Tag Archives: New York

Interview: Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries

Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University

I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.

Butler Library at Columbia University

The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages.  The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.

Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery

The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content.  These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.”  Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.

Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.

We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.

The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.

Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia. 

KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.

Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?

I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.

Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?

What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.

I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.

Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!

Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.

Absolutely.

What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?

The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.

Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer.  However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?

Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of  other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two.  Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.

I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics. 

I agree.

While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.

But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.

That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.

You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.

Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.

Yes! I love gray!

What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?

That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings  takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.

Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.

Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.

We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels? 

I think there’s still a lot of room to grow.  There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.

We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.

You’re very welcome, Henry.

That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Columbia University, Comics, Education, graphic novels, Karen Green, Libraries

Review: FAMILY MAN by Jerome Charyn & Joe Staton

The Empire State Building looms large over Alonzo.

“To finally have this collaboration between two giants available in a single volume is a gift for which we can only hope to be worthy.” — Howard Chaykin

Sometimes, a book is placed under my nose and I just can’t stop reading. So it is with Family Man, the crime noir graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and drawn by Joe Staton. This is a deluxe edition to the 1995 series by Paradox Press, an imprint of DC Comics. This new 2019 edition is by It’s Alive and IDW Publishing. For a brief moment, both publishers were working together. What matters most is that this book packs a wallop, full of the grim and gritty underbelly of New York City that novelist Jerome Charyn knows so well. As is the case here at Comics Grinder, while we enjoy sharing images from books with you, we also don’t rely on it so much to the exclusion of thoughtful reviews. That said, let’s take a closer look at a book that well deserves it.

Alonzo pays his respects and kisses Don Furioso’s hand.

As a reviewer who also happens to be a cartoonist, I can tell you on an intimate level that this is a very special book. It’s a perfect pairing of writer and artist. Both Staton and Charyn are not holding back anything while also working as a team. Charyn is busy condensing his prose to the perfect concise distillation. Staton is busy letting loose with his highly expressive line ever mindful of disciplined efficiency and consistency. Both are being the artists they were born to be, both working on the same page. Take a look at the panel above. A whole story, a whole way of life, is held together in that one rectangle. Staton is depicting a connection between two brute men. Alonzo is the Mafia hitman showing respect. Don Furioso is the kingpin in decline who has been reduced to fretting over his colon.

Family Man page excerpt

We can see that Alonzo and the don are both past their prime and yet remain quite deadly creatures with no immediate plans to depart this earth. To that end, Alonzo the mob’s hitman, fixer, and “family man,” has been assigned the job of killing a band of rogue assassins who are bent on killing off all the Mafia dons in the city. It won’t be an easy task for Alonzo by any means. Add to the mix Charles, his own brother, the local Monsignor who works for the NYPD. If the killers don’t get him, Alonzo’s own brother just might.

Family Man page excerpt

Let’s take a moment to skip back to Joe Staton’s artwork. If you examine the above examples, you’ll start to focus in on the distinctive shades running throughout. Before everything went digital, artists had to be rather crafty about finding ways to create tones to spice up black & white line art. One way was with the use of a special bristol board that was embedded with shading inside the board. Applying a brush that had been dipped into a special solution would reveal the shading hidden within the board. What tones ended up making it to the surface were dependent upon the artist’s choice of brushstrokes. It’s my guess that Staton had a hefty stockpile of Duotone board at his disposal. By the early ’90s, around the time of the creation of this graphic novel, this old-fashioned board was pretty much already extinct. Staton probably had hoarded more than enough of this board going back decades. The results are stunning, of course, and it would take some doing to even try to come close to emulating it in Photoshop. Staton has a clean sharp style to begin with so this special shading technique was really just an option, an option that he makes the most of in this book.

Greetings from the Bronx Boys

With Family Man, Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton create  their very own crime noir mythos. Alonzo, the mob hitman, and Charles, his monsignor brother, have numerous tales to tell and to act out. The setting, the mood, and the attitude all add up to an edgy good time. Joe Staton (Batman, Green Lantern) seems to channel the best of the work he’s done during his impressive career. He also seems to offer a tip of the hat to Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Jerome Charyn plays with various crime fiction tropes and brings in his unique sensibility as evidenced by his critically-acclaimed Isaac Seidel crime novel series. Alonzo is a “family man” in more ways than one. He used to be a true family man with a wife and kids. Later on, he became a family man to the mob alone. And, to further frustrate and complicate matters, he finds himself in mortal conflict with his only remaining member of flesh and blood family, his brother, Charles, the man of god who is not what he seems. As Charyn and Staton drop each layer of the narrative into place, the reader becomes all the more invested in the outcome.

