Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”
Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.
So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.
Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.
Sarah Firth books.
You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.
THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth
Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.
I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!
Our featured cartoon is entitled, “Free of Social Media Tyranny,” and was created in response to a snide comment that Hurricane Nancy received suggesting that she needed to be doing “political cartoons,” when that had nothing to do with what she was up to. So, she didn’t care for the comment. Well, these abrupt and harmful misunderstandings occur all too often on social media, thus the title to this piece!
Rounding out the collection this time around are a couple of intriguing animal-themed works. I hope you enjoy them!
As always, it’s a real treat here at Comics Grinder to present to you work by Hurricane Nancy. And be on the lookout for a collection of Nancy’s work to be published by Fantagraphics. More on that as we get closer to the release date.
Urban sketching is a lot of things: fun, stimulating, useful, and an all-around creative workout, especially the more you add to it. I like a little salt and pepper to spice things up, and usually little to no hot sauce. I’m being silly but, yeah, I’m just saying here that I find I’m usually doing more than just urban sketching when I do it. Often, it’s part of a bigger project. Or, like in this example, I’m also crafting a little movie, which is a whole creative endeavor to itself. That said, it’s really part of the process to relax and become one with the subject, regardless of anything else going on in the background. This time around, I tackle one of Seattle’s most beloved landmarks, and one of the all-time great tourist attractions, The Fremont Troll!
He’s always there ready for a hug.
The Fremont Troll is in the spirit of the great roadside attractions and then some. Due to the fact of its scale, history, intention, and overall artistic merit, it all adds up to a very unusual yet significant local treasure.
The Fremont Troll is definitely a thing, if you didn’t realize that. There doesn’t appear to be a totally quiet time for the guy as there is always a steady stream of visitors. Like clockwork, whole families pile out of minivans in order to situate themselves to best advantage for a pose with the landmark. The Troll goes back to the hippy-dippy days of the ’70s, well, actually, late ’80s. It was decided that Fremont needed something else that would speak to the quirky counterculture vibe it had cultivated over the years. And so it began as an art competition in 1989 and so it was, the following year. All the way up to today. No matter what your political bent, or vibe, there seems to be something about this community effort that can resonate with people on just about any level.
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.
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.
Grant Snider is an artist working in the grand American tradition of the comic strip. Many years ago, let’s say a whole century ago, if you asked someone what amused them, they would likely say the funnies in the newspaper as a first answer or very close to it. Today, that essential comic strip format, a neat and concise words ‘n’ picture presentation, remains as vibrant and relevant as ever. The general public today might not use the word, “funnies” or even “comic strip” but they consume it all the same and, more often than not, they recognize the concept right away. So, the past, present, and future of comics is as secure as a bug in a rug. Here to stay. Like jazz, it came into its own in America and retains a unique American tradition. One of today’s great practitioners is Grant Snider. His latest book is The Art of Living, published by Abrams, available now for pre-order, release date: April 5, 2022.
It is a great pleasure to chat with Grant. We got into a nice informal conversation and I believe we ended up covering a lot ground, particularly some interesting observations on the nature of comic strips. Is the ambitious cartoonist today thinking about pushing limits and breaking new ground? Grant looks at it more as working within a tradition. And that certainly makes sense. Contemporary cartoonists can definitely still add their own unique contribution. But they’re also part of something bigger. I set it up during our Zoom interview so that I could display any page from the new book and one page prompted Grant to mention that the snow scene was a homage to the great cartoonist Frank O. King (1883 – 1969), known for his comic strip, Gasoline Alley. That turned out to be a great example of what he was referring to, the continuous chain of progress.
So, I welcome you to check out the video interview. There’s some good shop talk and some fun insights into how the book came together. If you like the image above, we specifically focus upon it, part of a two-page meditation on the qualities of light.
As always, your comments, shares, and likes are very much appreciated. Let’s keep spreading the word about this little oasis for discussion on comics, culture and related issues.
The Art of Living: Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life. Grant Snider. Abrams. New York. 2022. 144pp. $18.99
Grant Snider creates comics that are often poetic and always engaging on some level. Going back to 2009, it has been Snider’s goal to create at least one full-page comic strip since he began posting to his site, Incidental Comics. Scroll around and you’ll see how his style has progressed. A perfect example of what he does now can be found by simply going to the latest post. The one below is the current post as of this writing and a new comic…
These quirky heart-felt comic strips have attracted a legion of devoted followers (over 100k followers to his Instagram) and have led to book collections. There is one book on creativity, The Shape of Ideas. And another book on literary matters, I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf. And now we have the new one, The Art of Living, due out on April 5, 2022, published by Abrams. Each of these books are pithy, witty and a joy to read.
