A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. by Sharon Rudahl. edited by Paul Buhle. The New Press. 2007. 115pp. $17.95
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is not an obvious choice for the subject of a graphic novel. Unless you’re into political science, you probably have never heard of her. But since when is it an obstacle to read a book about someone you’ve never heard of? It’s absolutely not an obstacle. More of an invitation. You see, Emma Goldman was a trailblazing anarchist who became known as “Red Emma” and, when she was deported from the United States in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Comic artist Sharon Rudahl brings Emma Goldman to life in her graphic novel. It was a pleasure to review Rudahl’s graphic novel on Paul Robeson. You can read that here. And it seemed only natural to take one more look back to her graphic novel on Emma Goldman.
The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.
Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.
Fante dreams big.
I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.
Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with such a perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.
A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.
Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing. More importantly, he has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.
While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.
Unlucky in love.
Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers, do they? Maybe so but going down that rabbit hole is a pretty tall order. In the end, it seems that we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.
Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.
I’ve been carving a little niche of some kind for many years and sometimes wondering where it all will lead—but I do know. I just mean that, push comes to shove, I will occasionally feel obligated to account for my actions. From time to time, all of us indie creative types must ask, “Why are we all doing this?” Indeed. We do it because it’s rewarding in its own right. As we progress through life, I think a lot of us out there begin to think we’d better be a little more respectful of our own work/worth. Why not? It makes sense. That brings me to this post, a look at Morgan Vogel, a remarkable talent now gone all too soon.
Cover to The Necrophilic Landspace by Morgan (then Tracy Auch) published by 2dcloud, 2015
From time to time, I feel compelled to define/explain what I do and this blog is a very good place for that. What I want to share with you right now is a little moment in time, because that is mostly what this blog does, filter through, and grind out some truth. Today, I bring up to the surface a remembrance of a young artist who recently passed away. Morgan Vogel, a name many of you will not know. But she fits the bill for the type of curious creature I hold in high esteem. Morgan was a determined artist. To die at 34 is truly heartbreaking. She was only beginning. I want to direct your attention to a tribute posted by Austin English over at The Comics Journal. Austin English runs Domino Books, a fine online boutique of comics and zines and he’s quite an authority on the indie zine. Austin leads a moving tribute that gives me confidence that Morgan’s legacy is safe and won’t be forgotten. Here’s Austin’s introduction:
Morgan Vogel, a cartoonist known for her distinctively intelligent work, went missing on April 8th. She was found dead Sunday, May 24th, at age 34. While her body of published work was small, its effect on those who read it was immeasurable. Her comics in anthologies (she appeared in Weird Magazine, Smoke Signals, Suspect Device, Tusen Hjärtan Stark, But is it…Comic Aht? and more) were often the stand out piece of the volume in question. The Necrophilic Landscape, a solo masterpiece published by 2dcloud in 2015, is one of the most stunning works of comic art in the last decade. Her recent self published zines, Valle and Nightcore Energy, were beautifully drawn and upsetting to read, a divide that appears in so much of her art and became more pronounced over time.
Morgan was a favorite cartoonist of mine and many others. Her work was, at once, cruel, funny, forgiving, un-affectionate and, most of all, incredibly perceptive. She often zeroed in on personas that people (in much of her work, artists specifically) constructed for themselves. She would at first offer a satire of these poses, but within a few panels, a more moving–and therefore devastating–portrait of the subject would be revealed. The maturity of her expression, the avoidance of an extreme of anger or acceptance but instead a complicated and upsetting synthesis of the two, was achieved with a precision that I rarely see in comics. Many of my favorite artists make work that, on a superficial level, seems confrontational, but at heart is urgently humane—Morgan’s work, to me, got at this better than most. When I wanted to start a magazine about comics, including Morgan’s work in whatever way possible was one of the highest priorities, because of the nature of her views on art. She wasn’t interested in style or gestures of sophistication, but instead on the true implications embedded within peoples art. In one remembrance below, a quote by Morgan is repeated: “I cant think of any other way to love except through artwork or some other medium that is public, loving everybody is easy, when you have an actual commitment to a thing or to somebody then it gets more complicated than I can handle.” A belief in the power of art often gets a lot of lip service, but for many artists of consequence, it is a real and specific thing. Morgan, I believe, was one of those artists.
