To say that J. Webster Sharp is a visionary comics artist is a very good place to start. I was immediately intrigued by what I saw of her work on her Instagram and I knew I’d need to take a closer look. Having read the last five of her works in comics, I can confidently say that this is someone who tapped into something special early on and continues to blossom. Jemma’s latest book which I’ve received is Fondant #2, and it is easily her most powerful work. This is in-your-face stuff, delving into deep psychological and sexual issues, and bringing to mind such artists as Phoebe Glockner and Renee French. I applaud what she is doing and would like to share a bit of what I’ve observed.
If I’m really being honest, I am fascinated by Jemma’s daring and inventive play with the theme of feet. I’ve always been interested in feet on various levels, not the least of which is as a subject for art. So, it’s nice to see a fellow artist on the same page. Jemma certainly confronts the foot theme from a wide variety of vantage points, spanning from cadavers to tortured cathartic acts. Like much of what she does, feet are rendered in such a way as if encrypted within a larger psychological landscape–especially with her distinctive pointillist style. If you scan the pages too quickly, you might miss a lot. And, if you linger, it can be a combination of unsettling and satisfying. Yes, it pays to be honest. I do so love feet, particularly depicted in unusual and provocative ways. I’m sure there’s a number of stories behind each of these depictions. I like what I see from this very honest and daring artist.
What is so impressive to me about Jemma’s latest book is how she reached a point where she was ready to just completely let loose. This book is totally wordless and confidently so. There’s no need to explain anything. You simply don’t need any form of text to accompany an image of breasts with teeth instead of nipples. That pretty much speaks for itself. The rest of the book plays with more body horror as well as various other surreal imagery involving exotic animals, bondage and strange lab experiments. It’s all quite unusual, fascinating and thrilling. If you enjoy work of a more adult nature, then this is for you. Obviously, this is highly charged work that is unafraid to be, at times, more dark and challenging. But it’s not simply shock value that Jemma is after. Like Phoebe Glockner and Renee French, the work of J. Webster Sharp is invested in cultivating mystery and wonder through finely-crafted work. As I suggest, you will be rewarded for taking the time to linger upon a page. You may even find that you like what you see more than you realized.
Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99
Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.
Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.
For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.
Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.
Panel excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
The death of Justin Green, on Apr.23, leaves poorer the living memory of a revolution in comic book art and narrative. His self-revelation, in the 1972 comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, seems to have literally changed a field of perception of what comics could be or do.He drew frequently for the now nearly-forgotten genre of “underground comix” appearing during the 1970s-80s, most of the “comix’ actually anthologies with fellow artists including Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Sharon Rudahl among others. Comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen recalls that even comics giant Will Eisner was impressed to the point of being influenced by the story line of Binky Brown, and by the uniqueness of the artistic expression.
Page excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
Green grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, in a prosperous family, with a Jewish businessman father and a Catholic mother. In sending the boy to Catholic school, she inadvertantly opened the impressionable Justin to a series of intense, confused glimpses of faith, including sexual repression and the accompanying guilt. The lonely teenager and aspiring artist thus acquired the strangest possible inspiration. A few years later, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving after a Zen Moment of standing on his head in class, according to a story told to his friend and fellow artist Bill Griffith. Relocating to New York, Green joined a handful of other near-future underground greats through strips in the pages of the East Village Other. The “undergrounds,” avidly rebellious and virtually untrammeled by censorship, had been born.
In 1969, Green became part of the diaspora from New York and other points to the Bay Area, gathering spot of the emerging comic art scene. Griffith recalls, “I like to think we were all a ‘band of brothers’ in those heady San Francisco Underground days, tilting at the windmills of the established comics we both loved and rebelled against.” Which is to say, Justin Green was soon prominent among the community of young and wildly prolific artists, his work appearing in a handful of the anthologies being produced more or less collectively and sold largely via “head shops” through the 1970s. In shunning the commercial comic book industry, they gave up a lot and lived cheaply, but gained complete, uncensored autonomy and the copyright on their own work. The most successful comix sold 100,000 or more….until the mini-industry collapsed along with the Counter-Culture.
