A decade ago, in a smallish Swiss comics shop, I could identify only two American artists, or (memory doubtful here) perhaps three. Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Joe Sacco’s Palestine. And on a back shelf, evidently dating from years earlier, Gilbert Shelton’s Fat Freddy’s Cat. Robert Crumb had slipped from a high perch, and Shelton, an entertainer always more popular among Young Europeans, was rapidly receding into the past. During the last decade, several of the dozens of US titles translated into French would probably have found their way into this little shop, it if survives. But we can be sure that the first famed Sacco volumes would have stood alongside others of the same artist. He has the pen that seems almost mightier than the swords, planes, bombs, devastated populations and the rest of the war horrors that have made up his journalistic work.
To call Sacco “American” is a bit of a jump. Maltese by origin, we learn in the erudite Disaster Drawn: Virtual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016) by Hillary L. Shute (co-editor of Mega-Maus) that Sacco grew up with family stories of bombings and death during the Second World War, missing relatives and all the rest. War has never, Shute says, not been part of his life. Did Sacco escape the endless warscape by replanting himself in the US northwest? Not hardly. As a visual journalist of war’s horrors, he has placed himself in harm’s way in the Balkans and Gaza, among other places. This time around he finds another war, but it is the war of centuries and the fighting is what the Pentagon has come to call Low Intensity: the War against Canada’a native populations.
“This is going to end the world.”
Paying the Land is a stunning work, both alike and strikingly different from his earlier journeys into suffering and survival. It is substantially an oral history, and as a trip-weary oral historian, I can appreciate the contrasting points of “orality” (memory expressed by an interviewee) and “history” (a different kind of record). Sacco is trying to do both, no easy thing, and at the same time, to present them visually. With himself as part of the book’s story.
He meets a large handful of tale-tellers who are central, but he determinedly makes the trip himself into Canada’s distant North, in a used pickup-truck, over roads that turn into non-roads, ever further to the land of the Dene, the grouping of related tribes. There, the subsistence economy thousands of years old has been replaced, but only with deep contradictions, by the oil economy.
A couple of generations ago, good jobs appeared for men able to open the land up to drilling, mainly by cutting trees. For a while now, they have demanded controls including their own observation of the drilling process, down to the toxic chemicals pumped into the ground. They can watch the despoliation of the landscape, the lakes and streams, and the inevitable decline across the scope of the animal population. But what choice do they have?
“I remember our lives being led by the environment.”
Sacco takes an invaluable step backward in time, through oral histories, to the forced assimilation ongoing since the nineteenth century but intensified after the Second World War. The many cruelties of Catholic education have only begun to be redressed in Canada: virtual seizure of children from villages into towns, violent punishment for speaking aloud in native languages, widespread sexual abuse, a violence that turned inward, leading to alcoholism, abuse of children by other children and teens, and a loss of anything like self-identity, including the loss of the older skills and their meanings.
What should the deserted family do? Often, it meant abandoning “life in the bush” to find their children, give them a kind of life, often in a grandparents’ setting, while the parents tried to scratch out a living. Here and there a good priest or nun, with education as something better than cultural extermination.
Neither the families nor Sacco is looking to some recaptured utopia. Life in the backwoods was harsh and in some ways, it was easier to live in even the most modest house equipped with heat, a modern stove, refrigerator and so on. Besides, and this is one of Sacco’s clearest discoveries, there was no going back in any case.
Toward the end of the book, some of the strongest personalities emerge and flower, and most of them are women. They create new cultural institutions to carry on traditions for the next generations, and they help to make life more possible—free of the accursed alcoholism above all—in the present.
Mineral extraction companies are ruthless and the politicians who make their work possible are just as ruthless, even with the added political rhetoric to make things sound better. Against these pressures, tribal leaders try to balance the shifting economy with ecology. Young folks, raised with no language retention, begin to rebuild cultures as much as possible, networking from sub-group to sub-group.
The book closes with a memorable festival of Dene young people and perhaps that is the most hopeful thing imaginable, Not to await some outside force to heal them or to accept that their inferiority, as a culture, means that they need assimilation for healing.
This is quite a message, delivered in stirring Sacco style, with perhaps less of a Sacco-presence or irony than is usual with him. It’s quite a book.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
Titan. by François Vigneault. Oni Press, Portland, OR, 2020. 202pp, $19.99.