Family Man page excerpt

A satisfying narrative, whatever the medium, is made up of a finely spun web of action, deliberation, long and short pauses, and a resolution that resonates, perhaps even transcends. It’s a matter of a myriad of creative choices and observations, big and small. Bit by bit, it all comes into focus: Alonzo, our big hefty protagonist, seems up to any challenge given enough time to digest a hoagie. Something about a certain metropolis is forever swirling in the background, and creeping into the foreground. New York City welcomes everyone but it coddles no one. Better to be tough, tough it out. A flamboyant so-called “man of god ‘ should wear a cloak or cape. And Alonzo better have a secret weapon. All the hoods eat hoagies too. Lastly, in the end, all the corruption, filth, mayhem, and blood lust tallies up. Maybe nobody gets the girl, like they used to in the movies. It’s all set “one hour into the future” with a crime-ridden New York City on her knees! But Alonzo will prevail, one way or another, and live or die as a “family man.”

Family Man, published by It’s Alive and IDW

I welcome everyone, especially my longtime readers, to check out the video review below. I invite you all to like, subscribe, do whatever you like to engage with, the Comics Grinder YouTube channel. Comics Grinder welcomes your support, as always, to help expand our reach and scope with your feedback and general goodwill! Take a look:

Family Man, by Jerome Charyn & Joe Staton, is a 300-page hardcover. For more details, and how to purchase, visit IDW Publishing right here.

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Filed under Comics, DC Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, IDW Publishing, IT’S ALIVE! Press, Jerome Charyn, Joe Staton, New York City, Paradox Press, The Spirit, Will Eisner

Art Review: Nari Ward: We the People

Nari Ward: We the People at the New Museum

With Jordan Peele’s Us still swimming in my head, I went to see the first museum survey in New York of Jamaican-born, Harlem-based artist Nari Ward at the New Museum. You don’t have to know a thing about contemporary art for his work to resonate with you just like you don’t have to know a thing about the finer points of public policy and history to get it when a good comedian brings up subjects like disenfranchisement and slavery. You just get it. What you get with Nari Ward is an artist tapping and ticking at our collective conscious. This is a powerful show that will remain with you.

Things aren’t quite right, are they? Let’s take what’s around us, various found objects on the great landscape of humanity, and say something with them. How about bricks? They’re easy enough to find and don’t cost much at all. They’re practically giving those away. Let the bricks represent whatever feels right to you in this context: a struggle being evoked, brick by brick; a recovery, a rebuilding, brick by brick. Then take it further, add some copper on top of each brick; and then further still and add a design, some kind of pattern that all the copper-topped bricks put together add up to when displayed upon the gallery floor. That is what I first saw of Nari Ward’s work when the elevator doors opened upon the main show.

And then I saw the eerie elegance of all those bottles (with messages inside of them!) while I also tuned into the ironic and hypnotic sounds made up of bits and pieces of vintage banter from classic Warner Bros. and Disney animation. “Hey, come over here.” Some creepy whistling. Then, “So pretty!” It was emanating from some contraption made up of a menagerie of discarded parts and emblazoned with an all-American eagle. And there’s so much more to experience: all meticulous collecting forgotten relics and recontextualizing them. Some of the most striking work is a series of large circles sitting inside squares. Maybe 80×80″.  They could be globes. And they seem to be tracking somethings with a multitude of nails holding up a vast network of wire. Are they tracking hope, or despair? Maybe both. They come in various shades and colors.

