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Interview: WREN McDONALD on Comics, Illustration, and SP4RX

Wren McDonald self-portrait

Wren McDonald self-portrait

Wren McDonald is a cartoonist and illustrator. His illustrations appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, The Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, and many other places. His first full-length graphic novel, a quirky cyberpunk thriller, “SP4RX,” was recently published by Nobrow Press.

If you are in the New York City metro area this weekend, you can see Wren at Comic Arts Brooklyn. CAB is taking place this weekend with the main event this Saturday, November 5th, at Mt. Carmel Gymnasium, 12 Havemeyer Street, from 11am to 7pm, in beautiful Brooklyn! You can find Wren at CAB, downstairs at Table D31.

Wren McDonald has shot like a rocket since graduating from Ringling College of Art and Design in 2013. Wren has a refreshing take on both comics and illustrations: a rare set of skills, talent, passion, and drive. So, without further ado, here is my interview with Wren McDonald, recorded this Wednesday, as he prepares for Comic Arts Brooklyn.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Wren, if we were to do a virtual tour of your studio, what would we find there?

WREN McDONALD: Well, my studio is my bedroom. So, here’s my bed and here’s my desk. That’s my studio! (Laughter)

That’s the set of circumstances for a lot of cartoonists and illustrators, isn’t it?

Yeah, especially living in New York. It just doesn’t make much financial sense to have a separate studio. But I have plenty of room here. It’s pretty spacious. I can spread out and get my work done. I have a super big desk and an iMac. And I actually have (laughs) the extended studio in the living room! There I have a Lasergraph copier where I print out my mini-comics and zines.

That’s for serious cartoonists.

Oh, yeah!

“Did Trump and Clinton Get a Pass on Education?” illustration for The New Yorker by Wren McDonald

“Did Trump and Clinton Get a Pass on Education?” illustration for The New Yorker by Wren McDonald

I direct folks who are new to your work to go to your website, wrenmcdonald.com. There you will find a cornucopia of stuff. I’m focusing on one of your current illustrations of Trump and Clinton and they are both sitting in a classroom. These two are hyperreal, larger-than-life, cartoonish. You can’t make them up. Could you give us a window into how you created that illustration?

That illustration was funny because I got the assignment the day before it was due, which was also the day before I was traveling to MICE Expo in Boston, a comics show that I was just at this last weekend. That was like a super rush job which was really intense. The art director at The New Yorker, Rina Kushnir, who is super great, I work with her a lot, she emailed me the article. She said it was last minute but she asked if I could do it. And I said, yes, of course.

Rina needed sketches in the morning and then the final that evening, around 5pm or 6pm. So, that morning, I sent in like four sketches. They were sort of goofy and funny. Like you say, these candidates are already cartoony so it’s easy to characterize them. Rina chose the one she liked. That was at noon. From that point, I got to work on the final and sent it over in the evening.

Those jobs are always pretty stressful but I enjoy doing them a lot because I feel that I work really hard and get a real day’s work in and have something to show for it.

It’s a beautiful illustration.

Thank you.

I wanted to ask you about your evolving into the illustrator you are today. Your work is appearing everywhere. Only a few years ago you were in Florida just starting out. Could you give us the cook’s tour of how you got where you are today.

Sure, I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design, which is in Sarasota, Florida, in 2013. When I was in school, I had a website and was posting things on social media, like Tumblr, and I think that helped me get my feet off the ground in terms of people seeing my work.

From that point, I started going to comics shows like TCAF in Toronto, Comic Arts Brooklyn, and MoCCA. I tabled at TCAF and other shows I would just go to. I’d have mini-comics to give out to help make people aware of me. It’s two different paths, comics and illustration, so I’ll talk about them separately.

The illustration stuff is, like I say, social media and tracking down email contacts and networking. And a lot of promotional stuff. You want to create a portfolio that really looks like editorial illustration. Editorial work has a snowball effect. You start to get jobs and you’re seen as a professional.