François Vigneault is one of the most original and fun cartoonists out there today. If you have not checked out his Titan comics, this is the perfect time since Oni Press presents a new collection of the series coming out November 10, 2020. Consider this an advance review. I will follow up with another Titan-related post closer to the release date. It is often said that the best science fiction has a timeless quality as well as comments with precision on its own time. Titan certainly is relevant to our tumultuous times full of protest. Meet João da Silva and Phoebe Mackintosh: one is a member of the ruling elite; the other is a member of the exploited working class. It is the not-too-distant future, about a hundred years from now. The old mining colony of Homestead, on a moon of Titan, is steadily working its way to obsolescence. In order to try to salvage the situation, MGR First Class da Silva arrives on the scene from HQ, planet Terra. His liaison officer is one of the best workers, Phoebe. What could go wrong? For starters, João and Phoebe immediately sense some hot chemistry between them. Meanwhile, the entire order of things is coming apart at the seams.
Page from TITAN
Vigneault has a very vivid and direct drawing style. Whether he draws with a pen and paper or directly on a digital tablet, he has nailed quite a fluid and expressive line. This is a wonderfully cartoony style with an immediate impact that attracts the reader to the characters and action. Vigneault has a way of evoking emotion that holds its own with any other drawing style with its authenticity. I don’t feel a false note anywhere. Any reader will get hooked into what becomes of João and Phoebe and, by extension, the rest of Homestead, even the whole freaking solar system! In the grand science fiction tradition, the fate of worlds depends upon these two–but also with a touch of irony to boot. This isn’t your father’s sci-fi, after all.
I’ll tell you one thing. Vigneault manages to pull off one of the trickiest of metaphors. In lesser hands, I think this would have felt like a heavy-handed gambit. The ruling class from Terra appear tiny in comparison to the Titan workers, genetically modified for maximum efficiency. When João and Phoebe become lovers, the symbolism is totally brought home, and the stark contrast is pretty powerful, even beautiful. João and Phoebe, as different as they are, fit together. João is small and nimble. Phoebe is large and strong. João can’t help but bring up his concern over whether he is big enough for her to which Phoebe reassures him that “size doesn’t matter.” Over the course of their story, the reader comes to appreciate how right they are for each other.
Panel excerpt: Phoebe reassures João.
Comics and graphic novels share much in common. If a comic strip, for example, is done right, it will entice the reader to go through it more than one quick scan. A reader may not even be fully aware of it but it is likely that the comic strip is digested a number of times, as in a loop. The reader seeks the stimulation and goes for repeated rewards. And then it’s time to move on to something else. But, at that moment, a comics loop experience is enjoyed. And so it can, and does, happen with graphic novels. There are certain passages that must be re-visited. Pages to go back to, pages to compare. Some academics theorize that comics are read in an entirely different way when displayed on a gallery wall and perhaps that even hurts the comics experience. Well, I don’t buy it. I say all this because Vigneault has managed to find that sweet spot in making comics where his creation entices the reader to linger, to re-visit, and to revel in the work. Not all comics do that and perhaps some comics creators don’t even factor that in. But Vigneault does.
I really good novel, or movie, or graphic novel, invites repeated consumption. It is built-in. That is going on here with Titan, a story of two star-crossed lovers caught up in events bigger than themselves. If the characters are compelling, the events in question can recede into the background and come up to the forefront as needed. Not all novels are created equal, of course! The point here is that Vigneault, in the driver’s seat as a auteur cartoonist (both writer and artist), fully understands how to drive a story forward. He is someone who would be fun to chat with over an interview. We would discuss process, storytelling in general, as well as social commentary and science fiction. In the end, what we would talk about would be the art of making comics. It’s not easy and, like the most complex of art forms, it seems to require a bit of magic. You will definitely find something magical about this graphic novel with its pacing, symbols, and daring.
Swimming in Darkness, by Lucas Harari, published by Arsenal Pulp, is an exceptional graphic novel on so many levels. It manages to get you to see comics in a totally refreshing way. This is certainly no easy task to accomplish, especially for the serious comics reader who is perhaps a little too primed to expect the unexpected. As for me, I am in a privileged positon as a reviewer that folks in the comics industry keep up with. As another year comes to a close, one that leaves us without Tom Spurgeon, one of our beloved leaders in the comics world, I feel all the more determined to pick my comics wisely and keep to meaningful reviews, upholding a standard carried forth by my trailblazing colleagues like Rob Clough, Frank Santoro, and Johanna Draper Carlson, just to name a few. All this comes to mind as I contemplate this book. This is what comics is all about and, if I was to choose just one book to represent what is possible within comics, no one would fault me for choosing this one. It is utterly stylish, graceful, and packed with a finely-tuned sense of suspense.
Pierre is odd man out.
Any good story needs to hook you in and, with this tale, there are plenty of hooks. We begin in Paris, as a downpour compels a man to seek refuge in a tavern. The reader is quickly swept up with intriguing stories, and legends, within other stories, and bits of speculation, hosted by one narrator upon another. We begin with the ghostly narration of presumably the author of the book himself as he kicks off a tale he heard from his father, Harari, the elder, as it were. It’s the father who stumbles in out of the rain and encounters Pierre, our protagonist. It turns out that Pierre was a student of Harari. Pierre had shown great promise during his formal study of architecture up until he abruptly left school. Harari is curious about what became of Pierre’s dazzling academic work. But enough about Harari. Our story quickly takes off to the Swiss Alps as Pierre is determined to make up for lost time.
