Bethesda, Maryland – The Small Press Expo (SPX), the preeminent showcase for the exhibition of independent comics, graphic novels and alternative political cartoons, is pleased to announce the 2021 nominees for the annual presentation of the Ignatz Awards, a celebration of outstanding achievement in comics and cartooning.
Presented virtually, SPX 2021 will feature a full slate of programming along with a livestream of the Ignatz Awards ceremony.
Once again the Ignatz jurors have selected an amazing slate of nominees that reflect the diverse voices comprising the SPX community. On behalf of the Executive Committee, we want to thank the jurors for all of their hard work, and to congratulate all of the creators for giving comics readers these incredible works during such trying times. Good luck to everyone!!!! – Warren Bernard Executive Director
The Ignatz Awards are a juried festival prize, the first of such in the United States comic book industry. Traditionally, the winners are determined by attendees of the in-person event. This year, as was the case in 2020, voting is open to all who register to receive a ballot.
Ignatz Awards nominees are determined by a panel of comics professionals. The 2021 Ignatz jurors are Sunmi, Nguyên Khôi Nguyễn, and Daniel Elkin.
The Ignatz Awards ceremony will be live-streamed via the SPX Youtube channel at 8PM on September 18.
The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99
It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.
Mona Lisa Mania!
The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.
It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.
Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.
The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.
The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.
For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.
Peter Morey and Rebecca K. Jones are two very inventive cartoonists. I chatted with the couple via Zoom. I’m in Seattle and they are at their home in London. It was great to chat with two creatives who so neatly compliment each other’s work. It’s a fair observation given that they manage to do so well with similar subject matter that each tackles in a unique way. Both Peter and Rebecca explore social commentary and the human condition (Endswell, Boomerang). Both Peter and Rebecca let loose with wild and whimsical tales involving animals (Animal Spirits, Cat Disco). And, it’s clear to me that they enjoy what they do. I first stumbled upon their work on a visit to Orbital Comics back in 2019.
ENDSWELL by Peter Morey
I recently reviewed Peter Morey’s Animal Spirits and Endswell so you can definitely get a good sense of what he’s doing from that. I will say here that what propels the narrative of Endswell is a freewheeling play with the eccentric dynamics of a specific family. That requires storytelling freedom thus the fact it’s called a “loosely-based autobiographical work.” Thinking about Peter’s work, and then comparing it with Rebecca’s work, led me to ask them to chat a bit about British humor in general, how it runs the gamut from droll and dry to crazy and absurd. Part of the answer is that this tradition is just baked right into what they perceive as funny. They embrace the strange and so do I. Anyway, far be it from me to put anyone on the spot. I basically see all good work in comics as feeding off some touch of strange.
BOOMERANG by Rebecca K. Jones
I’ll segue over to Rebecca’s work and a moment which speaks so well to this quirky understated quality I’m talking about. It’s a moment in Boomerang (the first part to a longer work-in-progress) when the characters are enjoying a little fair at a local park filled with various random performers and the like. One such person is there lecturing about his peregrine falcon. And just as he begins his talk, the bird seems to take that as a cue to fly away, perhaps never to return again! It’s a splendid poetic pause referring back the main character’s own dilemma.
We turned to the subject of the performance artist Brother Theodore and that helped connect the dots to Martin Olson‘s new book, The Conquest of Heaven, which I’ve reviewed in my previous post. It’s an intriguing and hilarious exploration of the addled yet persistent mind of the Lord of Darkness himself. On one level, it’s a very funny book. On a deeper level, it’s every bit the satire on what we humans let ourselves believe and what can pass for reality. Serious followers of comedy will most likely already be familiar with Brother Theodore. I kick myself now, because I can’t say I knew about him until recently and that’s only because I found out about him from Martin.
My introduction to this comic is this clip from The Merv Griffin Show. I can’t say that I was ever a big fan of Merv Griffin. He seemed to be the sort of talk show host that was easily parodied by other comics, like Martin Short. But now I come to see that Merv Griffin was pretty hip to groundbreaking comedy as he was an early supporter of Brother Theodore. If you are new to him and you view this clip, you can’t help but think that Andy Kaufman was taking notes….
