There’s this moment in Sophia Glock’s new graphic memoir when the main character (the author’s teenage self) is peering out into the audience from the backstage of a high school play. Marc, one her classmates, points out to Sophia that, if she can see the audience, they can see her. It’s a helpful enough comment also meant to sting, just the sort of callow comment young people will nudge each other along with. It’s a moment indicative of what the reader will find in this mellow yet haunting tale of a displaced young person.
If you enjoy experimental art, then do check out the new graphic novel by Frank Santoro. This is a work that will transport you to an immersive mindscape where Mr. Santoro tracks memories and explores family history. It is a refreshing approach to the comics medium that plays with elements like text and panels, shifts them, redirects them, and presents them in unexpected ways within a finely-tuned structure. Pittsburgh, a New York Review Comic published by New York Review of Books, brings together a lifetime of storytelling. This is one of the notable titles debuting at this year’s Small Press Expo this weekend, September 14-15, in Bethesda, Maryland.
One card taped to another card and then another.
Frank Santoro is a well-respected and celebrated independent cartoonist and trailblazer. If you are looking for a new way of looking at the comics medium, then consider taking his comics course. Frank Santoro’s work has been exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and the Fumetto comics festival in Switzerland. He is the author of Storeyville and Pompeii. He has collaborated with Ben Jones, Dash Shaw, Frank Kozik, and others. Santoro lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which brings us to his latest work. In Pittsburgh, the reader is introduced to life in the Rust Belt, that region of the country known as the manufacturing hub, the area famously known as the demographic which Hillary Clinton neglected to win over enough votes. It’s a tough working class landscape. Santoro shares that region with you: his growing up, his family, and especially the doomed relationship between his father and mother.
It’s all about the process.
How do you best convey your observations and feelings about your family? In a documentary? In a novel? In an art installation? The possibilities are endless. What Frank Santoro has done is find a different path that combines aspects of various disciplines within one. This is a comic but not a comic that you are typically familiar with. This could be called a graphic novel or memoir but it also manages to be something more. At times, I felt as if some of the actions, dialogue, characters and settings in this book were shifting from one medium to the next. Very easily, I could imagine the whole book being turned into an art installation. Santoro’s method basically breaks down barriers and pares down to essentials. He likes to play with geometry and create backbones for his pages. The goal is for each element on the page to play off each other, each opposing page, and the entire work. He wants the process to show through so, if he makes a mistake, he’ll sort of leave it in and lightly cover it up so that you can still see it. In a sense, each page becomes animated with unexpected movement.
Every element falls into place and plays off each other.
The quotidian of life, the everyday moments that can blur into each other, that is what Santoro aims to capture and evoke. This is one of the things that the comics medium does best! It is akin to a tour de force cinema vertie experience with the camera being replaced by a sketchbook. Santoro is hardly alone in attempting this but what he does is distinctive. And he makes it look easy and, in a weird sense that actually takes years of experience to appreciate, it is. Whatever the case, it can’t look forced. It comes natural to Santoro as he edits, rearranges, and composes. He make various choices which include various ways of telling the story most efficiently while allowing things to breathe. He wants ambiguity but he also demands clarity. He keeps to a basic palette that, in the end, brings out all the color he could ever want. In the end, he presents something new and compelling. In this case, it is his coming to terms with having grown up in a dysfunctional family that ultimately breaks apart. Like any good documentarian and artist, Santoro picks up the pieces, examines them, and with heart and soul makes something out of them.
Comics, elevated to the art form that it is.
Pittsburgh is a 216-page full color hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019, published by New York Review of Books.
Alright, let’s get serious about comics, and let’s take a look at Me, Mikko, and Annikki, by Tiitu Takalo, published by North Atlantic Books. This is a graphic novel in the best storytelling tradition. The gathering up of stories, whether oral or written, is a process that might miss a precise fact here or there but will shine through with a greater truth. Takalo suggests that she might have very well have missed a more nuanced hisorical fact, given that she’s not a professional historian. Her concern is reassuring and, in this case, she has nothing to worry about. She really does get it right. This is the true story of a community’s fight to secure and maintain their homes that rings true in every way.
Me, Mikko, and Annikki
Takalo is going from the general to the specific. We get to know her country, Finland; her town, Tampere; her section of town, Tammela; and, most importantly, her neighborhood block, Annikki. We get to know her and her partner, Mikko. We get to know about their lives and dreams, And, ultimately, a story emerges of the saving of Annikki, a blockyard that had been in danger for far too long of being demolished altogether.