CYBER REALM by Wren McDonald

CYBER REALM by Wren McDonald

The comics stuff is going to shows and socializing. I was approached by Peow! Studio, based in Sweden, about publishing one of my short stories in of one of their anthologies, “Time Capsule.” I thought that was super cool since I was familiar with their work. I was super excited. I think that was the first comics story that I had published out in the world besides my own stuff online, on Tumblr. Soon after that, I talked to Nobrow about doing a short story (CYBER REALM) for their 17×23 series which is a platform to try out new talent. That’s a small format, just 24 pages. We did that and enjoyed working together. So, Nobrow said they wanted to try something longer. That’s what I wanted to do so it worked out that way.

It’s amazing how quickly things came together. Did you already have an idea of what SP4RX was going to be like while you were working on CYBER REALM or did one work just follow the other?

I didn’t have one story cocked and loaded beforehand. I always hear other cartoonists, or writers, when they talk about their work, saying they had this story they’d been working on since they were 10 years-old and it’s part of an epic world they’ve created. I’m not one of those people. When I sit down to write a story it’s about brainstorming and anything that peaks my interest.

For SP4RX, I’ve always been interested in the cyberpunk genre, especially movies and comics. I wanted to work in that genre. I was already creating work dealing with technology, robots, and dystopian settings. I think it just made a lot of sense to me.

We’re always hearing about the digital versus the physical. I direct people to the comic you did for The Comics Journal. How did that come about?

I’m not sure if Nobrow contacted The Comics Journal, or the other way around, but The Comics Journal approached me about doing one of their A Cartoonist Diary columns. I was all for it since I have the attitude of wanting to try something out and make it work. I had not done diary comics before so I had to think about how to do this. Mine is not a traditional diary comic since it has these fantastical elements to it. Despite it being involved with things I was experiencing, the more apt title to it turned out to be “Not A Cartoonist Diary.” That was a fun project.

Over the years, illustration is deemed dead and then it comes right back. It all runs in cycles. You’re firmly in both the world of comics and illustrations. Some cartoonists, I know, have never printed mini-comics nor done the comic fest circuit. But you love that.

Right! I love making comics, reading comics, and telling stories. I am passionate about my comics work because I am able to draw what I want to draw. Illustration is a fun back and forth since it involves work that I would not necessarily choose to draw: it’s more like a puzzle. Okay, how do I use these images to convey a specific idea, very concisely, to pair with the article? It’s a fun back and forth. Maybe I’ve been working on comics for two weeks straight, and then I get an editorial assignment. That’s great, I can take a break from comics and do an illustration, take a break from having my face too close to the page and switch my train of thought–and vice versa.

SP4RX by Wren McDonald

SP4RX by Wren McDonald

If we were just chatting, we’d end up talking about books and movies, especially science fiction and cyberpunk. I imagine that “Videodrome” must be a favorite for you.

I do love “Videodrome.” David Cronenberg is amazing but I don’t think that “Videodrome” had a specific influence on SP4RX. Instead, concerning SP4RX, I had just read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” which I thought was like the coolest book ever. It is considered “cool.” I wanted to make something “super cool” like that! I’d always been into “Akira” by Katsuhiro Otomo. And “Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow and his Appleseed series. And movies like Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” or “Robocop.” Or James Cameron’s “Terminator II.” “The Matrix.” “Aliens.” Stuff like that. I wanted to do something in the vein of that genre.

Let’s focus back on SP4RX: a super hacker going up against corporate enslavement. How close are we today to corporate enslavement?

There’s a lot of parallels that I was drawing from. Basic stuff that I’d see on the news. Even just going about my day-to-day, going shopping or whatever, that would end up in SP4RX. It’s a world with hover cars and sci-fi elements but there are plenty of parallels to our real world throughout. For example, I’d be watching some crazy video on YouTube with one newscaster harassing another newscaster and I would basically copy and paste that into the book. Within a sci-fi setting, you can focus on the human element. You don’t get caught up in a specific nation or political agenda. It’s just people in this science fiction world.

Everyone may not get a hover car but we’ve got plenty of the weird and nefarious stuff already. What do you think about Edward Snowden and us being monitored? The future is here.

