy embrace of the subversive, the experimental, and the guts to see through the most outrageous expression. It may offend. In fact, it definitely will offend and there will be consequences to pay. But, all in all, we’re far better off when an artist isn’t restricted or afraid to just be a punk, as Crumb summed it up. But art cannot remain in a vacuum or it will die. As Doherty points out, a new wave of artists brought in refinements. Most notably was a finer sense of the literary as demonstrated by Los Bros Hernandez and their ambitious Love and Rockets comics willing to take on richer and subtler literary aspirations. I’ve been a champion of the term, “alternative comics,” as I see it as a very valuable distinction. It’s nice to see Doherty using it here. He points out that pivotal break with the past as the underground ruckus rebellion gave way to a more cerebral alternative vibe. Indeed, it was to be a new and significant development to the still unfolding world of indie comics, a world that has given shape to the highly personal and strange creature we know today as the “graphic novel.” Sure, there are still diehard purists who claim to not understand what is meant by that term outside of being a brazen marketing tool. But people do know what a graphic novel is, or can be, just as they know what is meant by the term, “comix.” And that’s because, believe it not, people can really walk and chew gum at the same time. If they couldn’t, well, we’d really be in a lot more trouble. Doherty’s book is a very welcome addition to our understanding of comix, from its origins up to its current offshoots, offering common sense insight.
DIRTY PICTURES is available beginning June 14, 2022 and ready for pre-order. Visit Abrams Press.
Portrait of the artist. Panel excerpt from Sea Widow.
J. Webster Sharp is a comics artist who pursues her vision with a singular dedication. In fact, Sharp opened an art gallery in Wales, to sell her own work, as none of the galleries in Wales were ready to take her. She opened the gallery in 2018, only months before the death of her husband. This last year or so has seen a tremendous output by Sharp, including a tribute to her husband, the book entitled, Sea Widow. Sharp was born in a town called Ripley, in Derbyshire. Since 2005, she has lived in Yorkshire, England. She now makes her living from the sales of her comics. If you read my review of Sharp’s work, then you’ll have a sense that this is the stuff of strange wonders. Sharp’s work can be deeply personal and utterly surreal, often at the same time. In this interview, Sharp shares about her process and provides a tour of her comics work.
Page excerpt from Fondant #1.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I would say that your work explores the psyche and takes various detours, often dark and intriguing. Is that a fair description? What would you say to that?
J. WEBSTER SHARP: That is a very fair description. A silent, noise-free world. How it feels to live inside your head all day. My head, anyway!
Please share with us how you got into art. How did you develop as an artist–and how did that evolve into comics? Do you consider yourself an artist first, or do you like to be called a comics artist?
I am a comics artist now. I’m actually content and happy and where I feel I should have been the whole time. But I have always been a maker, of paintings, sculpture, drawings. I made the mistake of going to university to do art. Which did not work out for me the way it has for others. I didn’t find myself amongst others like me; it just isolated me even more than I already was! I got an interview for the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I wanted to go there. I remember the interview panel laughing at my drawings.
Sea Widow page excerpt.
When did you begin to take your work seriously? I mean, when did you first publish your work? And how do you feel about your early efforts?
Probably since I was 13 was when I decided to be an artist. I wanted to be a portrait painter. But everything I do I think “this isn’t good enough, I must do better,” this isn’t good enough, across all mediums. Art was all I had, all I can do. I get a new idea before I even finish the current idea which makes me instantly think the current idea has failed. All my early work/uni work is about the problems I have with my identity. Trapped in situations, under pressure, under threat from my body. About 12 years ago I printed something, and I had great feedback, except from this one place. And I had so little confidence I stopped comics and went back to painting. And I kept that email for years and read it when I felt bad, because it was proof I was nothing and had no idea what I was doing. Which was just who I was back then, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, never spoke, I was pretty useless as a functioning person! I’m a completely different person now. I changed very fast and quite a bit, and that has had its problems.
Jade cover, 2021.
What can you tell us about Jade, and Her Schizophrenia, the book focusing on your sister?