Cover for Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
In a 1977 interview conducted by this writer, Green tried to explain the logic of the unique genre of artists. “One must consider,” he suggested, “the peculiarly American phenomenon that financed the creative endeavors of a couple dozen individuals whose visions took (and still take) the material form of pictures with words. That phenomenon is mass readership…the artist is under obligation to make his product coherent [and] visually striking—to opt for specific literal ideas instead of obscure personal motives (though granted. I am one of the worst offenders). Comics is simply not the format for making great art. Essentially it is entertainment. There are elements of morbidity, aberration and personal indulgence (again, myself included) in the work of many underground cartoonists which will have the longterm effect of sealing the work off from the cultural mainstream.” A fair prediction, as it turned out.
The East Village Other, 1970
He went on to comment about his satires of literary classics in ARCADE, the brilliant but doomed (seven issues before collapse) anthological effort during the second half of the 1970s, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. “All of my ‘classics crucified’ pieces are intended to have a dialectical relationship with history from the shifting focus of the unworthy present. Now that the making of art is within the grasp of thousands of individuals, the false veneer of critical acclaim…must be removed. Unequivocal respect for the ‘classics’ prevents the reader from assimilating material on his own terms. I am trying to do with plot structure what [Harvey] Kurtzman and [Bill] Elder did in the early MADs [Mad Comics 1952-55] for the warbabies bombarded by media—to unmask the subliminal influences of television and especially advertising. In the same way, I try to pick up on those salient details within a great work of literature which will bring matters into a comical perspetive. It is my chosen responsibility to call into question—to see if perhaps there isn’t a little something worth laughing at.”
Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form by Hillary Chute
In an aside, he admitted, “Make no mistake about it, you have to be a bit of an egomaniac to showcase your fantasies to tens of thousands of people.” Hillary Chute’s acclaimed study, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016), more than suggested that Green, in Binky Brown, did much to inaugurate the “serious documentary mode for comics globally.”
This is no small matter. Green may be said to have crystalized the semi-autobiographical impulses already expressed famously in Robert Crumb’s stories, Crumb’s persona “Flakey Foont,” like other hapless males seeking meaning (and definitely eros) amidst the sexual revolution, cheap marijuana and cultural upheaval. Crumb’s own work of the 1970s-80s, in turn, connected personally with Harvey Pekar telling more straightforward stories from Pekar’s blue collar, Cleveland daily life. And thus to Joe Sacco, a collaborator of Pekar’s before his own rise to fame drawing the stories of his travels to troubled sections of the world. The syndicated strips of Lynda Barry’s troubled childhood, later Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home helped bring into being a large, still expanding genre of comic lives recounting youthful hopes and follies. Indeed, these may arguably be the chief mode for women’s large role in comics today, a sustained Bildingsroman in a new popular art form. Way back in 1972, Green collaborated with Spiegelman and others in the pages of Funny Aminals [sic], a genre-bending little anthology of animal stories anything but funny, including the very first published slice of Spiegelman’s Maus.
Funny Animals, 1972
In her analysis of comic art, Hillary Chute makes another key point about Justin Green’s hugely productive decade. All the work of the u.g. comix artists reflected an engagement with the US invasion of Vietnam, directly or indirectly. She quotes Green as explaining that he, like so many (I could have said the rest of us), knew people who knew people—or actually had relatives—fighting and suffering, too often dying amidst the brutal US invasion of Vietnam. “I needed to wage my own war. And so I looked within…I didn’t want to present myself as a hero but rather as a specimen. So the comic form gives you a multifaceted way of doing that.”
This weighty point may, by itself, threaten to obscure the multiplicity of Green’s output, the radicalism but also the sheer joy of moments in his humor, amidst the intense personal confusion and angst of his work. The very, very funny stuff, deeply thought and reflexive, is as full of social satire as Bill Griffith’s own caste of characters later realized in his daily strips.
Show and Tell by Justin Green, 1973
To take a Justin Green case or two in point, “Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Featuring Sol Snake-Eyes, Jack Monterey and Gretel Hansel” (in ARCADE #5, 1975) reinvents the novel with a Jewish stand-up comic as the famed investigator of the maddened young egotist and a bimbo who snags Sol while the criminal goes off to the rock-pile. Meanwhile, “The Gates of Purgatory” (in ARCADE #7, 1976), revisits Dante, with the “Music of the Sack Cloth Five” against a scene of comic horror, with free ginger beer and waterskiing on the Chicago River.
