Sharon Rudahl was at the forefront of underground comix as a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, the first on-going comic drawn exclusively by women, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, she has created a range of fascinating underground comix including Crystal Night, which was reprinted in full in Dan Nadel’s Art In Time collection. Rudahl has created two graphic novels, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman and A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American. Read my review here. It is a pleasure to get a chance to share this conversation with you.
Tag Archives: Comix
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. by Sharon Rudahl. edited by Paul Buhle. The New Press. 2007. 115pp. $17.95
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is not an obvious choice for the subject of a graphic novel. Unless you’re into political science, you probably have never heard of her. But since when is it an obstacle to read a book about someone you’ve never heard of? It’s absolutely not an obstacle. More of an invitation. You see, Emma Goldman was a trailblazing anarchist who became known as “Red Emma” and, when she was deported from the United States in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Comic artist Sharon Rudahl brings Emma Goldman to life in her graphic novel. It was a pleasure to review Rudahl’s graphic novel on Paul Robeson. You can read that here. And it seemed only natural to take one more look back to her graphic novel on Emma Goldman.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The New York Post headline says it all, Sex Abuse Rituals at NJ Boarding School Exposed — in Cartoons by Survivor. The newspaper does an admirable job of describing the nuances of graphic novels and Glenn Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor. And The New York Post has no qualms about laying it out as it is: “Don’t let that whimsical cover art throw you: Head’s unflinching book recounts his two years at the now-defunct Mendham, NJ, boarding school run by headmaster “Sir” Terence Michael Lynch — a serial sexual abuser who manipulated young boys into “cuddling sessions” after fondling and beating their nude bodies.” The New York Post also provides an outstanding public service by underscoring the fact that survivors of Chartwell Manor still have time to file a suit against the Chartwell administration of aiding and abetting Lynch, and others, in the abuse of children. Time is running out for Chartwell Manor victims to join those who’ve already filed claims against surviving Chartwell administrators accused of letting Lynch — and other accused faculty — cultivate a culture of abuse. The deadline to file is November 30, 2021. Contact Jeff Anderson & Advocates law firm today.
I’ve been writing about comics and creating comics for many years now–and loving it. In the very near future, I hope to have some news about a book of my own. For now, I want to keep my nose to the grindstone and this is one very special reason to do so. This is an interview with master cartoonist Glenn Head. For those of you familiar with comix, especially those chock full of underground comix DNA as I just talked about in my last post, then this will be a welcome treat. Maybe you’ve gotten a chance to check out Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor, about the abuse that Head experienced at the boarding school, but just as important, the aftermath. Well, this interview helps to put things into further context from the standpoint of Glenn’s previous graphic novel, Chicago, as well as his career as a whole.
Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.
In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.
Chartwell Manor. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2021. 236pp, $29.99
Chicago: A Comix Memoir. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2015. 168pp, $16.97
Glenn Head is part of that select group of auteur cartoonists who has steadily been building up a body of work, with its surrealist bent and underground comix influence, that reaches the level of art. Much of his work, as creator and/or editor, has appeared in various comix anthologies: Bad News, Snake Eyes, Hotwire, and R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. And so it makes sense that Head has steadily been climbing the Mt. Everest of comix, the grand ole graphic novel.
Most aspiring cartoonists will never follow through on creating their very own full-length, full-bodied (sorry, no stick figures) autobiographical graphic novel, the pinnacle of auteur cartoonist ambition. However, where there is a will, there is a way. Glenn Head has done this particular feat twice. The most diligent of cartoonists would do well to follow closely what Head’s been up to with his last two books, observe how they oddly mirror each other, one a variation on the other. What I’m talking about is Head’s 2015 graphic novel, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, which was regarded as Head’s coming-of-age magnum opus. Well, he’s followed that up with his latest work, Chartwell Manor, which is another coming-of-age magnum opus: same protagonist and life struggles but, nearly twice as long, more refined, and pivoting off a different focal point.
