John Cei Douglas is a freelance illustrator based in London who got on my radar with his new book, All the Places in Between, which I recently reviewed. We exchanged some email and arranged to do a conversation. To prepare for it, I read a good bit of the comics that Douglas has done since completing his MA in Illustration from Camberwell College of Arts in 2013–including his Masters thesis, Show Me the Map to Your Heart.
All the Places in Between
One striking thing about the comics and illustration of John Cei Douglas is how fluid and effortless he makes it all look. There’s a certain calm and thoughtful quality to his work that is very appealing. There’s also plenty of action and frenetic energy to be found. It’s all part of a distinctive quirky universe.
The distinctive and quirky universe of John Cei Douglas
Another striking fact to keep in mind is that, even once you reach a point of success in a career in illustration, you can never take anything for granted. That is a point that Douglas can’t stress enough. He is in it for the long term and, from what I see, he’s found a niche from where he can continue to grow and prosper.
English Summer. illustration by John Cei Douglas.
I hope you enjoy this conversation where Douglas provides insights into his creative process. For the creation of his new book, All the Places in Between, Douglas relished in giving himself space to explore where the story was going. There was no set blueprint he was working from and I think readers will appreciate those unexpected twists and turns. As I stated in my review, this is a story as much about evoking a certain feeling as it is anything else–definitely a journey worth taking.
Visit John Cei Douglas at his site here. All the Places in Between is published by Liminal 11.
John Cei Douglas has a nice light whimsical style that serves him well with themes of mental health and relationships that he explores in picture books, comics and editorial pieces. In his latest book, All the Places in Between, he brings together all he knows to create quite a wondrous work. An “auteur cartoonist” is your best definition of this unique hybrid of artist-writer. And it is best to let that creative run wild and pursue their vision. While I was in London, my first stop was the House of Illustration where I gazed upon the works of such visionaries as Posy Simmonds. Her work follows a more traditional comic strip format but nonetheless is uniquely her own. Douglas has all the great vision and skill at his disposal and I absolutely look forward to seeing more of his work.
Douglas published a first collection of stories in conjunction with Great Beast Comics and completed his MA in Illustration from the prestigious University of the Arts London in 2013. This long form work of comics is wordless and the narrative is open to interpretation. It is not so much a story, per se, as a visual essay on the struggles one can face in processing reality and expressing one’s own reality. You are more following a feeling, a dream, than a storyline. Notice the simple set of lines separating the “panels,” as opposed to framing each moment within its own individual square as you usually find in mainstream comic books. It’s a relatively minor consideration but it could be a sticking point with some publishers who feel obligated to keeping to a set pattern. All it does is hem in the artist.
Douglas has a very light and graceful style that is endearing and inviting. Essentially, this narrative of sorts involves two girls. We never learn their names or much of anything about their background. They might be living in two separate worlds–or they might live right next door to each other. The blonde character appears to be pulled into the world of the brunette character. And this new place, seems to be, or feels like it is, set in some post-Apocalypse dystopian nightmare.
The characters find each other, become splendid companions, then they lose each other and ultimately find their own unique paths. It’s a weird and offbeat journey filled with a lyrical and haunting quality. In the end, it’s more about the journey, finding your way, and keeping your feet steadily upon the ground meeting challenges along the way.
Douglas’s work will intrigue and lift the reader’s spirits. His spare and clean line work is deceptively simple. As I have pointed out, Douglas forgoes the traditional panels you often find in comics in favor of basic dividing lines. Douglas strives to pare down. In general, comics is about paring down. It is a sensibility that you find among the best work in the comics medium whether indie/art house or more traditional comics. And in Douglas’s case, overall, it is this simplicity that affords his work with a more zen-like vibe that transports the reader. If you enjoy those quirky cartoonists, like Quentin Blake or Jean-Jacques Sempé, who always manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat when you least expect it, then you’ll certainly enjoy the work of John Cei Douglas.
In Mongrel, Sayra Begum presents the reader an honest and in-depth look at a Muslim family from Bangladesh. Begum takes a very straightforward, blunt, and fresh approach to issues of race, gender, class, and religion. At the heart of her story is the conflict that the protagonist must navigate as she straddles two worlds coming from her mixed-heritage background: Bengal Muslim on her mother’s side; British-Anglo on her father’s side. In Islam, it is understood that a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman. However, it is forbidden for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. And yet this is exactly what happens in Begum’s story. Shuna is the daughter of such a forbidden union. When history is set to repeat itself with Shuna determined to marry David, a non-Muslim man, it is Shuna’s mother who is at the center of the conflict, making unfair and impossible demands upon her daughter.