I should have made it clearer on the inside cover, my sister wrote this story, and I drew it. It is true and about her psychosis back in February 2013. To draw her story I did so much research, too much I think, it made me so sad and guilty to think of what she went through. Goes through. How to draw what it’s like to have paranoid schizophrenia. That was hard, it was virtually impossible and this was as close as I could get it. My sister is fiercely intelligent. I hope she writes more about what has happened since so I can draw it.
Page excerpt from Jade.
Would you share something about your process? Do you first think of an image, per page, per panel? Or are you thinking of what will add up to a whole book?
Panel to panel. I love the not knowing, because whatever I think I might draw might change because of a news item I might see, or a new eccentric person I might find out about. Or if I see a moth! If I plan thumbnails and things, I am bored of it as soon as I start it because my brain says I have already done it. The mystery is gone, the puzzle solved already. I like working from collage too, collecting clippings to use in the future. I love collecting imagery, I always have, I have always remembered visuals since I was little. My comics work is sort of a continuation of my painting work, I love collage thanks to William Burroughs, cut-ups, I think it’s great. A process that mimics my thinking exactly. All I do is tell myself a page limit.
Sea Widow cover, 2021.
What can you tell us about Sea Widow?
Sea Widow is about when my husband died. I started drawing this in May 2021. I hadn’t done any drawing or anything since it happened in 2018 and I was going through all my boxes and photos and notebooks, and I put all these things together and went from there. I had to get it out, as much as I could, I had no outlet for anything. I thought in a funny way it might help someone maybe. It did help me to do this. So I quit my job and started to draw. He loved the way I drew.
Pretty cover, 2021.
What can you tell us about Pretty?
I didn’t dare stop once I started in case the drive and desire went away. I just started immediately on the next thing. The stand-alone stories are about enclosed worlds and dysfunctional families I feel.
Fondant #1 cover, 2021.
It looks like you’ve hit your stride with the ongoing series, Fondant? Would you care to share any thoughts?
Fondant, the name of an icing used in baking, something horribly sweet and if you have too much it makes you feel sick. Its automatic drawing. And it scares me sometimes. Invasion. Its all about fear, events and people and objects which can’t be controlled in silent environments. The fear of feeling, not knowing, unwanted thoughts and memories. Like wrapping your hand around a white hot object and you can’t let go. Bad sensations you sort of like.
Fondant #1 page excerpt.
There are so many subjects and themes that you work with. How would you describe your universe of interests?
Extensive and tiring. Never ending. I could research all day. I love it, adding to my creative inventory. I have old magazines from antique shows, old comics, new comics, old pornography, photo job lots, medical books, vet books, sewing books. Books on the paranormal. Film. Always so important to me, always. John Waters, Ingmar Bergman, Lynch. French new wave, Kenneth Anger. I watched Betty Blue recently, love Beatrice Dalle in that. And Cinema Paradiso. I love the films of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers right now.
I can not help but comment on your working with the theme of the foot. It is a subject that I believe will always harbor a sense of mystery. For some, it becomes a sort of taboo topic. For others, it takes on a keen focus. What can you tell us about your interest in this subject, given your wonderfully strange depictions of the human foot? It seems to me a gateway to better understanding you and your art.
I like to explore subjects that interest me, many of those subjects are sexual, fetishes and things, I think it’s the question why feet? that I am interested in. The psychology behind things. They are very vulnerable. Shoes are so strange. I have ballet pointe shoes. But I have never done ballet. They’re just great to look at and they’re heavy and shiny. I love heels, high heels. How they make a leg change shape. I’m very short.
Pretty page excerpt.
Any final thoughts? Do you have plans beyond the next year or so? More books? Any possible gallery shows? Please feel free to add anything that I may have missed.
To keep working and saying yes to as many opportunities that come my way. I would like to approach some people regarding publishing something, but that needs to be underway before I do, so I shall begin that in the next couple of weeks.
Which came first, the Elephant or the Projector? It was the Elephant!