Morgan’s work was well known to her peers and to many readers, but because she worked under so many pseudonyms (I originally knew her as Caroline Bren, then as Tracy Auch, later as Hennessy, and finally as Morgan or Morgan Vogel), the entirety of her output remains a tangle. I think this is, in part, how she wanted it. But I also know that she was an avid reader of this website and focused much of her thinking on cartoonists and cartooning history. There are no doubt people reading this with feelings about the form that mirror Morgan’s. In spite of her resistance to clarifying her body of work, attention and discussion of it seem important to fulfilling the belief she had in the medium. I think Morgan’s high standards for cartooning were often met most precisely by her own art. It’s hard for me to imagine an artistic achievement equal to that.
Pages from The Necrophilic Landspace
The Necrophilic Landspace is 32 pages, 7.75 x 9.25 inches, 1 color risograph, $12, available at 2dcloud.
A worthwhile comics anthology requires a lot of focus and dedication. One comics anthology series that has set a high standard is Not My Small Diary, edited by Delaine Derry Green. For Issue 20, Green chose the theme of music and the affect it has on our lives. This is a theme that is tailor-made for indie cartoonists since they already spend quite a lot of time creating auto-bio comics while listening to music. I should know. I am one of them and I salute the efforts of my fellow cartoonists included in this collection. If there is one thing we all seem to have an opinion on, and cuts deep, it’s music. We all operate under this illusion that we somehow own our all-time favorite bands, since they seem to speak directly to us. Nothing could be further from the truth but the power of music is unmistakable. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Issue 20.
In Delaine Derry Green’s introduction she states that this edition includes 54 artists and writers. But one cartoonist, who had submitted work to every issue since the very start in 1996 was now gone. “We lost Mark Campos in 2018,” states Green, “and I know he would have loved the theme of this issue. This issue is dedicated to him!” Two cartoonists in this issue grapple with the loss. David Lasky presents an exploration of his feelings as he mourns the death of his friend and connects it to a better appreciation of the work of an older and wiser George Harrison. Noel Franklin presents a behind-the-scenes look at her relationship with Campos and their mutual admiration for the dark beauty in the work of Kristin Hersh. Each tribute approaches the subject from very different and idiosyncratic perspectives. In Noel Franklin’s piece, there’s a moment when Lasky introduces her to Campos. Reading these two comics back-to-back, a reader can get a sense of the peculiar and the perennial within the creative mist and fog.
A good work of auto-bio comics must make efficient use of its allotted space, even if it’s only one page. When a cartoonist lacks discipline, one page can feel too long. But, if a cartoonist is mindful of their content, then a series of pages can leave the reader wanting more. Three or four pages is typically as long as one can expect for an extended piece. M. Jacob Alvarez brings the reader in with his honest and concise observations of growing up with music for his 3-page work entitled, Record Player. Peter Conrad makes good use of four pages with Hacklebarney, which also features coming-of-age musings over music. Both Alvarez and Conrad don’t claim any cosmic connection to music. On the contrary, it was always something in the background for them until further notice. It’s a refreshing take to have indie cartoonists downplay a situation as opposed to the traditional life-changing narrative.
M. Jacob Alvarez
Not My Small Diary #20 includes the work of Colleen Frakes, Joe Decie, Andrew Goldfarb, Androo Robinson, Aaron Brassea, John Porcellino, Rob Kirby, MariNaomi, Julia Wertz, Jenny Zervakis, Jonathan Baylis, T.J. Kirsch, Simon Mackie, David Lasky, Noel Franklin, Misun Oh, Danny Noble, Fafá Jaepelt, Billy McKay, Chad Woody, Max Clotfelter, J.T. Yost, Ben Snakepit, J.M. Hunter, Jason Marcy, Steve Wallet, Jesse Reklaw, Ken Bausert/Steven Anderson, Michael Kraiger, George Erling, Joseph Cotsirilos, Aimee Hagerty Johnson, Jason Martin, Kevin Van Hyning, Pete Wentzell, Josh Medsker, Roberta Gregory, James Burns, Brad W. Foster, M. Jacob Alvarez, Tom Scarecrow, David St. Albans, Peter Conrad, Maddie Fix, Joel Orff, Dave Kiersh, Donna Barr, Sally-Anne Hickman, Missy Kulik, Jim Siergey, J Gonzalez-Blitz, Jennifer Hayden, and Carrie McNinch. Cover Artist is Ben Snakepit.