Much more. There’s a whole room dedicated to work constructed from old fire hoses. There are a bunch of small constructs that resemble battered luggage all leading up to a massive circular piece looking down on them. There’s also a room that displays  a house made up of some many pages of the Madonna and Child and that encloses what looks like fish scales and dried bananas. And, just before you leave, make sure to view the stately grandfather clock, a tried a true fixture in countless wealthy homes. Take a good look at it. You’ll see an eerie burst of protest has replaced the clock’s face. There’s an odd-looking centerpiece to this burst that refers back to the big circular pieces. And inside, down below where the weights reside, there are two African figures trapped inside forlornly looking out.

Nari Ward: We the People is on view at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City, February 13–May 26, 2019. For more details go right here.

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Filed under African American, Art, Bowery, Nari Ward, New Museum, New York City

Seattle Focus: Randy Wood hosts Spectacular Comedy Revue, Nov 2, 2018

Randy Wood confronting New York pizza.

Randy Wood is one very funny, inventive, and artful performer. Here is a recent photo of him wandering through New York City. Somehow he got a hold of a bad piece of pizza! I’m not sure that’s possible but I’m staring at the proof, I think. Randy knows a lot about getting evidence and lawyer stuff, or it’s his ongoing character that sort of knows about all these legal matters and such:  none other than Sweaty Dee, attorney at law, “the best that you can afford!” Wait a minute. Maybe that pizza is delicious. Is Sweaty Dee taking it out of the garbage can? Is that his meal for the day? Oh, Sweaty!

If you are in Seattle, then you owe it to yourself to catch the Spectacular comedy revue at Pocket Theater, located at 8312 Greenwood Avenue North. This Friday, Nov. 2, from 8:30-9:30 pm.

There will be some great performers, music, and Sweaty Dee explains how the justice system works!

Line up:
Wonder Vermin
Pam H
Scott Adams
Sweaty Dee
Justus Ladies

Check out Pocket Theater for more details on this highly entertaining monthly event. Get your tickets right here.

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Filed under Comedians, Comedy, Comics, Humor, New York City, Performance Art, Randy Wood, Satire, Seattle

New York Focus: Airbnb Learn Stand-up with a Comedian

Comedian John Kim and me.

The biggest fear for many, apart from death, is a fear of rejection! Well, I say, Fugetaboutit! In fact, if you’re in New York City, I encourage you to consider doing what I did: go up and do an open mic at a comedy club! Yes, that is what I did as part of an Airbnb experience, “Learn Stand-up with a Comedian,” hosted by Rishi and John, both NYC-based comedians there to show you around the NYC comedy scene. You can certainly just observe but I felt I was ready to jump in and go on stage.

New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world–and that definitely includes comedy. Within the closely knit area of Greenwich Village, are a number of comedy clubs all with their own energy and history. And, at the epicenter is the Comedy Cellar where on any given night you might get to see such legends as Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld. With the help of my mentor for the evening, comedian John Kim, I got quite an immersive experience. I learned a lot and was fueled with plenty of inspiration which made going up on stage for open mic all the easier. And what a stage! I couldn’t have asked for a better venue for a first-timer, The Lantern Comedy Club!

The Lantern Comedy Club

The great challenge is in confronting any doubts: Is the material good enough? Am I good enough? Yes, trust me, you’re more than worthy to go up on stage and just give it a try. More than likely, or let’s say it’s just about a guarantee, any misgivings will melt away once you start. Something will trigger in your brain: Go! Okay, here’s the next hook! Stop, try to pause. Go! Add this. Don’t say that just yet..okay, say it now.

As in anything, you get what you bring to something. I’ve been working on a particular character and his story arc for quite some time. I decided to put together a comedy bit and featured Maximo Viaje, a guy form Mexico City who has somehow stumbled upon a journey of self-discovery in the U.S. even though he entered the country illegally. For Max, that’s just a small problem in a much bigger picture. Okay, so this is a fictional character that I’m bringing to life on stage. Now, for all you fellow writers, tell me: Wouldn’t this be a very useful exercise for you? Check it out:

You get into a frame a mind and, yes, your mind is a beautiful thing and it’s in it to win it. Thanks to my beautiful mind and to such an insightful and inspirational guidance from John Kim, I did more than just get through my set. I really learned and grew from the experience. And, just like hitting the gym, you know when you’re in the zone and you know you want to get back to it again and again.