Me, Mikko, and Annikki
The reader can’t help but empathize with Tiitu and her fight to create and maintain a community. This is everyone’s fight. Most of us on this planet but face the basic need of affordable housing. Tiitu, in her youth, stumbles upon what could be the answer for her in the long term. A block of homes are available to the right buyers, those with a certain determination and persistence. Tiitu understands that she must be willing to not only rebuild her home from scratch but also be ready to fight the local bureaucracy and keep the forces of gentrification at bay. Tiitu Takalo charms and informs with her words and pictures: part history, part memoir, and part quirky observation. Takalo offers up a most inviting narrative that just goes to show that, no matter where one lives, whether in Seattle or in Finland, we are more alike than we are different. We all need shelter. We all have an instinct to fight for our lives. And it is all too often the least fortunate going up against the powers that be. Takalo brings all of that home for the reader.
This book was quite a sought after gem when it was originally published in Finland in 2014. Now, for the first time, you can read it in English. The original Finnish text is beautifully translated and edited by Associate Professor Michael Demson and Professor Helena Halmari, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Finnish Studies.
Me, Mikko, and Annikki
Me, Mikko, and Annikki is a 264-page trade paperback, in full color, and available as of August 6, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, visit North Atlantic Books.
I am a great supporter of alternative comics and the pursuit of excellence in the comics medium. That means sometimes taking a ruler and wrapping the knuckles of a cartoonist during a bit of constructive criticism. And it means celebrating a work when everything goes right as it does in Hobo Mom, by Charles Forsman and Max de Radiguès, published by Fantagraphics. Hobo Mom gets it right by pursuing a line of specificity to its logical conclusion. Just like a finely-executed novel or painting, all the elements fit into place at a resounding level of precision.
This is the story of a woman who can’t settle down. The open road is in her blood and she is willing to pay the price for her unconventional freedom. Charles Forsman presents his most disciplined artwork to date in seamless collaboration with the script by Max de Radiguès. The pacing is impeccable as you follow one extended scene after another. It’s magical how Forsman and de Radiguès balance so much in a relatively short work. At 62 pages, you need to be prepared to pare down to the essentials in order to give the narrative a natural flow. This is undoubtedly achieved as the reader gets a rich experience within a tight framework. Everything needs to count, down to every panel, ever facial expression, every pause. You need to know what to linger on and when to move on.
Page excerpt from HOBO MOM
Take the first four pages. The first page begins with a big panel that depicts an inviting breakfast being prepared on a skillet taking up half the available space. The next four panels convey a happy relationship between father and daughter, a stable domestic scene. With that established, the next three pages have the luxury of lingering over this happy home: dad goes off to work; daughter tidies up; daughter begins her day; daughter finds comfort in the company of a family pet. Now, we’re ready to move on to what is going on with the absent mother. A rhythm has been set up allowing for the alternating of scenes and characters. Will the hobo mom reconnect with her family or is it just not possible? Here is a book that asks the right questions and lets the reader step in. This book is a prime example of what it possible in the comics medium.
Hobo Mom is a 64-page duotone hardcover, published by Fantagraphics.
Gahan Wilson. You know that name. Only a few cartoonists rank as high as Mr. Wilson. His distinctive quirky cartoons graced the pages of Playboy for over 50 years. He was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The National Lampoon, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other publications. Gahan Wilson is in urgent need of a memory care facility. This is a very challenging time for his family. Please consider making a donation to a GoFundMe campaign you can visit right here.
Gahan Wilson Needs Your Help
From Gahan Wilson’s stepson, Paul Winters:
Gahan is suffering from severe dementia. We have helped him through the stages of the disease and he is currently not doing very well.
My mother, and his wife of fifty-three years, Nancy Winters, passed away on March 2, 2019. She was his rock. His guide through the world. While we all helped with his care, it was my mother who grounded him. He is currently distraught and out of sorts with the world.
Memory care is needed immediately. Gahan and my mother had been residing in an assisted living facility in Arizona. With my mother’s passing, the facility is about to discharge him. We must find him a memory care facility immediately. Memory care is wildly expensive. More so than assisted living. If we could cover the cost ourselves, we would. We can’t, and Gahan and my mother did not save for anything like this. We are asking his fans to help us, help Gahan.
