Noah Van Sciver is one of our great cartoonists. He’s been at his drawing table for as long as he can remember–and that has resulted in some very impressive work. It takes a lot to gain any traction in the world of comics and illustration. Van Sciver is one of the brave and persistent souls.
It is my pleasure to share this interview with Noah Van Sciver. We chat about his two new books, Joseph Smith and the Mormons (see Comics Grinder review here) and As a Cartoonist (see Comics Grinder review here). I think some applause and cheers are in order every chance we can get. Along the way, we end up talking about a great deal of Van Sciver’s career as a cartoonist. A lot of dots get connected. So, I hope you’ll tune in and feel free to leave a comment or like over at ye ole YouTubes.
As a Cartoonist. Noah Van Sciver. Fantagraphics. 2022. 104 pp. $19.99
One thing you need to get straight is that a bona fide cartoonist, in the truest sense of the word, is someone with a certain way of moving about in the world. I’m a cartoonist, so I should know. Just about every word I write is somehow connected to the fact that I’m one of those people. Word choice is everything. Well, maybe it’s more like every line of thought but it can get right down to the granular level. It’s absolutely a way of life, and that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is–and those among us who are part of this tribe, made up of so many groups and subgroups, understand that this unique ability to write and draw comes at a price. No one is born with this ability, although some people are definitely more predisposed to creating comics than others. Sorry, but it’s a skill that demands a number of factors to fall into place if you intend to reach a certain level of excellence. You don’t see a short person agonizing over the fact that they will never be an all-star basketball player. And, yes, I know about Spud Webb, but he’s the exception to the rule. Anyway, most people don’t give a hoot about whether or not they will ever create comics of any form, let alone win awards and accolades for their effort. This is the story about someone who really cares about all those things having to do with becoming a masterful cartoonist. We’re talking about Noah Van Sciver. And he’d be the first to tell you that being a cartoonist is no walk in the park–and yet, there isn’t anything he’d rather be more.
This book is about all the peculiar things about being a cartoonist. That’s really what it all boils down to. Being a cartoonist is peculiar. That, in and of itself, is a burden and yet it is also alluring. Essentially, it’s something special that envelopes the person seeking to master it. Just like any other creative endeavor, like starting up a band. Noah Van Sciver’s story is one of struggle, persistence, and ultimate accomplishment. This book, a collection of short works in comics, adds up to a portrait of the artist, perhaps his best set of portrait pieces to date. This is, you could say, an anthology all by one creator. In the world of indie comics, cartoonists are always scrambling to jump on board and join the latest collective effort, a way to promote each other and get one’s work out into the world. It’s all about getting people to read your work. A lot of Van Sciver’s auto-bio comics are about this ongoing pursuit of readers: courting them, wanting them, wondering where they are. For all the anti-social behavior that a cartoonist may engage in, at the end of the day, it’s all about the readers. Maybe the cartoonist isn’t exactly looking to spend too much time with any particular reader, but it’s nice to know that they’re still around.
Van Sciver wins over his readers without playing up to them. Far from it. In fact, he’s more than happy to speak the unvarnished truth byway of his social satire. He has a way of evoking authenticity. A real cartoonist, especially someone like Van Sciver who uses his own life for material, is always striving to be real and avoid any false notes. So, Van Sciver’s best work comes across as totally unfiltered. Of course, it’s a balance of artifice and reality. But a reader still ends up getting caught up in the moment as when Van Sciver is juggling an interview with a prominent reporter and his uncouth brother who has just crashed upon the scene. In this specific moment, a big event at an art museum featuring Van Sciver’s work, the hierarchy is easily hijacked. No sooner has Van Sciver begun to talk to the reporter than he’s put off by her obvious remarks. He even sympathizes with his train wreck of a sibling, if only for a moment.
In another more complex scene, Van Sciver is a visiting artist on campus and must find a way to tolerate those less fortunate but still quite annoying. A relatively young man, actually thirty and not so young, who loves to wear a top hat and read teen girl manga, is prime fodder for Van Sciver’s wrath. The guy in the top hat, it turns out, is easily triggered by what he sees as Van Sciver’s micro-agressions. Nevermind that Top Hat has a lot of arrested development to deal with. Now, Top Hat’s focus is to get Van Sciver into trouble by reporting him to a school administrator. There’s no winning for Van Sciver when he’s called in to explain himself. Later, he tries to turn the other cheek and be positive. But, ultimately, Van Sciver is right back to being underwhelmed by life on campus.