A mystery daring to be solved.
Pierre is marching off in search of the legendary Vals Thermal Baths, designed by the famous Swiss architect Paul Zumthor, ensconced deep within the bowels of a delicate and rarefied resort hotel cradled within the mountain range. It’s been said that a secret passage connecting the thermal baths to the heart of the mountain lures a foreigner to his death every hundred years. Enter Pierre! This is such a finely drawn work that compliments, stroke for stroke, such a tightly woven narrative. And then there’s that meticulously modulated color scheme of blue and red maintaining a steady balance, or delicious imbalance of cool and warm. As I’ve said before, here is a prime example of what I believe to be an ideal graphic novel: a highly compelling work created by a cartoonist auteur that is a stand-alone book of about a hundred or so pages. There are so many fine examples and this is absolutely, without a doubt, one of them.
The secrets lie within plain sight.
Swimming in Darkness is a 152 page hardcover, in duotone, with a new English translation by David Homel, published by Arsenal Pulp. For more details, visit Arsenal Pulp right here.
The Empire State Building looms large over Alonzo.
“To finally have this collaboration between two giants available in a single volume is a gift for which we can only hope to be worthy.” — Howard Chaykin
Sometimes, a book is placed under my nose and I just can’t stop reading. So it is with Family Man, the crime noir graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and drawn by Joe Staton. This is a deluxe edition to the 1995 series by Paradox Press, an imprint of DC Comics. This new 2019 edition is by It’s Alive and IDW Publishing. For a brief moment, both publishers were working together. What matters most is that this book packs a wallop, full of the grim and gritty underbelly of New York City that novelist Jerome Charyn knows so well. As is the case here at Comics Grinder, while we enjoy sharing images from books with you, we also don’t rely on it so much to the exclusion of thoughtful reviews. That said, let’s take a closer look at a book that well deserves it.
Alonzo pays his respects and kisses Don Furioso’s hand.
As a reviewer who also happens to be a cartoonist, I can tell you on an intimate level that this is a very special book. It’s a perfect pairing of writer and artist. Both Staton and Charyn are not holding back anything while also working as a team. Charyn is busy condensing his prose to the perfect concise distillation. Staton is busy letting loose with his highly expressive line ever mindful of disciplined efficiency and consistency. Both are being the artists they were born to be, both working on the same page. Take a look at the panel above. A whole story, a whole way of life, is held together in that one rectangle. Staton is depicting a connection between two brute men. Alonzo is the Mafia hitman showing respect. Don Furioso is the kingpin in decline who has been reduced to fretting over his colon.
Family Man page excerpt
We can see that Alonzo and the don are both past their prime and yet remain quite deadly creatures with no immediate plans to depart this earth. To that end, Alonzo the mob’s hitman, fixer, and “family man,” has been assigned the job of killing a band of rogue assassins who are bent on killing off all the Mafia dons in the city. It won’t be an easy task for Alonzo by any means. Add to the mix Charles, his own brother, the local Monsignor who works for the NYPD. If the killers don’t get him, Alonzo’s own brother just might.
Family Man page excerpt
Let’s take a moment to skip back to Joe Staton’s artwork. If you examine the above examples, you’ll start to focus in on the distinctive shades running throughout. Before everything went digital, artists had to be rather crafty about finding ways to create tones to spice up black & white line art. One way was with the use of a special bristol board that was embedded with shading inside the board. Applying a brush that had been dipped into a special solution would reveal the shading hidden within the board. What tones ended up making it to the surface were dependent upon the artist’s choice of brushstrokes. It’s my guess that Staton had a hefty stockpile of Duotone board at his disposal. By the early ’90s, around the time of the creation of this graphic novel, this old-fashioned board was pretty much already extinct. Staton probably had hoarded more than enough of this board going back decades. The results are stunning, of course, and it would take some doing to even try to come close to emulating it in Photoshop. Staton has a clean sharp style to begin with so this special shading technique was really just an option, an option that he makes the most of in this book.
Greetings from the Bronx Boys
With Family Man, Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton create their very own crime noir mythos. Alonzo, the mob hitman, and Charles, his monsignor brother, have numerous tales to tell and to act out. The setting, the mood, and the attitude all add up to an edgy good time. Joe Staton (Batman, Green Lantern) seems to channel the best of the work he’s done during his impressive career. He also seems to offer a tip of the hat to Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Jerome Charyn plays with various crime fiction tropes and brings in his unique sensibility as evidenced by his critically-acclaimed Isaac Seidel crime novel series. Alonzo is a “family man” in more ways than one. He used to be a true family man with a wife and kids. Later on, he became a family man to the mob alone. And, to further frustrate and complicate matters, he finds himself in mortal conflict with his only remaining member of flesh and blood family, his brother, Charles, the man of god who is not what he seems. As Charyn and Staton drop each layer of the narrative into place, the reader becomes all the more invested in the outcome.
