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J. Webster Sharp Comics Artist Interview

Portrait of the artist. Panel excerpt from Sea Widow.

J. Webster Sharp is a comics artist who pursues her vision with a singular dedication. In fact, Sharp opened an art gallery in Wales, to sell her own work, as none of the galleries in Wales were ready to take her. She opened the gallery in 2018, only months before the death of her husband. This last year or so has seen a tremendous output by Sharp, including a tribute to her husband, the book entitled, Sea Widow. Sharp was born in a town called Ripley, in Derbyshire. Since 2005, she has lived in Yorkshire, England. She now makes her living from the sales of her comics. If you read my review of Sharp’s work, then you’ll have a sense that this is the stuff of strange wonders. Sharp’s work can be deeply personal and utterly surreal, often at the same time. In this interview, Sharp shares about her process and provides a tour of her comics work.

Page excerpt from Fondant #1.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I would say that your work explores the psyche and takes various detours, often dark and intriguing. Is that a fair description? What would you say to that?

J. WEBSTER SHARP: That is a very fair description. A silent, noise-free world. How it feels to live inside your head all day. My head, anyway!

Please share with us how you got into art. How did you develop as an artist–and how did that evolve into comics? Do you consider yourself an artist first, or do you like to be called a comics artist?

I am a comics artist now. I’m actually content and happy and where I feel I should have been the whole time. But I have always been a maker, of paintings, sculpture, drawings. I made the mistake of going to university to do art. Which did not work out for me the way it has for others. I didn’t find myself amongst others like me; it just isolated me even more than I already was! I got an interview for the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I wanted to go there. I remember the interview panel laughing at my drawings.

Sea Widow page excerpt.

When did you begin to take your work seriously? I mean, when did you first publish your work? And how do you feel about your early efforts?

Probably since I was 13 was when I decided to be an artist. I wanted to be a portrait painter. But everything I do I think “this isn’t good enough, I must do better,” this isn’t good enough, across all mediums. Art was all I had, all I can do. I get a new idea before I even finish the current idea which makes me instantly think the current idea has failed. All my early work/uni work is about the problems I have with my identity. Trapped in situations, under pressure, under threat from my body. About 12 years ago I printed something, and I had great feedback, except from this one place. And I had so little confidence I stopped comics and went back to painting. And I kept that email for years and read it when I felt bad, because it was proof I was nothing and had no idea what I was doing. Which was just who I was back then, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, never spoke, I was pretty useless as a functioning person! I’m a completely different person now. I changed very fast and quite a bit, and that has had its problems.

Jade cover, 2021.

What can you tell us about Jade, and Her Schizophrenia, the book focusing on your sister?

I should have made it clearer on the inside cover, my sister wrote this story, and I drew it. It is true and about her psychosis back in February 2013. To draw her story I did so much research, too much I think, it made me so sad and guilty to think of what she went through. Goes through. How to draw what it’s like to have paranoid schizophrenia. That was hard, it was virtually impossible and this was as close as I could get it. My sister is fiercely intelligent. I hope she writes more about what has happened since so I can draw it.

Page excerpt from Jade.

Would you share something about your process? Do you first think of an image, per page, per panel? Or are you thinking of what will add up to a whole book?

Panel to panel. I love the not knowing, because whatever I think I might draw might change because of a news item I might see, or a new eccentric person I might find out about. Or if I see a moth! If I plan thumbnails and things, I am bored of it as soon as I start it because my brain says I have already done it. The mystery is gone, the puzzle solved already. I like working from collage too, collecting clippings to use in the future. I love collecting imagery, I always have, I have always remembered visuals since I was little. My comics work is sort of a continuation of my painting work, I love collage thanks to William Burroughs, cut-ups, I think it’s great. A process that mimics my thinking exactly. All I do is tell myself a page limit.

Sea Widow cover, 2021.

What can you tell us about Sea Widow?

Sea Widow is about when my husband died. I started drawing this in May 2021. I hadn’t done any drawing or anything since it happened in 2018 and I was going through all my boxes and photos and notebooks, and I put all these things together and went from there. I had to get it out, as much as I could, I had no outlet for anything. I thought in a funny way it might help someone maybe. It did help me to do this. So I quit my job and started to draw. He loved the way I drew.

Pretty cover, 2021.

What can you tell us about Pretty?

I didn’t dare stop once I started in case the drive and desire went away. I just started immediately on the next thing. The stand-alone stories are about enclosed worlds and dysfunctional families I feel.

Fondant #1 cover, 2021.

It looks like you’ve hit your stride with the ongoing series, Fondant? Would you care to share any thoughts?