Visit GoFundMe and help one of our great cartoonists find his way: Help with Cartoonist Gahan Wilson’s Memory Care at GoFundMe.
Abrian Curington has created Woolmancy, a fascinating graphic novel set in another time, place, and world. This is quite a fun work of fantasy. It’s a place of magic, dragons, and kind-hearted people busily creating wondrous items. The main focus is textiles. And the main raw material is wool. Our story takes place in the village of Kanvala. Two promising young weavers have been left in charge of the guild when the master must leave on urgent business. Reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mirin and Satski are loaded down with formidable responsibility and must rise to the challenges up ahead.
Ms. Curington is a very resourceful storyteller. She does a wonderful job of sustaining the narrative pace. And her artwork is very enchanting. The character development is spot on. The reader gets to know the main characters well and wants to root for them. Mirin can be stubborn and leads the way. Satski can be cautious and loyal. Between the two of them, they must solve a mystery and save their village. All in all, it’s a great all-ages tale. It reminds me of some of the titles coming out of First Second, like Faith Erin Hicks’s Nameless City trilogy.
When it comes to spotting new talent, it’s important to set aside flashy trends and gimmickry. It’s important to appreciate and acknowledge integrity and originality. I see quality work here and I look forward to seeing more. Abrian Curington is leading the way with family-friendly comics. It is an exciting journey. Here’s a quote from her website:
I decided to just make simple, visual stories. I wanted everyone to be able to experience them, nothing you’d have to hide from little eyes. I wanted each story to take readers on an adventure that lifts them out of their tired, stressed states. Or to add to the joy they’re already experiencing!
Jonathan Santlofer is a successful artist and novelist. I had the privilege of hearing him read recently as he shared the stage with two other distinguished writers, Neal Thompson and Wendy C. Ortiz, at a panel on memoir writing at Hugo House in Seattle. Later, in person, I asked Mr. Santlofer if he ever considered doing a graphic novel, given his facility with words and images, and he said he’d love to do it! He’s on my radar right now. His book, The Widower’s Notebook, is quite a page-turner. I went to the Tin Table for a late dinner and couldn’t put it down. The waitress even said I could stay as long as I wanted. After making some time for the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I kept reading the next day and finished in another sitting. What I got from this book is a riveting narrative covering a heart-wrenching time in the author’s life.
Mr. Santlofer has an uncanny observational style: you believe you’re with him. His writing is vivid and carries you along even when he’s writing about not feeling up to doing anything at all. It’s the mark of not only a good writer but an excellent writer to allow you into a life without you being aware of any of the effort involved. This is a story of a most significant loss, the death of one’s life partner. Santlofer achieves a level of the sublime by simply being in the moment. He does with his writing what he does with his drawings: evoke a sense of the hyperreal. You are really there with the author as he finds his wife, Joy, dying before his eyes, the subsequent rush to the hospital, and the frenetic tripping through memories.
We follow along as Santlofer reflects upon a grand life beginning with a young bohemian couple, just married, in Brooklyn, circa 1967. We progress in a stream of consciousness fashion from the birth of Dorie, his beloved daughter, to the recent death of Joy to the building up of a new life. The act of drawing helps with the act of mourning–drawings work when words seem to fail or seem to be not enough. There’s a touch of magic to art-making and it seems most explicit when examining an intimate and intricately crafted drawing. The excerpt below speaks to this process:
“I am able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it. You can’t think: this is an eye, or a nose, or lips, or you will not be able to draw them; an eye, a nose, lips are all the same, simply marks on a page.
Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she in no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I am not sitting in a dark room crying over a photo of my dead wife; I am at my drawing table, working.
Grief is chaotic; art is order. Ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion, when in fact the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others.”
A drawing is a complicated thing.
Santlofer’s book is about dying and about living. It is as much about mourning as it is about relationships, family, and the creative process. Indeed, art can save your life and Santlofer’s book eloquently and passionately speaks to perseverance and purpose.
The Widower’s Notebook is a 272-page paperback with illustrations, published by Penguin Random House.
James Burns is a very interesting cartoonist. It was a pleasure last year to review his work. A Life Half-Forgotten is an impressive piece of memoir comics, or “autobio,” as this work is commonly referred to within comics circles. Burns taps into his childhood with a confidence and curiosity that sets the bar high. It challenges and inspires each of us to reach back and take a closer look into the past.
