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Wisconsin Funnies | Underground Comics | Alternative Press

The Bugle alternative weekly, circa 1975.

Interview with Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky

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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Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Comics Scholarship, Counterculture, Interviews, Museums

Bitch Media Needs Your Help: At Halfway Point to Reach Goal by Sep 25

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BITCH MEDIA celebrates over 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. Due to COVID-19 and the economic downturn, Bitch Media is in danger of ceasing operation. Help Bitch Media keep up the good fight with a donation by joining its campaign that closes on September 25, 2020. Donate, join, or subscribe today.

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Interview: Sarah Mirk, the World of Zines, and Visual Storytelling

Sarah Mirk self-portrait

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.

Sarah Mirk

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.”

The Nib

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.

Keep up with Sarah Mirk right here.

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Filed under Comics, Interviews, Zines

Review: YEAR OF ZINES! by Sarah Mirk

YEAR OF ZINES! by Sarah Mirk

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.

Sarah Mirk’s YEAR OF ZINES!

Visit Sarah Mirk right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Zines

Seattle Focus: The Celebrated Return of RON and DON

Seattle’s Ron and Don – The Protectors of the People

Guest column by Jennifer Daydreamer

Any study of pop culture would not be complete without a look at talk show culture. Let’s take a look at Seattle’s Ron and Don. Followers of the former Ron and Don Show on KIRO would attest to the program’s integrity. They now have their own DIY podcast! These two cool dudes take up causes with honest discussion. In fact, I am knighting them,  “The Protectors of the People.”  Now, why such a lofty title? Because they have a knack for seeing an injustice before any of the local news media does. I am not kidding. Even if the media reports a story, Ron and Don are the ones who know how to put all the moving parts together.

Case in point: the homeless crisis in Seattle.  About ten years ago, long before the TV news reported that there are illegal encampments and any ramifications of crime, Don and Ron talked about these issues. They walked around their neighborhoods, scoping things out. They decided to just go to the RVs camped out and talk to the people there.  They said, quite emphatically, that many of the tenants are good people and being homeless is crushing. And yes, of course, that homelessness is not a crime. They talked quite a lot about volunteering at homeless shelters and how the listener can help. They also talked to policemen and firemen and they were really concerned, warning Seattle had a real problem it was not addressing. They said that there is a subset of the homeless population, not the majority by any means, but that there is this subset that is doing drugs and selling and stealing and they had weapons and they don’t care about you, nor your family and your kids. They said “We are really worried about this. We talked to the mayor and we talked to the council and no one is doing anything about it.”

I remember their warnings so clearly. I told myself that the mayor would step in if things got this unsafe for citizens, in the very least, the governor would step in. Cut to today. Based on my own crime experiences, and my friends and strangers I have spoken to, we are now all living their warnings.

Crime in Seattle has steadily risen in recent years. Regarding crime, it’s not the same Seattle from even just ten years ago. The discussion now is not about crime by the unhoused or by drug addicts or by the housed, it’s just about crime, man. That’s the bottom line.  Here are some recent basic facts: The overall crime rate in Seattle is 115% higher than the national average. For every 100,000 people, there are 16.14 daily crimes that occur in Seattle. Seattle is safer than 7% of the cities in the United States.

In case you don’t know, California arrests for .3 grams of any hardcore drug while Seattle does not. Hardcore drugs are illegal here but police have stopped arresting as attorneys are not prosecuting the way they do in a lot of states, including California.  Experts say that when you don’t arrest for hard drugs, it creates a lot of chaos in a society. Seattle police feel their hands are tied with red tape. Another way to put it, California is a liberal state and Seattle proper at least, is very far left by comparison on how it enacts its law and order.