Yeah, it makes me think that the cyberpunk genre and movement is more relevant than ever. When the internet was first coming about, that genre seemed so cheesy. It’s fun to laugh about it but there’s so much of it that’s relevant. Like you say, that NSA stuff is really happening. It’s important to pay attention to that and be aware.

Panel excerpt from SP4RX

Panel excerpt from SP4RX

Is there anything you’d like folks to know about that you are currently doing?

It depends upon when you think this post will go up. There’s Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend.

I can push things up and get this out by Friday. I’d love to go to CAB. I have my own book I’m working on that is very much science fiction oriented. It’s about the science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson. His career and life’s journey has a very intriguing arc. He began with writing the story for the Rat Pack classic, “Ocean’s Eleven” and crescendoed with co-writing the novel that was the basis for the cult classic, “Logan’s Run.”

Oh, yeah, that movie has a nice sci-fi cheesy quality.

Well, the thing with George was that he kept to his set of values and the integrity of his storytelling. “Logan’s Run” is an example of a big studio having its own ideas on what the story should be. It’s totally fun though and I think a remake would be great. The original novel is very different. I think you’d enjoy it.

I will check it out.

Comic Arts Brooklyn

Comic Arts Brooklyn

But getting back to CAB.

Yes, I will be at Comic Arts Brooklyn this Saturday, November 5th. You can find me downstairs at Table D31. So, come by and say hello! And I have a new mini-comic that will debut at CAB and then be available on my site which is called, “Dirt Dart,” a 12-page story about a soldier lost on another planet.

Well, it’s been fun talking with you, Wren. I know that you’re having the time of your life.

Yes, staying busy!

Thanks so much, Wren.

Thank you, Henry. When you’re in New York, stop by and we can have a drink.

Will do.

You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below. I did not make any edits so you’ll pick up on some slight differences from the transcription which is a smoother read. One thing to mention here is that I was not aware of the title, SP4RX, being pronounced “Sparks.” I must have been firmly in the mindset of George Lucas and his 1971 classic, THX 1138:

SP4RX is out now. Find it at Nobrow Press right here. Visit Wren McDonald right here. And, if you are in the New York City metro area, be sure to visit Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend. Visit CAB right here.

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Filed under Brooklyn, Comic Arts Brooklyn, Comics, Cyberpunk, George Clayton Johnson, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Interviews, Logan's Run, New York City, Nobrow Press, Sci-Fi, science fiction, The Comics Journal, Wren McDonald

Review: THE BOYS OF SHERIFF STREET by Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal

High Noon on Delancey Street.

High Noon on Delancey Street.

Jerome Charyn is one of our great American writers. I had the pleasure to review, “The Magician’s Wife,” a graphic novel illustrated by François Boucq and written by Jerome Charyn. Thanks to Dover Graphic Novels, a number of lost gems are finding their way back into print. For this review, we look at “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” illustrated by Jacques de Loustal and written by Jerome Charyn. This is a beautifully tragic love story–at an exquisitely high level of artistry.

Ida, ready to devour the world.

Ida, ready to devour the world.

Graphic novels are not always what some people may expect, not even aspiring cartoonists. One misconception is that they need to be unruly massive things which, outside of manga, is more the exception than the norm. While there are no set rules to this, a book that clocks in at roughly 100 pages is very likely to make for a satisfying experience. And so it is with this book which is 80 pages. That’s perhaps more of a European standard–but it works so well. Consider this work quite the treat with its theatrical and painterly flourish.

The emperor has returned.

The emperor has returned.

Our story revolves around twin brothers Max and Morris. This is New York City’s underworld during the 1930s, on the Lower East Side. And Max and Morris belong to the Sheriff Street gang. Morris is tall and jovial. Max is the brains and the head of the operation. He is shorter and has a hunchback. The dynamic between the two brothers, and the whole gang for that matter, is severely tested when Morris introduces everyone to Ida, his new love and fiancé. This proves to be a fascinating study in character. Is Ida really a femme fatale or is she simply trying to assert her position as best she can?

