Dr. Charles Johnson, UW professor emeritus of English, is a distinguished novelist, as well as a professional cartoonist. It is a pleasure to get to chat with him and consider a thing or two about the somewhat enigmatic comics medium and the creative process in general. In our conversation, we talk about the interconnections between comics, journalism, and creative writing. It is a subject I keep coming back to as it speaks to who I am, someone compelled to create with words and pictures. What is it that compels others to pursue both the comics medium and prose writing? It has to do with a desire to express one’s self. It is inextricably linked to journalism, an in depth reporting of one’s observations. And where does this all lead? It all depends upon the person, their temperament, and a number of other factors of luck and opportunity. In other words, it’s a fascinating topic for a good talk.
IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall
We spent a good amount of the interview discussing humor. We go over some samples from Johnson’s 1970 cartoon collection, Black Humor. This is a set of nearly 90 single panel gag cartoons. They are the kind you still find in a few magazines today, notably The New Yorker. But, back then, The New Yorker was not seeking to publish Black cartoonists. It was on one rainy night, after listening to a fiery talk given by Black activist poet Amiri Baraka, that Johnson set out on a mission to draw a whole book’s worth of gag panels, about and for the Black community. Johnson conjured up one joke after another. Over fifty years later, the gags retain a certain bite, perhaps more earthy than for today’s tastes. Some seem downright surreal. But Johnson dropped a key word into our conversation, a word that hinted at a far more expansive view. He spoke of the cartoon’s incongruity.
From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson
This interview is in connection with Dr. Johnson’s work included in the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the book published by New York Review Comics. In partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, New York Review Comics presents IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel. Read my review here. This book focuses on nine Black cartoonists from the show at MCA: Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, Jun 19–Oct 3, 2021, which includes over 40 artists.
Excerpt from Black Humor
A special note: Washington University in St. Louis recently acquired the Charles Johnson Papers, an archival collection of materials related to Johnson’s work as an author and illustrator. “Spanning nearly six decades, the collection brings together manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, artwork and ephemera, and serves as a testament to Johnson’s wide-ranging career as a public intellectual.”
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Also, of note is Johnson’s recent role as guest-editor and contributor to a special edition of Chicago Quarterly Review, “An Anthology of Black American Literature.” Johnson wrote the introduction and contributed a story to the anthology — the journal’s volume #33 — called “Night Shift,” which he penned for the 2020 Bedtime Story fundraiser for Humanities Washington. The volume contains work by more than two dozen Black writers. An earlier special edition of the journal was dedicated to South Asian American writers, and an upcoming issue will focus on Native American literature.
Be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and view the Chicago Comics show!
Jamey Bradbury’s “The Wild Inside” is a ferocious debut novel! It’s about the mysteries of young womanhood, Mother Nature, and just how far apart we humans are from animals. Our main character, Tracey Petrikoff, is sure she is not quite human and far more animal. Ms. Bradbury has had the great John Irving as a mentor and it shows. This is a novel by a hungry and driven writer.
Tracey Petrikoff is a monster of sorts–but not in any obvious way. Trace is the ultimate misfit teenager in this most unusual work. Bradbury has crafted a slow-burn thriller that invites the reader to join a family of dog breeders and racers in the backwoods of Alaska and, bit by bit, reveals touch after touch of strange. There is no doubt that Trace is strange. Bradbury does a masterful job of normalizing it. In a first-person narrative, the reader is charmed by, and at the mercy of, Trace’s version of events. In a matter-of-fact manner, Trace repeatedly shares with the reader her drinking the blood of animals. What could be more natural, right?
Blood is all too natural for Trace. She can’t be far from a “drink” for too long. Some things seem utterly unknowable by outsiders: like the heart of a young woman, and Mother Nature. Bradbury plays with how these two powerful forces are inextricably linked. Trace’s bond with nature, with the animal world, is total and complete. She must nurse from the blood of animals not only to feel alive but to remain alive. In one key scene, her need for blood is so great that, when she struggles to find some, she resorts to drinking her own menstrual blood. This cross between Judy Blume and Stephen King totally works within context.
Illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Bradbury provides a mesmerizing first-person narrative: very direct and urgent while completely down to earth. Bradbury keeps it all deceiving effortless and casual, doing away with any and all quotation marks. This has a funny way of further immersing the reader who follows along, for example, an observation by Trace that seamlessly dovetails to something her father is saying. A series of small moments steadily add up in this wonderfully structured novel. All the time, the reader is anticipating a big race–and the Iditarod is certainly no small event–but there are plenty of twists and turns, including a creepy and potentially dangerous stalker and an unlikely lover. What cannot help but keep the reader engaged is following the mind of Tracey Petrikoff, half-woman and half-animal, trapped for a time and waiting to be set free.