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Filed under Airbnb, Comedy, Greenwich Village, New York City

New York Focus: Airbnb: Photographing NYC with Pro Photographer Abdiel Colberg

Here are some of the photos that I took with pro photographer Abdiel Colberg.
He is a very kind, patient, and thoughtful person. Such a talented artist who was so generous with his knowledge. Here are some photos I took under his guidance. Check out his website right here. And check out the Airbnb course right here.

Be ready to walk around and take some great photos!

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Filed under New York City, Photography, Travel

New York City Focus: Airbnb Drawing Session with Ben Ponté

Here I am drawing Grand Central Terminal.

You can’t deny someone what they love because love will find a way. So it is with me and drawing. I’ve always loved drawing. I draw very well, if I do say so myself, and I don’t have to make excuses for it, thank you very much. You wouldn’t begrudge a ballerina for dancing very well or a professional singer for singing very well. I think you know what I mean. I think I know my way around words too but that’s another story. It’s not about conceit. No, it’s simply talking about how someone is built. This is what they know.

What I’m getting at is that I took a drawing work shop recently. The photos here of my efforts during the session. The truth is that any artist, no matter how good, can always make good use a creative workout. That’s why life drawing sessions are so popular: most of the people aren’t trying to learn the basics. No, they’re having a creative workout. So, I was beyond pleased to discover this drawing session offered through Airbnb during my stay in New York City.

Chrysler Building

Wow, you just can’t go wrong and, let me come back to this, your skill level is NOT the important thing. Say, you went to do a yoga session. It’s like that. Everyone moves at their own pace. Funny I should mention yoga as the instructor for this Airbnb experience, Ben Ponté, is both an artist and a yoga instructor. Well, it makes total sense to me.

With all that said, I had a blast. And maybe, at my relatively high skill level, I was tapping deeper into our shared activity than one could expect from a novice. Again, it doesn’t matter. First, I’ve spent a lifetime developing my art. If someone walks in and is trying out something they are new or unfamiliar with, they are simply going to need to take things one step at time.

New York Public Library

Look, I’ve been hitting the gym regularly since the start of this year and it has become very apparent to me that I’m at a beginner level to say the least. I’m more into recovery exercises from years of being a coach potato. Well, maybe not a total coach potato. But, there you go, we all have our stuff to work out.

The moral to this story is pretty straightforward. Be passionate about life and go out there and tackle new things but know your limits. If you have to take small steps, then so be it. Before you know it, you’ll reach a master level. It’s good for the soul and just plain fun to reach a certain skill level. I have my faults but I can always come back to the drawing board in more ways than one. And, at an actual drawing board, I feel right at home.

Bryant Park

I found a moral but the big point also is that I sense everyone had a good time under the leadership of our very upbeat and accessible instructor. Yes, I can’t praise Ben’s course more than to state right here that it really got me thinking and got me motivated. I’m telling you, it’s a creative workout–and we all need that. Everyone can lay down a mark and express themselves. That is one of the big secrets, I suppose, to drawing. It’s all about process. The only way you’ll get it is by actually doing it. The same thing with going to a gym: the only way you’ll get results is by actually working out at the gym.

You’ll have to pardon my rambling, if it comes across that way. I just felt like jotting all this down. I’m still in New York City as I write this. And I’m still right in the middle of a thousand and one things related to being in New York City! Ah, the city that never sleeps!

Alright, I had better find a way to wrap up. Well, I highly recommend Airbnb for so many reasons. For the purpose of this post: try out the Airbnb experiences! And, when in New York City, get your Airbnb creative drawing workout from Ben Ponté! Vist Ben right here. Check out his Airbnb session, “Sketch Your Way Around New York” right here.

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Filed under Airbnb, Comics, Drawing, Travel, Travelogue

Review: ‘Chinatown Bus’ by M. Jacob Alvarez

Page from “Chinatown Bus”

Look in the About section to his website and M. Jacob Alvarez says of himself: “M. Jacob Alvarez is a cartoonist, comedian, and chemical engineer (seriously dude, silly drawings and conspiracy theory jokes don’t pay many bills…)” How true! Well, being a chemical engineer is an astonishingly good place to be if you want to create a graphic novel. Less to worry about or more room to worry about other things–since there’s always something. How about if you’re young and vulnerable? That is exactly the subject matter Alvarez tackles in his new graphic novel, “Chinatown Bus.” It is a heart-felt exploration of hipsterdom–and Alvarez’s irreverence serves him well here.