So, if you view the clip, this will make more sense. In a nutshell, here you have one of the early wave of nontraditional comic artists. Brother Theodore was weird but that was the whole point of his act, to express the utter absurdity of life. As Martin points out, it’s nihilistic material that you make your way through to a redeeming payoff. And so I see some of that going on in Martin’s new book with Satan as the main character, an outrageous creature saying the most offensive things, but alternating with some poetic whimsy. Anyway, I wish I’d taken my search a little further and viewed the more recent clips of Brother Theodore in the ’80s on Late Night with David Letterman. Ah, that would have been more recent material to talk to Martin about. The thing is, this was simply a potential question I had pinned to the back of my mind. As it is, I did get a wonderful response regarding the above clip which includes Martin recalling what it was like for him as an impressionable 10-year-old to see this crazy and weird humor.
For those who are fascinated by the writer’s craft, we also chatted about the great science fiction writer Robert Sheckley. In fact, that’s just before we dived into talking about Brother Theodore. In the case of Sheckley, this is another mad genius who loved quirky humor. There’s a nice moment during our talk when Martin recalls Sheckley’s guiding principle in keeping his stories rich and alive: “Sympathize with all things!” And so Martin finds a way to even sympathize with the Devil!
Okay, that seemed a perfect place to stop but I need to just add that, having read both books in the series thus far, I can confidently say that one compliments the other. To hear Martin confirm that there will indeed be another book to fulfill the trilogy is wonderful news. Martin has, by turns, found himself creating his own universe upon which to comment on the human condition and the like, essentially having endless material to play with on the less than stellar condition of the cosmos. All this brings to mind Douglas Adams, and he did pretty well for himself as I recall.
For more on Martin Olson and his work go right here.
ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF HELL II: The Conquest of Heaven, A Demonic History of the Future Concerning the Celestial Realm and the Angelic Race Which Infests It
Martin Olson. Illustrations: Tony Millionaire & Mahendra Singh. Feral House. 2021. 224pp. $24.99
Martin Olson is one of the best humorists around. Olson is known around Hollywood as one of the nicest and most hard-working of comedy writers. His special brand of satire has made its way to numerous comedy series on HBO, CBS, Showtime, Comedy Central, Disney, and FX. His last book was the critically-acclaimed Encyclopaedia of Hell, which includes a road map for a full-scale demonic invasion of Earth. Now, Olson tops himself with a sequel, The Conquest of Heaven, with Satan leading a coup of Heaven to replace God. Olson’s wry and relentless humor echoes Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.
Lord Satan dreams the Hell Cosmos.
This much-anticipated sequel picks up where Olson left off, writing again in the voice of Satan, we follow the Dark Lord’s latest scheme. Conquering Earth was mere child’s play when it comes to taking on the Almighty’s digs. And it’s not long before Satan runs into some difficulties.
After Hell’s army conquers Insignificant Earth and devours the human race in a celebratory feast, Lord Satan reveals that he will now journey deep into the universe to find the throne of the despised Creator. There Satan will depose God and take his rightful place as Emperor of Existence. Now, the secret sauce to making the story work hinges upon the voice of Satan. Again, that’s where the comparisons to literary giants like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce come into play. These guys satisfied that career high of nailing it, getting to channel Satan, as it were. And so Olson returns to those dizzying heights with his new book. Let’s dig in and see how he does it.
Lord Zyk battles the ghost of Abra Kadab.
First, you need to establish the character and, in Satan’s case, we’re talking about both a sophisticated creature and an egomaniac at an astronomical level. Satan is supposed to be all-knowing. But he’s also arrogant and pompous. Olson’s Satan maintains an other-worldly tone, full of regal turns of phrase and douchebag observations. In this excerpt, Satan has just set hoof on Heaven:
Yes, it was all Heavenly. All exactly what I hated.
I had come prepared with eye filters to screen out hideous beauty like the fountain. But I was unprepared for the audio component poisoning the air around me. Each festoon of flowers resonated with a different vibratory tone. Together, they emitted a hideously majestic symphony, a loathsome atmosphere of perfect harmony. Its precise overtones made my ears bleed. When I inhaled, the flowers’ sweetness produced cognitive dissonance with the natural filth that composed my lungs. I swooned, heaved deeply, and vomited the remains of a virgin I’d eaten into the azaleas. It was confirmed: perfect harmony was an unbearable toxin to my soul.