A wonderful companion piece to this collection is the 2018 graphic memoir, One Dirty Tree, looking back on a childhood with eight other siblings in a less than ideal situation. This is a closer look at a ramshackle upbringing: living in squalor, an abusive and irresponsible father who is a Mormon zealot, and a young man with a very uncertain future–a young life miraculously held together by dreams of some day becoming a famous cartoonist! By force of will and determination, Noah Van Sciver turned his dreams into a reality beginning with his series of collected comics, Blammo. That would lead to his early masterpiece, his first graphic novel, 2012’s The Hypo. And, most recently, 2022’s Joseph Smith and the Mormons. This new book, As a Cartoonist, comes full circle with a collection of short works that feature comics from Blammo, among other sources.
In 1980, Woody Allen made Stardust Memories. He had already made two of his masterworks, Annie Hall and Manhattan, and he seemed to be at a crossroads: keep making funny movies or make more serious films. Perhaps there was a bit of a struggle. Just see Interiors. Anyway, a certain Woody Allen universe had been created and he was pretty much set and would go on to create a wonderful body of work. Van Sciver pays homage to that creative turning point in a moment in the book where he recreates Allen asking space aliens for advice. It’s a perfect opportunity for Van Sciver to insert himself and provide another take on the absurdity of it all.
Van Sciver is now at a point where he can look back and see significant milestones, including Fante Bukowski, which alone would thrill any cartoonist to call their own, and which Van Sciver can say confidently he brought into this world. Having recently become a father, Van Sciver honors his son, Remy, with a dedication and the final comic in the book. I think it’s safe to say that Noah Van Sciver is on the right path.
This monumental work has a considerable backstory. Artist Noah van Sciver, the eighth of nine children, was born and raised in a Mormon home in New Jersey until his parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother brought him along a different path. This disjuncture, followed by others more typical of teens in the last third of the twentieth century, may have stirred his artistic impulse. No doubt he looked to the example of an older brother who went successfully into the Superhero comics big time. Experience, separation and a sort of rejoining the earlier world thorugh art: these are large themes in artists’ and writers’ lives for centuries. That Van Sciver has taken on Mormon founder Joseph Smith is no accident.
Van Sciver has a penchant for US history, especially the history of the nineteenth century, rife with religious and social contradictions, idealists, cranks, Protestant revivalists and utopians. Joseph Smith, unlike nearly all the others, was a successful institution-builder (Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science denomination might be another example).
The spectacular, world-wide growth of the LDS or Latter Day Saints, its weighty and deeply conservative political influence in Utah and beyond, is remarkable given the improbable origins of the Church. The extended and heavily institutional story of prophet Joseph Smith, considered by most non-Mormons a dubious self-creation, is offered here in splendid detail in remarkable color.
Van Sciver could have examined the saga from a psychological distance, and even chosen to play the iconoclast. His earlier books on U.S. history, from Lincoln to Johnny Appleseed and Eugene V. Debs, show something else: a penetrating treatment of personality within a vanished era. That he documents his study with careful explanations at the end of the book, and that he donated the original art for the book to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is a measure of his seriousness.
Joseph Smith’s story is bizarre, a story about a discovery (he insisted) of golden tablets buried in the ground in upstate New York in the 1830s; a story about a church with outlandish views including (after a while) polygamy; a story that would not be the same in any other artist’s hands. Smith and his flock moved Westward with the great population shift of the mid-nineteenth century, and—this is crucial—they moved through natural and wondrous landscapes, which are drawn with stunning beauty and a certain strangeness by Van Sciver.
So much of the narrative has always seemed to critical observers as a magnificent case of American charlatanism, these days likely to be seen as pre-Trumpism. And yet Smith and his followers, staggering through bankruptcies, persecutions and the fatal defenestration of Smith himself, seen by Van Sciver, the observer-artist, looks like a revelatory detail of American history that seems in turn. . . a lot like the rest of American history.
Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe. Neil McGinness. Abrams. New York. 2022. Fully illustrated, hardcover. 352pp. $58.50
Walter Gibson was the writer behind the masked hero, The Shadow. Writing under the pen name, Maxwell Grant, he developed a character that seemed to emerge on its own, out of the confluence of pop culture media, circa 1930: pulp fiction and radio. The character was a strange mix of mystery and daring, part of something bigger, and a sign of things to come. The strangeness begins with the eerie voice warning that it sees all: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” followed by a shrill cackle. Such an otherworldly introduction to adventure was like mana from heaven for the millions of beleaguered radio listeners across the country confronting the dire reality of the Great Depression. Stranger still, at that point, there was only the weird voice to introduce the mystery hour–but the voice had become the star! Overnight, people wanted more. Who is The Shadow? Where do I get The Shadow magazine? This would lead to perhaps the greatest scramble ever to flesh out a popular character that did not yet exist!