Seattle media is very disjointed and it makes it difficult to find the truth. There are a lot of hard-working journalists out there but a lot of stories that should be common knowledge fall through the cracks. Many people know we have a homeless crisis but have no idea the crisis is cloaking “crime in general” activity. In other words, concerns about theft, break-ins and assault are looked upon as “complaints against the homeless” when people just want basic safety. That’s really what people want, including safety for the unhoused or homeless (choose your adjective) but all the moving parts of this BIGGER PICTURE are getting mixed up. There is in-fighting and sidetracks and name-calling and it’s really about grounding Seattle. Get the basic safety in place and then everyone can continue with improvements. Part of the problem is the fact that we are basically a one paper town. The Seattle Times does a good job, sometimes a great job, at reporting. But, it’s not enough. We need commentators like Ron and Don more than ever to keep us all informed with their natural point/counterpoint type of coverage. I am rooting for their continued success.

Be sure to listen and support the new Ron and Don Show.

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Filed under Commentary, Radio, Seattle

Review: A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies 

Many of you may recall a webcomic recounting the horrible 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Except for a smattering of bare essentials, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen, lost everything in the fires. Mr. Fies chose to set his recollections down as soon as possible and posted them as a webcomic. His on-the-spot reportage struck a chord and it led San Francisco PBS TV station KQED to adapt A Fire Story into a five-minute animation, which was subsequently picked up by NPR. That animation went on to win an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, in 2019, that 18-page webcomic has been refined and transformed into a 154-page full color graphic novel, published by Abrams ComicArts, that includes an entire community of people.

Graphic novels, I can tell you from firsthand experience, are a glorious beast to tame with their myriad of details to tackle. So, it is quite remarkable and commendable that Fies stuck it out and built a full length graphic novel upon a small scale webcomic. The reader will immediately sense the urgency of a determined storyteller within these pages. Fies is not only telling his story but involving thousands upon thousands of individuals affected by this disaster. In honest words and pictures, Fies shares his loss: “I used to have five redwood trees in my front yard. I saw a refrigerator and the rough shape of a car I used to have in my garage. I didn’t recognize anything else. A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot  heap of dead, smoking ash.” And Fies shares the loss of others, like Dottie, an 81-year-old woman displaced from her mobile home: “My niece called me. She said, ‘Auntie, if you’re on any kind of medication, grab your medications and come up to my house.’ She didn’t say ‘fire,’ she just said, ‘Get up to my house.’ I could tell by the tone of her voice to listen to her.”

Fie’s artwork has a nice clean, crisp and spare quality to it which lines up well with the urgency of the narrative. Fies still prefers to draw by hand and that added human touch is apparent. The same can be said for the coloring, direct and resourceful with just the right amount of flourish. In fact, the coloring might be made with markers, or at least it has that look to it. So, you get the best of both worlds: hand-drawn ink on paper artwork married to digital components. When Fies chose to document this disaster in real time, he managed to cobble together a purchase of some basic art supplies and it worked out just fine. Someone told him that he must have been compelled to “bear witness” and that is exactly what Fies did in the best way he could, through comics. That need to bear witness is palpable on every page.

A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.

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Filed under Brian Fies, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Journalism

Review: The Comics Journal #303

The Comics Journal #303

This is a very meta thing to be doing but here’s a review of a magazine that features reviews. Dating back to 1977, in its heyday, The Comics Journal was a monthly source of comics news and reviews, a trailblazer for the burgeoning field of comics journalism and criticism. It has always maintained a certain quirky attitude, consisting of a mix of features and topped off by a expansive soul-searching interview a la Playboy magazine. It mainly attracts those who consider themselves comics aficionados. In 2013, it ceased its print version, staying online, but now it makes its return to print with Issue 303. TCJ returns this month with new editors RJ Casey and Kristy Valenti.

