Artist Elise Engler is like all of us who love to document. It seems that we all want to have our say and tell not only our story but contribute to the bigger story. But only a few generations ago, the whole idea of self-expression, let alone self-portraits, was mostly in the artist’s domain. So, now everybody documents. A lot of it is ephemeral and only some of it has that everlasting quality, like the daily dispatches of news items collected in Engler’s book that chronicle the events of that infamous year, 2020. A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is out now. You can read my review here. And I invite you to my conversation with the artist.
Double Portrait of the Artist
It’s the persistent vision that wins out in the end. An artist engaging in a process for an extended amount of time is like mining for gold or anything else with a less than certain outcome. There will be trial and error efforts but a person with a certain mix of qualities, like sheer determination, will reach a breakthrough. Engler’s art is about keen observation from collecting data: everything in her apartment; or everything in a series of purses; or everything on every block of New York City’s Broadway! Each of these, and many more, have been subjects for Engler’s work.
Medical tents set up in Central Park in 2020 near the artist’s studio.
So, it is a pleasure to have a chance to chat with this artist. We have gone through so much in the recent past. It’s good to have an artist of this caliber to create this special record.
Highlight from The Cathedrals of Art (1942) by Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944)
A traditional question that I don’t always ask but had to in this case was to ask about influences. Engler’s choices, once I had time to consider, suggested to me a more earthy approach with Marsden Hartley; perhaps a spiritual connection with the Sienese School; expressive with Philip Guston; and whimsical with Florine Stettheimer. Well, I hope I got it right. Suffice it to say, Engler has a very emotive and energetic style.
I invite you to view the video interview. I also happen to have created a brief movie introduction so the interview begins right after that. In our interview, we cover all you would need to know before reading the book. We chat about the whole idea of documenting and the concept of a news junkie. As I suggest, documenting, as well as an interest in the news, is something we can all relate to. Elise Engler proves to be an exceptional participant, taking bits of data, giving them a sense of order, and finding something transcendent.
A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is available now.
Ted Rall is a journalist, cartoonist, and columnist. Ted Rall’s new graphic novel, THE STRINGER, is a political thriller that will appeal to readers who enjoy a full-bodied story with twists and turns. Bringing in his own experience as a war correspondent, Rall’s book has a gripping authentic voice that takes the reader on a wild ride with food for thought.
After so much hard luck, Mark Scribner could really use a lucky break. Be careful what you wish for.
A movie version of The Stringer would be something like George Clooney in Three Kings or Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger. It’s a gritty vibe; a fable for our overly-disruptive times. Here is an interview with Ted Rall where we cover the creative process and discuss Rall’s collaboration with artist Pablo Callejo as well as tackle the media and political landscape. Today was a particularly interesting news day with President Biden’s first formal press conference. Rall has some observations on that too. This is a guy who takes on the left with as much gusto as he does the right. It depends upon the issue and who is in power. One way or another, you may disagree with him but you can’t say his thinking is sloppy and he’s just phoning it in.
Forget the old tropes. A younger woman and an older man who are just friends.
There’s a friendship that Mark strikes up with Margreet, a female reporter half his age. Running counter to the old romance tropes, they remain just friends. It’s not something that’s emphasized. It just is. And it’s nice to see. Rall is highly opinionated but that doesn’t mean his work is heavy-handed. Often, what I see in Rall is someone who is simply daring to talk about a better world–and that can run against various interests; and a lot of people’s tendency to leave well enough alone. Rall’s attitude is “don’t settle for the lesser of two evils.” Don’t settle on corporate lies. Just don’t settle. That approach is what fuels the best of Rall’s work and that’s what you’ll find in The Stringer.
The Stringer. written by Ted Rall. art by Pablo Callejo. NBM Plublishing. 2021. 152 pp, $24.99
Ted Rall has certainly done his homework, and then some, with his latest graphic novel, The Stringer, published by NBM: the story of a gritty hard-working newsman who turns to the dark side. Many general observers recognize the name of Ted Rall and recall him for his audacious muckraking political cartoons. What you may not be familiar with is Rall’s own experience in the field as an independent war correspondent. Check out these titles, also published by NBM: To Afghanistan and Back, from 2003, and Silk Road to Ruin, from 2014. Rall has twice won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So, when someone with the stature of Rall writes a satirical graphic novel, it’s going to be a page-turner.
D-Day: remembering honest war reporting on the front lines.