The Projector and Elephant. by Martin Vaughn-James. edited and designed by Seth. introduction by Jeet Heer. New York Review Comics. 2022. 212 pp. $49.95
Martin Vaughn-James (1943 – 2009) secured his place in the history of comics whether he realized it or not. Thanks to this recently released edition by New York Review Comics, that distinction is now more firmly in place. The work that Vaughn-James created, beginning in the early ’70s, amounted to an early form of the genre we now commonly understand as the graphic novel. But this type of art did not have an established community or market back when it was first released circa 1970-71. Underground comix existed but it was far from a sure thing as to where it was going. Add to that the fact that Vaughn-James was European which, in general, inclined him more towards art for art’s sake. New York Review Comics does a great service with this edition that collects two works, Elephant (1970) and The Projector (1971).
Martin Vaughn-James. The artist in his element, such a very good place to be.
If you’re going to seek out retro comics, perhaps the best way is through a deluxe edition such as this. For sure, there is something very special about reading a vintage comic in its original state with it pages aged to perfection, with its own aura of being a thing from a certain place and time. But, with a finely curated work, you pick up an optimal viewing/reading experience plus whatever bells and whistles come along for the ride. In this case, we have the erudition of Jeet Heer (The Nation) and the design sense of master cartoonist Seth. According to Heer, he states that the work known as Elephant (published in 1970) was a dry run attempt towards the creation of the work, The Projector (1971). But was it? After having read both, I have to wonder if such a conclusion is imposing our current standards upon the efforts of Vaughn-James. The methodology that is now commonly understood among indie cartoonists goes like this: first, you create a small scale version of your book in the format of a “chapbook” or “mini-comic” and then, if you’re up to it, you proceed with a full-on large scale version, an actual graphic novel. This path has become the golden path, the yellow brick road, to the closest thing cartoonists have to dreams of fame and fortune. That kind of game plan, that kind of strategizing, did not yet exist as a commonly understood model in the hippy dippy era that Martin Vaughn-James circulated in. I also say this because Elephant and The Projector appear to be two separate animals. In other words, there isn’t a coherent progression of ideas from one book to another. Both books are about the same page length. Both are ambitious. Anyway, I would certainly enjoy discussing this with Jeet Heer. And maybe we’ll do that at some point. We’re dealing with ghosts now. Martin Vaughn-James, throughout his life, created comics of one kind or another, most notably, Cages. It was a very cool life. He basically led the kind of life a man of his passions and interests would seek to live: he got to express himself in as many mediums as suited him. He painted. He drew. He wrote. And, along the way, he made something that involved working with sequential art which was decades away from being branded as the “graphic novel” genre.
Another day at the office.
From what I can tell, or intuit, is that Martin Vaughn-James (isn’t that a groovy name?) was a dude who enjoyed being left alone to pursue his art. He probably wasn’t someone who would have gone around in later years, wearing a beret, and touting his landmark work in comics over and over again, from one dinner party after another, gradually and steadily making inroads into academic circles, museums and galleries, until it became an undisputed well-known and widely celebrated fact that he was responsible for one of the earliest versions of the “graphic novel.” It takes a lot of energy and a certain careerist bent to do that, especially if the actual work might not fare so well on its own, and some people do it very well. And others don’t do it all or just not quite enough of it to where you’ve secured that everyone in the room is fully aware of who you are. For these artists, sometimes a bit of luck will come around to help secure a legacy. An academic will publish a paper. A publisher will publish a book. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if the work is the real deal and can indeed speak for itself once it gets an audience.
Martin Vaughn-James was in his late twenties, in full bloom as an artist, in the early ’70s. The work in this book reflects the efforts of someone who was exploding upon the artistic scene, with a subversive and irreverent sensibility. I think the two works included here defy any easy explanation or categorization. It looks to me that, once Vaughn-James began to play with the various options offered him by the comics medium, he was like a kid in a candy store who could not resist trying a little bit of everything. Both works are highly experimental, very influenced by Surrealism, and out to blow your mind! But can you blame a kid for wanting to do that? In this case, that was just the right thing to do! Now, so many years later, so many cycles through the culture later, we’re left with this strange work from a whole other time and place. And, wouldn’t you know it, Vaughn-James got it right. It still blows your mind. A quote I found from Vaughn-James fits perfectly with our own time: “We experience collectively approved emotions on a national scale. Any deviation is considered neurotic, insane or subversive.”
