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Interview: Artist Robert Sikoryak

TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Robert Sikoryak, aka R. Sikoryak, is an artist that I’ve always admired. You have probably seen his work grace the cover of issues of The New Yorker or maybe you know him from one of his comics adaptations of literature classics. He’s best known for featuring his virtuoso adaptation of masters in the comics medium in the service of a satirical work, like Masterpiece Comics. Another great example is the recent Terms and Conditions, an ambitious and hilarious comics adaptation of the iTunes contract we all must agree to but never bother to read.

NEW YORKER COVER

Robert Sikoryak was formerly an associate editor and contributor to RAW, the groundbreaking 1980s comic anthology. He has also drawn for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Onion, and Nickelodeon. During a recent visit to New York, I got a chance to interview Mr. Sikoryak about a number of things, including his ongoing Carousel, a revue, going back to 1997, that features a number of notable cartoonists such as Lauren Weinstein, Michael Kupperman, and Jason Little who present their work as part of a slide show performance. It is my pleasure to present to you the following interview. A video portion is also available and you can access that below too.

Illustration for The Nation by R. Sikoryak

Read the interview below and do make sure to go to the video as well which covers different aspects, specifically Mr. Sikoryak’s early career. All in all, as I said to him, his 30+ year career adds up to such an impressive professional life. I like to bring out the term, “legend,” but Sikoryak would not hear of it! He’s very modest, indeed. And quite generous in sharing insights. I’ve done numerous interviews and do my level best to respectfully bring out the best in those individuals I have the privilege to interview because, for me, it’s a sacred trust that I’ve entered into. And it’s an added bonus when you get to engage with someone who is just as passionate about sharing information with the reader. For instance, I asked Sikoryak about starting out as a cartoonist and he was very careful to explain how, even as a child, he was intrigued with creating parodies, which is a linchpin to his career.

MASTERPIECE COMICS

Let’s turn our attention to the self-published indie comics known as, “mini-comics.” A lot of cartoonists find that, once they’ve created a mini-comic, it gets in their blood and they’re hooked. Tell us about your experience with mini-comics.
I’d say it has gotten more into my blood lately. I had done a few mini-comics when I was younger but it was only after I’d started working with Kriota Willberg, and going to comics festivals, that I got the bug to do more minis. She was doing them as well and so we did them together. It’s like I was saying earlier, sometimes it’s easier to get rolling if you have a community to work with even if you’re doing it yourself. If you’re working on a project together that can sometimes spur you to action a little faster. We also started doing 24-hour comics and that helped me break out of some of my habits of working. When I was doing Masterpiece Comics, I was spending a lot of time refining the story and the art and honing it all done to exactly what I wanted. That approach was very specific and time-consuming unlike my commercial work where I need to turn around the artwork a lot faster. So, I could get caught up tweaking my own work when there wasn’t an imminent deadline. That said, 24-hour comics helped me think of ways to try to work faster. And that approach helped inspire how I worked on Terms and Conditions.

Steve Jobs and Silver Surfer!

Share with us how you used the 24-hour comics working methods in Terms and Conditions.
For 24-hour comics, I wanted to work with a text that was already written. So, the first ones that I did were poetry comics. I did one with Walt Whitman and another one with Edgar Allan Poe. I took existing poems of theirs and illustrated them. The Walt Whitman poem was a Jack Kirby monster comic. The Edgar Allan Poe one was done in the style of Richie Rich. Those were fun and I thought of them as rough drafts towards making comics with text. This was around 2014. I started thinking about how comics had evolved in the last twenty years since I’d graduated from school. I wanted to do a graphic novel. I’d only done short works up until then. What could I do in a long form? I was looking for something new to adapt and then I thought about the iTunes contract. The big joke about it is that it’s long. I’m always looking for an absurd angle for making comics. To quote Apple, I was looking for a way “to make things different.”

From Terms and Conditions

One of the best things about it is that you don’t have an emotional connection to the iTunes contract. There’s not a visual component to them. There’s no plot, no characters. Some people might argue that there’s some kind of narrative. But there’s not the drive that you’d find in a traditional story. The images could reflect anything and even go beyond the text. The images could refer to anything. I wasn’t going to be literal with a character just reading the text. I was going to bring in other images. I took pre-existing comics pages and modified them. I created a main character from Steve Jobs since he already had a specific uniform. Zuckerberg and Bezos have a look: the glasses, turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. But Jobs had an actual costume he wore. I didn’t have to make any of the comics characters look exactly like Steve Jobs since people recognize what that costume signifies. Every page of the book is drawn in a different style with the main character dressed in the Steve Jobs outfit. The Jobs costume is as iconic as the Charlie Brown zig zag so that’s perfect. Once I had all this set up, it became easy to start the comic.