Now, I go pretty far back. I have fond memories of picking up this magazine at Tower Records back in the day (circa 1995), usually with a recent release from Sub Pop Records. I also fondly recall a special dynamic, or synergy, at play between the magazine and its online counterpart that led many of us to the forums section that let you interact with subgroups within subgroups of people in the comics community. This was long before Facebook or social media as we know it today. I think the monthly magazine, as we knew it back then, is still sorely missed. Towards the end of its print run, it came out less often and each issue covered a big theme and came out in different sizes. The consistency of a monthly had been lost. I think, in a perfect world, this latest return to print would do well to go back to that monthly format. Alas, with this latest #303, we’re seeing the start of a twice-a-year format. You might argue that TCJ is simply working with today’s print reality and is offering up a taste to a new generation of what is possible.

The showcase item in this issue is, of course, TCJ founder Gary Groth’s interview with a legendary firebrand, the satirist and children’s book author, Tomi Ungerer. For those of you unaware of Mr. Ungerer’s impressive career, I highly recommend that you read this interview and, before or afterward, check out the 2013 documentary, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” directed by Brad Bernstein. The title is one of Ungerer’s sayings, along with “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected.” I interviewed the documentary’s director and its writer and the fact that Ungerer is a true force of nature was the overriding theme. So, it makes perfect sense for someone as outspoken as Groth to sit down and talk it out with someone as outspoken as Ungerer! It’s a match made in heaven.

From Ben Passmore’s story in Now: The New Comics Anthology #3, published by Fantagraphics

Among the various features to be found here, you’ll find them under such titles as “From the Trenches” and “Fair Warning.” For example, under the former is a think piece by cartoonist Ben Passmore, who shares his insights on the alt-comics scene from an African American perspective. And, under the latter, you will find an interview by RJ Casey with emerging comics talent, Fifi Martinez. The thing to always remember about TCJ is that its focus is a serious look at comics as an art form. That leaves little room, if any, for superhero comics, per se. What you’ll mostly find here is a focus on the independent artist-cartoonist. It does a heart good to see cartoonists like Passmore and Martinez provided with a platform.

Ultimately, TCJ remains what it’s always been, a valuable resource that is most appreciated by those who take the comics medium seriously. It’s a niche audience but a fiercely loyal one. In the new more fragmented world we live in, it’s all about niches. That is actually a very positive thing. And niches are supposed to attract outside readers too, right? You can only calculate so much as to how strong a presence you can make on today’s newsstands. For some special readership out there, it will be a great treat to see TCJ on a shelf. Newsstands aren’t going away anytime soon from such places as Barnes & Noble, specialty shops, comic book shops, and even airports. TCJ might just want to make a real push into these venues and see how it goes. I asked about TCJ at my local B&N as well as the Pike Place Market newsstand, one of the granddaddies of newsstands. Neither place had ever heard of TCJ or had any plans to carry it. I asked around a couple of nearby comics shops. They heard of it but were not carrying it. This is TCJ’s return to print, right? Let’s see it out there in the real world.

The reality is that creating any kind of magazine, digital or print, is a big challenge. Everyone in the comics community is rooting for TCJ to make as big of an impact as it can. Those of us already in the choir, can keep singing its praises and wish it well. You can find your copy of TCJ #303 by visiting the Fantagraphics store right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comics History, Comics Journalism, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Gary Groth, Independent Comics, The Comics Journal, Tomi Ungerer

Seattle Focus: Bob Woodward and FEAR

Bob Woodward in Seattle, 28 November 2018

Bob Woodward has a book out on Trump. You may have heard of it. It’s entitled, Fear, published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Woodward, a legend in journalism, was in Seattle for a Q&A at the Paramount Theatre this Wednesday night. Local pundit Knute “Mossback” Berger was the moderator. Mr. Berger asked a series of mellow questions. He asked, for instance, about the book’s title. The great thing about interviewing someone like Bob Woodward is that half the battle is just to show up. No matter the question, Mr. Woodward will proceed to paint a vivid picture. Regarding the book title, that took him back to Candidate Trump, long before his campaign was considered substantial. It was the job of Woodward to still pose serious questions, the same sort he’d posed to Candidate Obama and others. That day, the pivotal question was asked: What does power mean to you? The scene that played out was something close to Shakespearean. Trump seemed to turn his attention out toward a confidant in his mind’s eye. Power, and holding on to power, Trump said, is achieved through striking fear.