The size and scope of Charyn’s story leaves me thinking of what a great movie it could make. That said, everything adds up to a perfect graphic novel. Loustal has created a fully realized world that the characters smoothly move through. This all works flawlessly as classic tragedy with a noir bite. At any point, Max, Morris, and even Ida, could prevent the inevitable. But sometimes blood must spill no matter how careful the players.

"The Boys of Sherrif Street," by Jerome Charyn and .......

“The Boys of Sheriff Street,” by Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal

“The Boys of Sheriff Street,” by Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal, is an 80-page full color trade paperback, published by Dover Publications. You can find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Comics, Dover Publications, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jacques de Loustal, Jerome Charyn

Review: THE NEW DEAL by Jonathan Case

New-Deal-Jonathan-Case-2015

We begin Jonathan Case’s new graphic novel, “The New Deal,” in New York City, 1936. It’s the depths of the Great Depression. NYC is pretty darn cold in the winter, especially when money is so scarce. There’s a young guy, Frank O’Malley, and he’s pleading with passersby to consider buying a ticket to an avant-garde production of Macbeth. Tough sale especially when, just next to Frank is his Uncle Pack hawking apples for six cents each. A potential customer tries to haggle the price down by a penny but Uncle Pack won’t budge. Quickly, we move on as Frank races to his regular job as a bellman at the Waldorf Astoria. And with that Case has hooked you in as the plot thickens and we find Frank to be way over his head.

Pages from THE NEW DEAL

Pages from THE NEW DEAL

Case delivers a solid story built upon his character-driven script and his engaging drawing style. His sly sense of humor and intrigue works its way through every page. He has managed to create characters that feel real while inhabiting the hyperreal world of screwball comedies of the 1930s. We cannot help but be curious about the relationship between a Caucasian bellman, Frank O’Malley, and an African-American maid, Theresa Harris. In public, they keep at a distance and address each other by their surnames. In private, they are playful with each other but still hold back. What we do know is that they care about each other very much and the plot that unfolds will test them.

Dark-Horse-The-New-Deal-Case

This is an exceptionally well-paced and substantial story. It has one foot in the ’30s and the other in today’s sensibilities. This allows us to explore the relationship between Frank and Theresa and the inner world of Theresa with great subtlety. You learn to accept Frank who has to struggle with proving his trustworthiness. And you follow Theresa as she must navigate through the obstacles before her. The more complicated our story gets, the more Frank and Theresa are forced to face what it is that keeps attracting them to each other.

Make no mistake, this is a perfect blend of mystery, humor, and offbeat love story. If there’s any mention of FDR’s “New Deal,” it is only in passing. This is not a history lesson, at least not directly. That said, while you’ll learn a thing or two about swells and dolls and fancy hotels, you will also get a good sense of the cold realities of that era.

This is Jonathan Case’s best work yet. You may know him from his artwork for the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story,” which I reviewed here. Or you may have caught his work for the DC Comics title, “Batman ’66.” You will definitely want to read “The New Deal,” a thoroughly entertaining and remarkable work.

THE NEW DEAL is a hardcover, published by Dark Horse Comics, available as of September 23. You can find it at all your favorite booksellers including through Jonathan’s website right here. As always, be sure to visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics right here.

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Filed under Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Hotels, Humor, Jonathan Case, mystery

Review: ‘Moomins on the Riviera’

Moomins-on-the-Riviera

So, what is a Moomin, exactly? Well, they’re hippos. And their large faces act like masks that hide facial expression. They’re terribly enigmatic when you think about it. They’re also very isolated as they don’t normally wander far from Moominvalley. But they’re not meant to be spooky although they do have their weird habits. For instance, they save all their dirty dishes under the sofa until there’s a good rain to wash them clean.

Moomin is an odd and wonderful world of comics. Truly, one of the best. Do kids pick up on the enigmatic quality? Oh, sure. That’s part of the magic and charm. If you are new to the antics of the Moomins, just think of them as some of the most fanciful creatures to grace a comic strip. This animated feature honors the original work by Tove Jansson. With “Moomins on the Riviera,” directors Xavier Picard and Hanna Hemilä bring to life all the magic and charm from the page to the screen.