Family Man page excerpt
A satisfying narrative, whatever the medium, is made up of a finely spun web of action, deliberation, long and short pauses, and a resolution that resonates, perhaps even transcends. It’s a matter of a myriad of creative choices and observations, big and small. Bit by bit, it all comes into focus: Alonzo, our big hefty protagonist, seems up to any challenge given enough time to digest a hoagie. Something about a certain metropolis is forever swirling in the background, and creeping into the foreground. New York City welcomes everyone but it coddles no one. Better to be tough, tough it out. A flamboyant so-called “man of god ‘ should wear a cloak or cape. And Alonzo better have a secret weapon. All the hoods eat hoagies too. Lastly, in the end, all the corruption, filth, mayhem, and blood lust tallies up. Maybe nobody gets the girl, like they used to in the movies. It’s all set “one hour into the future” with a crime-ridden New York City on her knees! But Alonzo will prevail, one way or another, and live or die as a “family man.”
Family Man, published by It’s Alive and IDW
I welcome everyone, especially my longtime readers, to check out the video review below. I invite you all to like, subscribe, do whatever you like to engage with, the Comics Grinder YouTube channel. Comics Grinder welcomes your support, as always, to help expand our reach and scope with your feedback and general goodwill! Take a look:
Family Man, by Jerome Charyn & Joe Staton, is a 300-page hardcover. For more details, and how to purchase, visit IDW Publishing right here.
The shapeshifter is one of the most misunderstood character archetypes. It is familiar while also shrouded in mystery. And you can find some in unexpected places. How about Kafka’s 1915 classic “The Metamorphosis”? In the novel, Gregor Samsa turns into a cockroach. That makes him a shapeshifter. Alright, I said it. Not a pretty sight. Not something out of Harry Potter. And yet, Kafka would have you look within and ask how close you are to the life of an insect. In Chris W. Kim’s new graphic novel, “Herman by Trade,” he takes a decidedly offbeat approach to shapeshifting. In the case of his main character, Herman, he emerges from a Kafka-like existence and is saved by his unique ability to shape shift.
The post-screening Q&A.
Kim begins with some spot on workplace satire that mirrors the bigger picture that lies ahead. Herman is part of a sanitation crew based at the city waterfront. Within the pecking order, Herman is viewed by his co-workers as a dowdy stay-at-home. But Herman has other plans when he goes to a special screening of a cult hit movie. He knows enough to go in costume. But he knows nothing about this celebrated film until he asks the girl at the ticket booth. She informs him that “Gare” is an intimate portrait of street performers. That’s good enough for Herman to join the die-hard fans in the crowded theater.
Art imitates life imitates art.
With a light and subtle touch, Kim reveals Herman’s journey. It all begins that night in that movie theater. MIO, the film’s director, announces to wild applause that she is going to film a sequel to “Gare” and she invites anyone in the city to come audition at the waterfront. Herman’s fate is sealed. He must be part of the excitement of this momentous event. And, as this graphic novel unfolds, one can’t help but be captivated by Kim’s ambitious vision. He has the backstory of the film and its sequel; the mileu of film buffs; and Herman emerging from his inner world to a much more complex inner world.
Reading HERMAN BY TRADE.
Herman’s goal to be cast in MIO’s new film turns out to be pretty daunting. How will Herman succeed while being so out of his element? In order to even survive, Herman must adapt and that involves shapshifting! Herman, despite all outward appearances, is no cockroach! Kim’s artwork is a marvelous mix of delicate and exuberant. He gently and slyly guides us. All the while, we are viewing not a roach, but a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon in order to triumphantly spread its butterfly wings.
Reading Chris W. Kim’s “Herman by Trade.”
HERMAN BY TRADE is a 120-page hardcover, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. For more details, visit Abrams right here.
“Steve McQueen in Le Mans” by Sandro Garbo and Garbo Studio
“Steve McQueen in Le Mans” is a new graphic novel by Swiss artist Sandro Garbo that brings to life in heroic fashion a movie steeped in heroic fashion. It’s more than that. This is what a graphic novel can do when it aims for the stars and pulls out all the stops. This is the first book in a series and it knocks your socks off!
The pit crew gathers.
If you were a young and hip guy, like Steve McQueen, you not only closely followed race car driving, you were a race car driver. Certainly, the popularity of racing has never dimmed. But it was definitely riding a special crest of cool in McQueen’s day. In 1970, McQueen decided to honor his passion by starring in a film about a fictional 24-hour race at Le Mans. While the movie was not a box office hit, it has become a cult favorite. What Sandro Garbo and his team of artists have done is give the whole movie project a high sheen of luster capturing the excitement in a most compelling manner.