I think it’s just beautiful to see how Snider has totally blossomed into the artist that he is today. Without a doubt, Snider has moved up to a level of excellence that can draw comparisons to any number of the all-time great cartoonists, including Charles Schulz. I take that statement seriously as I know that I risk stirring up all kinds of controversy and head-spinning wrath from a small but fierce faction of die-hard Schulz loyalists who won’t accept any comparisons to their god. It’s the same sort of sell-appointed expert thinking that is nutty and useless but I digress. Actually, this is relevant to mention given that, while a student, Snider won the Charles M. Schulz Award for college cartoonists. It came with a $10,000 prize and a trip to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. So there!
What I’m trying to say is that Grant’s work has been around, it is appreciated and loved, has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, as well as The Best American Comics anthology series. It’s bona fide good stuff! There will always be snobs and elitists that one can never convince but we’re way past that here. That’s what I’m saying. And I feel very confident is saying that because the universal appeal to what Snider is doing rings very true to me. A fine example is the above two pages: a meditation on light. With relatively simple forms, muted flat colors, and clean crisp lines, the reader is transported to a zen daydream.
Considering the evolution of Snider’s work, from silly gags to a specific vision, I see an artist at work, someone steadily chipping away to what matters most; I also see a cartoonist mining for the very best work and pushing the limits of what is possible within the framework of the comic strip. Snider takes the comics medium very seriously and it shows. The ambition travels well on its way to the reader who gets to enjoy a smooth and pleasing experience. In essence, what Snider is doing is meeting all the aspirations of the best in comics in being compelling good fun, artful, and popular. Yes, popular. One can argue that it’s not enough for a work of comics to be a delightful work of distinguished art and yet remain completely obscure. Well, it can be enjoyed by a certain rarified audience, that’s true. But these same guardians of taste really don’t have a leg to stand on if they try to dismiss the popular works in contemporary comics. Again, a mild digression but worth stating, for sure!
In the end, it is the marvel of creation that Snider can enjoy over and over again–and his readers get it. I can tell you from my own comics-making that magic is definitely possible during the creative process, just as legitimate as in other art forms. What Snider does is go to the deep end of the pool and work his magic. Snider is a true storyteller; his art often, if not always, has a literary quality to it. What Snider ends up giving the reader is work that one can truly come back to and enjoy for multiple views/readings. Through the process, you end up with stuff that reverberates, is iconic, or is simply just the thing you need at that moment.
The Blame. by Jon Aye. mini-comic. 2021. 22pp. $11.11
This British mini-comic is a low-key rather urbane bit of fun, an excellent showcase for the wry humor of Jon Aye. If you like local color, there is plenty of it in this collection of short works. There’s even one piece that features Matt Hancock, an inept politician on his way to a comeback byway of a role as a UN flunky attempting to scare up business opportunities in Africa, despite the UK’s dismal record in getting vaccines into developing countries. So, in Aye’s Hancock satire, he has the miserable sod sadly lurking about until he perks up by trying out tiresome American slogans on for size.
American Comics: A History. Jeremy Dauber. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2021. 592pp. $35.
Jeremy Dauber’s narrative resembles a rocket ship as it blasts through page after page which is ideal for a book covering the entirety of American comics, from its early days to the present. Arbuably, this is the first survey of its kind and it proves to be compelling stuff. For myself, a Gen X cartoonist based in Seattle, I couldn’t help but begin with Chapter 8: Between Spandex and Seattle. Dauber dutifully recreates the scene leading up to the rise of indie comics in the early ’90s and, in the process, provides a window into the ever-evolving world of alienated youth. If Andy Hardy movies from the ’30s and ’40s helped to invent the American teenager, then comics, specifically indie, played a significant role in a more recent iteration of youth culture, one with a more nuanced argument for perpetual arrested development. Why not remain snarky, callow, self-deprecating, the whole immature shebang, all the way to the grave? The work of leading cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns made nihilism seem cool again, picking up where the sixties underground left off. If these cartoonists never meant for anyone to take them literally, it was besides the point. The impact of comics was never in doubt.
Today’s Hurricane Nancy comic strip: “Getting Rid of False Gods and Tricky Demons.” Nancy says, “This comic strip covers my current feelings and is dedicated to All the authorities who want to trap and subjugate individuals. They can try, but truth is they can’t!”