Drawn is a style that evokes a dream-like sketchbook come to life, the reader is swept up into the immersive world of Mongrel. What strikes me about this graphic novel, what makes it remarkable, is its authenticity, commitment, and vision. It is not often that we, as general readers, have an opportunity to become privy to the everyday life of a Muslim family in such an accessible format as a graphic novel–even though there are well over a billion followers of Islam. With all the heated talk about diversity and inclusion on the table, it’s ironic. That said, we can all be grateful for this insightful work.
Now, let’s allow the book to speak for itself with some samples and quotes from the pages of Mongrel…
“The front door of Shuna’s family home acted as a gateway to Bangladesh. Nothing haram passed through this door, this was a devout house. When Shuna walked through this door, she switched her rebellious face to her pious face, which eagerly absorbed the teaching of the Prophet, striving to be a good Muslim girl. The switching between these two faces became increasingly difficult as they grew further and further apart.”
“‘Yes, yes, yes I’ll marry you!’ I said to David. Although, after the celestial shock wore off and dull reality set in, I realised there was a slight problem. I would have to tell my very traditional parents that I was going to marry a non-Muslim and confess my secret life.”
“It’s my wedding day. My parents are absent. I’m not surprised. Why would my parents want to celebrate their daughter being damned to an eternity in hell fire?”
Ultimately, Begum keeps it real. People are not saints. They can be very contradictory and self-destructive. They can also find a way out and to a healthy place for self-reflection. We are embarking upon a new cycle of calling out authority and demanding all sorts of change. What we mustn’t forget is to dig deeper and calmly remove the obstacles that lead to someone being seen as the Other or as the mongrel. Sayra Begum’s graphic novel is a step in the right direction. As I stated earlier, we don’t often have such a window specifically into the Muslim world. But you can also say that these kind of gems only come around every so often. I think of such landmark works as Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which dissects a Christian upbringing; and I think of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, the last great work to take an idiosyncratic look at any religion in a significant graphic format. These gems take time and they come along it their due time. Now is a perfect time for Mongrel.
A note, especially to readers in the United States: you can find Mongrel at Amazon right here.
This is a perfect time to post my interview with artist Henry Hate. There have been a number of delays along the way but, perhaps some experiences need to stew and process. It was near October of last year that I visited the Prick! tattoo shop, a home base for Henry Hate in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London. Autumn was creeping in on the streets that Jack the Ripper once lurked; now made up of boutiques and fine eateries co-existing with taverns and other mysterious structures dating back centuries. Prick! tattoo parlor fit right in.
Amy Winehouse by Henry Hate
Just as Henry Hate was rising in prominence as a tattoo artist, Amy Winehouse, early in her career, walked into Henry’s tattoo parlor and became a regular client. Well, that’s the stuff of legend. It was that sort of serendipity that can lift an artist’s life and launch them on a path to a bright future.
Trouble by Henry Hate
Henry Hate, without question, has developed into an excellent artist. That’s not the issue. I love how we both get to the heart of the matter in the video segment of our conversation. For me, I’ve always aspired to great creative heights and that’s usually some mix of journalism and art. When the opportunity arises, I want to go deep with an interview. There is absolutely an art to a good interview. It is sort of like a dance or a courtship. You need to engage the subject. A dynamic emerges. Everything going on behind the scenes culminates. In this case, I was pairing us as both artists and human beings on a journey. The result was Henry Hate speaking to a lifetime commitment to art. It’s as if being an artist is not enough. You can accept yourself but will others follow? That will remain in the background but, first and foremost, you need to give yourself over to your art.
A Work Created Under Extreme Duress by Henry Hate
Into each life, a little death must enter and a lot of self-discovery. As a youth, Henry Hate discovered, despite his family’s resistance, that he was gay and he had no one to apologize to about it.
Prick tattoo parlor.
Henry Martinez evolved into Henry Hate. Sure, the name is part illusion, facade, and brand. It is part of what you do, even if you never really change your name. You need to build up some armor when you go from art to business. “It’s a machine. Success. You’ve achieved a goal. Okay, now what? Sometimes, I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just paint pretty clouds.”
Prick! tattoo shop, East London.
“In Los Angeles, when you say you’re a writer, you’re probably a waiter. But, here in London, someone says they’re a painter or a screenwriter, they are actually doing that,” said Hate, at one point, as we chatted about the realities of fame and fortune. Our talk turned to Amy Winehouse and how she dealt with stardom. “Amy was this London girl who suddenly had to deal with fame. It’s a machine. Success is a goal. Now, you have to keep the wheels moving. It’s a lot of pressure to put on someone when art becomes a business. It’s work now, not a love or a passion.”
“Lee McQueen and Amy both had that genuine quality about them, a shyness, unsure about their work. When you stand up and present your work, you need to wear that mask. Both of them had that vulnerability. Great artists, you don’t really know that much about them. Amy would have been happy just singing in a bar and have that pay her bills.”
Mother’s Tongue, mixed media on canvas, by Henry Hate
Informed as much by Tom of Finland as by Andy Warhol, the work of Henry Hate has charted its own path. It is bold, audacious, sly and thoughtful. It is worldly and fanciful. And, without a doubt, it is genuine.