Most of the major Moomins, from left to right: the Snork maiden, Moomintroll, Moominpappa (in hammock with top hat), Moominmamma, Little My and Snufkin.

Most of the major Moomins, from left to right: the Snork maiden, Moomintroll, Moominpappa (in hammock with top hat), Moominmamma, Little My and Snufkin.

So, knowing that the Moomins are a strange lot, a change of scenery is not such a bad idea. And they may as well live large and end up on the Riviera. Of course, with Moomins being a bit out of touch, this is strictly a hippo out of water kind of story.

Moomins-on-the-Riviera-2015

The Moomins will win you over. This is a fun and whimsical tale of how these hippos stumble into high society. In the end, both hippos and all who meet them are the better for it. If you’re looking for a feature perfect for the whole family, this is it. And its sense of style and odd humor will keep adults entertained right along with the youngest of viewers.

“Moomins on the Riviera” was released in Finland and France in 2014 and makes its North American premiere on March 22, 2015 at the New York International Children’s Festival. For more details, visit the official website for the film right here.

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Filed under animation, Comics, European Comics, Finland, France, Tove Jansson

Short Film Review: THE SHAMAN and exclusive manga

The-Shaman-Marco-Kalantari

There’s a touch of the poet, the adventurer, and the dreamer in Marco Kalantari’s short film, “The Shaman.” There’s a quirky intensity here like you might find in your favorite story or game. And I consider myself most fortunate to know about it now.

It’s bursting with originality and fierce energy that grabs you from the start. It is 2204. We fight our wars with intelligent machines. The only way to subvert their power is to engage with their souls. And it is only the shamans who can access these machine souls that exist in the Netherworld.

The world war has been raging for 73 years on. It’s some really strange and dark holy war or something quite bad. A scorched Earth is nothing new to anyone. But there’s the Netherworld and, perhaps, it is there that all souls will some day know eternal peace.

“The Shaman” packs quite a punch. It’s a dark and gothic mashup of “Star Wars” and “District 9.” The special effects are first-rate. And there’s plenty of new ground upon which to trod and take leaps of faith from. You’ll love the ritual involved in transporting a Shaman to the Netherworld. This short film provides a whole new set of terms and signs to behold.

And the scene between The Shaman (played by Danny Shayler) and the Soul of the Colossus (played by Susanne Wuest) is brilliant. This is a great battle of wits between shaman and machine. It’s wonderful to see and let’s hope that perhaps all this leads to a major full-length motion picture. I really think that’s possible. Whatever lies ahead, this is an excellent short film.

What follows is a prequel to The Shaman. This is a manga story setting the stage for what lies ahead in the main story:

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Filed under Movie Reviews, movies, Short Film, Tribeca Film Festival

Review: THIS IS WARHOL, published by Laurence King Publishing

Andy-Warhol-Laurence-King

This week we will consider Laurence King Publishing’s exciting new artist series in a graphic novel format. We begin with “This is Warhol.” We will continue with Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, and end the week with Paul Gauguin. How often have you started the week with Andy Warhol and ended the week with Paul Gauguin? Well, you lucky duck, this is your week. These are all iconoclasts and each of their work continues to reverberate. Among this group, we feel closest to Warhol, despite the fact he was personally quite distant. We think we know him. But, as this book clearly demonstrates, there is much more than meets the casual observer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Catherine Ingram writes with great enthusiasm and confidence in her subject. She weaves a compelling narrative in such a concise manner, never wasting a word. As she’s describing Warhol’s childhood, she is deftly planting seeds that link us to the vision of the leading figure of Pop Art. Andy, the child, is gazing upon his neighborhood church’s icons. As a Catholic, the icons are powerful figures for Warhol. As an adult, he will take that same level of emotional attachment to his depictions of Campbell’s soup cans and Hollywood stars. But weren’t these repeated images from pop culture simply statements about an empty and shallow society? No, Ingram makes a case for much more being said.

