Maybe like me, you grew up with Walter Foster books. In the ’70s, when I was a boy, these oversized (old Life Magazine format) books were already wonderful relics from a bygone era, most dating back two or three decades. I knew, right away, that they came from another time and place but they were so well put together and the instruction seemed so crisp and clear that I just loved them even if I had no idea how I was supposed to take that information and become a famous cartoonist in New York or a famous animator in Hollywood. No matter. That could always be dealt with sometime in the future. These same Walter Foster books have been reprinted many times over filling the heads of countless people of all ages with fanciful dreams that may or may not ever come true. It didn’t seem to matter. The books themselves were so wonderful! I have been looking at a recent book from Walter Foster, now an imprint at Quarto Publishing Group. It is a classic and brings up a lot of happy memories, Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair.
Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair
Animation with Preston Blair is a fine example of the lineup of Walter Foster books from Quarto in a contemporary trade paperback format. Preston Blair, born in 1908, was trained in fine art and illustration and went on to become a leading animator at Disney. Blair animated such famous work as the Hippos dance in “Dance of Hours” and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both in 1940’s Fantasia. Blair is also known for his work at MGM, most notably his animation with Tex Avery. And he is also known for his work at Hanna-Barbera for The Flintstones. Blair offers plenty in the way of lively and inventive examples.
A page from Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair
Upon a closer examination, it’s clear that this book is a treasure trove of samples and guidelines to inspire an artist at any level. A book like this will help get you on track because it makes no pretense and gets to the heart of the matter: page after page of straightforward drawing. And new animators will appreciate plenty of examples of anatomy, perspective, and various movement along with timeless principles.
From Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair
Combining two previous titles, this manual is organized into six chapters covering cartoon construction, character development, movement, animation principles and animated acting. The retro drawings alone are worth the modest price for this 128-page fully illustrated book. Solid instruction never goes out of style and is timeless. This is recommended for all ages.
For more details, visit Quarto Publishing Group right here.
Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?
SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.
From Interviewing 101 zine by Sarah Mirk
From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?
I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.
Page 1 and 2 from Interviewing 101
You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.
Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.
Pages 3 and 4 of Interviewing 101
I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.
I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.
Pages 5 and 6 of Interviewing 101
Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.
I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.
Back cover to Interviewing 101
Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.
Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.
Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.
Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.
Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.
I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.
The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.
That’s definitely true.
Oregon History Comics by Sarah Mirk
Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.
That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.
I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.
I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.
Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk
Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?
I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.
Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women by Sarah Mirk and Lucy Bellwood
I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?
I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC, The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.
Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?
I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.
I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.
That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?
No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”
How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?
At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.
You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?
At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.
I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!
Any final thoughts?
I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.
Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.
Thank you, Henry.
Guantanamo Voices is a 208-page fully illustrated hardcover, available as of September 8, 2020, published by Abrams.
EDITOR’S NOTE: WATCH FOR A SPECIAL COMICS GRINDER 20% OFF LULU.COM COUPON NEXT WEEK
Lulu.com is the top one-stop-shop destination for print-on-demand and now even more so. Over this weekend, Lulu.com is relaunching its site with a broad range of new options. This is great news for any type of book project, including comic books! There’s so much to choose from to meet the needs of authors, artists, educators, and even nonprofits.
Here is a quick look at what Lulu.com has to offer:
Fiction and non-fiction writers alike can create, print, and sell their books through all major retail channels.
I love this video that features comic-drawing rebel professor Lynda Barry doing her own thing. Around the six minute mark, Lynda confides in the audience that she knows that most folks abandon drawing when they try to draw a nose! She proceeds to draw a bunch of fun noses. First, she begins by drawing what her cousin advised to be the proper way to draw a nose, circa 1962. Then, she riffs on the wonderful world of noses. Starting with the shape of a head, Lynda Barry, one of our all-time great cartoonists, guides the viewer into visual anarchy. If there is only one rule to follow, it is this: the drawing still needs to “read” as whatever it is you’re drawing.
