There’s a moment in my graphic novel, Alice in New York, when my alter ego character questions how such an absurd statue could stand in America’s melting pot. At the time the story was set, in 1989, such statues were not only allowed to exist but were meant to be revered, although no one could say exactly why. Anyway, that now infamous statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with an African tribesman on one side and a Native American chief on the other is on its way out. I’d never noticed this but the darn thing only dated back to 1940. As anyone who knows their history can attest, Teddy Roosevelt was a good guy. He was a man of his time but he was also progressive in both word and deed. Look him up and you’ll find that he’s the real deal. But that statue showcases Teddy in the wrong light to put it mildly. The idea behind it has to do with Teddy being an avid explorer, not an enslaver. It would have fit into the less than woke 1940s. But Theodore Roosevelt, the actual human being, would have absolutely understood that this statue was a problem and it was time for it to go. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post:
As president, however, Roosevelt preached tolerance and encouraged equality. He famously broke bread with Booker T. Washington — the first president to dine with an African American in the White House. He cleaned up the Interior Department, ensured federal jobs for minorities and reconciled many land disputes with Native Americans. He promoted a brand of American nationalism that guaranteed civil liberties for all, regardless of personal identities.
From Alice in New York
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.” Okay, but now there’s the matter of an even more problematic statue and it’s a doozy. Mayor de Blasio, are you ready to take down the landmark statue of Christopher Columbus, the centerpiece to New York’s famed Columbus Circle?
From Alice in New York
In a statement released yesterday, Decolonize This Place said it welcomed the decision to remove the statue but noted that two of its demands to the city and the museum still remain unanswered: renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “transforming the museum’s racist exhibition spaces,” in addition to repatriating humans remains and sacred objects, and “taking on the work of reparations.” Yes, the fact remains that, if you take a tour of the exhibits inside the Museum of Natural History, you’ll find even more stark examples of racial insensitivity. And, again, any group asking to rename Columbus Day can definitely get behind a campaign to tear down Columbus Circle! A petition has started on change.org asking for the renaming of the circle and the removal of the statue “from public view,” but recent comments from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggest that neither the statue, nor the name of the circle, is going anywhere. Lastly, let me add that I appreciate and am sensitive to the problems with Columbus Circle and state as much in my recent illustrated novel, Max in America.
American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.
Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.
During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics, would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.
But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.
A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim, to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.
Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.
As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.
Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books as faintly masturbatory).
Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941
Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.
But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.
Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.
Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua, New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.
Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers: Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.
A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.
Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
UPDATE: The Trump rally in Tulsa is now scheduled for June 20. However, especially during this pandemic, the correct action would be not to hold a rally.
With Trump set for his rally in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, he and his henchmen continue to stoke the fires of racism. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Trump’s response to CNN on his rally coinciding with this date, well-known as a date to commemorate emancipation from slavery: “Uh, no, but I know exactly what you’re going to say. … Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said, adding, “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.” Add to this the fact that Tulsa was the site for the infamous race massacre of 1921.
Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921
Daisy Scott in the Tulsa Star. Caption: “Isn’t it time to start cleaning your own mess?
Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
Writer Michael Tisserand remembers Daisy Scott, a cartoonist who predicted the troubles ahead for Tulsa in 1921. This is from a social media post today:
“Among the many things that history has ignored about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is that the first regularly published Black female cartoonist was working at the Tulsa Star at the time, and she saw what was coming.
The Tulsa Star would be destroyed in the fires. Daisy Scott never worked as a cartoonist again. Yet she remained in Tulsa with her husband, Jack Scott, a boxer, and they would raise a family together.
During the fires, Jack Scott had risked his life to help stop a lynching. He, like others, would be baselessly indicted for murder; that charge would not be officially dropped until 2007.”
Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?
SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.
From Interviewing 101 zine by Sarah Mirk
From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?
I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.
Page 1 and 2 from Interviewing 101
You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.
Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.
Pages 3 and 4 of Interviewing 101
I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.
I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.
Pages 5 and 6 of Interviewing 101
Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.
I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.
Back cover to Interviewing 101
Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.
Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.
Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.
Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.
Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.
I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.
The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.
That’s definitely true.
Oregon History Comics by Sarah Mirk
Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.