As I leaf through this graphic novel, I am struck by all the intricate line work, all the meticulous detail, and all the frenetic energy. There’s a marvelous dance with death (and life!) going on, almost spinning out of control, and yet very well balanced. The artist is in the lead. Death will have to wait its turn. If we try to compare both books, Chartwell Manor is perhaps more focused and detailed, not to take anything away from Chicago. While the Glen character in the first book is going through a series of dark episodes, including an interlude with a troubled woman, it is the second book that confronts what is the root cause of Glen’s instability and struggle. The significance of this root cause is underscored by the fact it is not mentioned at all in the first book. The harrowing events of being molested at a boarding school, by the headmaster no less, are not afforded even one panel in the first book. But, by astonishing contrast, the boarding school IS the second book, covering most pages.
Sordid content, twisted and unabashed, all that very messy human stuff, is only hinted at in most mainstream graphic novels. Whatever the case, great work will emerge, sometimes from a big traditional publisher. But, aside from self-published work, the really gritty stuff comes from the smaller niche publishers. Among that set, Fantagraphics is a leader in the United States. In fact, it has cultivated a particular vibe that, along with a high standard of excellence, places it in a unique position. Much angst going back to underground comix of the sixties finds a home there. This particular point of view, this grungy campy swagger, has had plenty of time to ferment into a brand. Those who are part of it find themselves deeply enmeshed in a scene: part way of life; part putting on an act. But what is an act and what is real? That’s part of the mystique. What matters in the end is the end result, a work that aspires to something bigger, a work of art.
Dancing with death can tire you out so it’s good to pace yourself. The reader will see the satisfaction that comes from someone working on their craft. On one level, it’s the very act of working on a big project, whatever the content, that sustains an ambitious cartoonist. This is a graphic novel focusing on Head experiencing abuse at Chartwell Manor, a boarding school, and the years of living with that, a lifetime of living with that. This book provides a latter day underground cartoonist like Head another chance to push his style further, to level up his connection to the past, compared to all the great soul-baring cartoonists who have come before: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and so on. It’s feeding, what I call, a “persistence of style.” Like he does in Chicago, Head can evoke an extended passage about him as a young and troubled youth, walking around naked in his family home with a loaded gun, aiming it at his head and pulling the trigger, and the act of creating that into comix is not necessarily a cathartic act, as much as it’s an artistic act. That’s not to belittle at all what happened to Head at Chartwell Manor. There are definitely demons to be exorcised. That’s just to point out that Head would be a lesser artist if his main aim was to have his graphic novel simply be a therapeutic act. It’s a complicated and thoroughly fascinating journey to explore the past while navigating your way to creating art.
There are key moments in the book, during and after Head’s time at Chartwell Manor where he talks to his parents and tries to let them know about the horror. In an early scene, while Head is still a student there, it seems like the parents are right on the verge of knowing but don’t want to know. It’s one of those instances when you wonder if something was said between the panels. Other moments, depicted from years later, also leave the reader wondering what the parents are aware of and what they are in denial about. It’s an ambiguous thread running throughout–and done to great effect.
All those dirty little secrets that seem to have no way of getting out! And then they do. Ways are found to vent out frustration. It’s no exaggeration to say that underground comix have a lot to do with venting out frustration! The whole autobio comics genre has weathered various cycles of backlash, unfairly labeled as heavy-handed and a way for cartoonists to use it as therapy to work out personal problems. But, at the end of the day, most readers are fine to take the risk that some work will fall short while some will rise to the highest level. Honestly, any artist worth their salt, is going to tackle some form of autobiography. And, hey, all comics of this sort, in one form or another, is a story reflecting back to its creator.
It’s important to note that each book has its lighter moments. In Chartwell Manor, those moments are mostly concerned with the process of creating comics. Chicago has a more experimental vibe, even whimsical at times, as when Head stumbles upon a visit to Chicago by Muhammad Ali and nearly gets his block knocked off. The point is that Head is in a wonderful place. Like any artist at this stage of their career, Head has a treasure trove to work from, plenty to return to for future books. With Chicago and Chartwell Manor, readers can see for themselves two distinct ways of presenting similar facts and the promise of what lies ahead.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
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.