There’s a certain time in your life when you will not only tolerate, but even revel, in drinking cheap beer from a Solo plastic cup, sold to you at a premium price since you’re in a chic nightclub (which ain’t so chic). There you are under a low ceiling packed in a little sweatbox with a bunch of other scenesters pretending to like a really bad band. So intense! The aim of Alvarez’s 84-page graphic novel is not so much to satirize. More like to bear witness. While not an autobio comic, Alvarez admits in his forward to being very familiar with the struggles of his young characters.

“Chinatown Bus” by M. Jacob Alvarez

Alvarez has a wonderfully energetic and cartoony style that is accessible and inspires empathy with his characters. Lyn is a guy from Philly taking the Chinatown Bus to New York City. He is in a long distance relationship and is sort of feeling stuck. All it takes is a text miscommunication from Kelly, his girlfriend, and Lyn is ready to call it quits. To his credit, Lyn is certain that Kelly has just dumped him. There is a cute passenger he’s been eying and so he decides to confide in her. Jane, flattered to have Lyn open up to her, invites him to hang out with her.

Panel from “Chinatown Bus”

It turns out that Kelly did not really dump Lyn, at least not outright. Alvarez really enjoys setting things up and then lighting the fuse. A fine example is once all three of these characters meet. Jane ends up knocking Kelly out cold. Lyn explodes and unleashes his fury upon Jane. He chastises her. Turn the page and Jane is full-on outraged for being called a drama queen. Three more pages, and we see Lyn’s steady descent, completely alone and deflated.

Page from “Chinatown Bus”

Any reader will enjoy a gritty urban tale about young people trying to find themselves. These characters definitely have their flaws and are prone to hide behind caustic remarks but Alvarez presents it all with a human touch that will resonate with the reader. This is a great example of a cartoonist’s debut graphic novel. Alvarez has successfully followed through on a specific theme and vision.

“Chinatown Bus” is available at multiple comics shops including Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Columbus, Ohio. For more details, visit M. Jacob Alvarez right here.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, M. Jacob Alvarez, New York City

Review: ‘Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City’

Tenements, Towers, and Trash!

Cartoonist Julia Wertz has a distinctive outlook (irreverent, pithy, snarky) that has gained a loyal following of readers. With her latest work, she brings her unique style to bear on the Big Apple. It is an honest, funny, and insightful approach to learning about how cities evolve, particularly New York City, the quintessential urban mecca. Early in her cartooning career, Wertz said she resisted writing some sort of coming-of-age book set in NYC. Now, more mature, she can dish on the history of the city that never sleeps while also, inevitably, sharing something of her journey of self-discovery. It all makes for an intoxicating blend: “Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City,” published by Black Dog & Leventhal.

Wertz sets up a poignant and vulnerable starting point: the remains of the New York World’s Fair of 1964. It’s not a pretty sight. No, it’s a mishmash of faded totems to the future. Ironic stuff, indeed, irresistible to a wise-cracking cartoonist! Surely, you know that most, if not all, cartoonists have a sardonic sense of humor. And Julia Wertz is just the sort of sardonic tour guide you would want. But it’s not just about the snark–far from it. Sure, Wertz puts the 1964 World’s Fair through the wringer, deeming it a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. Now, the 1939 New York World’s Fair had style but, in its own way, it too was a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. This sort of comparison easily lends itself to delving deeper and therein lies what this book is about, what makes it unique and beautiful.

Egg Creams, best to keep them simple.

New York City is all about the tension between the pretty and the not so pretty. Wertz revels in this fact. It seems as if she can’t get enough. Just when you think you have this book figured out, Wertz will delight the reader with shifts in narrative, compelling visuals, and overall heart-felt enthusiasm, the sort of lust and vigor you’d expect from an Indiana Jones in the jungle except this is Julia Wertz on countless urban expeditions. She tracks down everything: bagels, egg creams, The Village Voice, railroad flats, micro-living units. It’s all here and then some.