That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.
I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.
I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.
Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk
Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?
I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.
Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women by Sarah Mirk and Lucy Bellwood
I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?
I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC, The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.
Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?
I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.
I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.
That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?
No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”
How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?
At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.
You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?
At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.
I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!
Any final thoughts?
I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.
Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.
Thank you, Henry.
Guantanamo Voices is a 208-page fully illustrated hardcover, available as of September 8, 2020, published by Abrams.
Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children
Last June was the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. This year we observe 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps beginning with the Soviet Army’s 322nd Rifle Division entering the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One book that helps young readers understand these events from the perspective of children has recently been published by Sourcebooks entitled, Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children. What is striking about this book is how accessible it is through its honesty and specificity.
Stepping into history, at the start of the Second World War.
It is understandable if you might think the subject of the Holocaust is too much for a young reader but this book finds a way that honors young readers ages 10 and up. It is as if a thoughtful grandparent is telling their story. Each vignette is told my a real survivor in terms that inform and enlighten. The layout is inviting. The characters are engaging. The stories are revealing as with any good reportage. These are stories of the displacement and survival of Jewish children and young people amid the backdrop of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s persecution of millions of Jews across Europe between 1933 and 1945.
A growing international crisis.
Because these are stories told by individuals, you get very specific points of view. For example, the reader is there with Ruth as her family manages to escape from Germany to England and she hears the official start to the war on the railroad intercom. Or, another example is Martin and his family, along with other Jewish families, who are rounded up by the Nazis. In order to avoid crossing into Poland and triggering an international conflict, the Nazis force Jewish families to walk along the railroad tracks that separate the borders. That strategy works, at least for a while. Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children is an essential book for young readers interested in better understanding one of the most tragic events in modern history. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Sourcebooks right here.
Jerome Charyn’s latest novel encompasses the decline of the Third Reich as seen through the eyes of a special set of characters. It’s about a country that has lost its soul and about a young man who hungers to feed his soul. Charyn conjures up a narrative punctuated with powerful imagery such as when he steadily rolls out thoughts of Georges Rouault, artist of sad kings, clowns, and Christ. Most prominent of Charyn’s recurring themes comes from the silent film classic about the diabolical Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist slave. What better metaphor for someone claiming that they were trapped into following orders. That is the life of the “Cesare” in this novel, one Erik Holderman, a small but vital cog in search of redemption.
Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920
The ways of the world are writ large here. This is the story about a Caligari and a Cesare as well as a whole people who became, as an incisive bestseller so phrased it, “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Yet even in this dark world there is room for light. Erik is not merely a zombie slave. Nor is Canaris merely his Dr. Caligari. Between the two of them, they mean to undermine the Nazis as much as they can and save Jewish lives, one life at at time. This is mostly a dark world and yet one that somehow allows for the existence of Emil, a mystical dwarf who could have walked right out of a Georges Rouault painting.
The Little Dwarf by George Rouault, 1938
Erik, the obedient assassin, finds his fate inextricably linked to Lisalein, a most beguiling woman who equally courts sympathy and danger. All comes to a head when Lisa’s life is in peril once she ventures too close to the false paradise of Theresienstadt. She can’t help but follow her father who is convinced that the little cultural hamlet will prove to be his haven. The narrative definitely has much of the energy of a thriller as Erik must run to keep up with events. But there is so much more here. This is a very dark world, after all, and that requires the fine scalpel of a master storyteller to reveal truth. Much in the same spirit as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its underscoring the tragedy of the Allied bombings of Dresden, Jerome Charyn underscores the tragedy of Theresienstadt, an all too real place that trapped and killed–and haunts to this very day.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1819–1823
Jerome Charyn has a highly distinctive voice in the same company with other literary greats like Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Part of Charyn’s magic is his use of sustained imagery and metaphor. He has his favorite motifs which include wolves, werewolves, magicians, criminals, and tattoos, all sorts of things that either evoke something disturbing, supernatural, or otherworldly. In this new novel, for instance, he describes Hitler as a magician with his henchmen wolves. And it makes sense that Charyn would gravitate to the Nazi way station of Theresienstadt. It hadn’t been enough for the Nazis to deceive and/or kidnap Jews into this glorified holding pen. The Nazis forced Jews to oversee each other and even determine who would be next to go on to Auschwitz. That brings us to one last Charyn motif in this novel, one of the most sobering depictions of unbridled inhumanity, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. In a novel full of its share of the grotesque, it takes an artist with a precise touch such as Charyn to achieve such artful results.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.
Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée
Once Upon a Time in France is such a gorgeous book. One of the best ways that I can demonstrate to you the beauty and artistry that you will find in this graphic novel is to show you a sample page, in black & white, next to the same page in color. Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée, is published by Dead Reckoning and makes for a most riveting and immersive story like you probably have not read in quite some time. This is the story of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1920s and became one of the richest men in Europe as a scrap-metal magnate. For some, he was a Nazi collaborator villain. For others, he was a French resistance hero. He undoubtedly played both ends against the middle! It makes for a fascinating story. The graphic novel series was an international bestseller with over 1 million copies sold. Thankfully, Dead Reckoning has collected the entire French series in this new English translation omnibus edition.
Sample one in b&w
I just completed some traveling in Europe and so I’m still processing all of that. Of course, World War II looms large, bursting at the seams of history, as you make your way through such places as Paris and London. It can be no other way. The past pulls you in and makes itself present. The past is always present. It seeps its way into the culture and the daily lives of the natives. History is more respected and acknowledged in Europe than it is in the United States. And that’s not so much a criticism as a simple observation. There is a special connection to the past in Europe that encourages readers and thinkers in all strata of society. It is a culture that celebrates books and has a unique love for comics and graphic novels. That’s certainly not to say that thoughtful expansive works in comics are not appreciated in the U.S. but it is to say that an even keener appreciation by large numbers of readers will be found in Europe, without a doubt. That said, I highly recommend to my American friends that they check out a book such as Once Upon a Time in France in order to get a better sense of the appeal of serious works in comics outside of the United States.
Sample two in color
This omnibus edition collects six books of comics. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer the typical European format of a hardcover book of comics spanning less than 1oo pages. So, this collection is a total of 360 pages, comprising six books of about 60 pages each. And that is a perfect setup. Tell a riveting and expansive tale within the covers of six manageable books! The European culture accepts that format and treats a series of books such as this in the way that Americans treat following a television series. Of course, you see similar efforts in the U.S. with much of it taken up by the big two superhero publishers followed by various other publishers and rounded out by an assortment of micro, indie and self-publishing cartoonists. Speaking of history, we’re right in the thick of a significant time in comics history as the comics medium continues to redefine itself and position itself within the book market in general. And, again, I say that everyone would do well to seek out this wartime thriller as a brilliant example of what is possible within comics!
A thrilling story that won’t quit.
You will be utterly pleased by reading this impressive omnibus edition. It satisfies on many levels: as a brilliant example of the comics medium; as a wonderful taste of European culture; and as a rollicking good thriller! In fact, I can easily see this book adapted into an amazing series at such venues as Hulu, Amazon or Netflix.
An elegant wartime thriller.
Once Upon a Time in France is a 360-page trade paperback, published by Dead Reckoning.
A genius is not always fortunate to be appreciated in his own time. That was the fate of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You would think that he’d get some love in such a sophisticated place as Paris but, back in 1778, he needed to hustle in order to get recognition. And Mozart was not one who easily hustled. He repeatedly had to fight for the right to be acknowledged as an artist on his own terms. Frantz Duchazeau brings that struggle to life in his new graphic novel, Mozart in Paris, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
A genius in Paris.
Mozart is Mozart, who can deny that? Maybe Salieri? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen 1984’s Amadeus. But even Salieri, the rival and villain in that movie, had the good sense to know he was dealing with a genius composer. In this graphic novel, we get a wonderful look at the reality of indifference and shortsightedness. French tastemakers, threatened or indifferent to Mozart’s original and innovative music, would try to keep him out of the limelight. Mozart’s own father was relentless in dismissing Mozart’s efforts but, to his credit, he was dealing with a highly precocious individual who did not calm more conservative nerves.