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The Shadow went on to become the leading product of the famous Fiction Factory, founded by Francis Street, a bookkeeper, and Francis Smith, an aspiring writer in the 1850s. Street and Smith bought the New York Dispatch, a newspaper focused on news, and turned it into the New York Weekly (1858–1910), a newspaper focused on fiction, the foundation of what was to become the Street and Smith publishing empire. It was when this publishing house decided to step into creating radio shows that The Shadow emerged out of the ether. Pulp Power covers this phenomenal enterprise providing the reader with an in depth look at the origins of America’s first pop culture icons: The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Justice Inc., the trailblazers that would inspire Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, even the whole ball of wax at Marvel and DC Comics. Thanks to this generously illustrated book, with engaging writing by Neil McGinness, the original glory days of American pop culture come to life for the reader in this unique collection showcasing dazzling covers from pulp fiction, comics and movies, along with assorted ephemera.
The Shadow magazine
Getting back to The Shadow, if there is just one character to represent the exuberant creative force at play in the early years, it has got to be this strange, yet beloved, fellow. It’s fascinating to consider how much this character is so much of its time, and defies being easily bounced around various media until it finally settles into what works. Ultimately, a lot is working; it’s just a matter of doing justice to the material. You won’t be seeing a major motion picture anytime soon, until maybe you do. What you can count on is The Shadow thriving in prose and in audio. Perhaps that’s simply because The Shadow is so much a creature of the night, a mysterious force not to be observed too closely. He also has his specificity. He’s a New Yorker, and don’t you forget it. Thankfully, Neil McGinness does take a close look for the sake of better understanding the attraction. Essentially, it comes down to quality storytelling, which can’t be faked; it involves so many factors coming into place; and runs best with one determined author.
The Shadow comics
The Shadow’s original author, Walter Gibson, followed a tried and true formula, a five-point plan that never failed: a main crime; a problem arising from the main crime; a secondary crime that serves to complicate matters; an attempted third crime to thwart the investigation which is foiled by the hero; and the climax which reveals the villain, the trick, the true nature of the crime. It is a ticket to endless variations and served Gibson well as he went on to write nearly 300 Shadow novels. Not only that, Gibson was sensitive to literary refinements. In fact, The Shadow is closely based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a hero but a dark hero. A crime fighter as grim and merciless as the worst criminal. This is a complicated character shrouded under layer upon layer of ambiguity. . .while, at the same time, just a fun thrill.
Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue, 1945
The Shadow radio show ran for 17 years, from 1937 to 1954. Orson Welles, then only 22 years-old, served as the first voice of the character in 1937. Welles was quite busy with his own Mercury Theater and would do the show with no rehearsals. He just did it and he proved to be one of the best of the actors to take on the role. This was around the time that Welles was at his hottest: a year later, he would make history with his War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. It’s a nice touch to see included here in this book a photo of Welles at the height of his success, a portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue in 1945. It’s a masterwork of a photograph, complete with all of Penn’s still life magic–and a fitting companion piece to the magic and mystery that is The Shadow.
Comics on the beach, right? In theory, at least, you could create comics on the beach. You could also read comics on the beach! As long as you’re not a comics collector, you don’t have much to worry about since that comic book is likely going to get trashed any number of ways: sun, wind, sand, maybe even a crab. . . or a shark. But something is going to happen. It’s the great outdoors! You’re at the beach! So, it’s going to be a challenge. As for creating a comic on the beach, well, that’s possible. Probably best to keep things simple, minimal. Anyway, here is a comic by yours truly.
First off, I invite you to read the review I wrote for The Comics Journal to the book in question, G-G-G Ghost Stories. That will add to the enjoyment of the following interview with the creator.