Arcade: The Comics Revue, 1976
The 1977 interview contains another theme crucial to the story of the underground artists’ saga: Green had a new baby in the house and had to find another way to make a living. A small handful of artists, including Griffith, Spiegelman, Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins and others, managed to get along while doing their work, sometimes, especially in later years, by teaching comics classes. Most uniquely, Green turned to sign painting, and some of the stories that he later drew about the quirks of the job are hilarious as well as revealing. Raised in prosperity, he found himself reduced to working class standards, confessing that “I am continually broke, exhausted, under pressure.” He continued to draw the occasional story but his moment had passed. One is tempted to add that the comic artists lacked the way forward successfully found, for instance, by the equally rebellious and radical painter Philip Guston, whose sometimes comics-like retrospective now exhibits in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Sign Game comic strip by Justin Green, 1994
It is more than a footnote to relate that Green’s widow and fellow artist, Carol Tyler, eventually found a comics niche for herself with a realistic, semi-autobiographical series about her father, the veteran of the Second World War who could not relate, let alone deal psychologically, with the effects of the trauma in his own experiences. Thus, in a way, you could say that the circle, or a circle, has been completed after all, and with as much meaning for the twenty-first century as for the one left behind. The artist sees the world, looks inside himself or herself, and through creative expression, makes the best of an obviously bad and likely worsening situation. This is what an artist in any genre can do, but what no one expected the creators of “funny pages,” “funny animals” and “funny books” to seek, let alone accomplish.
Paul Buhle published Radical America Komiks (1969) and was described in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine as the “first serious critic of underground comix.” He has edited more than a dozen nonfiction graphic novels.
Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”
Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.
So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.
Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.
Sarah Firth books.
You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.
THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth
Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.
I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!
Our featured cartoon is entitled, “Free of Social Media Tyranny,” and was created in response to a snide comment that Hurricane Nancy received suggesting that she needed to be doing “political cartoons,” when that had nothing to do with what she was up to. So, she didn’t care for the comment. Well, these abrupt and harmful misunderstandings occur all too often on social media, thus the title to this piece!
Rounding out the collection this time around are a couple of intriguing animal-themed works. I hope you enjoy them!
As always, it’s a real treat here at Comics Grinder to present to you work by Hurricane Nancy. And be on the lookout for a collection of Nancy’s work to be published by Fantagraphics. More on that as we get closer to the release date.
Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation. Liana Finck. Random House (April 12, 2022). New York. 352pp. $28.99
Cartoonist Liana Finck (born 1986) is the Millennial generation’s answer to James Thurber (1894 – 1961). It’s not an exact match but close enough for the purposes of this review. The two main points of comparison are first, that Finck is, like Thurber was in his day, a superstar cartoonist at The New Yorker; and second, the fact that she draws in a very spare manner. Thurber’s own artwork is similar in sensibility. He was primarily a writer and it seems he was content with a relatively basic cartooning style. So, these are two very different people but both are equally beloved all-time favorites at The New Yorker, and that says plenty about each cartoonist’s respective zeitgeist. For Thurber, his writing, and cartoons, featuring the battle between the sexes, were reliable sources of amusement, beginning in the 1930s. During a time that saw the ascendance of the American male, Thurber was well equipped as a writer to question that position; and, as a cartoonist, to poke fun at less than infallible man. Finck does something similar with her cartoons as they confront current societal conflicts. Both Thurber and Finck represent The New Yorker at the highest level. Recently, the magazine devoted numerous pages to promote Finck’s latest book. This is all to say that Finck’s book, on the subject of The Bible no less, is one of those books, a big deal kind of book, set up for heavy scrutiny. As for me, I can see what Finck is doing as following her own quirky creative path. Maybe she’d prefer not be the voice of her generation but, at the same time, I see where she can genuinely embrace that. In the end, it makes sense for her to tackle Adam and Eve and Old Testament dogma and put a whimsical stamp on it, one that gently comments on gender roles.
God making a world.