This is work that proudly stands before you, naked or wearing a mask with sexy panache. It’s about art and it’s about life, living large while also maybe on the margins. Maybe there’s still something to prove. Or maybe it’s just time to face the world without flinching. I love the sense of play, like “Let’s Riot,” a punk young Queen Elizabeth echoing Jamie Reid’s art for the Sex Pistols 1977 single, “God Save the Queen.” Or the life-affirming “Mother’s Tongue,” with the subject defiantly showing off her stud.
As Hate says, his work is about sin and redemption. You see each character reveling and unapologetic. Why can’t a little more life fall into one’s life? Why can’t vice and salvation find a way to co-exist? These are questions that can take a lifetime to confront, let alone answer–and Henry Hate is up to the task.
Steven Appleby is, among his many accomplishments, the creator of the comic strip, Small Birds Singing, and the BBC radio series Normal Life. One of Britain’s best loved cartoonists, his Loomus and other comic strips have appeared in newspapers and magazines internationally, and he has written and illustrated numerous books. His new book, Dragman, brings together themes dating back to Appleby’s early work in the ’80s in his comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express.
From Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Loomus, in The Guardian
Indeed, Steven Appleby is a prominent cartoonist, illustrator and artist. Steven’s early career included creating cartoons for the legendary British humor magazine, Punch and a comic strip for the prestigious New Musical Express. This activity branched out in many directions, including many more comic strips, an animated series, a theater show, art shows, and many books, all the way to the new graphic novel, Dragman. Steven’s new book is about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes. As I point out in my review, this is a delightful tale about identity while also being a riveting thriller to boot. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview. A portion of the audio file is included at the end. During our conversation, we discuss process, a wonderful career, and the art of just being yourself.
Dragman by Steven Appleby
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s jump in and discuss Dragman. First, let’s discuss a bit the title and main character. It seems to me that Dragman begs the question as to who is Dragman and the actual idea of dressing in drag. At one point in the book, the main character, August Crimp, takes issue with being called a dragman. Could you talk about that?
STEVEN APPLEBY: The name Dragman comes from a comic strip I did for The Guardian. I was a transvestite in secret, this was around 2002, and so I was using that name. When I came around to creating the book, the name still had a nice ring to it. Drag is a different thing from trans. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was experiencing cross-dressing in secret, the term, drag, clearly referred to performance. In the book, August is labeled as drag by the press and he resists but it sticks.
Dragman is truly a graphic novel in every sense, in terms of playing with words and images. You even have some wonderful prose passages that link up the narrative. I could easily see you writing the whole book as prose. Could you talk about the process of putting the book together?
It was really hard as I’d never done a project like this that is so long. I was used to doing short comic strips. I wanted to have everything in it: I wanted it to be funny, serious, have the superhero parody, be a thriller and be true to my own trans experience. That was difficult to do. I love writing prose and maybe I’ll do a prose book in the future. It was a lovely way to have a different sort of atmosphere and also not reveal the character who is referred to in the prose, keep that a secret for later in the book. It took me around two years to write it and I was creating little scenes, as in a play, but then I needed to figure out how to draw all that. At one point, I had written 40 pages of material that didn’t fit into comics. So, in a sense, it seems a wasteful process. But I love graphic novels. I love both the visual and prose side of it.
Captain Star in Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express
Your career is so impressive. You’re quite prolific. You’ve found ways to connect your work with other media. You’ve found ways to sustain your vision. What can you tell us about Dragman as part of your body of work?
Take a look at the early work, Captain Star in New Musical Express, the character there was obsessed and repressed. There are dressing up scenes. The navigator of the starship, Boiling Hell, he’s obsessed with fish. So, I had them all have obsessions, like my dressing up obsession. It’s all in there but coded in a different way. Dragman is the whole thing coming out into the open. I’ve lived dressing in women’s clothes for the last twelve years now. This is me being honest in my life, especially to my children. I didn’t want them to discover I had this big secret that they never knew about. So, I came out twelves years ago for that reason. I had such a warm reception from people I worked with, like at The Guardian. With the book, I wanted to explore all of that, the life I’d lived in secret, when nobody knew; and the parallel of superheroes who have secret identities.
Linda McCarthy’s adaptation of Appleby’s comic strip, Small Birds Singing
Could you tell us a bit about your influences? Perhaps you could talk about your studying under Quentin Blake?
I moved to London to go to the Royal College of Art. Quentin Blake was the head of the Illustration Department and he was my tutor. I wasn’t so much influenced by him in terms of actual drawing style but very much in terms of work processes. How he uses a lightbox. I find that I still use that way of working now: very loose rough drawings that you then place on a lightbox and ink very loosely. Yeah, he’s great, really inspirational. We still see each other from time to time.