Horse and rider in freefall.
In both of these books, the plot takes a backseat to an artist expressing himself and his place in the world. But there are some devices at play. We do have a figure who functions as a protagonist or host or alter ego. The backgrounds, in fact, seem to have as much, if not more, to say than our hero, a perpetually grinning bald man in glasses who, from time to time, falls into one situation after another. Most compelling of all is the whole experimental nature of the two works and the striking images that result. The most stunning of them all is a horse, with its rider wrapped up in canvas, each falling from a skyscraper. Yeah, that alone, is definitely worth the price of admission. There are other significant moments and experiments to enjoy and ponder over too. As I say, I think Vaughn-James set things up to explore as much as possible. Along the way, he made a few dry stabs at satire and a few comments on society and art.
Into the land of milk and honey.
As for the differences between the two works, especially regarding an evolution from the first book to the second, if that’s the case, perhaps Vaughn-James may have shifted his gaze a little to a more formal approach. Who knows? The Projector has the black line art on brown paper, which gives everything a muted look, not to mention it making for a less crisp reading experience. At first, I wasn’t liking it but it grew on me. The centerpiece to The Projector is a two-page spread of a freeway during rush hour, jam packed with cars. To each side is an endless stream of advertising, consumer culture run amok. Accentuating that scene are colossal nude women overseeing the tableaux. The women, while having voluptuous bodies, each have grotesque faces. That appears to be a subversive act by Vaughn-James calling out the ugliness of using sex to sell products. In the end, a painter’s vision, in the service of comics. But I don’t think Vaughn-James was likely thinking that way. Again, he was a dude being an artist, letting those future chips fall where they may.
To say that J. Webster Sharp is a visionary comics artist is a very good place to start. I was immediately intrigued by what I saw of her work on her Instagram and I knew I’d need to take a closer look. Having read the last five of her works in comics, I can confidently say that this is someone who tapped into something special early on and continues to blossom. Jemma’s latest book which I’ve received is Fondant #2, and it is easily her most powerful work. This is in-your-face stuff, delving into deep psychological and sexual issues, and bringing to mind such artists as Phoebe Glockner and Renee French. I applaud what she is doing and would like to share a bit of what I’ve observed.
If I’m really being honest, I am fascinated by Jemma’s daring and inventive play with the theme of feet. I’ve always been interested in feet on various levels, not the least of which is as a subject for art. So, it’s nice to see a fellow artist on the same page. Jemma certainly confronts the foot theme from a wide variety of vantage points, spanning from cadavers to tortured cathartic acts. Like much of what she does, feet are rendered in such a way as if encrypted within a larger psychological landscape–especially with her distinctive pointillist style. If you scan the pages too quickly, you might miss a lot. And, if you linger, it can be a combination of unsettling and satisfying. Yes, it pays to be honest. I do so love feet, particularly depicted in unusual and provocative ways. I’m sure there’s a number of stories behind each of these depictions. I like what I see from this very honest and daring artist.
What is so impressive to me about Jemma’s latest book is how she reached a point where she was ready to just completely let loose. This book is totally wordless and confidently so. There’s no need to explain anything. You simply don’t need any form of text to accompany an image of breasts with teeth instead of nipples. That pretty much speaks for itself. The rest of the book plays with more body horror as well as various other surreal imagery involving exotic animals, bondage and strange lab experiments. It’s all quite unusual, fascinating and thrilling. If you enjoy work of a more adult nature, then this is for you. Obviously, this is highly charged work that is unafraid to be, at times, more dark and challenging. But it’s not simply shock value that Jemma is after. Like Phoebe Glockner and Renee French, the work of J. Webster Sharp is invested in cultivating mystery and wonder through finely-crafted work. As I suggest, you will be rewarded for taking the time to linger upon a page. You may even find that you like what you see more than you realized.