Not My Small Diary #20 is a 136-page book well worth the $6.50 price point. I really appreciate the guitar pick included with every copy. But I appreciate even more the index at the back of the book that references all the bands mentioned! Considered one of the best showcase zines around, this is the book to explore some of the best in indie comics. Visit Not Small Diary right here.
Memoir and closely related alter egos are at the core of indie comics. A fine example of the auto-bio genre is Blood and Drugs by Lance Ward. It’s about people on the fringes of society and it’s gritty–but it’s also about triumph over adversity. So much to unpack, as they say on all the talking head shows. We never used to unpack anything but a suitcase. It’s one of those handful of clever buzzwords that irritates more than helps. Anyway, Lance Ward keeps it real with an authentic down-to-earth tone. There’s an energy here that crackles and evokes all the desperation, wild mood swings, and force of will that plays out on the mean streets.
Down and out.
Making a deliberate choice to be an artist, and follow the process and all the steps it takes to actually succeed, is an act of courage. It’s one thing to have some beers and draw a few doodles among friends. It’s quite another thing to give an art form the serious respect required to make anything that can be acknowledged as a significant contribution. Everyone is an artist, sure. That is definitely an accomplishment in itself for anyone to admit to have an innate ability to be creative. But then comes all the steps involved in refining and specifying your vision. It’s all about following steps. So, it makes sense of many levels that Ward has structured his graphic novel around the theme of steps. Ward’s main character is Buster, a cartoonist on the skids struggling with addiction. We follow the narrative in sections that follow the famous 12-step Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Triumph over adversity.
Buster is nothing if not persistent. Well, he has his ups and downs but he retains a sense of purpose. No matter what, whether his drawing hand gets mangled or he gets pummeled down to a bloody stump, he still knows that he will ultimately find a way out. While there is plenty of violence and despair to be found in Buster’s story, there is still undeniable insight to be gleaned, even humor. No doubt, Lance Ward speaks from his own experience. In fact, his own drawing hand was seriously damaged. But he didn’t let that stop him. He powered through with a bold and energetic style. He found a way out.
While they stock all kinds of comics, Orbital Comics in London has quite an impressive collection of small press comics. Will Humberstone, Orbital Comics indie comics expert, assisted me in tracking down some of the store’s best titles currently in stock. I include here all the titles that he suggested. While I was in the store, I was impressed with a very tidy and organized shop. I found an upbeat environment with first-rate customer service. By all means, while in London, do make sure to visit Orbital Comics! I begin with some photos of the shop. This includes staff members who worked on some of the titles reviewed here: Ryan Jenkyns on Forged #1, and Valentina Sannais on Starfall #1.
Ryan Jenkyns and Valentina Sannais
Small Press Reviews
Forged #1 by Michael Eckett and Ryan Jenkyns
Forged #1, written by Michael Eckett and illustrated by Ryan Jenkyns, is a sweet all-ages ongoing series that proves to be a rather nice showcase of talent. I can see big things ahead for this series mostly geared toward younger readers. A boy off on big adventures! Stay tuned.
Starfall #1 by Adam Blackhat and Valentina Sannais
Starfall #1, written by Adam Blackhat and illustrated by Valentina Sannais, is an action adventure story with quite a lot to unpack. It seems that we are picking up the story right in the middle of momentous events with characters dealing with a lot of issues. Oh, and they also happen to have superpowers! Much to enjoy here and we’re only getting started. Visit the webcomic here.