Is the artwork in Dragman all hand-done or also digital?
Mostly hand-done. It’s using that process that I just said. I do rough drawings and then ink them with an old-fashioned dip pen and India ink. Then I scan the art and print it out so that watercolor can be added. My ex, my wife Nicola, did the watercolor for me. She did it on a lightbox so that the line drawing and the watercolor are separate. I then would scan the watercolor and I manipulate the colors on the computer. I also addd skin tones, made colors richer, tweaked the colors and so on. The flashbacks scenes are all colored on the computer by me, a slightly muted, more monochromatic way. It’s really pretty traditional the way I’ve worked for years.
Steven Appleby, 2019
What can you share with us about growing up and discovering your creativity and who you wanted to be in the world?
I grew up in the north of England up near the border with Scotland, in a small village. We lived in a big old house, an old vicarage that my mum and dad had bought. It had leaky roofs and lowsome bedrooms. My mum and dad were in the ameuter dramatic society so they stored scenery in one of the out buildings. It was like a magical place growing up. When I was a little kid, I remember a room full of furniture and we’d go there to play. There were rooms that were never decorated and kept this old brown wallpaper from the ’20s. My mum drew comics in the ’30s in her school notebooks and that inspired me. We had New Yorker cartoons books with artists like Charles Addams and Ronald Searle. And I loved Dr. Suess as well. The artist who had a huge influence on me was Edward Goery. I discovered Gorey when I was in art school in the ’70s. It wasn’t so much the drawing style that influenced me as much as the way that Gorey put things together. The surreal ideas, the macabre, in his books. I had thought that I could only write and draw books for kids but Gorey showed me that you could really do anything. He liberated me.
Would you share with us a bit about being a professional cartoonist and maintaining a comic strip? I see there’s a recent collection of your Loomus comic strips in The Guardian.
I became a cartoonist kind of by accident, like many things that have happened in my life. It turned out to be perfect for me. I could write and draw as I wanted. I had this little space at the NME and I could do whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t go too crazy. At The Guardian, for example, where I was for 23 years, I think they only rejected two comic strips during the whole time I was there. I’ve always tried to do things that aren’t too topical but more just about life, what’s life all about, because I like it when you can return to the work like Edward Gorey–it’s not just a joke; it’s a comment on life. So, I’ve always tried to do that. And, I think a deadline focuses the mind. Mostly, it’s a good thing to have a deadline. There was a short period when I did a daily comic strip for a German newspaper while I also did my Guardian strip along with a few other things and that was like heading for a nervous breakdown, the amount of ideas I had to come up with. But I really did enjoy doing the comic strips. If I was still doing them, I wouldn’t have been able to do Dragman. It wouldn’t have been possible.
Excerpt from Loomus comic strip.
I know creating comic strips are quite time-consuming. I can recall my own comic strip work for my college paper. Among the many titles that readers can choose from, I highly recommend that folks check out a collection of your Loomus comic strips.
Thank you for mentioning that.
This is sort of a two-part question. What can you share with us about being trans and what can you tell young people about self-expression?
I would say that it’s something that’s been with me since my late teens, when it occurred to me that I could wear women’s clothes and having it be completely secret for 25 years. It was an engine that powered my work. In quite a lot of my comic strips and other work there are themes of secrets. I came across Philip K. Dick in my late teens. I loved his books because they have that constant theme that nothing is what it appears to be. That felt like my life that things weren’t what they appeared to be. In a funny way, when I started to come out to be siblings, family, and friends, and eventually work collegues, I kind of lost some of the mystical power of that secret that was an engine in my work. I found that very interesting.
I have two boys, who are now 24 and 22, and they are completely cool, as well as their friends, about me choosing to dress like this. I was so impressed how it didn’t phase them at all. They would be surprised if you ask them if it was difficult finding out and they’d say no. It was fine. I think, nowadays, it’s a very good time to not just to be trans but to be who you are. There are so many ways for people to be who they are. It seems to me to be a very good time.
Page from Dragman. Captain Star poster in the background.
It’s interesting to me to think about all the potential there is for everyone to veer off the status quo. For instance, a man can have his nails painted, crossing into a female-dominated domain. It seems like a small gesture but you are actually entering into a social exchange. If I were to get my nails painted, I’m engaging with the public–and that’s mostly about their curiosity.
I remember when my Captain Star character became a TV series back in the ’90s. I would paint my nails gold back then. And that would get commented on. One of the things that happens for me is that I use my name Steven and, when someone comes to the door, people will initially do a double take and then usually that opens up a conversation. I haven’t had a bad conversation yet. I agree with you that it’s something to deal with sometimes but it’s often in a positive way.