It is during an audience Q&A that things can get quite interesting. For Woodward, this was a time to riff, to explain, to clarify, in any way he pleased. Each response turned out to be a gem. It meant he took his time and didn’t get around to everyone who dutifully lined up with a question. Each answer took on a life of its own. One question might begin a discussion on a related subject. One answer would emerge prompted from a question asked earlier. It would result in such gifts as Woodward recollecting the day that he finally got former President Gerald Ford to reveal the details of the Nixon pardon. The common assumption had been that a deal had been struck. And, indeed, a deal had been offered by White House chief-of-staff Alexander Haig. Ford refused a quid pro quo. There was no reason for it since he was to replace Nixon anyway. It was only later, with the prospect of Nixon continuing to damage the country, that Ford chose to pardon him. It wasn’t an easy decision and it was clear that this decision would seal Ford’s fate. It was a decision that he would never be able to recover from as a candidate for president in his own right. In retrospect, it was to be acknowledged as a courageous decision. Ford went on to be the recipient of the Profile in Courage award in 2001. It was presented to him, at age 87, by Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter. A lesson in not be too quick to judge.

FEAR by Bob Woodward

The final answer, again originating from one question and yet seeming to answer them all, was a true showstopper. This last gem found Woodward looking back to some of his earliest memories. He was playing with two previous questions: the idea of what in his life caused him the greatest shock; and summing up the crisis we live with today with a dangerously incompetent commander-in-chief. Woodward had already painted a picture of an easily distracted Trump. And that got him to thinking of how some things should be fundamentally understood, like the difference between right and wrong. As a young Naval officer, Woodward served aboard the USS Wright, and was one of two officers assigned to move or handle nuclear launch codes. This was circa 1965. It was seared into Woodward’s psyche that the fundamental responsibility of an American president is to stay out of a nuclear war. But Trump was oblivious to the most basic facts. He openly questioned the existence of NATO. He did not understand the most basic facts of global interconnection. So, in order to best answer that question asked a while ago regarding what shocked him the most, Woodward just had to refer back to Trump, a president so brazenly ignorant that he compels his Secretary of Defense to have to answer, “Mr. President, we do these things in order to avoid World War III.” That’s enough to make anyone lose their lunch.

Fear is surely required reading. It is definitely a worthwhile book and measures up with Mr. Woodward’s best.

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Filed under Bob Woodward, Books, Donald Trump, politics, Richard Nixon, Washington DC, Watergate

Open Letter to Media: Help Seattle and Win Pulitzer!

Live from New York: a Seattle punchline!

Commentary by Jennifer Daydreamer

On October 6th, 2018, during the Weekend Edition of Saturday Night Live, Michael Che riffed on our City: “Starbucks baristas in Seattle are saying that they are being forced to dispose of hypodermic needles left behind in the stores everyday by drug users. Meanwhile, over at 7-11, they’re using them as stirrers.”

Not a great joke but point well taken.

SNL is our modern day court jester. It’s live and communal and mirrors our society in a humorous manner. In another era, it was the court jester who gave the King the very bad news that nobody else dared to deliver.

The news SNL delivers is that baristas across the U.S. are not in contact with hypodermic needles en masse. It’s a Seattle phenomenon. Not a general big city problem. Not even a New York problem. A Seattle problem.

Seattle has a drug crisis and a homeless crisis resulting in a patently predictable Civics 101 crisis: when you allow lawlessness, criminals take advantage and hurt people and property.

What dangers have been happening? Well, in the past month, a Wallingford condominium under construction was burned down by drug addicts. In the SoDo area, a woman was mauled by a homeless pit bull and other dogs. Recently, I saw addicts threatening customers in a business, one man was particularly violent, and gave witness to the police.