Bradbury mines the coming-of-age tropes with great success. In that special time of transition from childhood to adulthood, there is a lot of soul-searching and negotiating over what stays and what goes. What matters most in your life? And, by the way, did you realize it is your own life–and no one else’s but yours? Sometimes freedom is more important than anything else in the world–including the life you have always known just before everything changes.
“The Wild Inside,” by Jamey Bradbury is a 304-page hardcover, published by William Morrow, now available. For more details, visit William Morrow right here. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:
I’d been meaning to read Noah Van Sciver’s latest graphic novel, “Fante Bukowski,” and I guess I was waiting for a good time to do it. I thought I had it figured out: a silly little satire about a ne’er-do-well. It is that, in a nutshell. But, after reading it, I wasn’t totally sure of what to say about it. Well, actually, I had some idea. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Steve Martin in his film debut, 1979’s “The Jerk.” It is both subversively offbeat and totally hilarious.
“Fante Bukowski,” is worthy of your attention in all its irreverent splendor. Part of the humor is that it is quite obvious that Van Sciver has no real axe to grind within the literary community and yet he seems to manage to provide some quite effective biting satire. The bite is not aimed at anyone in particular. It’s more like the Marx Brothers poking fun at the absurdity of life in general. And, it’s safe to say that the pomposity and pretentiousness that Groucho ridiculed a century ago has not changed much for Millennials.
And lest you think this book has anything meaningful to say about Charles Bukowski, think again! Our main character decided to have his name legally changed from Kelly Perkins to Fante Bukowski to honor his childhood idol. It’s, by far, the saddest thing, Audrey, another unpromising writer, has ever heard! Fante meets, or stumbles upon, Audrey during a reading Fante gives of an incredibly brief and ill-conceived bit of his so-called poetry. It is Fante’s dumb luck that Audrey finds him attractive and decides to spend the night with him. To her dismay, she discovers that Fante slaves away on an actual typewriter.
While Van Sciver seems to favor light humor, it also seems that he doesn’t suffer fools lightly either. The following scene can’t help but sound familiar to many an aspiring writer: there is much chit chat over a certain literary magazine at a party and it results in Fante pleading with the editor for the chance to submit some work. After some back and forth, the editor accepts Fante’s half-baked drivel. After more small talk, Fante asks how big the magazine’s circulation is. The editor, without a hint of irony, says it’s a dozen. Brilliant. That, and the fact that Fante is obsessed with using a typewriter does seem to say something about a new generation allowing itself to walk into walls it could have easily avoided.
Van Sciver’s latest subject, and what he does with it, is a prime example of a cartoonist who understands why he keeps going back to his drawing board to toil away. He has made certain choices like keeping the artwork within reasonable limits and cranking the humor just right. This is all in the service of telling the tale of a terribly delusional young man. It’s an absurd story. When it’s all said and done, it is a silly satire about a ne’er-do-well. But it’s an impressive silly little satire too.
“Fante Bukowski” is an 80-page trade paperback published by Fantagraphics Books. For more details, visit our friends at Fantagraphics right here.
Jonathan Lethem self-portrait in Introduction to The Best American Comics 2015
Jonathan Lethem is the author of nine novels, including “Gun, with Occasional Music,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” and most recently, “Dissident Gardens.” He is this year’s editor for the annual, “Best American Comics.” Lethem’s 2003 novel, “The Fortress of Solitude,” famously references superhero comics. In 2007-2008, Marvel Comics published a ten-issue comic book collaboration between Lethem and artist Farel Dalrymple. It was a revisiting of one of the most unlikely of superheroes from the 1970s, “Omega the Unknown.” In 2013, Lethem collaborated with artist Raymond Pettibon as part of a collection of the artist’s work.
In my review of Best American Comics 2015, I speak to this year’s focus on comics as art. Series editor Bill Kartalopoulos brought in the idea of including Raymond Pettibon and it’s an exciting move toward further establishing comics as an art form in its own right. It would seem to many of us that such an assertion is no longer necessary. But every bit helps to make known to all readers the endless possibilities for comics. In my interview, we talk about Pettibon and his place in both the art world and the comics world. And we take a closer look at what comics are all about in the first place.