Share with us what lies ahead for you. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
This is such a weird time. I’m sure it is in Seattle. It is in London. I’ve been ill lately and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve had the virus or not because they’re not testing people in the UK all that much. I think something having to do with all this will probably go into my next project, but I don’t know at the moment what that will be. I’m in this strange little time when Dragman has come out and I’m starting to think about what will come out next. For me, that process is partly an intellectual thinking of ideas and partly an emotional instinctive reaction to things. So, somehow I’m going to decide what I’m doing next.
I wish you great health and thank you for doing this interview.
It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we’ll meet the next time you’re in London.
That would be great.
Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.
Paris/London: A First Look is an art book by Henry Chamberlain and Jennifer Daydreamer, published by Comics Grinder Productions. It is a tour of Paris and London through the eyes of two cartoonists. There are 24 drawings featured in this full color hardcover. You can buy it here.
Art by Henry Chamberlain
Henry and Jennifer set out to explore Europe together for the first time equipped with sketchbooks and eager to create art. This is their carnet de voyage to share with all those with a similar wanderlust.
Art by Jennifer Daydreamer
The idea for this book is simple: share one’s joie de vivre on a trip abroad. In this collection of drawings you’ll find a nice variety of subjects covered: culture, food, sightseeing, and the personal observations that you find in journal entries.
The Montparnasse neighborhood where we stayed for most of our visit to Paris.
What is it that compels someone to draw what they see? Well, that can be anyone for all sorts of reasons. One ideal scenario is when you’re completely out of your element. Say goodbye to the familiar routine. Set aside your regular obligations. Your only goal, really, is to be good to yourself. Of course, we can all do that right this minute right within our everyday life. But it never hurts to set out and explore something new, right? So, why not Paris? Why not London? Indeed!
Henry Chamberlain: “Sometimes, drawing in the rain is your best medicine.”
Let me give you a perfect example of how being out of the norm gives you that added boost. While Jennifer and I were visiting the Rodin Museum, it began to pour down rain like we hadn’t seen in a long time. It was nonstop and torrential. But we didn’t let that get in our way. In fact, I drew my portrait of Rodin’s Thinker while being pelted by rain. Would I have been so nonchalant about rain if I was trying to draw something in Seattle? Heck no, I would have just packed it up and walked away! But you draw from a special reserve inside you that is saved for moments like this. I told myself that I’d better concentrate and keep drawing since I didn’t know when I’d get this chance again! Sometimes, drawing in the rain is your best medicine. As it turned out, it all worked out rather well. The drawing I did was sealed with raindrops when I closed my sketchbook. The next time I opened it, I discovered that the ink had run onto the opposite page creating a perfect mirror image! Now, that sort of thing would not normally happen to me back in Seattle but I’m eager to be patient and see if it just might all the same. These trips abroad have a way of re-energizing you and giving you the added perspective you need once you’re back home.
Rules drawing by Jennifer Daydreamer
I’ll add a bit more here. I know that our trip did wonders for us. And we can’t wait to go back. This is our first book together. We have drawn mini-comics together but this is our first art book. I look forward to more collaborations and all sorts of other creative projects. And I look forward to visiting that venerable landmark in London, now one of our favorite places for a meal and a drink, Rules! Let me tell you about it. Established in 1798, Rules serves classic British food (especially game) in what we came to appreciate as, “Edwardian surrounds.” The restaurant is decorated primarily with an array of vintage artwork, especially old cartoons, which we really loved. For the more adventurous, after dinner, you can sneak up to the bar up two narrow flights of stairs. This is exactly where King Edward went to rendezvous with entertainer Lillie Langtry during the time of their affair. So, the place is a little dark, intimate, and filled with a sense of intrigue. It was perfect inspiration of Jennifer and she created one of her best drawings there. She gave it to the two bartenders that night. But I was quick to act and took a photo before it was on its way and added essential digital color once back in Seattle. Pretty cool, huh?
Around the Champs-Élysées
Alright, now that we’re quite settled in and I’m in a more chatty mood, I’ll continue along for some more. The photo above is another of many photos I took on the sly as we were briskly walking from one place to another. You wouldn’t know it but there’s a story here. We began our trip in London, then took the train to Paris, and ultimately took the train back to London. We found going through Heathtrow to be rather comforting. I recall Charles De Gaulle airport being very hectic from a trip many years ago. Anyway, the plan had been to have a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower from the table we’d reserved at Chez Francis. But, for some reason, we were having great difficulty finding Chez Francis! We just didn’t have it all together yet. Subsequently, on our way from some other event, we stumbled upon Chez Francis and finally had our dinner with a view. This is a goal of many a tourist and even the Chez Francis menu is dominated by the Eiffel Tower. Later on, the next day I think, Jennifer wanted to know how it was that we missed the Arc de Triomphe if we were already on the Champs-Élysées. Well, it was already getting late and pretty dark and it just wasn’t meant to be! But I managed to get the above photo which I still like very much. I’m looking forward to finding the movie that is advertised on that column. Looks like it’s probably a moody action thriller, doesn’t it? Yeah, leave it to the French to make great moody action thrillers.