As well-meaning as the local news outlets have been, the facts reported have been conflicting. We could use an outsider, a very thorough and ambitious investigative reporter(s) to get to the crux of it. I’m not kidding when I say I see Pulitzer Prize worthy material because there’s a lot to uncover. Hopefully, an expose can help keep everyone, including the homeless, safer.

Shawn Telford describes a harrowing and out of control homeless crisis.

This video of Seattle native Shawn Telford describes how homeless encampment and car prowl problems turned his life upside down. All because the homeless issue is out of control. This is just one of so many compelling stories. There’s a new story each day. Some stories manage to get on people’s radars for a while, like the hypodermic needles in Starbucks.

We got a joke coming out of a big network studio in New York City. We’re going to need far more than just a joke to get people’s attention and make serious progress. The City of Seattle government is not responding in a serious and competent manner. We need outside resources to examine what is going on. Seattle seriously needs help. We need a TIME magazine cover story, not an SNL gag.

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Filed under Homeless, Journalism, Seattle

White House Correspondents’ Dinner Unlikely Yet Reliable on Edgy Comedy

Aunt Lydia, Dear Lydia!

These White House Correspondents’ Dinners always seem to sneak up on me. It seems that this year’s crept up on me all the more-so given the absence of a president. There was Trump in Michigan doing another one of his weird rallies and that got me to thinking, Why is Trump in Michigan? Oh, wait up, is he avoiding the WHCD? Why, that rascal! Say what you will about dowdy ole C-Span and humorless inside the beltway elites, the WHCD proves each year to be good for some very good laughs. All you need is a sense of humor.

The White House has already had to deal with one Wolf (Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury) and now they’ve got Michelle Wolf. If you listen to her set with a healthy sense of humor, you would probably be hard put to dismiss her out of hand. Her material is not beyond the pale by contemporary comedy standards. And, if we focus on the roasting of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, nothing is particularly unreasonable within context. The art of great comedy is to synthesize down to the essentials a myriad of ideas. To compare SHS to Aunt Lydia, the villain in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is utterly hilarious on so many levels. Obama or Dubya would have taken a similar jab and laughed it off. But not Her Royal Highness of Deceit. Is there something wrong here? Well, it sure don’t look good.

C’mon Sarah, all you would have needed to do was chuckle!

There is a moment in Wolf’s monologue when she lets loose with a real zinger at former beleaguered chief of staff Reince Priebus. What did he do? He laughed! He even gave the joke a thumbs up! That displays a level of sophistication that is completely lost on Sarah. For her to look upset shows she still has much to learn.

Hmm, Sarah, it would be pretty awkward to chuckle, wouldn’t it?

Getting to the heart of the Aunt Lydia comparison, consider this excerpt from an excellent piece by Megan Wood at Rifinery 29:

Sanders is used as a mouthpiece to protect those in the Trump administration. Much like Aunt Lydia, she lies to Americans who are having their rights stripped away. For instance, Sanders falsely stated that immigrants coming to the U.S. through the diversity visa program aren’t vetted before their arrival. Meanwhile, Trump has been working to remove Dreamer’s rights to undocumented immigrants who were legally allowed to work and study in the country. She has tried to tell American woman that the Trump administration’s effort to remove birth control from mandated health coverage is all about religious freedom. Apparently that is more important, and more endangered, than having control over ones own body. Sanders has also protected those who are accused of crimes against women (much like Aunt Lydia). Recently, she came under fire for protecting former White House aide Rob Porter after accusations of disturbing alleged domestic abuse.

Finally, the myth about Trump is that he’s been this amazing disruptor. He doesn’t stand on ceremony and gets the job done. So, why can’t we also embrace the disruptive force of Michelle Wolf and let her not stand on ceremony and get the job done? Don’t worry. She got the job done.

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Filed under Comedy, Donald Trump, Humor, politics