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Filed under Andy Warhol, Art, Art books, Laurence King Publishing, Pop Art, pop culture

Review: ‘Truth is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’ by Gabrielle Bell

Truth-Fragmentary-Gabrielle-Bell-comics

“Truth is Fragmentary” is the name of Gabrielle Bell’s latest comics memoir collection and it says it all. Think about it. Truth is indeed fragmentary. You can point out honest, even blunt, bits of truth all you want. People will process it however they choose. Some will deny what you said. Some will misunderstand. Some will have never even come close to getting it. Maybe a few will completely see it your way. It’s a carnival we live in. Thankfully, we have astute and witty observers like Gabrielle Bell. If you’re new to her work, or if you happen to enjoy sly humor, then this is the book for you.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Journalism, Gabrielle Bell, Travel, Travelogue, Uncivilized Books

Interview: MAD Magazine’s John Ficarra and Nick Meglin on ‘Don Martin: Three Decades of His Greatest Works’

MAD Magazine, Don Martin cover art, March 1974

MAD Magazine, Don Martin cover art, March 1974

Don Martin. We know his uniquely surreal and eccentric cartoons from MAD Magazine. Who better to shed light on Don Martin, and the world of MAD, than longtime MAD editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra. Mr. Meglin goes back to the early years of MAD. He retired in 2004 but remains a contributing editor. Mr. Ficarra was brought on board by Mr. Meglin and the two worked together for many years. Both men are quick with a joke and just a pleasure to talk to. The subject for this interview is the uproariously funny work of Don Martin and “MAD’s Greatest Artists: Don Martin: Three Decades of His Greatest Works,” a 272-page hardcover published by Running Press and available as of November 11.

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Filed under Comics, Don Martin, Interviews, John Ficarra, MAD magazine, Nick Meglin, pop culture

NYCC 2014: Darkrose Studios and The Benefits of Transmedia for Comic Book Publishers

TRDWTR, a 30-part graphic novel series, Darkrose Studios, written and created by Morgan Rosenblum, art by Ray Dillon

TRDWTR, a 30-part graphic novel series, Darkrose Studios, written and created by Morgan Rosenblum, art by Ray Dillon

Darkrose Studios is an indie comic book publisher, known for TRDWTR. Darkrose Studios is based in Manhattan, New York, and actively engages with transmedia. This coming Thursday, October 9, the founder of Darkrose Studios, Morgan Rosenblum, will be chairing a panel about self-publishing at New York Comic Con. In this discussion, Mr. Rosenblum will explain how comic book publishers can use transmedia storytelling as a source of revenues, and avoid any potential pitfalls.

Mr. Rosenblum will be joined on his panel by Adam McGovern, Anthony Del Col, Matt Kadish and Molly Knox Ostertag. The panel will take place from 7:15 PM to 8:00 PM in conference hall 1A01.

Press release follows:

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Filed under Comics, Darkrose Studios, New York Comic Con, New York Comic Con 2014, Transmedia

New York Comic Con 2014: George R. R. Martin in 1964

George-R-R-Martin-Comics-1964-2014

What if you were an eager comic book-reading teenager in 2014 and you were teleported back to the first New York Comic Con in 1964? It was fifty years ago that New York Comic Con first set up shop, arguably the prototype for all major comic cons to come. I was pleasantly surprised to learn today in The New York Times coverage of the upcoming NYCC (Oct 9-12), that the records show something quite special. If you look at the 1964 program for New York Comic Con, on the list of registered participants, George R.R. Martin, just 15 years-old at the time, is the first on the list!

Well, that inspired me to draw the above comic. If two teens were let loose in NYCC ’64, they would have a shot at buying a bunch of copies of Action Comics #1 for a mere $40 each. Today, those same copies (depending upon the condition, blah, blah, blah) would fetch in the neighborhood of $3 million each. Of course, if one of the teens caught sight of Mr. Martin, that distraction could prove catastrophic for their plans. He could squander their chances at millions just to alert the author of “Game of Thrones” to pick up the pace!

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Filed under Comics, Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin, New York Comic Con, New York Comic Con 2014, pop culture