There are details in Brandon Lehmann‘s comics that will come back and reveal themselves upon another reading. Look closely and you’ll see, tucked away amid the backdrop of a mega-bookstore, copies of Brandon Lehmann’s new book, the recently released,G-G-G Ghost Stories, in the panels to his story, “The Werewolf Expert.” Another reading will reveal a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capicorn, in the hand of a child, a secondary player in this finely-crafted farce. The key idea here is the subject of creating such a thing as a “finely-crafted farce,” and why quality will win out in the end. Lehmann’s sense of humor is an absurdist and existential sensibility. Lehmann has been making comics for about fifteen years featuring observational and satirical work. In this new book, he focuses in on playful use of horror tropes. For this interview, we met at Seattle’s Smith Tower, a favorite haunt of erudite cartoonists and, of course, ghosts. We begin this conversation just as I sit down to join Brandon. I notice pot stickers have already been ordered. (We staged a bit of a humorous intro. You’ll see what I mean if you view the video.)
Hey, Brandon, well, I see you’ve started without me, as usual. Nice to run into you this way.
I just hang out up here in Smith Tower and read my own comics.
G-G-G Ghost Stories by Brandon Lehmann
So, what have we here (picking up a copy of Brandon’s book). Is the proper pronunciation just as it reads, G-G-G Ghost Stories?
When I named it, I was hoping for some awkward interactions at the sales counter. “I’ll take, G-G-G Ghost Stories, please.”
That would be a Scooby-Doo influence, right?
Interesting that we’d find ourselves in Smith Tower since, as everyone knows, this place is haunted.
Yeah, we saw a couple of ghosts on the way in. I was like, “Ahhh, it’s a g-g-g ghost.”
Page excerpt from “The Lfyt”
I think of a lot of your work, like the “The Lfyt,” as being mini-masterpieces. Do you sometimes think in those terms, “I’m going to create something that’s so spot on that everything works perfectly.” Does that make sense to say that?
Yeah, I always feel that when you’re working on a book, especially, you can get into this mode where everything you do just works. And then, when you finish a book, I have this period where I just struggle and I can’t seem to draw anything. But when I’m making a book, I can set a schedule, everything works on the first try for some reason. If that makes sense.
Page excerpt from “The Werewolf Expert” story from G-G-G Ghost Stories
It does make sense. I’m a certified cartoonist myself, as you know. Now, tell us about “The Werewolf Expert,” the longest work in the book.
There’s a trope in horror movies and TV shows where someone needs to seek an expert on the occult and it’s always someone who it doesn’t make sense would be an expert. Like, you’ll have this guy who works at the bowling alley as a mechanic and, for some reason, he’s a vampire expert. In “The Werewolf Expert,” someone consults a Barnes & Noble bookstore employee, and it’s the employee’s first day. And they shouldn’t know anything about werewolf lore but part of the B&N orientation training is that they teach all about werewolf lore. That employee knows a lot but eventually he consults his supervisor and she knows even more about werewolves to a ridiculous degree. So, it just keeps building on that premise.
Desperately seeking werewolf advice.
How would you describe your humor?
It’s absurdist and existentialist. There’s a lot of gags in the book that you can repeat with a similar premise. For the story we’re discussing, there’s a gag that I use a lot. The story is progressing from one point to another and then I’ll throw a wrench into it. And it will spin off in an insane degree. For instance, the bookstore customer seeking advice has a daughter named, Shawnda. He begins yelling at her, she’s off camera. Later, we see her and there’s more of this yelling. That sort of silly exchange is something I like to do in my work.
Panel excerpt from Brandon Lehmann’s Instagram.
There’s a beauty to your work. The humor is consistent. The art is consistent. You must go through a slew of experimentation before you hit upon what works, what’s on point.
The whole concept of the book is classic ghost stories. So, that’s the anchor. We’re dealing here with stories everyone is familiar with in one form or another. The story, “The Lfyt,” we were just talking about, is based upon a popular ghost story about picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a ghost. Another good example is “The Viper,” another popular children’s ghost story. The tension builds as he keeps calling and announcing when he’ll arrive. In my story, it turns out that “The Viper” is a guy with a thick German accent, who is just an innocent window wiper.
I didn’t know about that children’s ghost story. The actual one, not your satire!
Yeah, it’s real. There’s also one entitled, “Okiku,” based on a popular Japanese ghost story about a woman who was murdered because she refused to become a samurai’s mistress. She had been thrown down a well and, each night, she appears to seek her revenge. That was actually the basis for the Ringu movies. There’s the books. It was also on stage, as kabuki theater. So, yeah, I gather up all these ghost stories and given them my own spin.
Well, I’m sure this will intrigue readers. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Where is a good place to find your work?