Satan is not exactly an easy guy to accomodate, even under ideal conditions, and here he is on arguably his greatest quest. Determined to discover the origin of his own creation, and to murder God, Satan must endure a series of obstacles in God’s Library akin to Alice in Wonderland, as well as match wits with a demented nun. And that’s just part of it, all leading to the shocking secret at the core of Creation. Could it have something to do with Satan? There’s a very good chance of that. To add some extra spice, there’s some other characters thrown into the mix like the equally pompous Lord Zyk and the wayward demon, Abra Kadab. The main thing is the journey which Olson masterfully keeps moving along. In this excerpt, Satan is dueling with a possessed book which has just lopped off his head. He’s later surprised to find out which book he’d been fighting:
Using a combination of my teeth and the vicissitudes of momentum, I climbed up my leg and torso until I reached the bloody stump of my severed neck. Through rapid licking, I then self-cauterized the wound, reconnecting my head to my body, and glared down at the culpable book.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the book that had decapitated me was a novelty edition of my own repugnant masterpiece of evil, Encycolpeadia of Hell, its ancient cover splattered with rose-red, black and purple coagulations of my royal demon blood.
What else might stand a chance against Satan but the very book prior to Olson’s latest misadventure with Satan? This kind of humor will delight readers of any age. Just think of vintage MAD Magazine. Sure, for the youngest readers, there’s the obvious parental discretion to keep in mind. This is, after all, a most unabashed Satan we’re dealing with here. The fangs. The claws. And everything else is all hanging out. But no risk of any exorcism! Honestly, if your kid is reading this, you can thank God that the kid has got good taste.
It was just a matter of time before I returned to the work of Peter Morey, which I had stumbled upon during a visit to Orbital Comics in London back in 2019. Even with a haul of comics to look over, I could quickly appreciate Morey’s distinctive and quirky work. Fast forward to the present, now I have three issues of Endswell compared to just the one a few years back. Reading over the first issue, and proceeding all the way through, I was treated to a fuller picture of this ongoing family saga. The first issue seems that much stronger now as it pulls together a number of dramatic bits all revolving around the misadventures of the granny of the clan, the matriarch in decline, who in recent years has brought in a suspicious character as her lover.
The family photo!
As with any sprawling comedy of manners, the first issue introduces the players and sets the tone. We begin with the main character of this loosely auto-biographical work, Peter Morey, as he relates to a therapist a series of events involving his grandmother. Things are a bit of a mess as it seems gran has reached a critical point where her well-being is a concern, not to mention her continued squandering of the family fortune for the sake of her vanity project. Plans must be made. Chickens are coming home to roost. Or, in this case, horses and dogs as gran runs an eccentric farm and kennel known as, Endswell. And then there’s Jim, the creepy ne’er-do-well she’s been living with. All of this is of concern to her now middle-aged children. And yet the worry has somehow spilled over onto Peter, part of the next generation. It’s not completely clear as to why Peter is so preoccupied by this drama other than it’s part of the neurotic goop that has overcome the whole family. Alright then, all very interesting family drama, as Chekhov would concur.
Morey does a fine job of giving a comedic shape to various family source material. In the end, we’ve got a nicely purring machine that sees us into the next couple of issues: one dedicated to the dogs at Endswell; and one dedicated to grandpa, which finds the clan reminiscing on the day of the grand old man’s funeral. So, all in all, this family comedy provides a neat platform upon which Morey can give the reader a bit of his take on the human condition. Morey’s droll sense of humor permeates his drawing style, which has an uncanny distant and ironic quality to it. The characters and settings, much like the narrative, are pared down to a mysterious enigma. Simple shapes and phrases leave much hidden, revealing only what’s needed and leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
A poignant moment for Lady Foxhound.
Now, let’s move past Morey’s family saga to something more whimsical. This is more of Peter Morey’s droll humor but this time it’s animals–and not just any animals, these are power animals out to save the world. Animal Spirits is a deliciously over-the-top mash-up tribute to martial arts and violent manga, I would think. Actually, there’s only a few dollops of blood spilled, all things considered but you need to be mindful of the kiddos reading this, right? Morey’s light and lean line is nicely set off by his bold choice of colors. If you enjoy a cheeky adventure and root for animal rights, then this is for you.