The biggest comment on gender in Finck’s biblical retelling is having a female God. Of course, that doesn’t have any of the shock value that it might have had in Thurber’s day. In fact, it’s possible that Thurber would have been just the cartoonist who could have gotten away with having a female God. Think of all the god-like women in his cartoons! Today, maybe the shock value might be found, for those looking, in Finck maintaining distinctive male and female roles as opposed to today’s focus on gender fluidity. If Finck had wanted to break new ground, or be a provocative voice of her generation, she could have gone down that route. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, I think she holds true to a more fundamental view of her generation and that is of attempting to be more humble and modest. What you get in this book is a bunch of very gentle low-key humor.
Asking the big questions.
It seems that Finck is taking her cue from a quote she provides at the beginning of her book by Jamaica Kincaid that she found the King James version of the first book of the Bible to be a book for children. That quote sets the tone for what follows. Keep in mind that it has often been pointed out that children can be far more perceptive than adults. In an excellent cartoon or comic, however light, irreverant and spare, you can find some of the deepest meaning. For instance, upon realizing she’s naked and should feel shame, Eve is worried about whether she looks fat. That’s funny and quite poignant. It certainly keeps with Finck’s sense of humor.
Once you’re settled in, this book has the ability to charm you if you let it. Finck’s God is definitely a hoot. We all know about that famous temper but Finck’s God also happens to be rather neurotic, prone to worry. In short, she can be a softie too. When she sees that Adam is having a hard time, she reaches out to him. Indulging the fact that Adam mistakenly sees God as a stern old male authority figure, she tells him he was right to name her, Jehovah. Again, very funny stuff and pure Finck.
Like a grand painting that has been cleaned from numerous layers of restorations, Finck lays bare the main players in this drama. Finck lays out a simple narrative with vulnerable characters, pared down to their most basic forms as cartoons, observed simply and directly. When Lilith offers Eve an apple and Eve resists, Lilith leans in for some sympathy and says, “Listen. God never liked me.” But then she goes one better and reveals to Eve that God doesn’t like her either and confides, “But if you have knowledge, then you don’t need to be liked. Here. Take it.” Funny and with a bit of a subversive touch.
The bigger question is whether or not Finck has a bigger vision to pursue beyond a gentle rapping over the knuckles of King James and his lot of biblical scribes. First off, Finck is compelled to make the Bible relatable to younger readers and does a wonderful job of inserting insights connecting it to the Torah. To be sure, Finck has plenty to say about the patriarchy, beginning with Adam, then Cain, and steadily progressing through a laundry list of male culprits. By midway through the book, Finck makes some big creative leaps, like superimposing biblical scenes onto contemporary settings. The results can be quite moving as when she follows Abraham’s pursuit of an art career in New York City only to discover that his success leaves God utterly unimpressed. Ultimately, Finck is at her best in the quieter moments as when God falls in love with Noah and it leaves Noah pretty stressed out. It’s in these strange little moments that Finck is fully in her groove. And then she’ll take things one step further as in a beautiful passage where she depicts how God created the world only to gradually make herself recede into the background, although not completely. Perhaps a gentle poking fun of less than infallible man is the spark to going further. It is not only in keeping with a long tradition of mellow and subtle New Yorker humor but actually hits just the right notes for a wearily self-conscious and sensitive younger generation. So, let there be light, and it doesn’t have to be overwrought or blinding. In the process, you can end up saying just what you need to say. In the end, Finck knows, and demonstrates in this book, how to reach those high points and make the work transcendent.
Susan MacLeod has developed a crisp and smart cartooning style that puts her shoulder to shoulder with today’s cartoonists. In this interview, we chat about MacLeod’s new graphic memoir, Dying for Attention, a focus on the nursing home care industry. MacLeod also talks about the creative process: growing as an artist, cartoonist and graphic recorder.
MacLeod got an in-depth look at the Canadian nursing home care system through the years that she oversaw the care of her mother and she could see it was wrong. Her conclusion, borne out by research, is that for-profit nursing home care is too invested in the bottom line to ever provide adequate care. It’s the value of human life versus capitalism. An ideal resolution is not likely anytime soon. But being aware of the realities is a first step.
MacLeod is someone with a drive to do good. She finds it highly rewarding when she does a graphic recording session with residents at a nursing home. She always leaves enough room for everyone to have a chance to come up on stage, grab a marker, and add their own contributions to the mural-in-progress. It’s during this process of putting words and pictures together that people try to solve problems and make connections. MacLeod knows this better than many folks. She’s modest but quite insightful too. She knows that what she does matters. And maybe she prefers to let her book speak for itself. In that case, she’s got the best calling card any cartoonist could hope for.