Lynda Barry has worked as a painter, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, playwright, editor, commentator, and teacher and found that they are very much alike. She is the inimitable creator behind the seminal comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek as well as numerous comic books and graphic novels, and is the recipient of both the Eisner Award and the R. R. Donnelly Award. She lives in Wisconsin, where she is an associate professor of art and a Discovery Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her most book is Making Comics, published in 2019 by Drawn & Quarterly.
As you can read in my previous post, I am a big fan of Danny Gregory, his new book on creativity, and the online creative learning community of Sketchbook Skool. I believe Danny to be very sincere in his pursuit of making drawing in a sketchbook a “new normal” in anyone’s life. What he has to say is honest, direct, and spirited. So, with that in mind, I couldn’t resist doing an interview with him. I think you’ll enjoy it. I found Danny to be a delightful guest. I’ve done numerous interviews for well over a decade now, including best-selling novelists, award-winning screenwriters, and so on. Danny is someone who keeps reminding me to never forget that, at my core, I love being creative. We talk a lot about creativity in the interview and this “artist thing.” And, I have to admit, I don’t have a problem calling myself an artist because I am one. For Danny, he doesn’t care about labels as they can get in the way. I care about a label, especially as it applies to me. I guess I’m trying to say that I relate to what Danny is doing in my own way. Becoming an “artist” or maintaining being an artist is something that I’m proud of. Anyway, I’m sure that Danny has heard it all. In a nutshell, he’s the sort of person who doesn’t tolerate too much in the way of formality and wants you to go out and play! For goodness sake, go out and draw something already!
How to Draw Without Talent is the latest in Danny Gregory’s books on how to get into the creative habit. It is the first tie-in book with Sketchbook Skool that he co-founded with Koosje Koene. If this is all new to you, I know that you’re in for a big treat. Everyone can benefit from taking pencil to paper and drawing. And, if you are not a beginner but an established artist of one kind or another, Danny, Koosje, and the rest of SBS staff have an assortment of creative workouts that will entice you. It’s all about keeping one’s hand in game, right?
So, just click the video link and you can check out my interview with Danny Gregory. Upon listening to it a number of times as I put together the video, I found myself rediscovering all the care and charm to Danny’s approach. He’s a regular guy, no pretense about him, and he’d like to put a smile on your face byway of a sketchbook. Why not give it a try?
Visit Danny Gregory right here. Visit Sketchbook Skool right here. How to Draw Without Talent is published by North Light Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Danny Gregory portrait by Henry Chamberlain
I thought you might appreciate the above drawing my yours truly. I keep promising to add more of my own artwork to my posts. This is just a quick little portrait of Danny that I whipped up.
Over the years, I’ve done a number of process posts where either I just show you my work, or show you how I created it, whether visual or literary or whatever. Being an artist is not just one thing, right? Seems to me a good time to do a bit of a reintroduction here. I’m going to be looking over things I’ve done in the past, sharing new things, and gearing up for a number of new process posts going into the end of this year and into the next. We’re looking at everything. And this is while I’m still working my way to completing some current projects!
This leads me to a quick Top Ten list.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MOTIVATE YOU TO CREATE ART–or ANYTHING?
A deadline. If there is some kind of deadline, that always gets my attention.
Curiosity that develops into an obsession. You develop a passion! Who knew?
Feeling competitive. Okay, maybe not the best reason but, hey, a bit of gusto never hurt.
Breakthrough. You have figured something out. An epiphany. You are compelled to create!
Drop your inhibitions. You stop putting yourself down and clear away any doubts!
Need to impress. So, you’ve fallen in love and want to impress that someone special. Why not?
Others are looking up to you. What about that special someone in your life who already believes in you?
Courage. Maybe there’s nobody special at the moment to cheer you on but you find courage on your own!
Making up for lost time. Where did the time go? Seriously, where did it go? So, you hop into action.
You discover this feels good! The very act of creating is intoxicating. Now, you’re on your way!
Here I am drawing Grand Central Terminal.