Barky and the Bootmaker by Jasmine Parker
Barky and the Bootmaker, by Jasmine Parker, raises the bar high as this is a professional illustrator so maybe it’s a little unfair for someone with finely-honed artistic chops to blast into the slower-paced world of indie comics–or is it? It’s debatable, I suppose, but I really truly favor those comics creators who do work hard at their craft, keep polishing it, and demand a high level of excellence in their work. And then you have to ask, When is a work too slick? Ah, now there’s the rub–when to know you’ve got just the right vibe in your comics! I guess you have to sniff it out. In this case, Ms. Parker does a fine job with a very silly story that will have the tikes rolling in the aisles.
The Blade of Arozone by J. Edward Scott
The Blade of Arozone, by J. Edward Scott, is one of those little books where maybe I’m just not connecting with it all the way even though I really want to. If you enjoy a bit of sword and sorcery, then this might work for you. I think the best thing going here is the artwork. There’s a lot of promise here. For such a short work, you need to wow your reader with something really tasty. Not too busy either. So, keep on truckin’ and really have fun. Maybe I’m not seeing quite enough fun in these opening pages while I do see that elsewhere from this artist online.
Stutter by Joe Stone
Stutter, by Joe Stone, almost lost me with the cover. But, once I leafed through it, I knew that here was a serious cartoonist that I would need to focus on and give him his due. I can see that care has been put into character development, composition and pacing. Yes, it is an autobiographical story about one man’s struggle with stuttering. It has a nice crisp clarity to it. The style is a confident clean line, a cartoony semi-realistic approach that a lot of cartoonists use today. Stone is among one of the better examples I’ve come across. It’s an impressive and sharp mini-comic.
Shivers in London, Part 1 by Niki S. Banados
Shivers in London, Part 1, by Niki S. Banados, is another all too brief work that leaves me wanting more. Again, lots of promise here just like in Mr. Scott’s The Blade of Arozone. The art does have a nice ethereal quality to it but I’d just have to see a lot more of it. If this is an opener meant to entice the reader, then I need more of a wow factor. That said, I’m intrigued and look forward to more.
Cat Disco by Rebecca K. Jones
Cat Disco, by Rebecca K. Jones, is a work that has come to the party prepared to rock out. Now, fair warning, Ms. Jones is a seasoned illustrator so she has a lot more toys to play with and a lot more experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun read or anyone interested in becoming a better cartoonist. This story is told with sly wit and great confidence. It’s not easy to pull off but this is the sort of work that can carry the reader away. It’s a story about a house cat who decides to take a walk on the wild side and see what the street cats do at night–and then it goes on to deliver! You too will believe that cats love to disco! Bravo!
Heads by Ed Stockham
Heads, by Ed Stockham, seemed at first glance to be one of those classic twee mini-comics that tries one’s patience. However, years of mini-comic reading have taught me to not rush to judgment. Now, the art is very simple and raw but there’s a confidence running throughout that won me over. I think Mr. Stockham’s work, based on this little book plus what I see on his website, has just the right combination of a good sense of timing, artistic sensibility, and joie de vivre.
Seller on the Threshold by Claude T.C.
Seller on the Threshold, by Claude T.C., is a masterful little work by someone who spends a lot of time drawing and loves it. I see here a wacky sense of humor and the creative discipline to back it up. Is this the work of an inspired amateur who works at a professional level? Or is this the work of a professional who works at the level of an inspired amateur? You see what I mean, don’t you?! It’s polished, but not so slick that the life has been sucked out of it. This is the good stuff.
Some Short Stories by Knifeson Yu
Some Short Stories, by Knifeson Yu, is a collection of light vignettes where very, very little happens. This is an all too brief wisp of a sampler. But I like the wee bits of teaser found here. Seems like the work of an animator who is happy to just dabble in comics for now. We shall see.
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays by Dan White
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays, by Dan White, is another impressive work by a professional illustrator. This is A-game work. The story is a lot of silly fun, reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes but very much its own thing. Cindy keeps seeing all sorts of amazing creatures and going off of all these larger-than-life adventures. Okay, maybe it’s a lot like Calvin Hobbes but it’s still very much its own thing! Five stars and lots of glitter!