The worlds of comics and cinema are both similar and quite distinct from each other. Some things that work in a movie do not carry over so well in comics or will work in a whole different way. Where the movie, with its heavy cinéma vérité style allows the camera to gorge on each and every detail it picks up, this graphic novel adaptation chooses wisely on what to focus upon.
Gambling with your life.
Garbo Studio has distilled what makes the McQueen movie so cool. A lot of what is going on in the movie, and in this book, is a study in cool. I’m not sure there’s one thing wrong with the movie except for satisfying more of a niche audience. The graphic novel, by virtue of its audacious vision, exemplary composition and artistry, simply soars on its own unique merits.
Essentially, all you need to know is that Steve McQueen plays the role of race car driver Michael Delaney. He has a rival who he is determined to give his comeuppance. There are thrills and chills. Both the movie and the book are visually gorgeous in their own ways. Both are as cool as hell. This is a big coffee table art book that will satisfy just about anyone, no prior interest in race cars required.
“Steve McQueen in Le Mans” is a 64-page full-color hardcover, 10″ x 13.5,” published by Garbo Studio. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Garbo Studio right here.
Wren McDonald is a cartoonist and illustrator. His illustrations appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, The Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, and many other places. His first full-length graphic novel, a quirky cyberpunk thriller, “SP4RX,” was recently published by Nobrow Press.
If you are in the New York City metro area this weekend, you can see Wren at Comic Arts Brooklyn. CAB is taking place this weekend with the main event this Saturday, November 5th, at Mt. Carmel Gymnasium, 12 Havemeyer Street, from 11am to 7pm, in beautiful Brooklyn! You can find Wren at CAB, downstairs at Table D31.
Wren McDonald has shot like a rocket since graduating from Ringling College of Art and Design in 2013. Wren has a refreshing take on both comics and illustrations: a rare set of skills, talent, passion, and drive. So, without further ado, here is my interview with Wren McDonald, recorded this Wednesday, as he prepares for Comic Arts Brooklyn.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Wren, if we were to do a virtual tour of your studio, what would we find there?
WREN McDONALD: Well, my studio is my bedroom. So, here’s my bed and here’s my desk. That’s my studio! (Laughter)
That’s the set of circumstances for a lot of cartoonists and illustrators, isn’t it?
Yeah, especially living in New York. It just doesn’t make much financial sense to have a separate studio. But I have plenty of room here. It’s pretty spacious. I can spread out and get my work done. I have a super big desk and an iMac. And I actually have (laughs) the extended studio in the living room! There I have a Lasergraph copier where I print out my mini-comics and zines.
That’s for serious cartoonists.
“Did Trump and Clinton Get a Pass on Education?” illustration for The New Yorker by Wren McDonald
I direct folks who are new to your work to go to your website, wrenmcdonald.com. There you will find a cornucopia of stuff. I’m focusing on one of your current illustrations of Trump and Clinton and they are both sitting in a classroom. These two are hyperreal, larger-than-life, cartoonish. You can’t make them up. Could you give us a window into how you created that illustration?
That illustration was funny because I got the assignment the day before it was due, which was also the day before I was traveling to MICE Expo in Boston, a comics show that I was just at this last weekend. That was like a super rush job which was really intense. The art director at The New Yorker, Rina Kushnir, who is super great, I work with her a lot, she emailed me the article. She said it was last minute but she asked if I could do it. And I said, yes, of course.
Rina needed sketches in the morning and then the final that evening, around 5pm or 6pm. So, that morning, I sent in like four sketches. They were sort of goofy and funny. Like you say, these candidates are already cartoony so it’s easy to characterize them. Rina chose the one she liked. That was at noon. From that point, I got to work on the final and sent it over in the evening.
Those jobs are always pretty stressful but I enjoy doing them a lot because I feel that I work really hard and get a real day’s work in and have something to show for it.
It’s a beautiful illustration.
I wanted to ask you about your evolving into the illustrator you are today. Your work is appearing everywhere. Only a few years ago you were in Florida just starting out. Could you give us the cook’s tour of how you got where you are today.
Sure, I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design, which is in Sarasota, Florida, in 2013. When I was in school, I had a website and was posting things on social media, like Tumblr, and I think that helped me get my feet off the ground in terms of people seeing my work.
From that point, I started going to comics shows like TCAF in Toronto, Comic Arts Brooklyn, and MoCCA. I tabled at TCAF and other shows I would just go to. I’d have mini-comics to give out to help make people aware of me. It’s two different paths, comics and illustration, so I’ll talk about them separately.