Paris/London: A First Look is available at the Comics Grinder store.
While they stock all kinds of comics, Orbital Comics in London has quite an impressive collection of small press comics. Will Humberstone, Orbital Comics indie comics expert, assisted me in tracking down some of the store’s best titles currently in stock. I include here all the titles that he suggested. While I was in the store, I was impressed with a very tidy and organized shop. I found an upbeat environment with first-rate customer service. By all means, while in London, do make sure to visit Orbital Comics! I begin with some photos of the shop. This includes staff members who worked on some of the titles reviewed here: Ryan Jenkyns on Forged #1, and Valentina Sannais on Starfall #1.
Ryan Jenkyns and Valentina Sannais
Small Press Reviews
Forged #1 by Michael Eckett and Ryan Jenkyns
Forged #1, written by Michael Eckett and illustrated by Ryan Jenkyns, is a sweet all-ages ongoing series that proves to be a rather nice showcase of talent. I can see big things ahead for this series mostly geared toward younger readers. A boy off on big adventures! Stay tuned.
Starfall #1 by Adam Blackhat and Valentina Sannais
Starfall #1, written by Adam Blackhat and illustrated by Valentina Sannais, is an action adventure story with quite a lot to unpack. It seems that we are picking up the story right in the middle of momentous events with characters dealing with a lot of issues. Oh, and they also happen to have superpowers! Much to enjoy here and we’re only getting started. Visit the webcomic here.
Barky and the Bootmaker by Jasmine Parker
Barky and the Bootmaker, by Jasmine Parker, raises the bar high as this is a professional illustrator so maybe it’s a little unfair for someone with finely-honed artistic chops to blast into the slower-paced world of indie comics–or is it? It’s debatable, I suppose, but I really truly favor those comics creators who do work hard at their craft, keep polishing it, and demand a high level of excellence in their work. And then you have to ask, When is a work too slick? Ah, now there’s the rub–when to know you’ve got just the right vibe in your comics! I guess you have to sniff it out. In this case, Ms. Parker does a fine job with a very silly story that will have the tikes rolling in the aisles.
The Blade of Arozone by J. Edward Scott
The Blade of Arozone, by J. Edward Scott, is one of those little books where maybe I’m just not connecting with it all the way even though I really want to. If you enjoy a bit of sword and sorcery, then this might work for you. I think the best thing going here is the artwork. There’s a lot of promise here. For such a short work, you need to wow your reader with something really tasty. Not too busy either. So, keep on truckin’ and really have fun. Maybe I’m not seeing quite enough fun in these opening pages while I do see that elsewhere from this artist online.
Stutter by Joe Stone
Stutter, by Joe Stone, almost lost me with the cover. But, once I leafed through it, I knew that here was a serious cartoonist that I would need to focus on and give him his due. I can see that care has been put into character development, composition and pacing. Yes, it is an autobiographical story about one man’s struggle with stuttering. It has a nice crisp clarity to it. The style is a confident clean line, a cartoony semi-realistic approach that a lot of cartoonists use today. Stone is among one of the better examples I’ve come across. It’s an impressive and sharp mini-comic.
Shivers in London, Part 1 by Niki S. Banados
Shivers in London, Part 1, by Niki S. Banados, is another all too brief work that leaves me wanting more. Again, lots of promise here just like in Mr. Scott’s The Blade of Arozone. The art does have a nice ethereal quality to it but I’d just have to see a lot more of it. If this is an opener meant to entice the reader, then I need more of a wow factor. That said, I’m intrigued and look forward to more.
Cat Disco by Rebecca K. Jones
Cat Disco, by Rebecca K. Jones, is a work that has come to the party prepared to rock out. Now, fair warning, Ms. Jones is a seasoned illustrator so she has a lot more toys to play with and a lot more experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun read or anyone interested in becoming a better cartoonist. This story is told with sly wit and great confidence. It’s not easy to pull off but this is the sort of work that can carry the reader away. It’s a story about a house cat who decides to take a walk on the wild side and see what the street cats do at night–and then it goes on to deliver! You too will believe that cats love to disco! Bravo!
Heads by Ed Stockham
Heads, by Ed Stockham, seemed at first glance to be one of those classic twee mini-comics that tries one’s patience. However, years of mini-comic reading have taught me to not rush to judgment. Now, the art is very simple and raw but there’s a confidence running throughout that won me over. I think Mr. Stockham’s work, based on this little book plus what I see on his website, has just the right combination of a good sense of timing, artistic sensibility, and joie de vivre.
Seller on the Threshold by Claude T.C.