This is a review about two outstanding comics. But it is first of all a review of a new comics publisher. A veteran of the book trade, founder and publisher Liz Frances, jumped into the fast-changing world of GNs a few years ago, after a considerable career in the publishing industry. She has explained to interviewers that she wants to create books that count, that have both passion and social value. Certainly so, but I see these two books rather differently. Not that I doubt her explanation for a minute. What I think I perceive is a glimpse at a new generation of comic artists and their art.
Neither of these books is particularly close to traditional comics styles, the kind that my older sisters lovingly employed, when I was six, to teach me how to read. I remember more or less precisely that moment in my life. Looking back from a distance of about seventy years, I can easily grasp the big change. Comics are now certain to be “read” in very different ways, sometimes on devices that do not look or act like printed books, although the books on review here are printed. The real change, however, reflects how artists themselves learn and come to see themselves. As Parsons comics teacher and comic artist Ben Katchor reflected in an interview book, a few years ago, the internal logic of the young artist is no longer the world of the drawing board nor any other fixed spot.
Crash Course author/artist Woodrow Phoenix, a British citizen, whose parents emigrated from Guyana, where the CIA overthrew a leftwing government in 1960 and perhaps arranged for the assassination of the rebellious Walter Rodney in 1980, is a very radical person in his own way. He delivers a powerful message to the heads of readers, certainly to mine, in pounding page after page.
Page from CRASH COURSE
How does he do it? Because he explores in words and expressionist-like drawings the things we know, but do not want to think very much about our cars and our driving. Despite being a key form of death and injury around the world, not even to speak of vast environmental damage, driving has dug itself into our brains. Even if we spend maximum time (as I do) either biking or walking, for most of us, the car is always there. It gets us to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment, or to “get out of the city” for a while to visit friends and relatives. Not to mention moving distances for major changes in our lives and work. All these could certainly be done without cars. Given contemporary arrangements, only with real difficulty.
But there’s far, far more to it, and at the psychological core, cars have been ingeniously devised and stylized to make up for the insecurities and shortcomings of our individual lives. “Individual” is key here, as he explains, because each driver lives within a second skin, competing with others in the same circumstances for safety, speed, and psychological reinforcement. Merely reciting the names of models recalls the vicarious excitement, exoticism, and terribly real speed, made all the more attractive because the depictions in every media never show anyone in the real, constant traffic jam. In every hour of an average commute, twenty minutes is spent locked in very boring lines, rousing the desire to get ahead of every competing car and to cut corners by going ten or twenty miles per hour over the law or passing in the breakdown line.
All this, as Phoenix makes so vivid, is dramatized by the sheer eeriness of a vast but empty parking lot. And just as vividly by the violent use of cars to run down political demonstrators, acts now apparently made non-punishable. Cars have created non-spaces across the world, at the same time that they have become weapons, in many ways the weapons of daily use.
From POWER BORN OF DREAMS
Power Born of Dreams begins in prison, an Israeli prison, and that is the most fundamental fact of this book. The second most fundamental is the artist’s technique: linocuts, recalling a past era when leftwing artists of the 1920s struggled to make a living outside of the magazine world. As the artist says, “I was unable to carve my name onto the walls of my prison cell.” So, he chooses a kind of carving, to carve the stories of imprisoned Palestinians, on paper.
The lines are spare, the background black. Interrogation goes with confinement, and each reinforce the other. Israeli companies have made themselves world-famous with “crowd control” techniques, tried out mainly in the West Bank against Palestinians protesting the loss of their homes and their land. The artist’s road out of mental confinement is his art. He can see a tree outside and become a tree, for a moment. Then come back to his own reality behind bars.
He is, in real life, a citizen without a country. No Palestinian who lived in East Jerusalem can be allowed Israeli citizenship, not even marriage with an Israeli can make that happen. Leaving East Jerusalem can easily preclude returning, ever. And even remaining in your home means awaiting the dreaded moment when you will be driven out by a would-be Israeli settler insisting that not even a long family history in this spot, this house, entitles you to remain there.
A large part of the narrative is the deeply personal, deeply disturbing story of the artist himself. During the Second Intifada, he set himself on the task of drawing portraits of the dead, drawing the victim in the mortuary, then giving the portrait to the family the next day, at the funeral. A young boy, the brother of one of the victims, asks, “Can you make my portrait?” The artist says no, he only draws the dead, and this boy surely has a long life ahead of him, but learns days later that the boy, too, has become a martyr, trying to avenge his killing of his brother.