MOZART IN PARIS by Frantz Duchazeau
Mozart didn’t think it was really up to him to convince anyone of his skill and talent. That kind of attitude doesn’t come without a price. Frantz Duchazeau does a wonderful job of showing the reader just what price Mozart had to pay for his own brand of naive arrogance. What if he had only held back and allowed someone to receive a false compliment? What if he had held back and not insulted a rival?
Mozart, as instructor.
Duchazeau has quite an engaging way with the page. Of all the comics I’ve been reading lately, he is definitely among those I see with a magical touch. As if evoking the grace and uncanny elegance of Mozart’s music, Duchazeau balances an engaging mix of variety upon the page with nicely modulated recurring elements, like the way he constructs his panels with one center panel speaking to the bigger picture. In the two examples on display in this review, you have Mozart in the center of one page seeking consensus on his genius. On another page, he is at the center again, but this time he must restrain himself for the sake of his beloved pupil.
Mozart, a young man in a hurry.
Sometimes you must fold your wings in order to someday spread them. That is, unless you’re Mozart. But, on the other hand, this is also the story of a young man in the big city. Mozart was only 22 years-old during this early visit to Paris. And Mozart was driven and had no time to waste. Duchazeau guides the reader through Mozart’s bumpy ride as he stumbles and gets that much closer to his destiny.
Run, Mozart, Run!
Mozart in Paris is a 96-page full color trade paperback, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Here is one family’s unique experience with the Vietnam War byway of the diplomatic corps: Such a Lovely Little War, written and drawn by Marcelino Truong, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. As a cartoonist and writer, I’m attracted to the more idiosyncratic works in comics and this led me to the work of Marcelino Truong.
A family terrorized.
These deeply personal comics resonate the most with me. Add to it the fact that the author is dealing with being bi-racial, and feeling out of place, and that gets my genuine attention. Truong’s mother, Yvette, is French and his father, Khánh, is Vietnamese. It is circa 1961 and the family has left Washington, D.C, the home they’ve known. Khánh, as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, has been called back to Saigon where he will become the personal interpreter to the new president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem . Thus, our narrative unfolds. It’s quite a perspective, one that is up close and encased in a bubble, in step with the cheeky title to this graphic memoir.
One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror.
Truong’s story is triggered by a need to come clean with as many facts as possible. The Vietnam War is many things. One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror. A boy safely tucked within the circles of affairs of state will witness one thing. A boy who is part of a family in the killing fields will witness another thing. Obviously, little Marco and his brother Domi have got a lot to learn if they’re thrilled to see napalm bombs on the wings of a plane upon their family’s arrival in Vietnam. Of course, Marco and his family are in for an education. Truong goes to great lengths to lay out as many pertinent details as possible, the sort of details that can get lost in, well, the fog of war. This is a story of relative safety, even at the most privileged levels, slipping away. It’s up to everyone to know when to jump before reaching that boiling point.
One family’s experience of the Vietnam War.
Truong’s work is another exquisite example of the auteur cartoonist. As I’ve said many times, it is the auteur cartoonist who meets the full definition of a cartoonist: the creator who does it all: the writing, drawing, and even coloring when applicable. These are the three main roles, along with editing and layout, that are often taken up by a creative team. It’s fascinating to study work where you have one creator basically calling all the shots. It can result in a work that weaves together script and art to an uncanny level. It is a tradition favored in indie circles in the States and even more ingrained in Europe. You can even take this auteur profile one step further and say it involves creating work by hand, as opposed to digital, as much as possible. A lot of artist-cartoonists, with Truong being a leading example, prefer to engage with their comics within a painter-cartoonist mindset. You’ll find here in Truong’s art that you can break it down into a series of watercolors, a complex network of watercolors. Truong does an exceptional job of modulating his use of color. This is a delicate balance, a shifting between duo-tone to full color, whatever fits best. It all adds up and enhances the immersive quality of Truong’s exceptional memoir.
Siagon Calling: London 1963-75 by Marcelino Truong
And there is a sequel. If you’re inspired to pursue further, then you will want to read Saigon Calling: London 1963-75. The irony is as front and center on the cover as it could be as you have the main characters strolling down a crosswalk, ala Beatles, with a napalm blast in the background.
Both Such a Lovely War and Saigon Calling are published by Arsenal Pulp Press. And be sure to visit Marcelino Truong at his website right here.