This is not the first time that Rall has teamed up with Pablo Callejo doing the artwork. Check out the bohemian memoir, The Year of Loving Dangerously, from 2009. Between Rall’s rollicking narrative and Pablo Callejo’s spare and measured style, the reader gets an immersive and truly engaging story. Rall is an idealist at heart with a passionate drive to seek the truth. This graphic novel, at its core, has an overwhelming nihilistic force at play. Rall navigates the narrative through a variety of high and low points. Like Walter White, in Breaking Bad, this is a character study about an essentially good man, in the family business of revering the Truth, only to find himself later in life striking a devil’s bargain that becomes more complicated as he must continue to feed the beast.
At the twilight of when we could still believe.
This graphic novel gets its title from what has been known in journalism as “stringers,” the cub reporters sent out into the field to gather up facts and quotes that they phone back to reporters in the newsroom to turn into final stories. The reader follows young Mark Scribner as a boy reporter dutifully being a stringer. As the narrative unfolds, Scribner must face the fact he’s been sort of spinning his wheels, not much more than a glorified stringer for decades. What he does next lifts us off into a full-bodied story: full of intrigue, like the murky zone between Ukraine and Moldova; and finely-etched drama, focusing on Scribner’s personal journey.
“More people follow Twitter than read The New York Times and every other newspaper combined.”
Ted Rall has always had a zealous approach, compelled to speak truth to power. The story of newsman Mark Scribner is a metaphor for what has happened to media in the last forty some years. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to all of us: distracted, disrupted, disconnected. Print media has been on the decline for generations, much longer than we may care to admit. The internet and social media gobble up our time; slice and dice our information. The role of the professional gumshoe reporter has been virtually squeezed out of existence. So, when we now demand those voices “speaking truth to power,” we often simply resort to gorging on opinions we feel most comfortable with, often originating from corporations more than happy to keep us stoned on infotainment.
All bets are off.
Alright then, someone like Mark Scribner can’t afford to be the good guy anymore. Scribner is a highly-trained media animal. If he can no longer play by the rules, then he knows of ways to manipulate and exploit news and world events–and become wealthy and famous in the bargain. It all adds up to a delicious read. This is a story fueled by zeal and tempered by two seasoned storytellers. Ted Rall’s writing and Pablo Callejo’s art brilliantly provide the reader with a brash and authentic political thriller. Highly recommended. Seek this out.
Jerome and Henry discuss writing, history, and J.D. Salinger.
Just about any reader has an opinion about J.D. Salinger. In his latest novel, Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn takes that most celebrated and enigmatic of writers and crafts a story about history and heartbreak. It is about history nearly lost. It is about history relived. It is about heartbreak of the most sorrowful. In the end, this is a dazzling work that will take you on trip that will give you a more vivid sense of World War II and the journey that led J.D. Salinger right to the precipice. Was J.D. Salinger a great writer. Yes, he had that magic touch, that artistic vision. What does Jerome Charyn do with this story? As Jerome was adamant to tell me, this is not a story seeking to find out who J.D. Salinger was in any conventional sense. This is, after all, a work of art, a work of fiction.
Slapton Sands was a debacle that was almost covered up and lost to history.
For me, I just want to share with you a marvelous novel. There’s so much to enjoy in the way of masterful writing. I cite one example here where J.D. Salinger finds himself levitating up and flying over Central Park on his way to Belvedere Castle. He is transformed back into a boy along with his sister, Doris, becoming a young girl again. They confront a sinister figure, a witch, who is actually Salinger’s estranged wife, Sylvia. Doris is puzzled when the witch invites Doris to a lesson she can’t learn in any school. What could that be? asks Doris. “What can you teach me?” The witch looks at Doris and replies, “How not to exist.” I know this is out of context but I trust you feel a chill from this.
J.D. Salinger was there for D-Day on Utah Beach.
Another reason you may enjoy my conversation with Jerome Charyn is the historic ground that we cover. We do talk some about literary theory and such. But, I think, a lot of you will find more than just interesting a brief overview of World War II. Yeah, in short order, we end up covering a lot of ground. But it couldn’t be helped. J.D. Salinger covered an enormous amount of ground during his service in the war. Salinger witnessed more combat than some of our most celebrated writers on World War II. Salinger was there to observe the calamitous Exercise Tiger, the D-Day landing at Utah Beach, and the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp. Salinger saw so much, too much. And it sort of broke him. But not so much as to keep him from going on the complete a small but significant body of work, which includes, of course, The Catcher in the Rye.
J.D. Salinger was also there for Hitler’s last stand at the Battle of the Bulge.