Think on the Page. Sarah Firth. 2021. purchase here.
Sarah Firth is a very busy and quite popular artist and all-around visual storyteller. Based out of Melbourne, Australia, Firth is a Eisner Award-winning cartoonist, comic artist and writer, speaker and internationally renowned graphic recorder. This book is a collection of various observations which all add up to a heady stream of consciousness, an expansive working out of this or that issue or problem, plainly said or with a touch of mystery. Just one human, being human, being real. She’s made an art out of removing any filter and letting all the bits and pieces of life tumble out in messy, funny, and profound ways.
The theme of this book is about embracing the process of problem-solving, not overthinking it, going with your first impulses, and drilling down to something authentic. It’s part improvisation, part meditation. It’s what happens when you think on the page! This is about comics, art, illustration, and especially that curious beast, live illustration or graphic recording, where the creative is engaged with the subject in the moment and proceeds to not only document but to synthesize, digest, and filter down to the essential. The results can be pretty awesome.
Here’s an insight I’m happy to share again and again: there is an art to sketchnoting. What Firth does with her graphic recording is an art. The industry mantra is to say that any form of quick concise drawing is not art because the thinking is that this message appeals to a general audience. So, sure, the tools and techniques involved here are generally in the service of commercial and educational interests. But what it all amounts to depends upon who is using these tools. If you need remarkable results, something that truly resonates, then you hire a professional like Sarah Firth.
More wisdom I can pass down to you: sketchnoting and comics do indeed mix. Now, the general misconception is that the world of graphic recording and comics have nothing to do with each other. Again, this is an industry mantra thinking that, to even suggest otherwise, is going to confuse people. Ah, and again I state that it all depends upon who is making use of the virtually limitless possibilities available to any artist/commercial artisan. Yes, anyone can doodle (and gain so much from it) and some folks cultivate a special skill set that includes doodles and beyond! Okay, as you can tell, I’m passionate about comics and the wider world it is connected to. That is what is so wonderful about Sarah Firth’s work. This is someone who said, hell yes, here’s a massive playground of creative fun and I’m diving in and making the most of it! As you can see from these examples, Firth is a master at taking choice bits of images and text that result in compelling content that invites discussion and contemplation.
Let’s focus in on one of Firth’s longer comics in her book, this story is entitled, “On Loving a Difficult Creature.” It’s an 11-page story told with a sharp and vivid energy. The little guy who stars in it is named, Ferretie. This is a very specific tale from Firth’s youth when she inherited a ferret from a previous relationship. It all sort of just happened. Firth never intended to find herself with such a challenging pet. Ferrets might seem cute but they pack a wallop of a bite and can take down a rabbit within seconds. It became an ongoing thing for Firth to explain to newcomers to the house that, when Ferretie began to gnaw on your finger, he was only playing, actually holding back quite considerably. What is so impressive to me is how clean, crisp and clear the whole narrative is. That’s not to say it can’t be messy, unclear and ambiguous because that approach can definitely work as you are figuring something out. Firth is capable of whatever vision she wants to share. My point is that there is much to celebrate for well-executed clarity of purpose. What drives this story is providing a portrait of Ferretie and Firth. The ferret proves to be an intelligent, loving and noble little soul. Firth, despite feeling misgivings, does very well by her furry friend and learns many valuable life lessons on responsibility, empathy and compassion. Ferretie lives on in Firth’s own noble and genuine work. Firth is the real deal with her memorable and engaging comics.
Dying For Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Susan MacLeod. Conundrum Press. Quebec. 2021. 184pp. $20
Attention all hipsters, know-it-alls, and the like: We are all growing old and will die. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Now, a book like this may inspire utter dismissal by some self-appointed taste-makers and aspiring trend-setters, but the book I present to you is, without a doubt, a book anyone will benefit from and, yes, it is a worthy book to anyone who cherishes what the comics medium is capable of. Yep, that’s one of the driving forces for what I’m all about, sharing with you comics that are really worth a hoot. One way or another, we are all going to die. It’s the ultimate equalizer. If we care about social justice, then we must care about issues related to aging.