Analyzing one’s childhood can be a daunting task. Where to begin? As an exercise in recovering memory alone, you have quite a job ahead of you. When did life truly begin for you? For Burns, life seems to have begun in preschool as he dutifully accepted a box of crayons at the start of the day. He goes on to write and draw his way to insightful observations. All the forgotten traumas come home to roost. Burns made it his goal to sift through the big and small details and see what mattered most. This is a childhood in a Central Ohio suburbia during the 60s and 70s. With great care, and a good dose of humor, Burns explores the high and low points: freedom and privilege as well as murder and divorce.
A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns
Burns plays with that special ambiguity inherent in comics as he casts himself in this first-person narrative. We have Burns at the beginning playing host followed by him appearing to walk back into his childhood past. He is now a child but he appears to remain an adult. His face retains the same mature features in many panels but also seems to shift to a softer and younger version in other panels. The results, for my tastes, give the scenes an added edge. These are all memories, after all, with a dream-like tone. The black & white with gray tones also helps to heighten the sense of searching into the past.
As Burns puts it, we are all dealing with fragments when it comes to our personal memory. One person paints a picture based on childhood while a sibling paints another. We are summoning up phantoms. We are asking our phantoms to dance again. Burns points out that his recollections seek a greater truth. He acknowledges that he wasn’t concentrating on capturing anyone’s likeness. Instead, he wanted to try to understand things better like the tragic death of a classmate.
Now, I’ll get back to this wonderful tension between the adult Burns seeking out his childhood self, with Burns depicting himself as a child but with an adult’s face. It makes for some very compelling passages. I think I like best where he looks back at how much he enjoyed wearing a Superman costume for Halloween when he was seven years-old. He loved it so much that he ended up wearing the costume on a regular basis underneath his street clothes, just like Clark Kent! It’s such a sweet and innocent recollection–and there’s a depiction of Burns, as a child in a Superman costume but with an adult’s face. It’s an scene filled with haunting melancholy and one of the more striking images I’ve seen in comics this year.
Actually, there are more scenes I could get into. I’ll also mention here the birthday party for Burns when he turned six. That’s another passage that I find very moving. The conflict between nostalgia and truth can take a rest here. For one moment of pure joy, Burns is having a grand time with friends in his backyard. He’s having cake and ice cream. And he gets to play with the most amazing toy fire engine, his featured birthday gift. You attach a garden hose to its side and it gushes out water through its tiny fire hose! I would have loved one of those toys!
A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns
The murky world of memory is evoked quite well and Burns manages to snare some of his childhood ghosts. He manages to sit down with them, talk to them, play with them, and reach some sort of closure. This book invites the reader to do the same.
Visit James Burns right here. You can find A Life Half-Forgotten at Amazon right here.
Winnie-the-Pooh and an all grown up Christopher Robin.
Imagination has its own reality. Imagination is strongest in childhood. It takes a certain sensibility to carry you back into that world once you’re an adult. In the new movie, Christopher Robin, we see the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s vulnerable stuff. It’s made up of dream-like creatures like Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Piglet. In this movie, we see A. A. Milne’s celebrated characters from Hundred Acre Wood depicted as the very creatures of childhood we remember them as in our mind’s eye.
Winnie-the-Pooh and an all grown up Christopher Robin. This clever idea is refined into something much more. These two seemed to be like two peas in pod: dreamers in pursuit of nothing, happily stumbling upon something because sometimes something comes from nothing. And then the boy had to leave for boarding school and the greater world beyond and bid farewell to his childhood friends who had to stay behind. It is the grown-up Christopher Robin, played by Ewan McGregor, who must reconcile his youthful dreams with his adult reality.
Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends.
A movie about an adult coming to terms with his childhood may sound a bit heavy but it fits right in with the Disney cornerstone of embracing childhood. Any family understands the delicate balancing act between honoring the needs of adults and children. Conflicts are never too far behind. Christopher Robin, the man, is up to his eyeballs in conflict as he juggles family life with corporate life. It is on the weekend that Christopher must work overtime on budget cuts, and most likely layoff workers, that Winnie-the-Pooh stumbles back into his life.