Given our conversation, and my continuous searching to understand, Charyn summed it up nicely towards the end of our talk. “As for meaning, I don’t know what the ‘meaning’ is. I know what the music is. The music becomes the meaning. I’m not a philosopher.” Yeah! Kick-ass writing without apologies. For Jerome, the war, J.D. Salinger, New York City from a certain era, all of this Jerome lived and breathed himself. So, creating fiction from it came easy to him. “History is a very strange kiss that lands on you and invigorates and destroys. It is the past that I’m most interested in. It is the past that I try to summon up in my own way.” J.D. Salinger wasn’t a person to dissect and create a profile from. For Jerome Charyn, J.D. Salinger was a haunted house which he moved into and built some solid fiction from. Bring your A-game reading to this one!
And J.D. Salinger was among the first Americans to witness the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.
Be sure to view is conversation. I kid you not, you’ll be glad to did. And, if you have a moment, your comments are always welcome.
I ask that you keep going on this journey with me. I have been carving this niche for years and I feel like I’ve got it at quite a cozy level with just the right content and pacing. That said, it’s time for another thoughtful interview. For my video interviews, I add here a few notes and observations. Traditional journalism, like hard news reportage, will take an interview and create a concise summation. Some magazines are known for their long sprawling interviews where everything is transcribed. Of course, we also have a long tradition of various talk show formats, some thoughtful and some that are so casual as to blur right in with a dance segment on Tik Tok. Hey, I have nothing against fun and entertainment and I’ll engage in that when it makes sense. But, for interviews, I take them seriously, prepare for them, take off my Joe Cool hat and don’t engage in any dancing. Although, in a metaphorical sense, a good interview is sort of like a dance. The person conducting the interview leads while the person who is the subject of the interview goes about picking up one cue after another and making something out of it.
A bus driver finds solace through the suspension of disbelief.
Anyway, I say all this because it’s particularly relevant to this interview. Essentially, this is an interview about interviews: how to conduct one, what it means, what you attempt to get out of it. I interviewed Julia Wald about her new book, The Suspension of Disbelief (review), an illustrated collection of interviews she conducted about life and work during Covid-19. In the course of the interview, we ended up talking about what it means when you’re working at a restaurant during a world-wide pandemic and suddenly it’s like all the lights are out and then, just as suddenly, you are out of a job, your source of income. We discuss who might have stepped in to help and who didn’t.
A disadvantaged man finds hope through knowledge.
And, finally, once an artistic and talented person is inspired to create a book about Covid-19, what responsibility, if any, does she have to the vulnerable people she has interviewed? Well, part of the answer goes back to the dance. If the dance partners have established a sense of trust, then there’s a very good chance that something worthwhile will result that everyone can be proud of. We focus in a bit on American journalist Studs Terkel (1912-2008), the icon of what came to be known as “literary journalism.” Terkel was most active from the 1950s to 1990s, creating his seminal collection of interviews, Working, in 1974. He was part of that old-fashioned gumshoe journalist/creative tradition: loyal to his readers and listeners, to his Chicago, and to the art and craft of journalism. Julia says that Terkel inspired her on her Covid-19 project and it shows and, ultimately, it demonstrates that she did right by all who she interviewed. Julia did it the right way, the old-fashioned way that involves hard work and integrity. It’s the best way. And it’s what inspires me to keep going on this journey.
Suspension of Disbelief: Covid-19 Stories. By Julia Wald. Seattle. Available at Push/Pull. 77pp, $23.
Exercising a “suspension of disbelief.”
Oral history has itself a brief but interesting history in comics. As a former teacher and field worker in the field, as co-editor of an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s totemic Working, and as a collaborator of the late Harvey Pekar, himself a Studs Terkel type, I hope to claim a little authority on this matter.
But not too much. Oral history is born and reborn regularly, as the voices are heard and recorded, archived and used. Every interviewee and every interviewer has a unique experience. When the then-new field of oral history passed from the 1950s recording the lives of famous white men lacking memoirs to the civil rights and peace movements recorded by fellow participants, something changed in the nature of the field. Oral history eventually gained a shaky presence in academia. Its participants are, as they had already become a few generations ago, a peaceful army of under-appreciated activist-scholars, some in the classroom, more of them outside.
We can hope for a better future.
Comics, the adaptation of oral history as comics, has added a new dimension. Stan Mack, in the Village Voice of the 1960s-70s, captured the language and ideas of random people on the street, and opened up a path to a popular audience. One could call Art Spiegelman’s Maus, his father’s harrowing story, the comic that raised the level of respect and even made comics an accepted “art.” Individual artists have found human subjects and explored them through oral histories, disguised as fiction. Still, the straight story-telling mode, minus fiction, remains an art undeveloped.