Cover art for Best American Comics 2015 by Raymond Pettibon
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I was reading over an interview you gave in 2008 and I wanted to quote a little from it. You said: “What I do in book after book after book is smash together — as urgently and as adamantly as I can — things that feel verifiably real everyday: textures, stuff of the prosaic and dreamlike material.” Is that the spirit in which you took on your editorship of this year’s Best American Comics?
JONATHAN LETHEM: That’s a great question. I like that quote. I don’t always love hearing myself read back to me but that one stands up. It sounds like what I feel that I do. Of course, I didn’t think of the editorship as having to reflect my aesthetic as though this were like a novel I was writing. You know, it extends from my position as a member of the audience, as a fan, as a responder, of other people’s work.
I’ve always seen a lot of continuity between the reader and the writer. There’s something in between like a member of the bookstore staff putting together a display, or a deejay setting up a set, or that overused term, “curator.” Helplessly, I’m grabbing at things that interest me and pushing them up against each other to make interesting vibrations between them. So, I guess it is like that quote. It is similar. The book ended up including things that are surreal, or magical, or fantastical, along with stuff of grubby ordinary life.
HC: This is your own personal journey through comics. I’m thinking of what Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor, had said about this year’s edition being less of a survey than last year’s. I suppose each editor is going to bring different things to the next volume. This is your own take on the current scene in comics.
JL: Bill was tremendous about handing me a lot of rope. Obviously, he’s immersed in a field in a way, on a year to year basis, that I could never dream of being. He was brilliant in getting me up to speed and informing me of context. He was a pair of super-binoculars. He also wanted the book to be mine and not lead the horse to water too often. He said he wasn’t passing along anything he wasn’t interested in but that it was going to be too much and that I would need to carve out a vision from all this stuff. He was a great sounding board. He helped guide me to my decisions. For a while, I was floundering around. It’s overwhelming. The field is so huge and so hyper-kinetic in the kinds of energy and ambition being expressed.
HC: So, going through that mountain of books, impressed upon you the enormity of possibilities for comics.
JL: Yeah, I really did feel that. I guess that my selections reflect a kind of a sense of wanting to force the reader to experience, in some ways, the same exciting calamity of possibilities that I experienced. I wanted to reproduce the sensation of “What the hell is this?” Comics are so many different things right now: so vibrant, so many chances are being taken, so many fantastic experiments are being conducted. I started to think that this wasn’t just one thing. It’s a gigantic art form with brilliant juxtapositions and perplexities encompassed within.
Excerpt from “No Tears, No Sorrow,” by Eleanor Davis
HC: Looking at this year’s Best American Comics selections that you made, it runs the gamut from a more straightforward approach, like Eleanor Davis, to a more unconventional approach, like Henrietta Valium. And it’s all comics. I think you did something very significant this year by, in a natural way, bringing forward the understanding that comics is an art form. Now, one of my pet peeves, and you may agree, is when a gallery or museum labels something as only “comics-related” when, in fact, it is a work of comics, pure and simple.
HC: And here you have Raymond Pettibon’s work on the cover of this year’s Best American Comics.
JL: Somehow, I got in there very early and that was a piece of good luck. A little feeler that series editor Bill Kartalopoulos put forward was that he had spotted this recent work of Pettibon’s and he sort of dared me to agree with him that it really was comics, just like you say. I was the right recipient for that little piece of provocation. I was already a big Pettibon fan. I wrote something for him, so we had collaborated on that a few years ago. The results were published in The Believer. And that was a comic. I thought of it explicitly as four panels. I wrote for him a four-panel really bizarre and over-loaded comic to do. Raymond being Raymond, took that into even stranger directions. When Bill asked what I would think of Pettibon’s work in a comics context, I was absolutely on board. As an opening exchange, I think it set the ground for how the rest of the book was going to feel to us, that we’d agreed to this slightly audacious definition of comics. And then it comes first circle with the invitation to Raymond to be the cover artist and his agreeing to do it.
Excerpt from Raymond Pettibon’s “The Credits Rolled,” 2013.
HC: When I was reading this year’s Best American Comics in a cafe the other day, a barista made that “What the hell is this?” comment. And it was in a very supportive tone as he was very familiar with Pettibon’s work. This would be interesting: What can you tell us about Raymond Pettibon? How does he see himself within a comics context?