Trve Kvlt. IDW publishing. (W) Scott Bryan Wilson (A) Liana Kangas. Release date of first issue: August 17, 2022. $3.99
Let’s face it, it’s really tough being an individual. For Marty Tarantella, a working class hero in this comic book series we’re about to explore, life had become one big rut. Oh, sure, he was quite an individual, very quirky and unpredictable. But he’d paid a hefty price for being eccentric with no professional skills, unless flipping burgers counts for much, which it doesn’t. Marty had been working at Burger Lord at the same entry level job for the last fifteen years. Something had to give. To make matters worse, the way out of his rut was completely left in Marty’s hands. This guy can’t get a break! However, Marty was determined not to be just another loser chewed up by the gears of capitalism.
Long live losers!
Marty Tarantella, a young-at-heart aging hipster, was in real danger of entering a slow death when he stumbled upon the most hair-brained scheme that would blow up in his face while also catapulting into a whole new level of consciousness. Marty’s no senator’s son, just an Average Joe, the kind of guy that Kevin Smith has honored in much, if not all, of his work. Heck, Mr. Smith created a whole genre all his own, populated with the most eccentric of dead end kids. This is certainly not lost on the creative team behind this comic as they pull out all the stops to have Marty fly his loser freak flag. Fail! Fail! Gloriously Fail!
Yeah, my friends call me, Tarantula.
The fast food world is a very strange world, just as bumbling and insular as the mall world, a place where staff and customers alike fully embrace being losers. This was a choice someone made to find themselves in a highly artificial disconnected environment. That’s okay. Let ‘er rip, hang on tight, and go for the chili fries! Wash it down with a Pepsi. And don’t forget that bacon cheeseburger. Marty’s big mistake was thinking he could outwit the system he’s let himself fall prey to with as little effort as he put into submitting to it.
Marty and his supervisor, Bernice, have been toiling away at Burger Lord since forever. Why rock the boat now? Ah, if only Marty knew what he didn’t know then! This is the sort of story that you love to linger over the details as the main character gets deeper into trouble. Writer Scott Bryan Wilson delivers on all the authentic details of the fast food milieu. Artist Liana Kangas has a delightfully light style that adds some relish to the most subtle and mysterious of moments. There’s the scene where Alison, a prospective new employee, comes in long after some major plot points but with a sophisticated and intriguing tale of her own. This is where the collaborative spirit shines for writer and artist. Alison turns out to be a real wild card in this story, steering things in uncanny ways. Maybe Marty does have a friend in this cruel world after all! But it’s just too soon to say what kind of friend.
If you’re looking for that something different, this is it. Yes, I can honestly say that the comic that is currently ringing my bell is this one! Go get yourself one and, yeah, you’ll want fries with that too. Let’s roll out the A+ for this comic. If I’m a ratings guy, I give it a solid score. 10/10.
Visit IDW and see what they have in store for you.
Dark Spaces: Wildfire. IDW publishing. (W) Scott Snyder (A) Hayden Sherman. Release date of first issue: July 20, 2022. $3.99
Imagine you are a big-time comic book publisher executive, DC Comics to be exact, and you are directed to read the work of a hot new lead, an emerging talent who could easily, and very artfully, pump fresh new blood into the tired old veins of top-tier landmark characters. So, you take a seat, pour a Scotch and Soda, and read about this strange silver blimp floating above the American heartland, keeping a young man from his sweetheart. The story is so fresh and new, it knocks your socks off–and you hire this wunderkind, one freshly minted Columbia creative writing dept. grad, Scott Snyder. And he doesn’t let you down. No, he adds color to the faces of many of ’em: Batman, Swamp Thing, the whole frickin’ Justice League. The rest is history, or amazingly good comics. Fast forward to today, Scott Snyder is working some of his storytelling magic at IDW comics. This time it’s a story about fire.
Fire! Don’t yell it in a crowded movie theater, that’s what they used to say. Fire, as a comic book plot, falls somewhere within the disaster genre. Things are more stripped down to their essentials, like a black box theater production. Very specific. This reminds me of Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s Underground, the comic that mainly takes place inside a cave. Or, more broadly, another comic that comes to mind is the enviro-thriller, The Massive by Brian Wood. More specifically, I think of A Fire Story, by Brian Fies, the graphic memoir documenting the trauma of one of the more recent devastating California fires. All this brings us to the work of writer Scott Snyder and artist Hayden Sherman, a story of fire and destiny.