Fondant, the name of an icing used in baking, something horribly sweet and if you have too much it makes you feel sick. Its automatic drawing. And it scares me sometimes. Invasion. Its all about fear, events and people and objects which can’t be controlled in silent environments. The fear of feeling, not knowing, unwanted thoughts and memories. Like wrapping your hand around a white hot object and you can’t let go. Bad sensations you sort of like.

Fondant #1 page excerpt.

There are so many subjects and themes that you work with. How would you describe your universe of interests?

Extensive and tiring. Never ending. I could research all day. I love it, adding to my creative inventory. I have old magazines from antique shows, old comics, new comics, old pornography, photo job lots, medical books, vet books, sewing books. Books on the paranormal. Film. Always so important to me, always. John Waters, Ingmar Bergman, Lynch. French new wave, Kenneth Anger. I watched Betty Blue recently, love Beatrice Dalle in that. And Cinema Paradiso. I love the films of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers right now.

I can not help but comment on your working with the theme of the foot. It is a subject that I believe will always harbor a sense of mystery. For some, it becomes a sort of taboo topic. For others, it takes on a keen focus. What can you tell us about your interest in this subject, given your wonderfully strange depictions of the human foot? It seems to me a gateway to better understanding you and your art.

I like to explore subjects that interest me, many of those subjects are sexual, fetishes and things, I think it’s the question why feet? that I am interested in. The psychology behind things. They are very vulnerable. Shoes are so strange. I have ballet pointe shoes. But I have never done ballet. They’re just great to look at and they’re heavy and shiny. I love heels, high heels. How they make a leg change shape. I’m very short.

Pretty page excerpt.

Any final thoughts? Do you have plans beyond the next year or so? More books? Any possible gallery shows? Please feel free to add anything that I may have missed.

To keep working and saying yes to as many opportunities that come my way. I would like to approach some people regarding publishing something, but that needs to be underway before I do, so I shall begin that in the next couple of weeks.

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Filed under British Comics, Comics, European Comics, Interviews

The Projector and Elephant by Martin Vaughn-James review – A forerunner to Today’s Graphic Novel

Which came first, the Elephant or the Projector? It was the Elephant!

The Projector and Elephant. by Martin Vaughn-James. edited and designed by Seth. introduction by Jeet Heer. New York Review Comics. 2022. 212 pp. $49.95

Martin Vaughn-James (1943 – 2009) secured his place in the history of comics whether he realized it or not. Thanks to this recently released edition by New York Review Comics, that distinction is now more firmly in place. The work that Vaughn-James created, beginning in the early ’70s, amounted to an early form of the genre we now commonly understand as the graphic novel. But this type of art did not have an established community or market back when it was first released circa 1970-71. Underground comix existed but it was far from a sure thing as to where it was going. Add to that the fact that Vaughn-James was European which, in general, inclined him more towards art for art’s sake. New York Review Comics does a great service with this edition that collects two works, Elephant (1970) and The Projector (1971).

Martin Vaughn-James. The artist in his element, such a very good place to be.

If you’re going to seek out retro comics, perhaps the best way is through a deluxe edition such as this. For sure, there is something very special about reading a vintage comic in its original state with it pages aged to perfection, with its own aura of being a thing from a certain place and time. But, with a finely curated work, you pick up an optimal viewing/reading experience plus whatever bells and whistles come along for the ride. In this case, we have the erudition of Jeet Heer (The Nation) and the design sense of master cartoonist Seth. According to Heer, he states that the work known as Elephant (published in 1970) was a dry run attempt towards the creation of the work, The Projector (1971). But was it? After having read both, I have to wonder if such a conclusion is imposing our current standards upon the efforts of  Vaughn-James. The methodology that is now commonly understood among indie cartoonists goes like this: first, you create a small scale version of your book in the format of a “chapbook” or “mini-comic” and then, if you’re up to it, you proceed with a full-on large scale version, an actual graphic novel. This path has become the golden path, the yellow brick road, to the closest thing cartoonists have to dreams of fame and fortune. That kind of game plan, that kind of strategizing, did not yet exist as a commonly understood model in the hippy dippy era that Martin Vaughn-James circulated in. I also say this because Elephant and The Projector appear to be two separate animals. In other words, there isn’t a coherent progression of ideas from one book to another. Both books are about the same page length. Both are ambitious. Anyway, I would certainly enjoy discussing this with Jeet Heer. And maybe we’ll do that at some point. We’re dealing with ghosts now. Martin Vaughn-James, throughout his life, created comics of one kind or another, most notably, Cages. It was a very cool life. He basically led the kind of life a man of his passions and interests would seek to live: he got to express himself in as many mediums as suited him. He painted. He drew. He wrote. And, along the way, he made something that involved working with sequential art which was decades away from being branded as the “graphic novel” genre.