JL: I have met him a handful of times. And I would say that he is dodgy in the extreme, with a great disinterest in facing questions like that directly. But his work is eloquent. His work incorporates giant chunks of response to comics as one of the key American vernacular visual languages. Along with film, the covers of pulp paperbacks, and tabloid photography, his work devours comics as a source. You have images of Superman, you have hints of Krazy Kat. There’s that Vavoom character from Little Lulu. I think, to him, it’s a question that is too obvious for him to engage in. And here is where I’d feel a lot of native sympathy myself in terms of my own writing and how it engages with comics as a zone of vitality and American language all its own. Comics just begs to be responded to by other art forms. So, what the Pop artists did, by grabbing onto that comics energy, is akin to other artists, like Philip Guston, or Raymond Pettibon. What I’ve humbly tried to do a couple of times in my writing is that, somehow make literary prose just to the tune to the energy that you find in a comic book or a comic strip panel. I think it’s a natural response. You see that today among artists, an understanding that comics are crucial, alive, and part of the American cultural stratum.
HC: You see all sorts of creative people fascinated by comics narrative. You teach creative writing. Do you suggest comics to your students?
JL: I have done that and I also have dealt with some independent study students or thesis writers working on the subject of graphic novels. I haven’t yet assigned a comic as a text in a seminar class but you’re making me think that I ought to do that. It doesn’t seem out of reach to me. My seminars have included film assignments in the past so it would be completely of a piece with that.
HC: I want to reassure everyone that this is not simply a survey, although it is in some sense. It’s definitely a wonderful guide to what’s been going on in comics in the last year or so.
JL: I hope so.
HC: I love how you keep an irreverent tone. It’s respectful but fun. I mean, your introduction is a comic and it’s hilarious. I love the character you created, even though you say it’s derivative.
JL: Well, most good characters are derivative. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
HC: One thing I recall from creative writing class is to avoid being portentous. And I believe that most good comics have a lightness to them. They can be anything but they need to strike a good balance, and avoid being portentous.
JL: I’m with you on that. Ironically, the portentousness that I mostly shied away from was largely found in the mainstream superhero comics–which I couldn’t quite relate to. For the present crop, I wasn’t clicking with it. Often, this is because there is a slightly artificial heaviness to them. It’s sort of a role reversal from grown-up stuff being found among the underground and graphic novels and the funny books being there for kids. But, actually, the mainstream comic book companies are producing a lot of very jacked-up grim stuff. And, as you say, some of the most sophisticated or beguiling suggestive work that you can come across includes a certain levity or a sense of the absurd. Some frivolity is in the mix.
HC: Let’s consider some of the work included here. One that quickly comes to mind is Megan Kelso.
JL: Yeah, Megan Kelso was a great discovery. She’s so sly. It appears to be very straightforward work but the degree of compression, the way she can do so much with such a small number of pages, is very, very literary in fact.
From Julia Gfrörer’s “Palm Ash”
HC: Another intriguing selection is Julia Gfrörer.
JL: That’s another intricate and evocative piece. That was a total discovery for me. I hadn’t come across her work anywhere before.
HC: I’m familiar with her work. She’s definitely on the rise.
JL: Well, she should be.
HC: It’s nice that it was printed in the book on green paper.
JL: Yes, it was a pamphlet on green paper. One of the interesting things about work like this is that it has the quality of being an artifact. Some other works in the book were either bigger or smaller than the anthology pages. Or would be silkscreened or some other printing process. It’s only an approximation to the original when we fit it into the anthology format.
HC: What would you say about your readership?
JL: More than usual, I’m on the edge of my seat to meet my readership. I know the sense of being stakeholders the comics audience has. I wonder about how they will respond and probably argue with this book in certain ways. I’m really interested in what will come out of that and what I’ll learn. I think it was crucial to feel that I was being dropped into a universe and trying to do justice to this last year. It was like a flashbulb strobe image of the landscape. My volume was one in a conversation. It was instructive to study the last few years of the volumes and see the different kind of statements that people are making with the editor’s position and the different senses you get of what the competition in the field feels like at any given moment.
HC: I wonder if cartoonists see it as a contest. I tend to think that they’ll appreciate that this volume is, like you say, part of a conversation.
JL: Well, you know, everyone who makes things is waiting for that gold star. It’s a neat job to be able to give out the gold stars once in a while. You also want to let people know that there were hundreds of submissions that were clamoring and knocking on the door to be included. In some cases, the selections were determined upon what went together in making a book out of it all, making it all flow, and making it all interesting in context. There are some pieces that I fell in love with that didn’t make it into the book.