Seller on the Threshold, by Claude T.C., is a masterful little work by someone who spends a lot of time drawing and loves it. I see here a wacky sense of humor and the creative discipline to back it up. Is this the work of an inspired amateur who works at a professional level? Or is this the work of a professional who works at the level of an inspired amateur? You see what I mean, don’t you?! It’s polished, but not so slick that the life has been sucked out of it. This is the good stuff.
Some Short Stories by Knifeson Yu
Some Short Stories, by Knifeson Yu, is a collection of light vignettes where very, very little happens. This is an all too brief wisp of a sampler. But I like the wee bits of teaser found here. Seems like the work of an animator who is happy to just dabble in comics for now. We shall see.
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays by Dan White
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays, by Dan White, is another impressive work by a professional illustrator. This is A-game work. The story is a lot of silly fun, reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes but very much its own thing. Cindy keeps seeing all sorts of amazing creatures and going off of all these larger-than-life adventures. Okay, maybe it’s a lot like Calvin Hobbes but it’s still very much its own thing! Five stars and lots of glitter!
Endswell by Peter Morey
Endswell, by Peter Morey, pay perhaps be the most ambitious work of the whole lot here in its own way. I mean, it has an ambiguous and quirky cover. You can only hazard a guess as to what it’s about. And, even once in, you don’t know for sure where it’s heading but you’re hooked. The opening pages have that ideal crisp and clear quality that is so crucial to bring the reader in. The characters are really saying things that are interesting and advancing the plot. You know the main character has got some problems and he’s taking part in some sort of therapy, whether he really wants to or not. All very intriguing. This gets an A-plus and whatever else I can say that is upbeat and supportive. Seriously, really good stuff!
Archie vs. Orbital by Joe Jinks and Will Humberstone
Archie vs. Orbital, art by Joe Jinks and script by Will Humberstone, is a fun little book that pits the Archie gang against the Orbital Comics staff! This is lighthearted fun as you might expect. That said, it is far more involved than you might expect too! The pacing is spot on and it has a tasty factor about it. Archie and the gang are not very nice in this comic. Think horror, scary horror. I recommend you pick it up.
Ian Wright is a true artist. If you are not familiar with his work, just one look, and you’ll be hooked. His love for his subject matter and his working methods brings you in and won’t let go. I had the great privilege to spend some time with Mr. Wright during a chat in his studio. Jennifer and I consider it a highlight of our recent European tour. Ian is quite the host, very open and generous with explaining and sharing his work. From beads, or badges, or torn paper, to name just a few potential sources, Ian Wright creates portraits like you’ve never seen before. Click the link below to see my short film on this very special art studio visit while we were in London.
John Lennon portrait by Ian Wright
The visit began with a spark of energy and it just continued to blossom. Bit by bit, I got to know Ian Wright, from his early work up to the present. He always wanted to be a commercial artist. He got his big break not long after college doing weekly portraits for the popular British music magazine, New Musical Express (NME) and that allowed him an audience and an opportunity to hone his skills. Wright interned at the prestigious NTA Studios, similar to Push Pin in New York. NTA was run by George Hardie, Bob Lawrie, Bush Hollyhead, and Malcolm Harrison. They were illustrator-graphic designers and the connection to that work led Wright to study graphic design. Later, Wright shared a studio with Neville Brody and, at that point, Wright was working at NME. The 1980s was a great time to play and learn about various ways of working. It was a matter of endless practice.
T.I.: Paper Trail album cover by Ian Wright
As a young artist developing his style, Wright discovered that his ideas were linked to his choice of materials. It was when he pushed himself that he found himself creating his most compelling work. Early on, during his time at NME, he had a breakthrough when he used salt to represent lines of cocaine for a portrait of Grandmaster Flash. Around the same time, Wright was pushing the boundaries of what you could do with an office copy machine. For instance, imagine what you might accomplish if you manipulate the rollers? Or what might happen if you manipulate an image on the screen? Wright found out. One project has brought him back to such analog experiments. He created an album cover for the band Madness in its heyday and was recently approached by the band for a poster for a new show next month.
Madness at The Roundhouse
We began with a portrait of the wrestling legend Giant Haystacks and went on from there. Wright talked about various other portraits, like the one he did of the hip hop artist T.I. for an album cover. Wright subverted the notion of glamour and gloss in hip hop and used humble recycled paper. Another example was an amazing work-in-progress of a portrait of D.H. Lawrence made out of pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Another great work was a portrait of singer Albert Ayler which is included in the recent 100th issue of the magazine, Straight No Chaser. I asked Wright if it was more challenging to depict someone unknown or someone famous and that got him thinking over it. He brought out a dazzling portrait of David Bowie that he did for The Atlantic made out of pins. He pointed out that, without that flash across his face, it might not read as Bowie. Some famous faces are so ingrained into our psyche that we have trouble recognizing them without their usual posturing. Whatever the case, Wright has managed with each of his portraits to not only capture a likeness but to evoke something soulful from the subject as well as from himself.