From Terms and Conditions

For the 24-hour comics first draft to Terms and Conditions, I did ten pages and they were very specific choices. I had Little Lulu, Rex Morgan, Astro Boy, the Dark Knight, X-Men, Peanuts, Sandman, Dilbert, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead. All with the Steve Jobs main character running throughout these pre-existing pages from all these landmark comics. After I drew them, then I inserted the iTunes contract text into them. I wasn’t drawing them anticipating the text. For the most part, I didn’t know what the text would say in relation to the drawings. Some pages ended up getting shuffled around. I moved the Rex Morgan page to the beginning because I wanted something banal, very basic and straightforward, to start off with. Something grounded in reality before moving on to something more fantastical. I ended up putting out the first 30 pages as a mini-comic. I was only selling it at some comic shops and online. I drew it in chunks of ten or twelve pages. At some point, the iTunes contract got longer! I had to add 25 more pages. It actually allowed me more pages to play with and include more people I like Allie Brosh, Fiona Staples, Raina Telgemeier, and Kate Beaton. People who have a big impact on what’s happening in comics right now. I’d never done that before where I addressed the current generation of people in comics.

Steve Jobs and Kate Beaton!

I also wanted the book to evoke the internet: everything is in this book. Obviously, that’s an illusion on the internet just as it is in the book. I was going for an sense that anything can happen, that you can stumble upon any style of comics. I also wanted it to be international and not just be about my own tastes. My instincts told me that I wanted to represent all that is possible in comics.

From Terms and Conditions

I come from an art background and I can certainly appreciate that you’re working with comics, treating comics, at the level of an art form, which it is.
I was thinking about conceptual art. Kind of the way that John Cage would approach something. Cage would talk about using chance to compose music. Cage would try to get out of his own head when composing, like consulting the I Ching or more elaborate means to take it away from what he might make if he were solely making aesthetic choices. In a sense, Terms and Conditions, tries to get closer to that approach.

Steve Jobs meets Wonder Woman!

I go look at the iTunes store to see what’s popular and there would be Transformers and My Little Pony and that made sense since these are properties that exist in multiple media. That led me to putting in a Transformer page and a My Little Pony page since they are a big part of comics too.
After the mini-comics of Terms and Conditions came out, I asked Françoise Mouly what she thought I might do next. She suggested that I put them on Tumblr. I did it and let friends know about it. I ended up getting a lot of media attention just from the Tumblr. That was crazy. I didn’t yet have the Drawn & Quarterly book. That was still a year away from happening. I hit a nerve that I didn’t realize I would. It became an internet sensation for a second! Which is a long time for me. That was really gratifying and exciting.
That’s the theory, that you create something first on the internet, create some buzz and then approach the publisher. Or, best case scenario, the publisher approaches you.
Yes, I’d worked with Drawn & Quarterly for many years. They’d serialized by Masterpiece Comics in their anthology and then collected them into a book. They knew me. I wanted them to do it. And they said yes, after checking with their lawyers on legal issues. And we have not heard from Apple.

From The Unquotable Trump

Not even a peep from Apple?
I could be wrong but maybe it’s better for them not to say anything. They probably don’t want to encourage people to do this. I think I’ve gotten approval from their silence. I take that as a sign. I know they’ve seen it. I don’t know how they couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that some of the people who interviewed me contacted them for comment. They didn’t respond. I know people within the company and they say it’s great. But no official comment. I can see that if Apple actually said it didn’t like it then that would seem punitive and, if they did the opposite and said they liked it, then that would open the floodgate for others to do their parodies.
People are going to do what they want anyway. Like me, I wasn’t even planning on doing such a book. I was looking for a new way to break from my habits of making comics. I wanted to think of comics in a different way and the work did all that. Having it come out as book was amazing and great but only something you can hope for, not count on.

CAROUSEL Comics Performances and Picture Shows, hosted by R. Sikoryak

Tell us about how Carousel came about.
When I was in college, I was flirting with performance art. I happened to see Roz Chast do a reading of her gag cartoons at an event in the early ’90s. I was really struck by seeing the artist with their work on stage. She was charming. The audience loved it. I thought about how theatrical it was since there’s the charge of being very in the moment in front of a live audience. And I thought I needed to do this with my own comics. I worked a little bit with theater companies and I was already hosting variety shows and that sort of thing. Converting my comics into a slide show, around 1992, was a whole new thing for me. Other people had done it before me but that really worked for me. My strongest material was my comics! So, I started doing my comics as slide shows. Within a few years, I had met other people in the scene from variety shows and other artists who made visual storytelling for theater. Like Brian Dewan who showed the film strip last night. He’s someone who was in my earliest shows. He’s a musician and a visual artist. He makes these idiosyncratic pseudo-educational slide shows dealing with big philosophical issues, which I love.