Endswell by Peter Morey
Endswell, by Peter Morey, pay perhaps be the most ambitious work of the whole lot here in its own way. I mean, it has an ambiguous and quirky cover. You can only hazard a guess as to what it’s about. And, even once in, you don’t know for sure where it’s heading but you’re hooked. The opening pages have that ideal crisp and clear quality that is so crucial to bring the reader in. The characters are really saying things that are interesting and advancing the plot. You know the main character has got some problems and he’s taking part in some sort of therapy, whether he really wants to or not. All very intriguing. This gets an A-plus and whatever else I can say that is upbeat and supportive. Seriously, really good stuff!
Archie vs. Orbital by Joe Jinks and Will Humberstone
Archie vs. Orbital, art by Joe Jinks and script by Will Humberstone, is a fun little book that pits the Archie gang against the Orbital Comics staff! This is lighthearted fun as you might expect. That said, it is far more involved than you might expect too! The pacing is spot on and it has a tasty factor about it. Archie and the gang are not very nice in this comic. Think horror, scary horror. I recommend you pick it up.
If you live in or plan to be around the New York metro area, then consider visiting the Scott Eder Gallery for an in depth look at a variety of notable underground cartoonists from the sixties. This includes a number of names that are common to the comics community along with a number that will be newly discovered gems for gallery visitors. The show is entitled, THE ALTERNATIVE UNDERGROUND: Foot Soldiers in the Revolution that Forever Changed Comics and runs from Feb 1 thru March 9, 2019. The opening reception is Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, 5-9 PM. Scott Eder Gallery is located at 888 Newark Avenue, #525, Jersey City, New Jersey in the Mana Contemporary Arts Complex. From New York City, you can easily reach it from the PATH train.
Mickey Rat Comix by Robert Armstrong
What If? by Joel Beck
Women at Work!!! by Daniel Clyne
Pro Junior by Dave Dozier
Smile by Jim Mitchell
Rev. Jeremiah Moses by Grass Green
Jesus Learns a Thing or Two by Frank Stack
Trina Robbins self-portrait
More details from Scott Eder Gallery:
When the Underground Comix movement is discussed, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Gilbert Shelton come quickly to mind. But the revolutionary break from mainstream comic books in the late ‘60s, leading to graphic novels and today’s vital independent scene, was comprised of numerous other artists. Many seldom get their due. Scott Eder Gallery is proud to present some of the largely unsung pioneers like Joel Beck and Frank Stack, both of whose comix significantly predated ZAP. Other featured artists are Bob Armstrong (Mickey Rat), Sharon Rudahl, (Wimmens Comix), Dan Clyne (Hungry Chuck Biscuits), Wendel Pugh (Googiewaumer), Mike Roberts (Bizarre Sex), and other foot soldiers active in the broad and groundbreaking underground comix scene. Discover or rediscover the idiosyncratic styles of more than twenty outspoken and bold cartoonists whose work remains surprising fresh a half century after the psychedelic fervor and anti-war chants swirling around their era have faded away.
Interview with gallery owner Scott Eder:
If you’re interested in comics or would like to take the opportunity to see firsthand some of the exciting trailblazing art that has influenced today’s boom in indie comics, then be sure to visit Scott Eder Gallery.
Here is a discussion of what makes for the best comics within the United States with Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor of the prestigious annual collection, TheBest American Comics, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What does it take to be considered the best? Well, mind you, everyone has their own set of ideas but, essentially, it boils down to compelling work. One way or another, things add up. The work commands your attention and it checks off a number of boxes like being original, structurally sound, and maybe even groundbreaking.
One thing that makes this particular interview special is very good timing. I happen to have been in New York for a combination of business and pleasure. The latest collection of Best American Comics had just come out. In fact, I’d recently reviewed it here. So, one thing led to another. I asked Bill what he thought about getting together in person for an interview and so we did. For me, meeting Bill at Parsons The New School for Design was a nice treat. He teaches there on the subject of comics. Currently in his class, he’s covering Art Spiegelman’s landmark work, Maus. Bill was Associate Editor and Production Assistant on MetaMaus, Spiegelman’s 2011 book and multimedia DVD set examining the production of Maus.