Julia Wald, a young artist from Buffalo and a graduate of degrees in art and chemistry there, moved to Seattle to become an artist and….works a day job, as nearly all young artists do and must. She responded instinctively, then determinedly, to the coming of the Virus. The men and women her age, working in restaurants and such, were suddenly underemployed if not unemployed, she wanted to tell their stories.
Thus Suspension of Disbelief. It is well drawn and extremely charming. Her subjects are young and youngish people, a little more than half of them Latinx. They are working the kind of jobs, living the kind of lives that they would have chosen in the post-2000 world of the deteriorated middle class, except that the life they chose has become very difficult for rent, food and other necessities, not to mention the threat of Covid close at hand.
Grateful for the stability you have.
They are depressed but not totally depressed. “I hope that maybe this will change the way we look at capitalism and we will realize that certain social programs are important especially for fellow artists. As artists having the freedom to create work without the pressure of having to make a living from art could be a way of looking at the world.” That is, “it’s never going to be like it used to be—so letting go is important.” So says Marcy, a videographer with a lot of charm, and no matter that her restaurant job and video gigs are gone. “Now we are all in this together.,” Or drag queen Butylene O’Kipple, “Do I have enough? how much do I need? What even are my actual needs What have I been brainwashed into thinking I couldn’t live without? What can I let go of?”
And many more, waitresses to sex workers, filmmakers to bus drivers. Each has a unique story to tell, and each fits into the mosaic of today’s Seattle scene.
Julia Wald’s first comic outing is a small triumph. I hope it will be widely seen.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, out this year, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to visit Exterminator City (Dec 10-13) where you can purchase Suspension of Disbelief as well as other notable works. And you can always visit Pull/Pull anytime!
Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.
Excerpt from Lynda Barry
The comics discussion continues. This time around I interview Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky, co-curators of the comics art show, Wisconsin Funnies: 50 Years of Comics, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), on view through January 10, 2021. Of course, comics is an art form but we’re arguably still moving beyond old prejudice and misunderstanding. A show like Wisconsin Funnies helps to provide context and history in the study of comics. For example, while an underground comics are often associated with San Francisco, popularized by such leading figures as R. Crumb, a rich history of independent comics activity can be found in the midwest, specifically Wisconsin. Today, that hub of comics energy continues to percolate, led by such notable figures as Lynda Barry, winner of the the prestigious MacArthur Genius Foundation fellowship and an an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kings in Disguise, a graphic novel published by Kitchen Sink Press, by Dan Burr and James Vance.
During the course of our conversation, we touched on the unique difficulties that may arise in mounting a comics art show in a museum. I specifically suggested that Wisconsin Funnies could become a traveling show. That is actually an idea that has a history behind it. Both Danky and Kitchen, while certainly happy to indulge such an idea for this show, tend to think the focus is too regional. What would stop a curator in another state from favoring their own state over a showcase of Wisconsin comics? That said, Wisconsin natives Danky and Kitchen have led the way in putting together a most compelling show and set the bar high. You also have to factor in that a lot of the power and strength about this show is due to the fact it is made possible in large part by Denis Kitchen, a huge figure in comics. I factor in all the contributions that Denis Kitchen has made: his own comics, writing, journalism, publishing and promotion, his founding Kitchen Sink Press, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; and his work with so many leading figures in the business, including Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Scott McCloud, Stan Lee, and Alan Moore. It all adds up. Right alongside Kitchen is James P. Danky, a respected historian and authority on the alternative press. It was a pleasure to talk with both of these men. I also want to add to the credits for this show: associate curator J. Tyler Friedman and guest curator Paul Buhle.
Group Self-Portrait of the core group of midwestern cartoonists, circa 1971: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson.
Any worthwhile endeavor like a major art show is made up of many unique individuals. The story of this art show is the story of numerous high-spirited and hard-working artists. One of the highlights to this interview was getting a chance to explore the inner lives of these cartoonists by using a group self-portrait as a starting point. I am referring to the above work. Here you find the core group of cartoonists who Denis worked with: Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson. Some went on to professional careers while others moved in other directions. But, in that special moment in time, they were all making a little bit of history. Maybe they were too busy to ever acknowledge it at the time. That’s okay. The art is now on the walls and can speak for itself.
MOWA can be proud to have a show that celebrates Wisconsin’s rich and varied comics tradition. You will find a broad spectrum of content here, including underground comics, editorial cartoons, graphic novels, and even the state’s own superhero comic, Badger, by Jeff Butler!
Denis Kitchen, Henry Chamberlain, James P. Danky in conversation.
Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.
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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.
Year of Zines! Publishing funded in part by Regional Arts & Culture Council and patrons of Pateron, 2020. 224 pages. $12.
What is a zine? Many people have never heard of one or only have a vague idea. A zine is not necessarily a work of comics, although it often includes some form of comics. A zine is often a personal work running for a certain amount of pages, typically a dozen or two dozen. And a zine is cool but it’s not meant to be cool. It just is. If you try too hard to make one, it will show. If you gravitate too quickly to the zine scene without any prior knowledge, it will show–but that’s okay. Zines are intended to be the opposite of the big glossy corporate magazines. Any original zine artwork is usually only at a functional or even crude level. Zines are often ironic and sarcastic and have a rough and gritty aesthetic. Zines tend to be small, modest, the size of a pamphlet or brochure. And they are usually self-published. If they are not, then they’re published by a co-op or non-profit. But zines are most often the work of one person, usually someone who finds themselves misunderstood by a general audience, actually enjoys working alone, and yet is also welcoming like-minded souls. You dig? Blogging and zine-making share a lot of overlap! Alrighty then. With that said, let’s take a look at a wonderful book all about zines, and a collection of zines to itself, Year of Zines! by Sarah Mirk.
Panel excerpt from YEAR OF ZINES!
Another thing you need to know about zines: the creator is often immersed in one particular subject or theme per zine. Zines take dedication. Zines can sometimes seem obsessive but that’s part of the charm. Think of the fanzine. Now, in case you haven’t heard of them, fanzines are one of the most celebrated forms of zines. These tend to be home-made dedications to a beloved pop or movie star or any cultural phenomenon. This tradition goes back to the dawn of fandom. The most common trait of fanzines is a collage of cut-up photos from various magazines that have been re-arranged within the curated pages of the zine. It’s so punk. It’s so DIY. Before the internet, if you were searching for a platform to express yourself, you most likely found your way over to zines. You figured out some basic layout techniques and made your way to your nearest Kinko’s. Okay, now Sarah Mirk is hip to all this and a whole lot more. Zines today are not dependent upon runs to the local print shop. Zines can be virtual but, at the end of the day, zines are zines and a printed copy stills exerts its own power and energy. Print is not dead, and don’t you forget it! You see this in what Sarah Mirk has done with her own work with zines. She gets it. Zines share a bit of the same vibe as spoken word with their direct and concise narrative. Mirk understands that a good zine requires focus and specificity. If you start a zine on the theme of “not caring,” then you stick with it and see it through to resolution, just like a masterful comedian sees through a precisely-timed bit of comedy.
Panel excerpt from YEAR OF ZINES!
Of course, zines can cover virtually any topic or subject. Literally, if there’s something you’d like to discuss, then a zine could be a viable platform for you. And, yes, it’s true: no prior experience in the creation of zines is required or expected. You don’t have to worry about prior writing experience or drawing experience or whatever. And the most serious of subjects are open for discussion. In my own experience with leading workshops, I have always stressed that the most important thing is to focus on what you need to say and the rest will fall into place. And so it is in this book. Sarah Mirk is basically talking about her life, all the things she’s dealing with, and the world-at-large. That provides a pretty broad canvas. In her book, she tackles such subjects as gender, privilege, boundaries, finances, the environment, and much more. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that no one owns the zine scene. Zines are for everyone and Sarah certainly embraces that egalitarian spirit.
DRINK MORE WATER!
So, I hope you’re getting a sense of what a zine is and what a zine isn’t. And, in the process, you’re seeing that Sarah Mirk is a fine practitioner of the subtle art of zine-making. In fact, if you enjoy her collection of zines that she put together over the span of one year, then you’ll likely want to follow her other work and pursuits. One last thing, I’ll point out one more fine example. If you’re looking for a neat little collection of observations of growing up in your 20s, do check out Sarah’s zine, Drink More Water – Be More Honest: 30 Lessons from My 20s. In this zine, Sarah provides an irreverent look at everyone’s favorite decade, your glorious 20s! It’s a time when you might look your best without trying at all while also a time when you have a sinking feeling you don’t know if you’ll ever amount to anything. And then, enter your more sober and wiser 30s. Well, with that sobering thought, there’s so much more I could say about zines but I’ll save it for next time. I like what Sarah Mirk has done with this quirky and highly distinctive art form–and you will too. And I hope you will see how accessible and ubiquitous zines are. In a sense, this review, and certainly this blog, is a zine. See what I mean? You only need to go as far as the nearest desk and chair, or whatever is comparable, and try it out yourself.