The beauty of this movie is in its understatement, alternating between a foggy and hectic post-war London to a foggy and mellow Hundred Acre Wood. And, at the heart of this low-key approach, is Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. These characters do not light up the screen with manic frenzy like in the Toy Story franchise. Even Tigger gives off a more ambiguous vibe. These characters are not supposed to be so much larger-than-life as part of the stuff of life. You have to experience the movie for yourself to truly appreciate it. Essentially, the characters have been brought down to a childhood scale: sort of rumpled up as if left out in the rain once or twice. They look and feel as if lived-in, as if personifying childhood: milk and cookies, warm pajamas, and bedhead. What could be more wonderful?
Whimsy and Quirk Butt Heads with Harsh Reality.
Ah, the conflict between adult reality and childhood dreams. Thankfully, Ewan McGregor is up to the task of playing a Peter Pan in reverse. He is definitely all grown up and now must struggle to rediscover his inner child. McGregor, a naturally athletic and playful actor, is certainly up to the task. Also compelling is Hayley Atwell as Evelyn Robin. And, as the heir to the Pooh childhood, Bronte Carmichael is enchanting as Madeline Robin. All in all, you have just the right level of whimsy and ethereal quirk. I should mention here that The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers, written by Richard and Robert Sherman, gets it due as Tigger is easily triggered into singing it in any scene he’s in.
For late summer entertainment, Christopher Robin is just right. Think of it as the other side of a coin that includes Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. While the Cruise flick is relentlessly action-packed, the McGregor flick is relentlessly contemplative, even a bit melancholic, but in a very good way. Come to think of it, even the Cruise movie has its share of wistful moments! Both star men who somehow manage to defy age. Both can be Peter Pan if they care to be. And both can certainly entertain.
Visit the official Christopher Robin site right here.
An honest portrayal of youth can make for a revelatory and refreshing movie, which is exactly what Eighth Grade is. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, it follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) during her last five days in middle school. It is easily the highlight to this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.
You have to let kids be kids, and then maybe some magic can happen. That is the approach Burnham takes while still being able to craft a finely-structured script beforehand. At the start, there is this jittery and spontaneous vibe as we see raw and pixelated footage of Kayla talking about herself and kids in general on her YouTube channel. She stammers, she seems to just speak in circles. But it’s all actually in the script, word for word–and wonderfully performed by Elsie Fisher. And then, as it was later revealed to the audience at SIFF, it was Fisher’s idea to add in her own trademark sign-off. She makes an O-kay sign and says, “Gucci.” 27-year-old Burnham claimed to not know the popular meme reference prior to 15-year-old Fischer offering it up.
To tap into vulnerable and awkward youth is one of those mighty artistic quests. As a celebrated multi-talent in his own right, Burnham is certainly up to that ambitious goal. For filmmakers and writers, it is a right of passage to answer the call to addressing the whole issue of coming of age. That has resulted in everything from George Lucas’s American Graffiti to Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of course, the list goes on. Too often, such a teen flick is cast with older characters. You raise the bar higher when you have actors that are also actual teenagers, like in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club.
Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade
You feel like you want to protect Kayla as she ventures out, looking for love, friends, and a purpose in life. At first, I was sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop and we find that Kayla is going to be setup and hurt along the lines of Stephen King and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Well, for one thing, this movie definitely does not fall within the horror genre. Still, there’s that fear for Kayla along the lines of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with a wickedly unstable Ingrid played by Aubrey Plaza. What will help Kayla stay safe? Part of the answer is her father, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton. He ends up getting a healthy amount of screen time which is greatly deserved. By providing this warm and sensitive parent as a counterbalance, there are clear signs of hope beyond the rabbit hole of social media.
After that first flickering image of young and desperate Kayla attempting to engage with the internet, there are various scenes that drive home the point that Kayla’s life is severely isolated. This begs the question of whether Kayla is closer to being an at-risk misfit or being a typical teen. What we come to find is that Kayla is indeed far more closer to what we are all like than we may care to admit. Kayla struggles to fit in with the “cool kids,” battles her painful shyness, and is mortified time and again on her journey of self-discovery. The coming-of-age theme is not the great Moby Dick prize for ambitious talent to harpoon for nothing. It IS the prize that can blind lesser aspirants. Burnham does well to let his young cast help him keep his clarity while he’s at the helm. In the end, we can all enjoy an authentic experience and give it an O-Kay sign and say, “Gucci.”
Eighth Grade goes into wide release in the U.S. on July 13, 2018.