Parsons The New School for Design
My goal in this interview was simply to have a pleasant, perhaps even lively, conversation. I am a fan of Best American Comics but I was setting that aside, so to speak, in order to go through a relatively objective set of questions. I wanted to dig around and see what we might uncover and Bill was certainly up for it. What I come away with is the fact that this annual best-of collection has gone through a rigorous process. First, we have Mr. Kartalopoulos dutifully gathering up around 120 or so works that he deems worthy. Then, he hands them off to the guest editor. This year, that honor goes to cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner. Finally, a shaking and mixing and final rinse. The editor, after paring down the final cut of titles, may end up adding some of her own, and will ultimately preside over a presentation all her own. Okay, lots going on. So, here we discuss all that and more.
“Yazar and Arkadaş” by Lale Westvind
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Bill, I thought we could take as our jumping off point the last work in this year’s Best American Comics. This is by Lale Westvind. It is quite a surreal sci-fi tale entitled, “Yazar and Arkadaş.” I think it would be good fun to linger over this loopy and wonderful work, an ideal example of what comics are all about. It kicks off with an urgent search for a book and, along the way, the main characters are compelled to continue their journey naked. What can you tell us?
BILL KARTALOPOULOS: Lale Westvind did the cover for this year’s Best American Comics. This piece was one that she published during the twelve month cycle that we cover for each volume. Our excerpt doesn’t contain the story in full but it gives the reader a good sense of it. The original work was published on a risograph. We attempted to evoke that same look and feel, including the pink paper used in the original.
CHAMBERLAIN: That unique look that you get from a risograph is part of what defines independent comics.
KARTALOPOULOS: I think a lot of Lale’s work speaks to science fiction. Although a lot of her work is very different, it does bring to mind Jack Kirby and how he played with mythology with his New Gods. Something else that I think is really nice and speaks to the selection process is what happened when it came time for Phoebe to pick what to excerpt from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. She chose a conversation that refers to Medusa. That moment would end up resonating at the end of the book, with the last work by Lale Westvind and her disembodied head of Medusa with the tendrils of hair acting as arms grabbing at things.
CHAMBERLAIN: It happens every year. I recall us talking about interconnections between the selected works during our phone interview a few years back.
KARTALOPOULOS: It’s not a heavy-handed thing.
CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, of course not.
KARTALOPOULOS: It’s something you can’t force. It’s natural and organic.
CHAMBERLAIN: I think of how iconic My Favorite Things is Monsters is for readers. To present it in this collection, the challenge was to find an interesting way to revisit. Maybe you could give us another look behind the scenes. What is the significance of having Gabrielle Bell’s piece as the opener?
KARTALOPOULOS: That’s an interesting question particularly with how it relates to the creation of this collection. Each new guest editor handles the job a bit differently. For example, Scott McCloud created categories and wrote short introductions for each. Jonatahn Lethem, the next year, aware of what McCloud had done, followed suit in his own idiosyncratic way.This year, with Phoebe Gloeckner, she decided to see what it might look like with alphabetizing the titles–which is exactly what she ended up doing for the book!
CHAMBERLAIN: You can’t be any more fair than having the book alphabetized! That’s a good tip for aspiring cartoonists. Get a pseudonym that places you towards the front. I’m looking at Tara Booth’s work now. It’s a very raw and powerful style. And then you’ve got, after that, the very lean and clean work of J. D. Bryant. Some of the elements in Tara’s work are very challenging for the viewer. While, with Bryant, it’s very cool and detached. Maybe we can do a bit of comparing and contrasting with these two.
D. J. Bryant
KARTALOPOULOS: Sure, these are two very different ways of working. I certainly hope that it demonstrates the wide variety of work on display in these pages. Tara Booth shares with the reader the more private aspects of life, things you wouldn’t typically share, like popping a zit. She works mostly, if not exclusively, in gouache for this piece. Bryant works in the tradition of alt-comics from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a naturalistic style with pop appeal, very dense, with a surreal narrative that loops back on itself. The types of brushes and pens and inks he uses go back further to the ’30s and ’40s. Booth has a very different approach, wordless little moments. Both are extremely effective styles.
CHAMBERLAIN: It does take a lot for a major comic book publisher to appear in Best American Comics, doesn’t it? It happens from time to time. This year we have a piece by Geof Darrow that appeared in Dark Horse Comics. I understand why that is. A lot of the work is market-driven and would seem out of context in Best American Comics. That said, I see a lot of interesting work coming out of Image Comics, for example. Is it a case of stepping back from the major comic book publishers in order to secure room for the independent cartoonists?