Sorry, Charlie, but nobody gets out of here alive. If you truly appreciated that, what a world this could be!
Aging is somebody else’s problem until it’s not. Parents in need of care can become an abstraction; a project that needs to eventually be confronted. All the while, we seem to forget that we’re all going to die. That reality should humble us. Susan MacLeod has created a book that answers a lot of questions through words and pictures on nursing home care by way of her involvement in the industry and her own personal experience with her mother and the long-term care system. MacLeod’s hand-drawn cartoons bring life and levity to this serious subject and even offer hope.
MacLeod’s approach is part whimsical James Thurber, mystical John Porcellino, and part concise reportage via sketchnoting: brief drawings and text that get to the point fast. It is a hybrid of graphic memoir and the emerging genre known as Graphic Medicine, comics focusing on medical issues. I offer up the term, personal Graphic Medicine. In the hands of MacLeod, it all adds up to an immersive and informative experience. The narrative kicks into gear with brutal honesty as MacLeod paints a picture of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. As a child, she felt so marginalized by her parents that her way of coping was to repeatedly beat up her little brother. While the image of a big sister slugging her smaller sibling is a classic comics trope, the reality of such an exchange is dark to put it mildly. MacLeod acknowledges this and doubles down by showing how this messed up dynamic has haunted her to the present day. To her credit, she follows this line of inquiry to illustrate the potential challenges that can face a family navigating the labyrinthine world of assisted-living with its myriad of limitations. It requires real determination and a united family front certainly helps.
The title of the book, Dying for Attention, speaks not only to the ongoing struggle of elders to be heard amid bureaucracy but to MacLeod’s own journey to find a voice. Going back to when MacLeod was a child, she had a passion for drawing that was repeatedly discouraged by her mother. Drawing was her outlet, within a dysfunctional family, and she never let it go. Back then, she managed to gain attention through bad behavior which resulted in the wrong kind of attention, like her father slapping her across the face. Fast forward to the present, MacLeod is modest about her comics, as she shares in the book’s acknowledgements page. But the fact is that many authorities in comics support this book, including The Center for Cartoon Studies and various notable creatives, like comic artist Colleen MacIsaac. MacLeod’s work has a deceptively simple vibe to it, akin to the energy in a doodle. However, it’s one thing to doodle and quite another, as MacLeod does, to sustain an offbeat style. Add to that a compelling need to create. It was only after her mother’s death at 99, after a nine-year journey with her mom and nursing home care, that MacLeod reached back to her fine arts background (yes, she did end up going to art school) and set out to share her story with words and pictures. She wanted a format that would allow her to share such a heavy subject with a certain amount of levity.
Doodles are complex: enlisted as anti-art tools (look up Sunni Brown); or part of an artist’s palette. MacLeod spikes her doodle-like style, loads it and mixes it. The results are in her pacing and flourishes: the way she hurls a character through space; or the way she evokes transition. So, it is within this relatively simple, or accessible, style, that MacLeod masterfully boils down facts and insights gathered from books, her own interviews, and her own experience in the trenches. Her career was in public relations for the Canadian Health Department where she learned the hard way that spin is everything. She endured the wrath of the government when she dared to include in a public statement that there’s a waiting period of at least six months for elders seeking public nursing home care. In the meantime, they are kept in hospital, where they are less than welcome, known as “bed blockers.” MacLeod comes back to this term in her narrative, fully aware of its visceral effect, putting her skills in using concise language to good use. That is MacLeod’s appeal for me. It’s not bravura drawing skills. And, let’s be honest, skills are only part of it. Moomin, for example, is not an incredible work of art, per se, and yet there’s something endearing, worth staying with. I think MacLeod not only has her heart in the right place but she demonstrates to me a genuine need to share what she knows and make it compelling and accessible. While some cartoonists inspire suspicion in me, I don’t get that from MacLeod.
It’s actually not an easy thing to draw in an easy style. People often think they can completely lean into an easy style and just sleepwalk their way through. It doesn’t work that way. Pitfalls range from generic mush to a style that is too slick and formulaic. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but I think MacLeod’s determination and sincerity serve her well with a style that has integrity. It’s a simple comic strip vibe punctuated with a heightened sense of whimsy here or a smart hint of perspective there. On one page, for example, one panel sums up denial quite aptly: MacLeod is racing up a flight of stairs pulling her frail and disoriented mother along behind her, who is flying like a rag doll. It’s not a “great” drawing and yet it is real and it is memorable.