The illustration stuff is, like I say, social media and tracking down email contacts and networking. And a lot of promotional stuff. You want to create a portfolio that really looks like editorial illustration. Editorial work has a snowball effect. You start to get jobs and you’re seen as a professional.
CYBER REALM by Wren McDonald
The comics stuff is going to shows and socializing. I was approached by Peow! Studio, based in Sweden, about publishing one of my short stories in of one of their anthologies, “Time Capsule.” I thought that was super cool since I was familiar with their work. I was super excited. I think that was the first comics story that I had published out in the world besides my own stuff online, on Tumblr. Soon after that, I talked to Nobrow about doing a short story (CYBER REALM) for their 17×23 series which is a platform to try out new talent. That’s a small format, just 24 pages. We did that and enjoyed working together. So, Nobrow said they wanted to try something longer. That’s what I wanted to do so it worked out that way.
It’s amazing how quickly things came together. Did you already have an idea of what SP4RX was going to be like while you were working on CYBER REALM or did one work just follow the other?
I didn’t have one story cocked and loaded beforehand. I always hear other cartoonists, or writers, when they talk about their work, saying they had this story they’d been working on since they were 10 years-old and it’s part of an epic world they’ve created. I’m not one of those people. When I sit down to write a story it’s about brainstorming and anything that peaks my interest.
For SP4RX, I’ve always been interested in the cyberpunk genre, especially movies and comics. I wanted to work in that genre. I was already creating work dealing with technology, robots, and dystopian settings. I think it just made a lot of sense to me.
We’re always hearing about the digital versus the physical. I direct people to the comic you did for The Comics Journal. How did that come about?
I’m not sure if Nobrow contacted The Comics Journal, or the other way around, but The Comics Journal approached me about doing one of their A Cartoonist Diary columns. I was all for it since I have the attitude of wanting to try something out and make it work. I had not done diary comics before so I had to think about how to do this. Mine is not a traditional diary comic since it has these fantastical elements to it. Despite it being involved with things I was experiencing, the more apt title to it turned out to be “Not A Cartoonist Diary.” That was a fun project.
Over the years, illustration is deemed dead and then it comes right back. It all runs in cycles. You’re firmly in both the world of comics and illustrations. Some cartoonists, I know, have never printed mini-comics nor done the comic fest circuit. But you love that.
Right! I love making comics, reading comics, and telling stories. I am passionate about my comics work because I am able to draw what I want to draw. Illustration is a fun back and forth since it involves work that I would not necessarily choose to draw: it’s more like a puzzle. Okay, how do I use these images to convey a specific idea, very concisely, to pair with the article? It’s a fun back and forth. Maybe I’ve been working on comics for two weeks straight, and then I get an editorial assignment. That’s great, I can take a break from comics and do an illustration, take a break from having my face too close to the page and switch my train of thought–and vice versa.
SP4RX by Wren McDonald
If we were just chatting, we’d end up talking about books and movies, especially science fiction and cyberpunk. I imagine that “Videodrome” must be a favorite for you.
I do love “Videodrome.” David Cronenberg is amazing but I don’t think that “Videodrome” had a specific influence on SP4RX. Instead, concerning SP4RX, I had just read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” which I thought was like the coolest book ever. It is considered “cool.” I wanted to make something “super cool” like that! I’d always been into “Akira” by Katsuhiro Otomo. And “Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow and his Appleseed series. And movies like Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” or “Robocop.” Or James Cameron’s “Terminator II.” “The Matrix.” “Aliens.” Stuff like that. I wanted to do something in the vein of that genre.
Let’s focus back on SP4RX: a super hacker going up against corporate enslavement. How close are we today to corporate enslavement?
There’s a lot of parallels that I was drawing from. Basic stuff that I’d see on the news. Even just going about my day-to-day, going shopping or whatever, that would end up in SP4RX. It’s a world with hover cars and sci-fi elements but there are plenty of parallels to our real world throughout. For example, I’d be watching some crazy video on YouTube with one newscaster harassing another newscaster and I would basically copy and paste that into the book. Within a sci-fi setting, you can focus on the human element. You don’t get caught up in a specific nation or political agenda. It’s just people in this science fiction world.
Everyone may not get a hover car but we’ve got plenty of the weird and nefarious stuff already. What do you think about Edward Snowden and us being monitored? The future is here.
Yeah, it makes me think that the cyberpunk genre and movement is more relevant than ever. When the internet was first coming about, that genre seemed so cheesy. It’s fun to laugh about it but there’s so much of it that’s relevant. Like you say, that NSA stuff is really happening. It’s important to pay attention to that and be aware.
Panel excerpt from SP4RX
Is there anything you’d like folks to know about that you are currently doing?
It depends upon when you think this post will go up. There’s Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend.