HC: It must be great when you make these connections while putting the book together, like the two pieces with a Wonder Woman theme, one by R. Sikoryak and the other by Diane Obomsawin.
JL: There was going to be a third Wonder Woman piece, by Ron Regé Jr., but lawyers stepped in and squelched it. I was trying to give as much of a glimpse into Wonder Woman as possible especially since there had been a couple of nonfiction books on Wonder Woman in that same year.
HC: And you ran into difficulty with getting a work in by Steve Ditko.
JL: That one went down to the wire. And it led us nowhere. So, somewhere, out there, there’s a compendium worthy of Steve Ditko.
HC: Well, God bless him. Thank you for your time, Jonathan.
JL: Thank you, Henry.
You can listen to the podcast interview by clicking below:
“The Best American Comics 2015” is a 400-page hardcover, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is available as of October 6, 2015. You can find it at Amazon right here.
I don’t think you can sue a fictional character for having said something that came from her fictional mind in a work that is fiction. Can you? Well, Paul Brodeur is going to take a stab at it. Actually, he’s targeted some deep pockets that are everything but fictional. Paul Brodeur is a science journalist who was a staff writer at The New Yorker for nearly 40 years. In the film, “American Hustle,” the character Roslyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence) tells her husband, Irving (played by Christian Bale) that “microwaves take the nutrition out of food.” “That’s bullshit,” Irving replies, and his wife shows him a magazine and says, “It’s not bullshitt. I read it in an article. Look, by Paul Brodeur.”
Brodeur claims that this exchange between fictional characters, in a work of fiction, has damaged his career since he’s never actually stated that “microwaves take the nutrition out of food.” The solution, of course, is to sue the companies that produced and distributed the film, Columbia Pictures, Atlas Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures.
Good luck with that, Mr. Brodeur. Personally, I tend to think that microwaves do take the nutrition out of food. So, sue me.
“How I Made the World,” is an intriguing title, don’t you think? It happens to be the title for a series of comics about Liz, a college student and writer who expresses herself in true epic glory, like any young person should. Now, this is most assuredly a SERIES, not a ONE-SHOT. There may have been a bit of confusion regarding this since the Diamond Previews catalog, the monthly bible for all comics retailers and regular comics buyers, has given the “one-shot” label to this series. Okay, now that we have that cleared up, here is an interview with the creators. It was a pleasure to get to chat for a bit with Liz and Randy.
How do we change the world? It can be as simple as how we see the world. There are numerous influences we need to consider. One is as simple as how we tell stories. In the West, for example, there is a rigidly ingrained method for storytelling, and for communication in general. It has conflict built in that must be confronted and resolved. While it may sound like an overstatement, this method embraces aggression, and violence. Why not try another method and see what results?
My favorite episode of the original Star Trek series is “Man Trap,” by George Clayton Johnson. But there are certainly plenty to choose from. One of the crown jewels is by the great scribe, Harlan Ellison, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Ellison’s teleplay, much like Johnson’s, went through revisions to make it a better fit for network television at the time. Now, thanks to IDW Plubishing, this classic story will be faithfully adapted as a five-issue comics series, just as Ellison had originally envisioned it.
“Mounthaven” is the story of a man on a journey of self-discovery stymied by his own personal set of blinders. Those blinders prove to be a costly problem for him. He seems to be aware of them. He wants them off. He is certain he can see the blinders others wear. That alone is the stuff of novels. This is also the stuff of life which makes this biography, thinly veiled as fiction, all the more remarkable. Throughout the book, there is a narrator leading you through a family history intertwined with the family estate, Mounthaven. By the last third of the novel, it is revealed that the narrator is the main character. And the main character happens to be my father. If that’s not remarkable, at least in my world of reading, I don’t know what is. In fact, out in the world at large, this book should find many interested readers.
It’s good and natural to have well known writers spend some time with total strangers. It’s all about context. The writer, whether a giant in a niche market or an all-around best-selling star, knows that life is a bit absurd, fame is fickle, and that the vast majority of people have no idea who he or she is. That stranger, and that stranger over there, and that one too, all gather at a meetup, and at least they know something about the writer. Most likely they’ve read some of his work. Most likely they aspire to be writers themselves. Ah, much common ground to work from. And so that’s what I got to partake in for a little a while, a special moment. Hugh Howey was in town. He had delivered a lecture at Amazon earlier in the day. That night, a meetup was organized at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, which made for an excellent venue. It was a big group that became a smaller intimate group of new friends gathered to share a few ideas with a great writer.