KARTALOPOULOS: We don’t really think about the scale of the publisher necessarily. We’re just looking for good work, something that is unique that expresses a personal vision, not necessarily an autobiographical vision. Dark Horse does publish a good amount of creator-owned work. This piece by Geof Darrow is very much an auteurial work: it is his vision; he is doing the work just the way he sees it. This is a personal vision regardless of the means of production. It is a personal vision as much as the work just before it, a self-published piece by Max Clotfelter.
CHAMBERLAIN: I agree. This brings us back to our theme of different approaches. One piece is technically crisp and another is stripped down. I want to ask you to share with us something about your intimate connection with comics. I know you spend quite a lot time on comics in various ways. Would you give us a window into your day or whatever you might like to share.
KARTALOPOULOS: I teach at Parsons about comics so at least once a week I’m teaching. Then I’m either preparing for a class or grading papers. I just finished reading for Best American Comics 2019. Each book has a time lag. For example, the current volume covers work created from September 2016 to August 2017. It goes from Autumn to Autumn. Then it takes a full year to create a volume. I’m at a place right now where I’m about to hand off work to our next guest editor. At the same time, I’m working on a book on North American comics for Princeton University Press. It’s pretty far along but I still have a number of chapters to complete.
CHAMBERLAIN: How do you gauge the reception that the book gets. With each year, do you sense that you’ve got a locked-in audience?
KARTALOPOULOS: The print run is somewhere around 20,000 copies so that’s a lot of copies out in the world. One thing that I think is very helpful is that the series tends to fairly automatically enter libraries. I think this series has a pretty useful life as an entry point into comics for many readers. We put as much information as we can about the sources of each title. We have bios and websites. So, for example, if there’s a self-contained work among the selections, maybe readers will seek out that creator and read more. In this way, we can make a quite impact well beyond the initial release of a volume.
CHAMBERLAIN: You’re talking about a quiet impact. You’re not exactly thinking in terms of setting a standard–or maybe you are, to some degree?
KARTALOPOULOS: I think we’re seeking out good comics. I’m putting together a larger pool of material, over a hundred pieces, for the guest editor. I select work worth considering…really give the guest editor a lot of options. Really select pieces that are meaningful to them. I try to give them a broad palette. The guest editor is applying their own sense of critical judgement of what they consider a good comic. If you look at the series from multiple volumes, you’ll see a consistency, a pretty high level of quality.
A mark of success for the series is how each guest editor leaves their personal mark. This year’s volume, edited by Phoebe Gloeckner, feels different to me to the volume edited by Ben Katchor, which feels different to me to the volume edited by Roz Chast, and so on. There’s consistency, a high level of quality, and each guest editor brings in their own point of view.
CHAMBERLAIN: That’s a wonderful place to end. Thanks for your time, Bill.
KARTALOPOULOS: Thank you.
We had a really good, insightful, and fun conversation. You can listen to the interview by just clicking the video link below:
The unique character of Emily emerged in the mist of the night. Who is she? Well, if I could talk with Emily, I would tell her that she’s intriguing and deserves everything wonderful in life. It looks like I’ve found my main character. It is a very natural discovery.
When you’re building up a story, you do a lot of things on the fly and juggle as best you can until it’s time to settle down. What I started with was a whole bunch of background stuff.
Not so happy.
And then, as I wandered along, a character fell into place that could carry along and support the background. We see her smiling. Next panel, we already see her not smiling. Okay, what’s up?
By the third panel, everything has gone quiet.
The plot thickens.
And on the last panel, we’ve got some conflict. The plot thickens. So, suffice it to say, I am intrigued with Emily and I wish her well on her journey.
I have gotten situated. I have lots of books and various reference material. I’ve got the whole frick’in internet! And, with the Mayflower Park Hotel, I’ve got a wonderful and stimulating environment.
I try to include a bit of everything during these precious hours of creativity. Brett Kavanaugh is certainly fair game as he dominates the news. You’ll find him in the background music to the above video.