A genius is not always fortunate to be appreciated in his own time. That was the fate of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You would think that he’d get some love in such a sophisticated place as Paris but, back in 1778, he needed to hustle in order to get recognition. And Mozart was not one who easily hustled. He repeatedly had to fight for the right to be acknowledged as an artist on his own terms. Frantz Duchazeau brings that struggle to life in his new graphic novel, Mozart in Paris, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
A genius in Paris.
Mozart is Mozart, who can deny that? Maybe Salieri? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen 1984’s Amadeus. But even Salieri, the rival and villain in that movie, had the good sense to know he was dealing with a genius composer. In this graphic novel, we get a wonderful look at the reality of indifference and shortsightedness. French tastemakers, threatened or indifferent to Mozart’s original and innovative music, would try to keep him out of the limelight. Mozart’s own father was relentless in dismissing Mozart’s efforts but, to his credit, he was dealing with a highly precocious individual who did not calm more conservative nerves.
MOZART IN PARIS by Frantz Duchazeau
Mozart didn’t think it was really up to him to convince anyone of his skill and talent. That kind of attitude doesn’t come without a price. Frantz Duchazeau does a wonderful job of showing the reader just what price Mozart had to pay for his own brand of naive arrogance. What if he had only held back and allowed someone to receive a false compliment? What if he had held back and not insulted a rival?
Mozart, as instructor.
Duchazeau has quite an engaging way with the page. Of all the comics I’ve been reading lately, he is definitely among those I see with a magical touch. As if evoking the grace and uncanny elegance of Mozart’s music, Duchazeau balances an engaging mix of variety upon the page with nicely modulated recurring elements, like the way he constructs his panels with one center panel speaking to the bigger picture. In the two examples on display in this review, you have Mozart in the center of one page seeking consensus on his genius. On another page, he is at the center again, but this time he must restrain himself for the sake of his beloved pupil.
Mozart, a young man in a hurry.
Sometimes you must fold your wings in order to someday spread them. That is, unless you’re Mozart. But, on the other hand, this is also the story of a young man in the big city. Mozart was only 22 years-old during this early visit to Paris. And Mozart was driven and had no time to waste. Duchazeau guides the reader through Mozart’s bumpy ride as he stumbles and gets that much closer to his destiny.
Run, Mozart, Run!
Mozart in Paris is a 96-page full color trade paperback, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
An aspiring writer does well to heed that famous Tolstoy quote about families: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Cartoonists, many of them and I include myself among these wonderfully wretched souls, gravitate more often than not to stories about outsiders, people dealing with deep issues. It leads to glorious work like The Nao of Brown, originally published in 2012 by SelfMadeHero/Abrams. A new edition, from SelfMadeHero and Abrams, just came out and it’s a good time to revisit what has become a classic tale of a young woman finding her way.
Welcome to the world of Nao Brown.
Nao Brown, at 28, is still teetering along on the precipice that takes one from childhood to adulthood. Nao comes to understand that one can remain dangling on that cliff forever. This is the year that Nao makes it to the other side. The Nao of Brown is in the same spirit as Ghost World, the Daniel Clowes tour de force graphic novel that seemed, with its major motion picture version, to bring geek culture out of the closet back in 2001. The Nao of Brown is also, just like Ghost World, a crisp combination of exquisite art and writing. Where Clowes is more hard-edged and sarcastic, Dillon is more dreamy and bathed in soft watercolor washes. Our main character, Nao, is struggling to find her place in the world with one foot in her Japanese ancestry and the other foot in her Anglo-British ancestry. And she sees the world in the black and white extremes of an obsessive-compulsive. Her dark thoughts terrify her. Pop culture, hip and ironic, is an island that she can escape to.
The life and times of Nao Brown.
Will one more mix tape be able to save Nao? She works in a pop culture boutique run by Steve, a hapless nerd if ever there was one who has a crush on Nao. She cringes at the thought of the pack of teenage boys who frequent the shop only to worship her. She knows she’s too old for them. She intellectually knows her youth is relative. But she still thinks like a little girl. For most of the book, she works out her feelings for a man she’s developed a relationship with recently. Her initial interest in Gregory was triggered by the fact he resembles a pop culture toy she adores.
Steve, trapped in the friend zone.
This is a fascinating read, no two ways about it, as immersive as any of your most beloved movies, music, novels…or graphic novels! And, as an added bonus, alternating throughout the main narrative is a “story within a story” that is simply icing on the cake! All that said, it’s a crowded field these days with one amazing graphic novel after another. The solution sometimes, just as with any other art form, is a revisit or reissue. And so that brings us to this recent reissue of The Nao of Brown. This new edition, with additional production art, is a totally well-deserved relaunch into the world and will undoubtedly enchant a whole new crop of readers.
Searching for Nao Brown.
The Nao of Brown is a 216-page hardcover. For more details, visit SelfMadeHero and Abrams.