A story with such a specific theme, as fire, can feel claustrophobic. Snyder masterfully opens things up, giving the reader rich character profiles, each character providing a window into another world. This is a story about a firefighting team, one made up of convicts. Even the team leader, Ma, was a convict at one time. This special program is intended to help disadvantaged women prisoners find a way back into society, or something like that. It’s a great plot device. Can these flawed, hardened and resentful, characters, be relied upon to do the right thing? Well, no. They aren’t built that way. They could change but, there’s plenty to indicate they are all just a match strike’s away from doing the wrong thing. And, thus, we have quite an interesting story! Fire, all alone, is just too abstract. Now, you’ve got conflict, plenty of it, along with plenty of fire!
As I suggest, fire alone is boring–but add a little sideways weird perspective, some kind of spice, and suddenly things can get very interesting. Such is the case with Hayden Sherman’s handling of the art. The above image is just one example of Sherman’s inventive use of comic storytelling structure. Do something different with panels, or text boxes, etc. and you’re good to go. Not only does Sherman relish adding eye-catching details, he has nailed it in bringing to life this troubled crew of tough people who, whether they realized it or not, are all just waiting to blow everything up. Maybe they know it’s a doomed fantasy they’re engaging with but, for some, it’s just too hard not to play with fire. This is a story that makes total sense to have Scott Snyder tell. I can’t wait to read the whole thing once it’s available.
And, for those keeping score at home, I give this four stars. Rating: 10/10.
A few words on IDW Originals
Comics and graphic novel publisher IDW has created a lot of buzz with its launch of nine new original titles, each one with the potential of being developed into a movie or series. I’ve been looking over the offerings and there’s some very exciting stuff, each deserving of a closer look. Here is a list of the nine new IDW original titles. This is from IDW promo and I’ve added a few confirmed start dates. . . .
Dark Spaces: Wildfire (July 20, 2022), a thriller series written by Scott Snyder with art by Hayden Sherman, follows a group of female inmate firefighters deep into the smoldering California hills, where their desperate heist of a burning mansion will lead them to the score of a lifetime…or a deadly trap!
Trve Kvlt (August 10, 2022), a five-issue miniseries written by Scott Bryan Wilson with art by Liana Kangas, introduces Marty Tarantella, a down-on-his-luck loser whose last-ditch scheme to escape a lifetime of fast-food service sets him on a collision course with a cult of violent, Devil-worshiping lunatics!
Crashing (September 21, 2022), a five-issue miniseries written by Matthew Klein with art by Morgan Beem, throws open the doors of an emergency room filled with casualties of a superhuman war, where Rose Osler, a doctor on her own path of addiction and recovery, faces the most dangerous day of her medical career.
Earthdivers, an ongoing series written by Stephen Graham Jones with art by Davide Gianfelice, unites four Indigenous survivors in an apocalyptic near future as they embark on a bloody, one-way mission to save the world by traveling back in time to kill Christopher Columbus and prevent the creation of America.
Dead Seas, a six-issue miniseries written by Cavan Scott with art by Nick Brokenshire, transforms a cynical convict into a reluctant hero when he’s trapped on a sinking prison ship swarming with ghosts. Can he unite desperate criminals, pirates, and brutal guards as they try to escape a watery grave?
Golgotha Motor Mountain, a five-issue miniseries written by Matthew Erman and Lonnie Nadler with art by Ryan Lee, is a high-octane, redneck motor massacre about two meth-cooking brothers and their attempt to make it home in one piece as all manner of cosmic alien horrors are hot on their trail.
Arca, an original graphic novel written by Van Jensen with art by Jesse Lonergan, leaves a dying Earth behind as billionaires establish a luxurious new society out among the stars, tended to by teenage indentured servants. But one girl discovers that the good life promised for their years of servitude was a lie…
The Sin Bin, a six-issue miniseries written by Robbie Thompson with art by Molly Murakami, hits the road with washed-up hockey player Dale “Dukes” Duquesne, who moonlights as a monster hunter during away games with his daughter, Cat, in tow, hoping to find her mother’s killer.
The Hunger and the Dusk, a twelve-issue storyline written by G. Willow Wilson with art by Chris Wildgoose, upends an age-old conflict between humans and orcs by introducing a new, deadlier species. Fragile alliances form—and unexpected romances blossom—as former enemies wade into battle together to save their two races.
I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.
Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.
Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.
The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”
It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.
Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.
One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.