Carousel photo by Andrea Tsurumi

By the late ’90s, I’d organized my slide shows into what’s become Carousel. In the early shows, I had people like Ben Katchor, David Sandlin, and a lot of other people from the downtown performance scene. By 2001, it had become my main performance habit. So, four to eight times a year, I do these shows where I invite cartoonists and other visual artists. I’d had on people who do live music with projections, people who do drag with projections. Cartoonist Matthew Thurber makes these large scrolls. The drag queen I had on recently is Sasha Velour, who won Rupaul’s Drag Race a couple of seasons back. I met her as a cartoonist. Her current performances still retain a vital visual element.

Carousel

Mine are more like radio plays or podcasts with actors reading lines for the all the different parts with background music. Or, as in the case of some of the other people you saw last night, they will talk about their work or tell stories that are visually supplemented. Or, in one case, Hilary Campbell showed her rejected New Yorker cartoons which is a very straightforward way of doing it and very comedic. I think it’s very excited to be able to see the person with their work. Everybody does it a little differently. It seems like a simple enough idea. I like to have six or seven people in each show. I think the personality of each artist gets to come through. In the best cases, you can really get some insight into what the work is about. I’ve had shows where I go back and reread the comic after having listened to them read. It’s endlessly interesting. It’s a way to bring it to people who might not see it otherwise. Certainly, with the internet, it’s easier to come across this stuff but even so a lot of the people who present don’t necessarily put their work out in that way. Doing it in the theater brings in a different crowd. So, you get to show theater people in a different form.

Carousel

The comics came to life in such an organic way and you just don’t know how people, or the cartoonist, might react.
It reminds me a bit of the commentary track on a DVD. It all depends on the work people make. My work tends to be conceptually tight so I tend to honor it as it is. But it’s great to see how people might explode the format and find other ways of doing it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m working on a new volume of Masterpiece Comics. My latest mini-comics help update folks that there’s more on the way. I do storyboards for an animation studio. I teach at Parsons. I’m doing more book illustrations. I try to keep myself surprised.
Well, we can leave it there. Thank you so much, Bob.
Thank you, Henry

Visit R. Sikoryak right here. For more information, and how to purchase, Terms and Conditions, Masterpiece Comics and The Unquotable Trump, visit Drawn & Quarterly right here. When in New York, check to see if your schedule and the Carousel schedule align right here.

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Filed under Cartoonists, Comics, Illustration, Illustrators, Interviews, New York City, Robert Sikoryak, The New Yorker

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

Book Review: ‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

Editor’s Note: For those equally attracted to prose and to comics, Jerome Charyn has quite a significant connection with the comics medium. He has collaborated with some of the best artists in Europe. For instance, you’ll want to check out titles written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by Francois Boucq. A new title is in the works too. For additional posts, including those featuring comics, go right here.

Saul was the first king in the Bible but, as writer Jerome Charyn points out, he took a backseat to the celebrated David. It was David who gained all the glory and Saul who was left in the shadow. That’s not to say Saul wasn’t worthy. He simply wasn’t favored by God. It’s a tough place to be and a lot of people can relate to that. In his distinctive and vivid way, Charyn collects in his new book some of his best work on the theme of the underdog, the one deserving yet less embraced. In the new book, Charyn also provides a look back at a writer’s influences. In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

It matters little if you’re famous or unknown when it comes to being an underdog. New York mayor Ed Koch, for instance, shares a similar spot with Saul too. In one piece, Ellis: An Autobiography, the reader follows Charyn down the mean streets of the Bronx in the ’40s to an unfolding immigrant’s tale. The featured guest in this narrative is the famously accessible yet often maligned Ed Koch. In the process, it seems that everything is revealed all at once in a kaleidoscope of rich detailed observations. New York City, a city of ups and downs, had reached the brink in 1975 and was nearly bankrupt. Enter Ed Koch. He turned the Big Apple into a boomtown again. But the featured guest ultimately takes a backseat to his city since it’s New York City that’s the real star.

No one person, after all, is so much a star as part of something bigger. As Charyn makes clear in his enchanting writing, the glory is in the details. In another piece, Faces on the Wall, Charyn reflects on the power of film–and Hollywood in particular. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ran a tight ship but, in the end, the flickering screen held its own sway:

“The simplest screen was much bigger (and darker) than any of the movie moguls. The studios could tyrannize the content of a film, declare a land of happy endings, but they weren’t sitting with you in the dark. They could control Joan Crawford, but not the hysteria hidden behind those big eyes, or the ruby mouth that could almost suck you into the screen.”

Charyn takes pleasure in sharing the lesser known achievements. His admiration for such literary greats as Saul Bellow and Isaac Babel is infectious. But, with the same gusto, he champions less known writers like Samuel Ornitz and Anzia Yezierska. It is in doing so that he honors his offbeat choice for a hero, the much maligned and misunderstood King Saul.

In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Jerome Charyn, New York City, Nonfiction, writers, writing

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