What I’m getting at, for the purposes of this post, is that I want to do my best to get some good solid process features out soon. You know, “How-to” sort of stuff. I am constantly learning new things from various sources. I see a lot of fun and interesting “how-to” books and gurus out there. My conclusion: there’s always room for another person to share their work, tips and insights! I’m just that kind of person. I won’t promise what happens next here but I’ve got a nice track record of following through. Heck, I’ve done more posts right here on this blog than most people I know. So, yeah, I’m good for it. I just gave you a top ten list. Not bad, huh? We’ll do more. That I can promise.
New York Public Library
Anyway, with all that said, I’m thinking a lot of my activity here on this blog and elsewhere could add up to some sort of book that I could share with you that speaks to what I’m doing. It would be an initial step towards what I’m envisioning. It would be the first in a series of books that explores the passion of creating art and storytelling, a nice mix of work, tips, and insights. I’m always learning, always thinking. Also, I should add here that I’m gearing up for a big trip. It is something that has involved a bunch of behind-the-scenes planning with a little help from sponsors and friends. That will be revealed as we progress down this journey. Basically, what I hope will happen is that, at least, a number of successful travel and art blog posts will result. That’s the first step.
THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner
Many a high school and college student will be amazed at how easy and truly fun it can be to learn about biology in a comics format. And in a significant way. Seriously, all you students out there at whatever level, you can have an enjoyable immersive experience and LEARN, not just cram facts. Behold, THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
A riot of life!
Let me jump right in and get to an important point. If you are somehow new to comics, well, this may blow your mind. If you are familiar with comics, then this will still blow your mind. Here’s the deal, comics are uniquely capable of explaining all sorts of things. And cartoonists are uniquely compelled to explain things! I should know. I am a cartoonist. What Larry Gonick excels at is really utilizing the impressive tools offered by the comics medium. One of the most magical things about comics is its ability to make the most impact by being as concise as possible. There is truly an art to taking something complex and boiling it down to its essentials. Gonick has figured out how to do that. Anyone who has lugged a biology textbook can appreciate this, if there was a way to make the subject more relatable and accessible, then that would be a most awesome thing. Gonick has done that! And he’s teamed up with Dave Wessner, a Professor of Biology and chair of the Department of Health and Human Values at Davidson College. Between the two of them, they deliver the goods.
The pulmonary arteries.
Gonick has tapped into the art of being economical with text as well as with artwork. And it’s all for the sake of clarity. We don’t want any clutter, especially when learning about as heavy a subject as biology. But, oddly enough, Gonick finds a way to keep things consistently light, or light-hearted. There are little jokes to keep the pace moving along. And, there are just so many wonderful moments of sheer energy and involvement that it can’t help but rub off on the reader. It’s as if Gonick has timed it just right to give you a little joke here, plus a light illustration there, then a fun detailed illustration, and so on.
The cell membrane.
We all learn in different ways and it’s usually not as straightforward as you might think. It’s not just a case of some people learning best by doing and other people learning best by reading and so on. It’s a mix of a lot things and it involves whatever will engage the student. It’s pretty hard to resist the comics medium, especially when you have such a master as Larry Gonick leading the way. He takes numerous bits of information and manages to give the reader the sort of hooks they will need to not only remember but to thoroughly process such things as how a plant creates glucose from carbon dioxide and water. This can be pretty dry material for any student to slough through so having such an engaging book as this becomes a most valuable resource.
THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY is a 313-page trade paperback, full illustrated, available as of July 30, 2019. Be sure to visit HarperCollins for more details on this book as well as others like THE CARTOON GUIDE TO ALGEBRA and THE CARTOON GUIDE TO CALCULUS.
Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University
I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.
Butler Library at Columbia University
The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages. The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.
Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery
The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content. These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.” Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.
Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.
We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.
The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.
Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia.
KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.
Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?
I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.
Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?
What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.
I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.
Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!
Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.
What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?
The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.
Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer. However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?
Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two. Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.
I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics.
While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.
But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.
That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.
You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.
Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.
Yes! I love gray!
What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?
That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.
Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.
Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.
We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels?
I think there’s still a lot of room to grow. There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.
We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.
You’re very welcome, Henry.
That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.
Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography
All too often, we are susceptible to allowing ourselves to be cogs in a machine. The ever-expanding technological age has no mercy. It is up to the individual to avoid becoming one dimensional. These are ideas that we don’t necessarily think about enough while, at the same time, we find ourselves confronting them on a daily basis. If you’ve fancied becoming more in tune with philosophical discourse, and would really appreciate a way in that is highly relevant and accessible, then turn your attention to the new graphic novel, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, by author/illustrator, Nick Thorkelson, published by City Lights.
The Swine of 117th Street
There have been a number of comics adaptations of subjects that would seem not to lend themselves to being broken down into the comics medium. However, the truth is that comics is uniquely equipped to take the complex and make it concise. In this case, Nick Thorkelson has crafted quite an engaging book based on the life and work of one of the great philosophers of the modern era, Herbert Marcuse. It is Marcuse who serves as a vehicle to hang a number of challenging and eternal questions dating back to Aristotle: What is our role in life? What are our expectations in life? What makes up a good and purposeful life? And once the questions are asked, who has the answers? Descartes? Marx? Heidegger? Marcuse?
The Reluctant Guru
We follow the young Marcuse as he goes from fighting in the First World War to finding his way among German intellectuals to developing his own philosophy with the help of mentors like Martin Heidegger. But, after Heidegger swears his allegiance to the Nazi Party, Marcuse moves on and, in 1933, finds his way to Columbia University in New York City. The Social Democratic Party, once the hope of a new Germany, had been forced aside by the Nazis Party which had made numerous false promises and had pushed its way into power. Fast forward to the present, we may ask ourselves: Are we headed into a similar abyss? Have we already entered a dark period with some parallels to Nazi Germany? In a very even-tempered way, Mr. Thorkelson is clearly suggesting that, yes, a cycle is repeating itself. But hope is not lost. A way out can be found in the soul-searching work of Herbert Marcuse. Basically, it is up to the individual to demand a better life. And, by and by, Herbert Marcuse found himself in the thick of the fight right alongside the student protests of the sixties.
History has a way of repeating itself.
Over time, Herbert Marcuse established himself as a leading voice within philosophical and activist circles. That voice can still be heard today and must be heard today. With a sense of great timing, Nick Thorkelson brings to the reader an essential and inspiring guide to one of our great thinkers. On each page, from one panel to the next, Mr. Thorkelson has condensed various bits of information into a seamless presentation that is easy on the eyes, both engaging and highly informative. The whole book is a delight as it is clearly organized and designed with a keen sense of style. Thorkelson’s cartoons are highly sophisticated and such a pleasure to behold in their own right. You can say that the artwork expresses the Marcuse joie de vivre quite fittingly.
Step by Step
Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia is a 128-page trade paperback in duotone, available now, published by City Lights.
Here are two cartoonists that need to be on your radar, David Lasky and Greg Stump. And, if you’re in Seattle, then you have an opportunity to take a very special comics course from them. This is an in depth look at “graphic humor,” as expressed by artists, writers, and cartoonists. “Graphic Humor” is a 6-week course at Hugo House: Saturdays from 1 to 3pm, starting April 13 – and is described in the Hugo House catalog:
“Two experienced, allegedly funny cartoonists will guide you through the process of creating a wide range of humorous comics, from New-Yorker-style gag cartoons to page-long stories, rants, and satire. We’ll examine work—from subtle to slapstick to surreal—of some of the medium’s funniest artists and writers en route to generating material for a class anthology comic book. While prior drawing/cartooning experience may be helpful for this class, it isn’t absolutely essential; however, be prepared to collaborate and share work.”
Comics by Greg Stump
Lasky and Stump aim to reveal a wide range of techniques and approaches to humor through a variety of prompts, forms, and experiments. The list of artists and writers covered in the course include Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Will Elder, Lynda Barry, Raymond Pettibon, Donald Barthelme, Kate Beaton, Saul Steinberg, Edward Gorey, Lisa Hanawalt, Jeffrey Brown, Ernie Bushmiller, Joe Brainard, David Shrigley, and many others. Students will work towards creating a comic book at the end of the sessions which everyone will contribute to and receive a copy. This is the first time Stump and Lasky have focued on humor for one of their courses. They look forward to engaging with their students.