“They tore down the tree and destroyed the nest?” is his dialogue among two birds. “Imagine living without a home.” This leads, as it must, to an apparently tragic conclusion: the settlers slice up an imagined Palestinian homeland, in the geographical territory agreed to at Camp David, into slices smaller and smaller, divided from each other so that travel and work, not to mention emergency medical care, become almost impossible.
Things could change, at least theoretically. But a humane outcome could not alter the power of Mohammad Sabaaneh’s artistic descriptions, their capacity, we hope, to open hearts of readers everywhere.
Chickaloonies is an all-ages comic book that invites anyone, especially young readers, to explore cultures, ask questions, and get excited about all the diversity in the world. Here is a fun and informative interview with the creative team that have put together this ongoing series: Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver. This is a book packed with fun and adventure and you’ll also learn about indigenous art and culture along the way!
The power of storytelling!
During our interview, Dimi Macheras shares about his time growing up in the Chickaloon Village in Alaska and hearing these indigenous stories recited by his grandmother, the tribal elder. In time, Dimi would recreate the stories into comics. The storytelling tradition was passed down to Dimi’s mother and she created special slideshow presentations, which she did at local schools, that mixed together the tribal myths with artwork by Dimi. Fast forward to the present and you’ve got the Chickaloonies series of comic books.
Early mini-comic by Dimi Macheras based on the stories he grew up with passed down by his grandmother and his mother.
Casey Silver shared all kinds of process insights. Among them, Casey brought up some of the influences behind the book, especially the brightly colored and energetic ’90s style of Dragonball, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Samurai Jack. It’s all part of a tradition that Casey and Dimi incorporate into their comics. Dimi also mentioned how influential Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been to them, everything from the original black & white comics all the way down to the action figures. And Casey pointed out how important the French action thriller, Lastman, has been for that added crunchy goodness.
WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT
In a time of perpetual darkness, two Alaskan Native kids go on a quest to become the greatest storytellers the world has ever seen! Using the teachings of their grandmother, the language of their tribe, and their imaginations, Mister Yelly and Sasquatch E. Moji will journey to foreign lands to learn from other cultures, share the knowledge of their own and maybe even save the village!
An all-ages, Alaskan tribal adventure about legends, language, magic and the journey of discovering one’s own story in our ever-changing world.
The magic of storytelling!
UPCOMING LIVE EVENTS
There will be a book signing for Free Comic Book Day on August 14th at Bosco’s Comics Cards & Games in Anchorage, Alaska. And, on August 21st, join Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver at the Loussac Public Library, in Anchorage, for the official CHICKALOONIES graphic novel release party!! This one-day-only event will see the debut of a new interactive storytelling experience that 80% Studios has been developing for the past few months! They will also have live drawing, a Q&A, book signing and more! Fun for the whole family!!
Chickaloonies is a full color 100-page graphic novel by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, better known as 80% Studios! Our goal is to bring awareness of the rich, Ahtna/Athabascan culture to the forefront of popular media through the magical power of comic books! This is the first of many volumes chronicling the misadventures of Mister Yelly and Sasquatch E. Moji, so don’t miss out on your chance to join the adventure!
The more one digs into the comics medium, the more it rewards you as an immersive world of the mind. You can lose yourself in it as much as any other art form. Christopher Sperandio has taken quite a deep dive into re-working vintage public domain comics just as you would any other kind of “found art.” Check out some of his work on his Instagram. He is genuinely mesmerized by it and respectful of all the souls, many truly unsung heroes, who created the work in the first place. That said, when Sperandio hit upon a cache of original Mexican comic book pages at a public market, he knew right away that this wasn’t just another canvas upon which to recontextualize. This was something special that needed to be called attention to. Sperandio’s long and distinguished career features work that explores the interconnections between mass and museum culture. Sperandio teaches at Rice University where he specializes in working with the comics medium. He recently put together at Rice an arts lab, the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop (CATS) and this book is part of that.
A typical copy of Micro Suspenso, #305, circa 1968, 4 1/2 x 3 inches.