MacLeod’s most ambitious motif has to do with the notorious call bell, which demonstrates the ongoing struggle her mother was having in alerting the nursing home front office about her needs. First, her little buzzer, the call bell, kept being placed out of her reach. Later, it became obvious that the staff was avoiding her buzzing. For MacLeod, this became a game of trying to figure out the nursing home culture. All this avoidance of buzzers was taking its toll on the quality of life of both residents and staff. Spoiler alert: MacLeod does find a way out of this mess. She discovers a technique which has staff regularly ask residents about their needs. By the time MacLeod is wrapping up her book, she switches from depicting her mother as a cartoon character to a more realistic rendering. The very last drawing is of her dead mother with one hand as if frozen in time, as if holding a call bell.
Keeping a tally of all the slights and missteps she must endure, MacLeod provides an uncanny report from the nursing home front lines. No curt or rude remark goes unnoticed. Each is duly noted and followed by the recurring question, Who taught this person this is the way to respond? No wrongful act goes unnoticed. For instance, when MacLeod discovers her mother’s soiled underwear in her mother’s hospital closet. This leads to a page in the book devoted to a chart that follows the chain of events. Apparently, it all comes down to a recurring problem: a breakdown in communication. And, finally, no problem-solving conversation goes unnoticed. Whether based on various meetings with small groups or interviews with experts, MacLeod consistently mines for golden bits of wisdom. For example, a popular refrain from politicians is to gut public funding for administrators when, in fact, it is going to take funds to attract the best administrators to tackle systemic problems and make sound public policy.
We don’t die in vain when we value life!
In lieu of any all-encompassing solutions, the answers to how to deal with a parent in a nursing home come right back to the child. MacLeod learned the hard way that it takes every inch of self-awareness one can muster to see it through. MacLeod’s mother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more affectionate. MacLeod’s brother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more cooperative. And all the other factors in the world that one could blame, from the patriarchy to ageism, they weren’t going to change suddenly either. In the end, MacLeod had to rely upon herself first in order to move forward.
MacLeod’s book is going to help many readers in search of a better understanding of what’s involved when a parent needs nursing home care. It’s not an easy process and it never really ends. In broader terms, MacLeod’s book offers insights into the search for wellness in general through self-discovery and an appreciation of what it takes to live a worthwhile life.
Grant Snider is an artist working in the grand American tradition of the comic strip. Many years ago, let’s say a whole century ago, if you asked someone what amused them, they would likely say the funnies in the newspaper as a first answer or very close to it. Today, that essential comic strip format, a neat and concise words ‘n’ picture presentation, remains as vibrant and relevant as ever. The general public today might not use the word, “funnies” or even “comic strip” but they consume it all the same and, more often than not, they recognize the concept right away. So, the past, present, and future of comics is as secure as a bug in a rug. Here to stay. Like jazz, it came into its own in America and retains a unique American tradition. One of today’s great practitioners is Grant Snider. His latest book is The Art of Living, published by Abrams, available now for pre-order, release date: April 5, 2022.
It is a great pleasure to chat with Grant. We got into a nice informal conversation and I believe we ended up covering a lot ground, particularly some interesting observations on the nature of comic strips. Is the ambitious cartoonist today thinking about pushing limits and breaking new ground? Grant looks at it more as working within a tradition. And that certainly makes sense. Contemporary cartoonists can definitely still add their own unique contribution. But they’re also part of something bigger. I set it up during our Zoom interview so that I could display any page from the new book and one page prompted Grant to mention that the snow scene was a homage to the great cartoonist Frank O. King (1883 – 1969), known for his comic strip, Gasoline Alley. That turned out to be a great example of what he was referring to, the continuous chain of progress.
So, I welcome you to check out the video interview. There’s some good shop talk and some fun insights into how the book came together. If you like the image above, we specifically focus upon it, part of a two-page meditation on the qualities of light.
As always, your comments, shares, and likes are very much appreciated. Let’s keep spreading the word about this little oasis for discussion on comics, culture and related issues.