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.
Greenie Josephenie. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 94pp, $21.95
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I have interviewed Steve Lafler and I’m letting that sink in. The man is a walking encyclopedia of experiences and knowledge. I do hope we can chat again sometime. For a first interview, we covered a lot of ground. I was intrigued and delighted and I’m sure you will be too with this most provocative cartoonist.
Steve Lafler is a very cool cat–and, as promised, we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Long before Zoom interviews, I’ve been taking notes and chatting with a good many talented folks. I think we cartoonists, at least a certain subgroup, are compelled to express ourselves in numerous ways. You’ll find, for instance, that comics and journalism have been entwined since the American colonies. In Mr. Lafler’s case, he has devoted a lot of energy in two directions, the love of comics and the love of music. In my interview, I try to focus on how Lafler has lovingly included music, especially jazz, into his comics.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is Lafler’s latest title and we enjoy talking about it. The subtext is pretty much in the forefront: our main character, Ramon, seems to be most happy when he gets to be Ramona. Or, if not most happy, then it’s definitely a sweet joy to dress up and be a woman for the night. That said, the comics pretty much speak for themselves. Lafler, himself, has provided a few clues over the years that he enjoys indulging in some gender-bending dressing up. One must follow their muse! I think, with 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona, Lafler beautifully expresses that most basic and primal human need to be true to one’s self.
Be sure to visit Steve Lafler right here.
I ask that you keep going on this journey with me. I have been carving this niche for years and I feel like I’ve got it at quite a cozy level with just the right content and pacing. That said, it’s time for another thoughtful interview. For my video interviews, I add here a few notes and observations. Traditional journalism, like hard news reportage, will take an interview and create a concise summation. Some magazines are known for their long sprawling interviews where everything is transcribed. Of course, we also have a long tradition of various talk show formats, some thoughtful and some that are so casual as to blur right in with a dance segment on Tik Tok. Hey, I have nothing against fun and entertainment and I’ll engage in that when it makes sense. But, for interviews, I take them seriously, prepare for them, take off my Joe Cool hat and don’t engage in any dancing. Although, in a metaphorical sense, a good interview is sort of like a dance. The person conducting the interview leads while the person who is the subject of the interview goes about picking up one cue after another and making something out of it.
Anyway, I say all this because it’s particularly relevant to this interview. Essentially, this is an interview about interviews: how to conduct one, what it means, what you attempt to get out of it. I interviewed Julia Wald about her new book, The Suspension of Disbelief (review), an illustrated collection of interviews she conducted about life and work during Covid-19. In the course of the interview, we ended up talking about what it means when you’re working at a restaurant during a world-wide pandemic and suddenly it’s like all the lights are out and then, just as suddenly, you are out of a job, your source of income. We discuss who might have stepped in to help and who didn’t.
And, finally, once an artistic and talented person is inspired to create a book about Covid-19, what responsibility, if any, does she have to the vulnerable people she has interviewed? Well, part of the answer goes back to the dance. If the dance partners have established a sense of trust, then there’s a very good chance that something worthwhile will result that everyone can be proud of. We focus in a bit on American journalist Studs Terkel (1912-2008), the icon of what came to be known as “literary journalism.” Terkel was most active from the 1950s to 1990s, creating his seminal collection of interviews, Working, in 1974. He was part of that old-fashioned gumshoe journalist/creative tradition: loyal to his readers and listeners, to his Chicago, and to the art and craft of journalism. Julia says that Terkel inspired her on her Covid-19 project and it shows and, ultimately, it demonstrates that she did right by all who she interviewed. Julia did it the right way, the old-fashioned way that involves hard work and integrity. It’s the best way. And it’s what inspires me to keep going on this journey.
Visit Julia Wald right here.
The Suspension of Disbelief is available at Push/Pull.