A mysterious packet of ink drawings sitting in a stall in a public market in Mexico City. At that point, the fate of these drawings, half a century old, was utterly dependent upon who might take notice of them. So, it’s something of a miracle that this set of drawings would catch the interest of the most ideal buyer. This bundle of originals was created by Julio Camarena for the comic book series, Micro Suspenso. There was no cover but the comic book could be dated to circa, 1970. The story, oddly enough, is entitled, “The Last Buyer.” With Sperandio’s purchase, this little batch of comic book art had fallen into academic hands and, as it turned out, Sperandio was to be the last buyer of this work prior to his immortalizing it in this book. To add a touch of intrigue, the originals were stolen and probably destroyed.
Julio Camarena is plucked from obscurity and joins the world of academia.
And so Julio Camarena, an obscure Mexican cartoonist, finds his work the subject of an academic study. Well, that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned, Sperandio has a working method that involves linking popular media to museum culture. And that is precisely what this purchase of drawings set into motion. We come back to the idea of a playground for the mind. When you stop and think about it, comic books (particularly strange and offbeat comic books) and museums, are both prime venues for some deep thinking, the stuff that dreams are made of! Sperandio developed his project step by step, bringing together the people and resources he needed under the CATS arts lab. In time, he had what was needed for an installation as well as a book.
From the pages of a comic book…
…to the gallery walls of a museum.
As a work of comics, “The Last Buyer” is more than just competent; it’s a guilty pleasure in the best sense. Right away, I was intrigued by the characters and their hint of Mod style sense. And who doesn’t like a good horror story about a possessed car? I’m Mexican-American, and I do read Spanish but not without some effort. I mean, the words don’t just jump out at me as they do in a work of comics in English. That sense of words jumping out is magical and it’s not happening when I’ve got a work of comics in Spanish. For the Camarena stash to fully function as a work of comics for a now predominantly English-speaking audience, the darn thing would need to be properly translated within the comic itself with the Spanish text replaced by English. There are notes at the back of the book with an English translation but that’s just not the same. That said, it’s a fun read. It is masterfully worked out, especially considering the tiny format that was common for these “micro-comics,” pocket-sized comics meant to be read on the way to work or in some less than rarefied environment. That said, of course, this set of drawings has totally become a creature of rarefied environments.
Page excerpt from “The Last Buyer.”
So, what’s so special about this stash of original comic book art that has been taken out of its natural habitat, as it were, and placed under a microscope? First, it’s a learning opportunity, right? Sperandio gets to share some of the history of Mexican comics and he even, early on, gets a chance to demonstrate how unfairly maligned the comics medium has been. His quote from 1999 by noted art critic Rosalind Krauss is priceless. When asked at a public lecture at Princeton University for her opinion on the comics medium, Krauss said the form was “unredeemable.” Ouch! Well, that was over twenty years ago and, I dare say, the general sentiment has changed. As for this stash of Mexican comics in particular, Sperandio is making the case that, yes, this little bundle of obscure comics is a historic and artistic artifact. And, while the originals are now gone forever, the originals had been properly digitized and so can now live on in print, as they were always intended to do. Sperandio, “the last buyer,” managed to pass on a little treasure to all sorts of future buyers, those who buy into the comic medium’s hard-won fight for credibility.
Where all this gets most interesting is in tracking down the one and only Julio Camarena, the cartoonist behind these mysterious comics. Camarena is given his due. He is not presented as some exotic but as the creative professional he was, part of a tradition, part of history. This is the moment when, if you were binge-watching on Netflix, the payoff is finally delivered. Sperandio has gotten to comment on Camarena. A contemporary cartoonist has provided his observations. And a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature has held court– and even quoted a scholarly report that concludes Mexico and Japan are the world’s only true comic book cultures. All very interesting but now Camarena speaks about Camarena! And, like any long-awaited moment, it’s a little poignant and also a little anticlimactic. Camarena loved his work, has no regrets, and has little patience with looking back. He was interviewed a couple of years ago by Mexican cartoonist Augusto Mora. It’s a wonderful exchange between the two creatives. Camarena sounds to be very savvy about the comics market. He simply doesn’t take himself too seriously or put his work upon a pedestal. He makes a comment towards the end that he regrets that Mexican publishers began to dabble in cheesecake pin-up comics in an attempt to boost sales. That went against their core family audience and so it was no surprise to Camarena when that phase of comics tanked. Ironically, the only photos of Camarena have him showing some of his pin-up work. It’s actually rendered quite well, in a classic tradition but, apparently, he didn’t have his heart in it. No, his heart was in the work he was a part of for most of his life, stories that enthralled readers across a wide spectrum. It was a magical time, a time for all kinds of stories whether historic, romantic, adventurous, or even supernatural.