I can push things up and get this out by Friday. I’d love to go to CAB. I have my own book I’m working on that is very much science fiction oriented. It’s about the science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson. His career and life’s journey has a very intriguing arc. He began with writing the story for the Rat Pack classic, “Ocean’s Eleven” and crescendoed with co-writing the novel that was the basis for the cult classic, “Logan’s Run.”
Oh, yeah, that movie has a nice sci-fi cheesy quality.
Well, the thing with George was that he kept to his set of values and the integrity of his storytelling. “Logan’s Run” is an example of a big studio having its own ideas on what the story should be. It’s totally fun though and I think a remake would be great. The original novel is very different. I think you’d enjoy it.
I will check it out.
Comic Arts Brooklyn
But getting back to CAB.
Yes, I will be at Comic Arts Brooklyn this Saturday, November 5th. You can find me downstairs at Table D31. So, come by and say hello! And I have a new mini-comic that will debut at CAB and then be available on my site which is called, “Dirt Dart,” a 12-page story about a soldier lost on another planet.
Well, it’s been fun talking with you, Wren. I know that you’re having the time of your life.
Yes, staying busy!
Thanks so much, Wren.
Thank you, Henry. When you’re in New York, stop by and we can have a drink.
You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below. I did not make any edits so you’ll pick up on some slight differences from the transcription which is a smoother read. One thing to mention here is that I was not aware of the title, SP4RX, being pronounced “Sparks.” I must have been firmly in the mindset of George Lucas and his 1971 classic, THX 1138:
SP4RX is out now. Find it at Nobrow Press right here. Visit Wren McDonald right here. And, if you are in the New York City metro area, be sure to visit Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend. Visit CAB right here.
“The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir,” by Riad Sattouf, is a must-read for anyone interested in a story that helps to illuminate the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. As I was preparing this review this weekend, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran over events that heated the tension between the Sunni majority and the Shitte minority. Brought down to an intimate level, in the spirit of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Sattouf’s graphic novel takes us into a part of the world many of us would like to understand better.
Riad Sattouf provides us with a amazing tale spanning his earliest years, from birth up to age six, in this first part to his memoirs. Told from a child’s point of view, it is eye-opening and honest. But it’s also told from a no-holds-barred adult’s point of view. Sattouf was a contributor to the controversial satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo. What this extended narrative helps to do is give some insight into a certain way of seeing and a certain sense of humor that may challenge readers the further away they are from the scene. Sattouf is in a unique position to undertake such a work having been born into a family with a Syrian father and a French mother.
No doubt, this is not a sentimental journey. And, while it is educational, this is not suitable for children. I’d say late teens on up. Above all, this is a fascinating story with a whimsical and surprising energy. We follow little Riad literally from his earliest days as a cute towhead frolicking in innocence. And, little by little, we see that innocence chipped away.
Sattouf depicts his father as both bookish/academic and crude/uncouth. His mother he depicts as refined but ultimately subservient to her husband. And Sattouf cannot help but dwell on the backwardness and the darkness he believes he may have witnessed in the Middle East at such a young age. He regularly describes the Arabs he comes in contact with in terms of the sweat he smells from them. While that is more of the child’s-eye at play, it speaks to a special tension the author is dealing with. Sattouf sees himself, like Marjane Satrapi, as an ultimate outsider. As the book’s title ironically states, it is little Riad who is in conflict with the idea of being the Arab of the future.
Aside from the portrait of young Riad, the portraits of Libya under Gaddafi and Syria under Assad are quite interesting. We get a firsthand look at Gaddafi’s attempt at creating a utopia with free housing for everyone. There’s only one catch: you can’t lock your home. So, if someone else comes by in need of a home, and you’re not around, they can take it over. Assad’s Syria, during a relatively peaceful time, looks like a war zone.
Sattouf’s father, full of idealism and for his own selfish reasons, brings his family to live in very challenging conditions in Libya and Syria. To make it worse, Sattouf would be moved back and forth so he had life in Paris to factor in as well. It was to be a life layered in conflict on many levels. Which brings us back to Sattouf’s connection with Charlie Hebdo and its controversy and tragedy. The biggest problem that a provocative one panel gag cartoon has is that it is a provocative one panel gag cartoon. However, with a graphic novel, you have a much better chance to deal with a myriad of thoughts and emotions running a lifetime, running generations. So, yes, this book will provoke. You should know that. But it is definitely worth reading.
“The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir” is a 160-page trade paperback published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. For more details, visit the book’s site right here.
“When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes” is a graphic memoir by Phil Gerigscott in which he ostensibly describes his struggles with Lyme disease. Consider the Lyme disease a bonus. If you’ve ever faced Lyme disease, there’s definitely much to relate with here. However, there’s lots more too. As in any life, one cannot live by Lyme disease alone. What you end up with here is a touching and very funny look at a young couple as they embark upon a life together with all its many challenges and joys. And you also get an honest account of one man’s journey to get answers about Lyme disease.