Another day at the office.

From what I can tell, or intuit, is that Martin Vaughn-James (isn’t that a groovy name?) was a dude who enjoyed being left alone to pursue his art. He probably wasn’t someone who would have gone around in later years, wearing a beret, and touting his landmark work in comics over and over again, from one dinner party after another, gradually and steadily making inroads into academic circles, museums and galleries, until it became an undisputed well-known and widely celebrated fact that he was responsible for one of the earliest versions of the “graphic novel.” It takes a lot of energy and a certain careerist bent to do that, especially if the actual work might not fare so well on its own, and some people do it very well. And others don’t do it all or just not quite enough of it to where you’ve secured that everyone in the room is fully aware of who you are. For these artists, sometimes a bit of luck will come around to help secure a legacy. An academic will publish a paper. A publisher will publish a book. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if the work is the real deal and can indeed speak for itself once it gets an audience.

The pachyderm!

Martin Vaughn-James was in his late twenties, in full bloom as an artist, in the early ’70s. The work in this book reflects the efforts of someone who was exploding upon the artistic scene, with a subversive and irreverent sensibility. I think the two works included here defy any easy explanation or categorization. It looks to me that, once Vaughn-James began to play with the various options offered him by the comics medium, he was like a kid in a candy store who could not resist trying a little bit of everything. Both works are highly experimental, very influenced by Surrealism, and out to blow your mind! But can you blame a kid for wanting to do that? In this case, that was just the right thing to do! Now, so many years later, so many cycles through the culture later, we’re left with this strange work from a whole other time and place. And, wouldn’t you know it, Vaughn-James got it right. It still blows your mind. A quote I found from Vaughn-James fits perfectly with our own time: “We experience collectively approved emotions on a national scale. Any deviation is considered neurotic, insane or subversive.”

Horse and rider in freefall.

In both of these books, the plot takes a backseat to an artist expressing himself and his place in the world. But there are some devices at play. We do have a figure who functions as a protagonist or host or alter ego. The backgrounds, in fact, seem to have as much, if not more, to say than our hero, a perpetually grinning bald man in glasses who, from time to time, falls into one situation after another. Most compelling of all is the whole experimental nature of the two works and the striking images that result. The most stunning of them all is a horse, with its rider wrapped up in canvas, each falling from a skyscraper. Yeah, that alone, is definitely worth the price of admission. There are other significant moments and experiments to enjoy and ponder over too. As I say, I think Vaughn-James set things up to explore as much as possible. Along the way, he made a few dry stabs at satire and a few comments on society and art.

Into the land of milk and honey.

As for the differences between the two works, especially regarding an evolution from the first book to the second, if that’s the case, perhaps Vaughn-James may have shifted his gaze a little to a more formal approach. Who knows? The Projector has the black line art on brown paper, which gives everything a muted look, not to mention it making for a less crisp reading experience. At first, I wasn’t liking it but it grew on me. The centerpiece to The Projector is a two-page spread of a freeway during rush hour, jam packed with cars. To each side is an endless stream of advertising, consumer culture run amok. Accentuating that scene are colossal nude women overseeing the tableaux. The women, while having voluptuous bodies, each have grotesque faces. That appears to be a subversive act by Vaughn-James calling out the ugliness of using sex to sell products. In the end, a painter’s vision, in the service of comics. But I don’t think Vaughn-James was likely thinking that way. Again, he was a dude being an artist, letting those future chips fall where they may.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Comics Reviews, graphic novels

FONDANT #2 by J. Webster Sharp review – Surreal and In-Your-Face

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.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Comix

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner review – Tribute to a Liberal Giant

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.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, LGBTQ

Justin Green (1945-2022) by Paul Buhle

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.

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Filed under Comics, Justin Green, Obituaries, Paul Buhle, Underground Comix

Sarah Firth interview – Eventually Everything Connects

EVENTUALLY EVERYTHING CONNECTS by Sarah Firth

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!

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Hurricane Nancy: FREE OF SOCIAL MEDIA TYRANNY

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.

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LET THERE BE LIGHT by Liana Finck review – New Yorker cartoonist tackles The Bible

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.

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Interview: Susan MacLeod and ‘Dying for Attention’

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.

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Think on the Page by Sarah Firth review – short comics collection

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.

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