Cartoonist Julio Camarena
So, did Sperandio’s examination of the Camarena stash of drawings stretch and pull it well past anyone’s intended purpose? Okay, sure, but it was all worth it! Indeed, this book is a ticket to play in the playground of the mind. Seriously, this is a most welcome addition to comics scholarship in general–and Mexican comics in particular. We can already find a number of books that gravitate to pretty familiar subjects like Los Bros Hernandez. Sperandio goes further and provides us with some much needed insight into the roots of Mexican comics and culture. This quirky book is a wonderful exploration of many things, not the least of which is the playground of the mind.
Catching up on obscure manga has never been easier. Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of manga titles available online through platforms like Kodansha and izneo. And if you’re having a hard time picking which ones are worth checking out, here are 10 of the best manga you’ve likely never even heard about.
Using powers granted by his guardian angel, young student Mirai Kakehashi enacts revenge on his foster parents who were responsible for his real parents’ deaths. Mirai soon finds out that he is among the 13 candidates to replace God, who’s retiring in 999 days, and that the other 12 are coming to kill him. A gratuitous action-packed fantasy by the writer-artist tandem behind Death Note.
Also known as A Bride’s Story, Otoyomegatari is a gorgeous portrayal of the 19th century customs, cultures, and brides of a tribal town along the Silk Road near the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. A poignant romance based on real customs and traditions from the 1800s, Otoyomegatari has won several international awards.
Whether it’s the original 1973 manga by Go Nagai that has spawned its own anime or Yu Kunutani’s tributary Violence Jack 20XX which launched early in 2021, this title features a shapeshifting anti-hero who gets his name for his signature 40cm jackknife. It’s one of the first mangas about a weird saviour dealing out justice in the post apocalypse.
While riding the train, bored city cop Shintarou Jagasaki encounters a monster which he instantly kills when his right hand inexplicably transforms into an energy gun. Shintarou sets out on a journey to kill the fractured monsters – former humans transformed by the same force that gave him his new powers. Every kill results in a frog, which he collects in order to be granted a single wish.
Written and illustrated by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, one of the most prominent creators in manga history, Akagi is the 36-volume tale of a Mahjong poker prodigy who gives the Yakuza a run for their money. This manga has also been adopted into arguably the most intense Mahjong poker anime of all time. While a lot of manga tackle Mahjong drama, Akagi is hands-down the best one.
Alongside his two brothers, Hiroshi Nikaido inherits 100 million yen, and whoever makes the best use of the money gets the rest of the family business. Hiroshi takes the money and proceeds to have the best time at some of the most famous poker rooms in Las Vegas, where the stakes are high, the players are serious, and 100 million yen can only get you so far. It’s one of the few mangas that explores the wild side of sin city.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
The five graduates of a Buddhist college – each with their own special skill or supernatural power over the dead – form a business that helps people find out and enact the last wishes of their recently deceased loved ones. In this must-read dark comedy, every chapter is named after a Japanese pop song and every story is an entertaining exploration of mortality.
This manga is a unique take on the life of Gautama Buddha by writer-artist Osamu Tezuka, the brains behind Astroboy. Winner of several Eisner awards, Buddha is a fresh and in-depth account of the Enlightened One’s well-known spiritual journey.
Human-devil Hybrid Denji merges with his Chainsaw Devil dog Pochita to kill the Yakuza members who betray him. He’s then recruited by the state’s Public Safety Division as a devil hunter, eventually pitting Denji against the legendary Gun Devil. Dark humor and creative violence abound in this insane new shonen manga.
Blood on the Tracks
Slow-burning thriller Blood on the Tracks has been hailed as one of the greatest psychological horrors manga of all time. Filled with unique stories tackling the mundane lives of ordinary people, Blood on the Tracks effortlessly achieves what so many horror titles aspire to but never pull off. It’s an absolute must-read for the most jaded horror fans.