I love New York almost beyond words. My heart goes out to Julia Wertz and her marvelous long walks spanning hours upon hours and covering multiple boroughs and miles. I highly recommend taking this book on a NYC trek of your own. It’s a hefty hardcover but, if you make it your primary item in your backpack, you’ll be just fine. You can make your own comparisons and connections guided by all the amazing drawings that Wertz has to share of bygone and contemporary New York. This book is really an inspiring combination of prose and artwork and comics. This is simply a dazzling book collecting a treasure trove of insight and information and making it all feel like a carefree conversation.

223 W. 42nd Street in 1964 and in 2014.

“Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” is a 284-page hardcover published by Black Dog & Leventhal.

If you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see Julia Wertz at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run, or the the Seattle Public Library. At Short Run, on November 4th, Wertz will be giving a slideshow/talk about her urban exploring from 3:30-4:30pm at the Vera Project. And at the downtown Seattle Public Library, on November 5th, Wertz will hold a slideshow and conversation with cartoonist Nicole Georges from 2-4pm.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Julia Wertz, New York City, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival

Review: THE LEGEND OF PINKY (Book I of VI)

THE LEGEND OF PINKY (Book I of VI)

There’s a lot of thought and care that goes into a solid work of comics but the results should be magical for the reader. Within the multi-layered world of independent cartoonists there is a fair amount of intrigue mixed in with camaraderie. Creators can get lost in a fog of competing interests. The answer is to find your way and simply pursue your vision. Cartoonist Craig Johnson II has tapped a significant vein of New York City history to create a comic both purposeful and entertaining. THE LEGEND OF PINKY, an ongoing series ultimately to be a graphic novel, published by Carbon Age Comics, is set in the early years of gangsters (1920s to 1930s), specifically involving the interconnections between Jewish and African American players.

Harlem’s uneasy friendship with Pinky.

The main character is Irving “Pinky” Horwitz, a lean and mean trained killer in the Goldman gang. He is an exceptional assassin, when he bothers to do his job. Pinky’s biggest flaw is an utter lack of discipline. If there is a chance for him to feed his lust and ego, he will take it. And his favorite place to do that is Harlem. In that arena, reckless young women jump into bed with him and skeptical young men sometimes push back and sometimes accept him. With Pinky, and those in his orbit, Johnson has created one of the most fascinating comics currently available.

Pinky and his mom.

The story begins with a pivotal moment gone wrong. Pinky was supposed to report for an important mob hit of two rivals. Instead, he was in bed with his latest conquest. Meanwhile, Sam, his partner, attempted the complete the two-man job by himself but was only able to kill one of the two men. And so begins the conflict that demands resolution in the first issue of this comic. Pinky, no doubt, is due his comeuppance. But Pinky is not without some redeemable traits. Clearly, Pinky seeks approval. There are two women in particular that he cares about: his own mother; and Yetta, a union organizer of garment workers. He takes great delight in showing most people his disdain. But, for a select few, he values some connection, especially the friends he seems to have made in Harlem.

Pinky in his element.

I am often asked what it takes to create a graphic novel. Well, I like to add that this undertaking is, intrinsically (in the undertaking) and ideally (in the creator’s vision), a heroic work. And then I always say that a hero (or an anti-hero) is essential to the story. By and large, this is the model of the vast majority of successful graphic novels. Most of these works are biographies and borrow from history in one form or another. The fact is, to do this right, you don’t want to get bogged down by the facts. This is a work of entertainment, not a meticulous history. Johnson is spot on in how he incorporates history into the bigger picture of his narrative. Everything lifts off the page as we follow accessible characters and vivid action.

Pinky’s alright!

Graphic novels, when true to their original intent, are vivid works of sequential art that evoke the breadth of a prose novel within its own unique narrative structure. Johnson is sensitive to what is possible in the comics medium. He has done the legwork necessary to create a credible foundation as he goes about completing his full-length graphic novel. The artwork is dynamic and the pacing is compelling. Essentially, he has found something that can be quite daunting for many a cartoonist lost in a fog. Johnson has found something to care about. He is compelled to follow through on his vision. This first issue clearly demonstrates that.

Be sure to keep up with Craig Johnson II right here and THE LEGEND OF PINKY, and Carbon Age Comics, right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Craig Johnson II, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, New York City