This amounts to a journal created in a shorthand form of comics. The drawings are simple and serve to document as well as provide comedy relief. Gerigscott even points out that all the comics in his book were drawn during a certain time: October 2014 through March 2015. If you know anything about Lyme disease, know that it is a risk you take when venturing into the great wilderness. It is there that you, the urban dweller, are out of your element and at the mercy of all these foreign elements, like deer ticks which carry the disease.
Gerigscott begins his story with where he first got a deer tick bite in early June 2012. It was on North Manitou Island near the northwest coast of Michigan. At the time, he thought he’d gotten the little sucker good. He had burned it off his thigh. That was his first mistake. As he later learned, by burning the insect, Phil had caused the little bug to vomit bacteria into his bloodstream. Not good. But then life happens and one distraction leads to another. Soon enough, Phil has forgotten about that particular incident. His next mistake. This results in a long journey of discovery as Phil tries out various cures for his mysterious muscle and joint pain that leads him to suspect a laundry list of possible causes.
“When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes” is a 155-page, black-and-white, hand-drawn graphic memoir. It is a very funny book with a distinctive voice thoughtfully covering the subject of Lyme disease as well as: young adulthood, travel, partnership, mayonnaise, and ghosts in top hats. Lyme disease is not exactly a laughing matter and can, in fact, be deadly. But, thanks to this book and its quirky humor, we can gain some insight along with some laughs.
“When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes” is currently available for pre-order. For more details, go right here. You can also visit Phil here.
Christian Dior at work on a new collection at his country house.
Annie Goetzinger has quite a light touch to her drawings that manage to speak volumes. It is one thing to draw pretty women in chic settings and quite another to convey the humanity and complexity behind the story. Goetzinger’s graphic novel, “Girl in Dior,” does just that with her behind-the-scenes look at the life and work of legendary fashion designer Christian Dior.
The launch of a “New Look.”
The House of Dior, at 30 Avenue Montaigne, was meant to evoke a cross between Louis XVI and the dawn of the 20th Century. It was to be made up of white paneling, pearl gray satin, taffeta lampshades, and discretely placed bouquets and kentia palms. It was not based upon anyone’s reality but upon Dior’s own childhood daydreams. It was to be the perfect place, the epicenter for high fashion, beginning with the first Dior fashion show for the Spring-Summer collection for 1947.
Amid the refined mayhem that ensues, we meet our main character, Clara Nohant, a budding fashion columnist. It is through the fictional Clara that we can savor certain key moments and get a sense of the world of Dior. As only a graphic novel can offer, we can get very specific upon what you view and linger upon. In the right hands, this results in such a masterpiece as this. Goetzinger is a master cartoonist. She well knows that she cannot show you every last detail. Instead, she must pick and choose.
She spends a good portion of time simply reveling in that special moment that was the launch of the House of Dior. After all, it sent shockwaves throughout the fashion world and led women, around the world, to consider lowering their hemlines. Having given the reader a solid grounding on that event, she quickens the pace. Clara goes from one major blunder to landing herself the role as the latest model to join the Dior inner circle.
This book is a delight to read through and through. Some books you keep, and this one is a keeper. The art is stunning in how it works within the confines of elegant refinement. Goetzinger’s background in fashion illustration serves her well as she effortlessly captures the flow of fabric and the carriage and grace of the models. And her stylish line is complimented by her gorgeous use of watercolor. In her hands, the fashion world, while always cool and detached, never goes cold. In the end, there’s a warm human touch to this tale of high fashion.
“Girl in Dior” is a 128-page full color hardcover, priced at $27.99, published by NBM Publishing. For more details, visit our friends at NBM right here.
And, if you are in the New York metro area this weekend, be sure to visit the MoCCA Arts Festival and see Annie Goetzinger in person. You’ll be able to see her as part of a panel on writing about the lives of artists:
MoCCA 2015 Programming Spotlight
“Biography: The Lives of Artists”
Sunday, April 12 at the High Line Hotel
12:30 pm in the Rusack Room
Memoir, non-fiction and biography have emerged as significant categories in comics. Comics about artists represent a special challenge: the cartoonist must represent the work of an artist through his or her own visual approach, revealing points of disjunction and harmony. Hyperallergic Senior Editor Jillian Steinhauer will discuss these issues with French comics legend Annie Goetzinger, whose Girl in Dior chronicles the first season of the storied fashion house; James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook, whose 7 Miles a Second was both a biography of and a collaboration with David Wojnarowicz; and Dutch cartoonist Barbara Stok, whose Vincent makes Van Gogh approachable through a style completely unlike his own.
For more details on the MoCCA Arts Festival, go here.